SEOUL » Nearly two decades ago, South Koreans cleared store shelves after a North Korean threat to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" raised war panic. On Saturday, South Koreans expressed some fear but mostly apathy and restraint after a week of warlike rhetoric from the North, including another "sea of fire" vow.
Many South Koreans have grown up with a steady drumbeat of over-the-top threats from the North. So while they are aware of soaring tensions as North Korea reacts with anger to major U.S.-South Korean military drills that start Monday and a new round of U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang’s recent third nuclear test, there’s skepticism that anything serious will happen.
In downtown Seoul, people took photos and laughed as they walked below a giant electronic screen that flashed headlines about North Korea’s war threats.
"The odds of dying from a North Korean bomb are probably smaller than being killed in a car accident. I’ll spend my time doing better things than worrying about war," said Oh Jin-young, a South Korean office worker out for a walk with his son. "North Korea knows that war will be like committing suicide."
There is some fear, however.
South Koreans are well known for their ability to shake off North Korean threats. But the last several years have seen a rise of bloodshed. The deadly sinking of a South Korean warship — which Pyongyang denies torpedoing, despite a Seoul-led international investigation that found the North at fault — and an artillery attack on a front-line South Korean island in 2010 that killed four people have raised the specter of war among some South Koreans.
North Korea vowed this past week to ditch the armistice that ended the Korean War and scrap a nonaggression pact with South Korea. It has also threatened Washington with pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
People interviewed by The Associated Press in Pyongyang on Saturday expressed indignation over the U.N. sanctions.
"I cannot control my anger," said Sin Myong Sil. "Some countries can launch satellites, and one country can conduct nuclear tests freely, and they are not blamed, but only our country is prohibited from doing nuclear tests and launching satellites. This is absurd and illogical."
In South Korea, worry can be seen most clearly on the Internet, where some believe that South Koreans, world leaders in broadband access, are less afraid to express their honest, anonymous feelings.
A user identifying herself as the mother of two posted on a cooking website Saturday that she was so scared by North Korea’s war threats that she took a day of leave from work on Friday.
"I’m most worried that I might not be able to run to my kids quickly enough if something happens," she wrote, prompting a flurry of replies meant to sooth her.
South Korean officials have tried to boost public confidence that the country can defend itself, issuing stern warnings of their own. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Friday that North Korea’s government would "evaporate from the face of the Earth" if it ever used a nuclear weapon. Despite North Korea’s threat of nuclear strikes on Washington, experts believe Pyongyang still lacks the technology to create a miniaturized warhead to place on a ballistic missile.
South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, told newly commissioned officers that any country — a clear reference to North Korea — would "bring destruction upon itself" if it focused on building nuclear arms instead of feeding its people.
"North Korea makes me slightly worried, but I’m too busy running my food stall to be bothered," said 52-year-old Seoul resident Shin Jeong-sook. "I don’t hear customers speaking about North Korea, either. Don’t North Koreans do this all the time?"
Bridget Hogan, a 24-year-old American who teaches English on South Korea’s southern island of Jeju, said most of her Korean friends were calm. "It’s probably not smart of me, but I’m not worried," Hogan, who is from California, said in Seoul, where she was meeting friends.
It’s no surprise that South Koreans have grown accustomed to the state of confrontation that has lasted since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a fragile cease-fire, but they may also be unconsciously avoiding the uncomfortable thought of being thrust into war, said Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.
"Being callous is their way of coping with threats because, otherwise, the fear would trouble them so much that they wouldn’t be able to live their lives normally. Imagine what would happen if everyone panicked over every threat?" she said. "Perhaps we do need to be more alert now."
Even during the deadly artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island in 2010, people in other parts of the country remained generally calm and did not clear store shelves like they did in 1994, after the "sea of fire" threat, Kwak noted.
"We live with the tension, and we probably will until we die," said Park Sin-young, a 22-year-old college student. "What else can we do?"