South Koreans Ignore Threats From The North

Despite weeks of escalating tension between North and South Korea, and increasingly bellicose threats from Pyongyang, life in South Korea continues as normal. Most people in the capital Seoul appear to think the issue has more to do with the political situation in North Korea then a military threat to them.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

Well, in recent weeks, we have heard that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, will become, quote, "a sea of fire." North Korea has said its enemies' windpipes will be, quote,"totally cut." Today, North Korea urged tourists and foreign companies to leave South Korea, in case of war. These are just some of the threats North Korea has been hurling. But instead of scaring South Koreans, all this blood-thirsty rhetoric seems to be mostly boring them.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has been talking to people in Seoul, and joins us on the line. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, David. How are you doing?

GREENE: I'm well, thank you. So what are you hearing from people in Seoul, as you've been chatting with them in the capital?

LANGFITT: Well, I talked to people before this latest warning about foreigners to leave. But collectively, they see all of this, generally, as empty threats. They feel like they've heard this over the years, but there's rarely been any sort of attack. And I talked to a guy last night. His name is Hwang Hoson(ph). He's 69 years old. He runs a thread shop. And I went - it was at a Starbucks, and here's how he put it.

HWANG HOSON: (Through translator) North Korea has been threatening us every day, over and over and over. These threats that they're going to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, I'm immune to this. I'm not scared of them at all.

GREENE: Wow. So really - I mean, it doesn't sound like much fear in that gentleman's voice. I mean, any signs at all that the country's worried about an attack?

LANGFITT: No. Visibly, no. Everything looks totally normal. You know, I did that interview last night. It was quarter of 10 in the evening, it was in a Starbucks; and there were still probably 20, 30 people in there - just people on their laptops and chatting and drinking coffee. I was in a grocery store this morning; there was no hoarding. You've probably seen more panic in Washington, D.C., in a supermarket before a snowstorm than you saw here this morning. Really, people have heard this for years, and they're kind of used to it.

GREENE: Well, I assume one other thing that people have been doing for years is trying to analyze where this rhetoric is coming from. What do South Koreans think are behind these threats in the North?

LANGFITT: A couple of things, and nobody knows, of course. North Korea is incredibly opaque; it's hard to know. But part of it, they think, is North Korean domestic politics. This is a new, young leader trying to prove himself. They also think that he's angry with tighter sanctions, international sanctions, and he's doing all these threats to kind of get the U.S. back to the table, and also make sure that he can get more food and fuel aid. Some people even refer to this as a charade - what was going on.

There's also a sense here, I think, in South Korea that people are bit disappointed. They were hoping - this is a younger guy; he'd been educated in Switzerland; they thought he might be better than his dad or his grandfather. But so far, some people feel like at least rhetorically, he seems even worse.

GREENE: Have you seen any change, at all, in Seoul since your last visit there; or things are really business as usual?

LANGFITT: I haven't been here in ages. I was here 13 years ago, when there was a North-South Korean summit. And back then, there was tremendous hope for peace. The South Korean leader went to North Korea and met the North Korean president - back then, Kim Jong Il. And my last images of South Korea, at the time, were people actually driving around the streets, waving flags. Everybody was really hopeful and very excited. It couldn't be more different today. I mean, they're not afraid of everything, but relations are really, really bad. And they see this primarily as just a big irritant, and something that hangs over their heads.

GREENE: Well, if there are those tensions there - I mean, any feeling that there could be some kind of military action? If not, you know, something as bold and destructive as the North Koreans are saying, are South Koreans worried something could happen?

LANGFITT: It's possible, and some people are bracing for that. They don't utterly dismiss this. For instance, North Korea said today that they could launch a missile test as early as tomorrow. And ordinary citizens here think there could be a very limited strike on land or sea. And this happened back in 2010. A naval ship was torpedoed, and the North was blamed. There was also shelling of an island.

But one of the things that's interesting is the president now - the new president here, in South Korea, Park Geun-hye, has said - you know - we're not going to take this anymore. We will strike back. And I think that - when I talked to people today, they were glad to hear that because in the past, in 2010, when there was an attack, there wasn't a military response from the South Koreans. And there's sort of a feeling here, I think people feel pretty bullied, they're kind of tired of it; and if they get hit, they really expect their government to fire back.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Frank Langfitt, reporting for us from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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