North Korean shelling turns South's shrugs into worries

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 9, 2010 

SEOUL — When a North Korean torpedo reportedly ripped apart a South Korean warship last March, killing 46 sailors, Park Hae-young wasn't worried. Like many in Seoul, a city of prosperity and shiny office buildings, Park had learned long ago to ignore the bluster and trouble of the North.

"I thought, well, let's just see what happens in the future," Park, 26, said with a shrug.

But after a heavy volley of North Korean artillery came crashing down on a South Korean island late last month, her nation's old fears of the North came bubbling to the surface.

Instead of shopping trips with friends, Park now has this on her mind: "North Korea has a nuclear weapons program and we have nothing but an alliance with the United States."

In the weeks since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two civilians and two marines, Seoul's residents have been left to grapple with a lost sense of confidence, the idea that suddenly their charmed city nestled in the mountains is vulnerable and the 5,000-plus North Korean multiple-launch missiles capable of reaching the capital now matter.

"We didn't believe North Korea would ever attack our territory," said Kim Suk-joo, a 53-year-old history professor who was sitting in a Starbucks near downtown recently. "Now we don't talk openly about war, but in our hearts we're worried about it."

The attack Nov. 23 on Yeonpyeong, a bit more than 70 miles from Seoul, didn't send residents in the capital scurrying to bomb shelters, but recent interviews across the city found attitudes dramatically changed from those six months ago, when many said the North posed no danger as long as it wasn't provoked.

Although the city is less than 30 miles from the most heavily militarized border in the world, tensions with Pyongyang had long seemed to many in Seoul like a far-off contest waged between politicians and military commanders. It was South Korea, after all, that built itself from the ashes and rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War into the world's 15th largest economy. The North, meanwhile, was ruled by a dynastic succession of tyrants who kept their nation in poverty, hunger and, literally, in darkness.

"It's like a family in which the brothers are separated," said Kim Sang-soon, a 90-year-old retired economist who recently put on a suit and tie to visit with a friend in downtown Seoul. "We have the same roots as the North; we share our bones with them. We should be together. ... It's shameful that I won't see reunification before I die."

At a large health spa-turned-shelter to the southwest of Seoul, former residents of Yeonpyeong Island said Thursday that they'd witnessed firsthand what the North was capable of doing.

"I could see the flames and the smoke and hear people screaming," said Cha Jae-geun, a 51-year-old crab fisherman. "I thought everybody was dead. It was terrifying."

Cha looked around at the large activity room where a crush of families now live on floor mats, laid one after the next in front of a workout room where locals on treadmills watched them through glass walls. Of the island's approximately 1,600 inhabitants, about 900 now either live at the spa or come to visit during the day, according to organizers.

"North Korea can attack us at any time," said Cha, who was wearing a gray jacket and brown corduroys and said he had no idea how he'd make a living now.

Sitting on the floor nearby, Lee Myung-jae began to weep when she talked about rushing to her daughter's and then her son's schools to see whether her children were still alive.

"I saw the shells coming overhead and then landing nearby. ... The whole thing is unimaginable, that North Korea would have done this," said Lee, who's 38. "I'm not sure if the government can protect me now. It's something that people here talk about all the time."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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