Seoul Holds Largest Civil Defense Drill In 35 Years

The drill in South Korea simulated an air and artillery attack from the North. It's the latest exercise to follow the recent shelling by North Korea of a South Korean island.

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South Korea is holding its largest civil defense drill in 35 years. This comes at a time of high tension with its neighbor to the north, which recently fired an artillery barrage at a South Korean island, killing four people. Doualy Xaykaothao reports from the South Korean capital Seoul.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Today air raid sirens rang out to mark civil defense drills not seen since 1975.

(Soundbite of siren)

Traffic in most of Seoul stopped, and tens of thousands of civil defense personnel instructed pedestrians into underground shelters, while a dozen fighter jets flew over South Korean skies to simulate enemy planes bombing the South.

(Soundbite of planes)

Max Kim is director of Seoul's National Emergency Management Agency.

Mr. MAX KIM (Director, National Emergency Management Agency): (Through translator) When the war really strikes, it's a very big thing. So even if the chance is less than 0.1 percent, we are better prepared well for such possibilities.

XAYKAOTHAO: It's not just preparation for war, Kim says, but also in case of natural disasters such as wildfires or earthquakes.

Mr. KIM: (Through translator) So we help the citizens prepare themselves by giving them training that suits each different kind of disasters.

XAYKAOTHAO: Sung-yun Her helps the agency detect potential biological and nuclear threats. He says North Korea has already tested two nuclear bombs. He shows us strips that can identify different kinds of gas.

Mr. SUNG-YUN HER: (Through translator) To use it, you cut an appropriate length of the detector paper and you throw it in a location where you suspect there is gas. When gas is detected you can see pink or red spots.

XAYKAOTHAO: It is not common for normal families to know this, but some are prepared.

Mr. HER: (Through translator) I know for a fact that 1,600,000 gas masks have been bought by normal citizens.

XAYKAOTHAO: Outside on city streets, across university campuses and inside high-rise office buildings, few are taking the civil defense drills seriously. One professor says his students think the drills are a joke. An office worker said war will never happen, so why bother. And this couple, Shim Ji-soo and Choi Jin-Hee say the nationwide drills are, well, an inconvenience.

Mr. SHIM JI-SOO: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. CHOI JIN-HEE: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Shim says, when he hears the siren, he knows he's supposed to stand near a wall, and if there's a desk get under it. That's about it, he says.

Park Jong-Yun and her daughter Jeon Ye-Seon do listen to the sirens.

Ms. PARK JONG-YUN: (Through translator) For adults, knowing what to do is easy, but in reality, maybe it's not, so these drills are necessary.

XAYKAOTHAO: 36-year-old Lee Kyoung-il agrees. He volunteers for the civil defense drills, even though his time is limited.

Mr. LEE KYOUNG-IL: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Korea is yet to be united, Lee says. Young people who haven't experienced war should prepare, just in case.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

(Soundbite of music)

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