‘We learned to be numb’: South Koreans remain calm despite growing threats from the North

Seoul, South Korea –

The recent escalation of threats from North Korea and more weapons tests aimed at South Korea have done little to disturb the calm in the country’s capital.

“We learned to be numb,” said Renee Na, a 33-year-old office worker in Seoul who was one of a dozen South Koreans who seemed more indifferent than scared when speaking to The Associated Press.

“Our generation grew up watching North Korea use nuclear provocations as a spectacle to maintain the stability of its regime,” Na said. “When they misbehave, it doesn’t feel like a real threat, but more like an annual event they organize when they need to shore up internal unity or want outside help.”

This is in stark contrast to recent comments from Pyongyang, where leader Kim Jong Un said in January that his nation was abandoning its fundamental goal of peaceful reconciliation with South Korea. He also repeated the threat to annihilate the South if provoked.

At the same time, North Korea has carried out a series of weapons tests, including what it described as simulated nuclear attacks against the South.

Concerns about a direct provocation were amplified after North Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into waters near its disputed western maritime border with South Korea, prompting the South to fire as well.

For now, there is concern in South Korea, but not alarm.

And it’s nothing like 1994, when waves of terrified crowds emptied warehouses of instant ramen and rice after a North Korean negotiator threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of ​​fire.”

North Korea has mastered a cycle of escalating tensions with weapons displays and threats before finally offering negotiations aimed at winning concessions. The result is that many South Koreans believe North Korea is using its old playbook to attract attention during an election year in South Korea and the United States.

There are widespread doubts that North Korea, an autocracy that values ​​the survival of the Kim dynasty above all else, would risk a war with the U.S.-backed South Korea. Washington has repeatedly warned that the North’s use of nuclear weapons would result in the end of Kim’s rule.

The fast-paced and competitive nature of life in South Korea makes it easy for many to ignore threats from North Korea. And public interest here in North Korea tends to reflect the rise and fall of tensions.

“Personally, I don’t think Kim Jong Un currently has a reason or ability to wage war,” said Min Seungki, another Seoul resident. “North Koreans clearly see a South Korean government that is unfavorable to them. “They are also trying to get the attention of (Donald) Trump and the Republicans, who they prefer to the Biden administration, which did not show much interest in dealing with them.”

But there is also a sense that South Korea has few options to counter the influence that Kim has with his nuclear arsenal. Years of missile launches and other weapons tests have brought Kim much closer to his goal of having a nuclear arsenal that can viably strike both his neighbors and the United States.

South Koreans are increasingly concerned that Washington will hesitate to defend the South if Kim has more missiles with the range to attack the continental United States.

South Koreans’ security concerns have long been kept in check thanks to the US-South Korea alliance and past inter-Korean projects, such as South Korea’s trips to the Diamond Mountain resort and Kaesong industrial park, operated jointly, said Han-Wool Jeong, director of the Korea People’s Research Institute. Those joint economic projects, pushed by previous liberal governments in Seoul, stopped when inter-Korean relations worsened under subsequent conservative governments.

Jeong said many now believe that South Korea’s security depends entirely on the alliance between the United States and South Korea.

Since taking office in 2022, conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has taken steps to expand the South’s combined military exercises with the United States and Japan to confront changing threats from the North. He has also sought greater assurances from Washington that the United States will decisively protect its ally if North Korea attacks with nuclear weapons.

But those measures have not stopped Kim’s weapons demonstrations, which likely reflect confidence in his steady weapons advance and his strengthened ties with Russia.

Some South Korean experts have called for the United States to more dramatically show its defense commitment to its ally, including returning American tactical nuclear weapons removed from the South in the 1990s. Others insist the South should pursue its own deterrence. nuclear.

While many analysts downplay the possibility of war on the peninsula, some believe Kim could choose to increase pressure on the South with direct but contained military action.

The poorly marked maritime border, the site of skirmishes and attacks in recent years, could be a flashpoint. In recent months, both Koreas have violated their 2018 military agreement to reduce border tensions, which had established barriers and a no-fly zone.

“It is clear that North Korea wants to use the April parliamentary elections to build momentum in South Korea for Yoon’s ouster and could possibly carry out a major provocation to raise military tensions to the maximum and try to influence voters to to oppose Yoon’s hard line,” he said. Bong Youngshik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Kim Giho, a fisherman on the western border island of Yeonpyeong, where a North Korean artillery bombardment killed four people in 2010, deeply feels the animosity between the two Koreas.

“When tensions rise like this, our ships can’t get in and out of the sea, and that hurts our livelihoods,” Kim said. “We are evacuating again to shelters as our military resumes shooting exercises and that really increases our sense of isolation, tension and fear. “It is especially traumatizing for older people who suffered from the 2010 bombings.”


AP journalist Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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