For South Koreans at North's Edge, Drum Beat of War Is More of a Patter

By Martin Fackler, NY Times, April 5, 2013
MUNSAN, South Korea—As Lee Jae-eun retrieved her squirming twins from day care and loaded them into a two-seat stroller, she barely even glanced up at the olive green Blackhawk helicopter that swept overhead, just above the high-rise apartment buildings.

Even in peaceful times, low-flying military aircraft are a common sight in this residential community near the heavily fortified border that separates capitalist South Korea from the communist North. But these are not placid times, and the roaring helicopters are one more reminder of rising tensions wrought by North Korea’s recent barrage of war threats.

Still, said Ms. Lee, a 34-year-old homemaker, residents have resigned themselves to living with the constant risk, and occasional tantrums, from their bellicose northern neighbor.

"Sure, our radar is up to new danger," she said, holding one of her year-old daughters and surrounded by other mothers picking up their children. "But living here makes you used to it. It’s not such a big deal."

In recent weeks, the heavily armed North’s cherub-faced young leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened South Korea and the United States with nuclear attack, declaring that a “state of war” exists on the Korean Peninsula. Refusing to be cowed, South Korea’s newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, the democratic nation’s first female leader, responded by ordering her generals to strike back if provoked.

Despite the steady drum beat of war talk, life seems to go on as usual in most of South Korea, the industrial powerhouse that lifted itself from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of Asia’s economic success stories. Nowhere is the determination to hold onto the South’s hard-won middle-class living standards more apparent than in Munsan, a distant suburb of the South Korean capital of Seoul that sits on the edge of the tense border: the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which lies where the fighting stopped 60 years ago.

Once a collection of farming villages known for their local delicacy of tasty eel, Munsan was transformed into a fast-growing suburb of tall white apartment buildings and neon-lighted shops a decade ago during an era of political rapprochement with the North and soaring property prices in the fast-growing South. More recently, development has slowed after the global financial crisis hurt the South’s export-driven economy and new tensions with the North have scared away some prospective buyers.

Some of the 47,000 residents who live here now say they have learned to accept the helicopters near-constant rattling of their windows, and the columns of tanks that sometimes block roads during training exercises, making their children late for school. They say they have also learned how to ignore the rows of concrete bunkers and guard towers along the highway they use every morning to commute to Seoul, 35 miles to the south.

They just tune out the dangers, and focus on enjoying their daily lives.

"Korea is the most dangerous place in the world, but we are numb to it," said Song Hyun-young, an employee in the real estate department of Paju city hall, which has jurisdiction over the town of Munsan. "If something happens, we will all die together, so I don’t really think about it."

When pressed, many residents admit to feeling anxiety about the intensity of the North’s most recent threats, and the fact that its new nuclear arsenal is controlled by an untested, unpredictable leader. Some also partly blame their own country for imposing sanctions on the North, a closed and impoverished country.

"To be honest, the talk of nuclear attack is much scarier this time," said Ms. Lee, the mother of the twins. "I think North Korea is cornered, and anyone who is cornered will strike back."

None of the more than half-dozen residents interviewed said they were stockpiling food or supplies. Many said they were optimistic that such preparations were unnecessary. They were confident, they said, that the bonds of shared ethnicity between the two Koreas would prevail over political differences, and prevent the North from following through on its apocalyptic threats.

"The world thinks we are on the brink of war, but we are fine," said Gong Soon-hee, 55, a real estate agent whose small office was filled with wall-size maps showing a checkerboard of privately owned plots that abruptly end at the edge of the DMZ, just a few miles away. "Koreans are good people, kind people, not stupid people who would just start a war suddenly."

Despite the tensions, Ms. Gong said, new homebuyers continue to trickle in, lured by prices that have dropped to less than one-tenth of those in central Seoul. Most give no sign of noticing a formation of helicopters flying overhead as they check out apartment units, she said.

Others said the current standoff cast a spotlight on the fact that in the face of the North’s threats, the South was in the weaker position because it has so much more to lose. Some said South Korea’s biggest vulnerability was its unwillingness to sacrifice its much higher living standards to essentially buy off the North.

"If this is just going to continue until we give aid, then let’s just give them some aid," Park Soon-yi, a 44-year-old homemaker, said with a laugh. But she was only half-joking, as she shopped in the upmarket Hillstate high-rise condominium and retail complex. "Then they’ll be quiet, and leave us in peace."

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