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North Korea says it is preparing to test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. Outside arms control experts believe it could test one capable of reaching the continental U.S. in 2017. In South Korea, they have lived with the possibility of an attack by the North for a long time. Twice a year, the country runs air raid drills. NPR's Elise Hu took part in one in Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)
ELISE HU, BYLINE: These citywide sirens go off at 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon twice a year. They're supposed to bring bustling Seoul to a halt. Jeong Eun-cheon is a spokesman for Seoul's Yongsan ward located near the city center.
JEONG EUN-CHEON: (Through interpreter) It's a simulation of what will happen at a time of war.
HU: South Korea is still technically stuck in a war with North Korea and has been for more than 70 years. With Pyongyang's ever more frequent missile launches and nuclear tests, Seoul, with its population of 10 million, says it's got to be ready.
JEONG: (Through interpreter) These drills are something every South Korean knows.
HU: Cars are expected to slow down and pull over, and most of them do. Pedestrians are expected to take cover, but it's not clear everyone outside knows they're supposed to pretend an air attack is coming.
There's a look of confusion among some of the folks walking around on the streets as to what exactly is going on with these sirens.
Inside, government workers do know the drill. They're required to take part in these every time. The lights go out at the help windows where people were paying their taxes. Bureaucrats file downstairs into the lowest level of the underground parking garage. Here, we wait for an all-clear.
WILL PARK: I think it will be over soon - like, about 10 minutes, 15 minutes.
HU: Will Park is interning at the district office. He grew up in the States, so this is his first air raid drill ever. We're huddled with his coworkers in the dark.
PARK: I'm just, you know, following the directions and, you know, just following everyone, just moving with the flow.
HU: And just as quickly as it started, the drill is over. The 300-or-so employees of this office take the stairs or elevators to return to work. I ask Jeong from the district office whether this kind of thing is really necessary.
JEONG: (Through interpreter) If we keep doing these drills and war does happen, people be able to deal with it without being too shocked.
HU: The threat is remote but does exist. The North Korean border is a 90-minute drive from Seoul. Kim Jong Un ordered more than 20 missile tests last year alone and, since he's been in power, presided over three nuclear tests, two of them in 2016. Yongsan's Jeong...
JEONG: (Through interpreter) In the event war does break out, we can minimize the damage to human lives through repetitive practice.
HU: Repetitive practice for a situation no one here wants to see. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
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