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Anxiety settles in Seoul a day after island attack

To many residents of the South Korean capital, the North’s violent attack on a distant, tiny island seemed largely contained and unthreatening.
Image: Protesters trample a portrait of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il in front of the Defense Ministry in Seoul
Protesters trample a portrait of North Korea leader Kim Jong Il in front of South Korea's Defense Ministry, on Wednesday.Wally Santana / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

The forests on distant Yeonpyeong Island were ablaze on Wednesday, one day after a ferocious artillery exchange between North and South Korean military units. But to many residents of Seoul, the violent attack on the tiny island seemed largely contained and unthreatening.

“I was talking with a friend this morning and we wondered why we weren’t more concerned,” a Seoul restaurant owner, Pyun Sung-ja, said on Wednesday. “I guess it’s because the area of the shelling is so far from here. It feels like it happened in another country.”

The artillery exchange that lasted for about an hour on Tuesday afternoon killed two South Korean marines and reportedly destroyed dozens of houses on the fishing island, which is about twice the size of New York’s Central Park. The South’s military went on high alert, fighter-bombers were ready on the tarmac and the president plotted strategy with his advisers in the underground Situation Room in Seoul.

The incident rattled diplomatic nerves in capitals not only in the region but also around the world. Residents of Seoul, however, seemed to display only a mild anxiety on Wednesday, caught somewhere between calm and dread, and maybe breathing a collective sigh of relief that things had not escalated.

Kwak Kyeh-nyong, a lighting designer, said the situation certainly had him worried on Tuesday night.

“It felt quite serious last night, and I was thinking that if a war started I would have to go back into military service,” he said, sipping an early-morning espresso to nurse a hangover after a night of pre-birthday partying. He turned 27 on Wednesday.

“I did my military service very close to the North Korean border. Every day I went to the DMZ. If a war had started I would have been dead within five minutes.”

North 'throwing a tantrum'
Kim Chung-gil, 40, defected from North Korea six years ago, and said Wednesday that the attack was the North “throwing a tantrum” over South Korean military exercises off the North Korean coast.

“Even if they were retaliating, like they said, against South Korean drills, they shouldn’t have attacked civilians,” he said.

Mr. Kim, 40, now a wallpaper salesman in Seoul, said North Koreans have typically felt proud, and even happy, about violent clashes with the South.

“But now that the North Korean economy has collapsed and they are in dire circumstances, maybe they are feeling more insecure.”

Mr. Kwak and others expressed a certain pride and confidence in the South Korean government and the military.

“Our government reacted properly,” said Ms. Pyun, adding that she thought the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, had handled himself well during the first hours of the crisis.

Ms. Pyun said TV news reports showed Mr. Lee — whom she referred to as “MB,” his initials — looked capable and “ready for action,” especially in the black leather jacket he was wearing in place of his usual bespoke business suits.

“It was,” she said, “the correct clothing.”

She also felt somehow more secure being in Seoul, even though it is just 110 miles from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and within easy range of the North’s missiles and artillery along the heavily militarized border.

“We think the government will be more protective of us here, and it’s safer than in any other part of the country,” Ms. Pyun said.

She noted that South Koreans were conditioned to expect dramatic encounters with the North. She recalled the 1983 defection of a North Korean fighter pilot who flew over the Yellow Sea and landed his MiG-19 jet in Seoul. She was 13 at the time and was in her family’s garden picking potatoes when the air raid sirens went off.

“At first people thought we were being attacked, but it wasn’t that at all,” she said. “That experience and my memory of it makes me less worried about these things now.”

This story, "Day After Island Shelling, Anxiety Settles in Seoul," originally appeared in the New York Times.