South Korea bomb shelters forgotten with no food, water as North Korea threat grows

A "shelter" sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on July 5, 2017.
A "shelter" sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on July 5, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Long within reach of most conventional North Korean artillery and missiles, South Korea and Japan are far from prepared if an all-out military conflict breaks out as tensions escalate over Pyongyang's rapidly advancing nuclear weapons programme.

The United States said this week it is ready to use force if necessary to counter the threat from North Korea, which tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that some experts believe has the range to reach Alaska and Hawaii, and perhaps the US Pacific North-west.

North Korea often threatens to strike neighbouring South Korea and Japan, vowing to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and "a pile of ashes" the moment it has an order from leader Kim Jong Un.

South Korea has nearly 19,000 bomb shelters throughout the country. They include more than 3,200 in Seoul, just 40km from the militarised border drawn up under a truce that stopped the 1950-53 Korean War, but left the combatants technically at war.

Seoul university student Chung Yoon Jin had no clue these shelters existed.

"I have never seen any signs that say 'shelter', although I have been to lots of places in Seoul," the 26-year-old said.

The shelters are not built to protect against nuclear, chemical or biological attacks. They are mostly in subway stations or basements and parking garages in private apartments and commercial buildings designated as shelters with the consent of the owners.

In Seoul, most bomb shelters have no long-term supplies of food, water, medical kits or gas masks, an official at the Seoul Metropolitan Government told Reuters.

They cannot be forced to stock up because no public funding is provided, said the official, who declined to be identified.

Tokyo, the Japanese capital of 13.5 million people, has an unknown number of bomb shelters left from World War II, but they are not usable or accessible to the public, an official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's disaster prevention department told Reuters.

Tokyo has no plans to reuse the decades-old shelters or build new ones for now. "The extent of any damage that could be caused by a North Korean missile is still unknown, and it will take time to figure out an appropriate design for a shelter," the official said.

While residents in Alaska and Hawaii are just waking up to the possibility of living within range of a North Korean missile, South Koreans for years have been exposed to thousands of artillery massed an hour's drive or so from the border, besides short-range missiles and bombs.

People have grown numb to Pyongyang's unprecedented pace of missile and nuclear tests since the beginning of last year.

"Every time, nothing seems to happen after (North Korea provocation), so now I feel I'm used to it. I think to myself, nothing will happen," said Ms Suh Yeon Ju, a 30-year-old housewife.

Unlike in Japan, where sales of private nuclear shelters and radiation-blocking air purifiers have risen in recent months, South Korea has no market for private bunkers.

One public bomb shelter that Reuters visited in central Seoul was in a large underground parking garage a few steps from a government complex building. A small sign posted at the entrance indicated a shelter, but the people inside had no clue.

A person in charge of the parking garage said one day last year, he came to the office and saw a "shelter" sign posted, but he had no idea what it was.

To raise awareness, Seoul has handed out 34,000 paper fans this summer with information about bomb shelters and is in the process of creating other promotional products such as flyers and stickers, the city government official said.

But it is difficult to get the buildings hosting shelters to put up directional signs that are easily seen, he said.

Ms Shin Ji Ha, a 24-year-old university student in Seoul, said she had heard about bomb shelters, but did not know where they were. It did not matter to her anyway. "I would be dead like in less than a second (if a war broke out)," she said.

"There will be no pain at all, so I don't mind that much."