South Koreans unfazed by North's nuke test

It was quiet and peaceful at Imjingak, a park near the demilitarised border between North and South Korea.
It was quiet and peaceful at Imjingak, a park near the demilitarised border between North and South Korea.PHOTO: AFP

It's business as usual for residents in South despite Pyongyang's latest provocation

Imjingak, a park that is a symbol of hope for Korean reunification located about 7km south of the demilitarised border between North and South Korea, was quiet and peaceful last Friday, with visitors milling around in the crisp winter air.

There was no sign of worry among the visitors, many of them South Koreans, even though South Korea had just started blasting loudspeaker propaganda along the border in response to North Korea's claim last Wednesday of a hydrogen bomb test.

"I heard a bit about the nuclear test, but coming here, it really doesn't feel like North Korea is about to attack us or anything," said high school student Jenny Shin, 17, who was there with her mother.

Korea was divided into two after World War II and the two sides went to war from 1950 to 1953. Imjingak was where they exchanged prisoners of war after the conflict ended with an armistice and has been turned into a park with reunification monuments. This is the farthest north that South Koreans can travel freely to, a reminder that the two sides remain technically at war and have had several military confrontations over the years.

Elsewhere in the country, people went about their daily routine, largely unperturbed by the latest in a long history of provocations by Pyongyang that they have grown inured to over the years, even as the international community denounced the latest nuclear test and vowed tough punitive action.

The news was trending on social media, prompting some activists to take to the streets to protest against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and nuclear testing, but it made barely a ripple on the South Korean stock market or supermarket shelves.

"There's no panic here. No one is stocking up on instant noodles or buying rice, it's business as usual," said Mr Lee Jae Hyon, 45, a manager. "We have experienced threats from North Korea again and again over the years and we know that they don't have the real capacity to launch a real strike against us."

Public perception of North Korea has worsened and support for the South's reclusive neighbour dwindled over the years as people grew tired of its aggressive but often hollow threats, according to opinion polls conducted last year.

A survey of 1,000 adults last June by Pollster Media Research revealed that about 25 per cent of respondents felt North Korea is an enemy - up from 15.5 per cent a decade ago.

A separate study by Hankook Research showed only 10.2 per cent said South Korea should resume economic assistance to the North that has been suspended since 2010 over a navy ship sinking incident.

The latest and fourth nuclear test by Pyongyang since 2006, however, has triggered mounting calls for Seoul to re-evaluate its current trust-building policy towards the North and adopt a more radical stance to restrain it, instead of relying on world powers such as the United States or China.

Senior politicians from the ruling Saenuri Party have also called for the government to consider starting its own nuclear programme for self defence against North Korea. But opposition leaders disagreed, arguing that such a move is akin to dancing to Pyongyang's tune.

Within the media, there is debate over how South Korea should react to restrain the recalcitrant North.

In an editorial, the Korea Times newspaper said Seoul should be "more proactive to resolve the North's nuclear weapons logjam once and for all".

JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said South Korea should forsake dialogue for a more radical approach that can include nuclear development and accepting the anti-missile system offered earlier by its ally, the US.

Hankyoreh newspaper, however, argued that it is "impractical" for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons and that such a policy can end up stoking fears about national security. It also criticised the government's decision to resume loudspeaker propaganda, saying it works against collective efforts with the international community to find a way to punish Pyongyang.

Even as they follow news reports keenly, South Koreans have stayed calm in the face of escalating tensions between the two Koreas. In a tit-for-tat move, Pyongyang started its own loudspeaker propaganda along the border on Saturday.

Homemaker Kim Soo Hyun, 40, said no one around her is worried as they believe South Korea has greater military power than the North. "And we don't really think North Korea possesses nuclear weapons," she added.

Even foreigners living here have learnt how best to react to Pyongyang's threats. Singaporean Irene Siah, 24, a social media marketer, said she was shocked to hear of North Korea's nuclear test in 2013 when she was studying here, but has become used to such news.

"I panicked a bit in 2013 because a Singaporean exchange student in my school was so afraid that she kept asking me if we should try to escape," she said. "But if the Koreans are perfectly okay and not alarmed, we shouldn't be too."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'S. Koreans unfazed by North's nuke test'. Print Edition | Subscribe