In Seoul, res­i­dents take the threat of at­tack in stride de­spite con­cern from South Korea’s pres­i­dent.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Stiles Stiles is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

SEOUL — At the high­est lev­els in South Korea, the fiery rhetoric ex­changed this week by Wash­ing­ton and Py­ongyang over nu­clear weapons has prompted ex­tra­or­di­nary con­cern — even for a na­tion that’s been tech­ni­cally at war for sev­eral decades.

South Korea’s pro­gres­sive new pres­i­dent, Moon Jae-in, on Wed­nes­day called for a “re­birth” of his coun­try’s de­fenses, telling mil­i­tary com­man­ders that top­down re­form was needed to counter North Korea’s es­ca­lat­ing nu­clear threats.

On the street, though, the most com­mon re­ac­tions were shrugs that any con­flict might af­fect res­i­dents’ safety.

“I have never thought a war would ac­tu­ally hap­pen in my day, even though we are con­stantly threat­ened by North Korea,” said uni­ver­sity stu­dent Han Hyo-jeong, 24, who met with friends Wed­nes­day in Seoul’s Sin­chon district, a cen­tral neigh­bor­hood known for its bustling nightlife.

Han is one of about 25 mil­lion res­i­dents — roughly half of South Korea’s pop­u­la­tion — who live in this cap­i­tal city’s met­ro­pol­i­tan area, within an hour’s drive or less of the North Korean bor­der.

That prox­im­ity puts hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents within range of the North’s po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic con­ven­tional weapons, such as ar­tillery or rock­ets, should the war of words es­ca­late to ac­tual mil­i­tary con­flict and the gov­ern­ment in Py­ongyang re­tal­i­ate against fel­low Kore­ans to the south.

But that threat of a war that might spill over onto the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion isn’t new — a fact that hasn’t changed amid the re­cent con­cern about the North’s ef­fort to de­velop the ca­pac­ity to de­liver nu­clear-armed in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­siles to the U.S. main­land.

Mean­while, the re­gional ten­sions, al­ready high, were ratch­eted up this week af­ter the United States used lon­grange bombers over the Korean penin­sula dur­ing a mil­i­tary ex­er­cise. North Korea, which has re­cently shown the abil­ity to strike U.S. tar­gets out­side North­east Asia with mis­siles, this week threat­ened to tar­get Guam, a strate­gi­cally lo­cated Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory in the western Pa­cific from which the bombers were de­ployed.

The threat, de­liv­ered via North Korean state news, ap­peared to be prompted by Pres­i­dent Trump’s dec­la­ra­tion that “fire and fury” would come to the Py­ongyang gov­ern­ment if the threat to U.S. tar­gets con­tin­ued.

Any con­flict, whether prompted by Py­ongyang or Wash­ing­ton, could lead to cat­a­strophic re­sults in Seoul, the heart of Asia’s fourth-largest econ­omy, de­spite some res­i­dents’ seem­ing lack of con­cern.

Even as many res­i­dents and tourists here en­joyed Wed­nes­day with­out anx­i­ety over the fu­ture, Trump’s com­ments seemed to es­ca­late an al­ready tense sit­u­a­tion for South Korea’s lead­er­ship.

The re­newed threats per­haps played a part in prompt­ing Moon, who planned to seek a more con­cil­ia­tory tone with North Korea af­ter his elec­tion in May, to raise a new alarm about the es­ca­lat­ing threat on the penin­sula.

“I be­lieve we might need a com­plete de­fense re­form at the level of a re­birth in­stead of mak­ing some im­prove­ments or mod­i­fi­ca­tions,” Moon said Wed­nes­day dur­ing a meet­ing with mil­i­tary com­man­ders, ac­cord­ing to pooled news re­ports.

He added, “An­other task now fac­ing us is the ur­gent task of se­cur­ing de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties to counter North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile provo­ca­tions.”

The more se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion, com­ing days af­ter newly en­acted United Na­tions sanc­tions prompted North Korea’s strong objections, also high­lights the civil de­fense chal­lenge in pro­tect­ing Seoul’s res­i­dents.

The metro area’s res­i­dents are largely packed into densely pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hoods, with some high­rise res­i­den­tial apart­ment com­plexes less than 45 miles from North Korea’s nu­mer­ous ar­tillery in­stal­la­tions.

Both the na­tional and metro gov­ern­ments have plans for deal­ing with a war, though it re­mains un­clear how many res­i­dents are aware of them. The plans in­clude a net­work of shel­ters — more than 3,000 in Seoul and even more na­tion­wide — in sub­way sta­tions, park­ing garages and other un­der­ground ar­eas.

The gov­ern­ment, which sends au­to­matic warn­ings to cell­phone users about low air-qual­ity days, flash floods and ab­nor­mally high tem­per­a­tures, of­fers an In­ter­net ap­pli­ca­tion — in English and Korean — for emer­gen­cies.

“In case of an emer­gency, the gov­ern­ment will or­der us where to go and what to do,” said Choi Jin-soo, 29. “If we fol­low di­rec­tions, we will be safe.” Not ev­ery­one agrees. James Kim, a re­search fel­low at the Asan In­sti­tute in Seoul, said the city’s res­i­dents aren’t ready for an at­tack that some an­a­lysts be­lieve could lead to tens of thou­sands of deaths within days.

“It’s not some­thing that’s been drilled in. There isn’t a for­mal evac­u­a­tion pro­ce­dure,” said Kim, who has stud­ied emer­gency man­age­ment in South Korea. “There could be one in the­ory, but in terms of readi­ness, there’s isn’t enough prepa­ra­tion on the part of the Seoul city gov­ern­ment or the na­tional gov­ern­ment so the peo­ple know what to do.”

Any con­ven­tional mil­i­tary strike on Seoul, re­gard­less of ef­forts at readi­ness, could be deadly and dis­rup­tive, many fear. Yet not ev­ery­one here is buy­ing that a threat would ma­te­ri­al­ize, given that it would prob­a­bly prompt a mas­sive re­sponse by the United States.

“An un­pro­voked mil­i­tary at­tack against the United States or its treaty al­lies would be sui­ci­dal,” said Daniel Pinkston, an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions ex­pert at Troy Uni­ver­sity in Seoul. “The North Korean lead­er­ship is not sui­ci­dal.”

Two re­cent mis­sile tests con­firmed that the North has ac­quired the abil­ity, in the­ory, to meet the goal of putting the U.S. main­land within strik­ing dis­tance — and con­cern has in­creased that the gov­ern­ment has also minia­tur­ized its nu­clear de­vices to fit atop a mis­sile.

Much of the world has ex­pressed dire con­cern. Yet fear in Seoul is less pal­pa­ble.

“There can’t be a war,” said Jeong Jae-pyo, 58, who lives in Seoul. “We are al­ways threat­ened, but there is never a war.”

Lee Jin-man As­so­ci­ated Press

AT A train sta­tion in Seoul, a man watches a re­port about North Korea’s mis­siles. “We are con­stantly threat­ened by North Korea,” said one uni­ver­sity stu­dent.

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