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A View From South Korea: The North Is 'A Playground Bully'

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A View From South Korea: The North Is 'A Playground Bully'

International

A View From South Korea: The North Is 'A Playground Bully'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. North Korean President Kim Jong-Un has in recent weeks threatened no less than a nuclear attack on his neighbor to the south, and on the United States. Today, North Korea urged tourists and foreign companies to leave South Korea for their own safety. In short, the North's rhetoric has been loud and bellicose. But, as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the South Korean capital, most people there consider these empty threats and treat them like background noise.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: If you're looking for a city besieged, frightened citizens, Seoul is definitely not your place. Right now, I'm downtown in a grocery store and there's no sign of panicked shopping. The shelves are full. People are mostly just strolling around, buying what they need for the week. A moment ago, I was talking to a retired shoe manufacturer named Mr. Hong and his response to those threats from the North are pretty typical.

MR. HONG: (Through Translator) It's like a joke. It's like a playground bully. No, I don't take it seriously and also think about it. They dare threaten the U.S. right now? It's nonsense. They're not even a match.

LANGFITT: Hong, who's 76, knows North Korea well. He used to live there and fled to the South during the Korean War when he was a teenager. Hong thinks the North continues to threaten the South and the U.S. not because it wants to fight, but because it wants continued economic support. He says the rhetoric is a form of blackmail.

HONG: (Through Translator) They're like spoiled children asking for more and more. They're not doing this for their children or for freedom. The party elites are doing this to feed themselves and to maintain power.

LANGFITT: And these days, South Koreans seem less willing to turn the other cheek as they have in the past. In 2010, North Korea was blamed for torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 people. South Korea took no revenge. Hong says if the North attacks again, it should pay.

HONG: (Through Translator) As they say in the South Korean newspapers, if they provoke, we need to attack with 10 times the force. We're idiots if we don't take any action. We need to fight.

LANGFITT: A few hours away, Oh Jungmi, a 48-year-old mother of three, is shopping for tofu. A frilly pink dress for her 7-year-old daughter, You Jin, sits in her grocery basket. Oh isn't as cavalier as Mr. Hong, but she isn't terrified either. She's heard on the news how she should prepare for a possible attack, but she doesn't really expect one.

OH JUNGMI: (Through Translator) For instance, I know where the evacuation bunker is in our apartment and I know what to prepare, such as gas masks and lanterns. I know I should prepare these things, but I can't really get myself to act on it.

LANGFITT: At the city hall subway stop, 24-year-old student Kim Soo-Young is heading to her internship at a PR firm. Kim is more concerned about North Korea than most. A friend's brother died in that 2010 ship sinking.

KIM SOO-YOUNG: (Through Translator) We never know when and where the next attack is coming, so even if I am not directly attacked, there are people around me who are in the army and I am not sure what is going to happen to them.

LANGFITT: Kim attends school near the command center for both U.S. and South Korean militaries.

SOO-YOUNG: (Through Translator) I'm only being half serious here. If North Korea shoots a missile, my school would be within the area where they will strike first.

LANGFITT: When Kim Jong-Un became the leader of North Korea in late 2011, some South Koreans hoped he'd be more reasonable than his predecessors. After all, he's young, was educated overseas and reportedly speaks at least some English. But Lee Hyun-Woo, a 25-year-old who works at a duty-free shop downtown, says he's disappointed.

LEE HYUN-WOO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: I don't understand why he's acting this way, Lee says. I did think he would be more open when he first took power. Instead, Lee says, North Korea's young leader seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Seoul.

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