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South Koreans Blase About Threat

Used to taunts from the North, some people in Seoul worry more about American overreaction.

October 21, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The shocking admission by North Korea this month that it has a nuclear weapons program "and more" has fueled fears among Americans and added to a sense of global crisis as bad news piles in from Bali, Iraq, Kuwait, the Philippines, even suburban Washington.

For many South Koreans, however, the apparent confirmation that their neighbor to the north is busy enriching uranium for use in bombs and missiles is, well, a bit ho-hum.

"The moment I heard it, I immediately forgot about it," said Kim Heung Jin, a 24-year-old medical student. "I just don't think it's such a big deal."

Some South Koreans even say Americans are looking a bit hysterical over the issue.

"I think the U.S. has certainly overreacted," said computer programmer Chung Jae Hee, 32. "I'm not saying there isn't some justification, but there seems to be a lack of perspective."

Chung Jae Eun, a 22-year-old nutrition student, said her only worry is that the U.S. might go too far -- and, in the process, provoke North Korea.

A major reason people are taking the current scare in stride, South Koreans say, is a collective numbing of the senses. Over the years, they say, they've witnessed so many offenses, threats and taunts by the North that such moves have become almost predictable.

Medical student Kim said he can remember various events in his life by the North-South crises that coincided with them. And no matter how bad they seemed, those crises eventually blew over. Even though this one has the word "nuclear" attached to it, it too will pass, he said.

Of course, any increase in tension on the peninsula is unwelcome. Koreans who lived through the Korean War also tend to take the North's threats more seriously. Most South Koreans alive nowadays grew up in a period of relative peace and prosperity, however, and see less threat behind actions by the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

"Most of us in the postwar generation don't believe there's much danger," said Lee Sang Yeop, a 28-year-old shipping industry employee. "It's like that story of the shepherd that keeps calling 'Wolf' all the time."

Even older Koreans like Lee Yo Soon, 61, who acknowledged finding the news very disconcerting, say worrying too much won't accomplish anything.

"What can you do?" the food vendor said, adjusting a piece of dried squid over a small brazier. "You can't live forever."

Shin Yee Jin, a psychiatrist at Yonsei University College of Medicine who counsels South Koreans and North Korean defectors, said Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone share certain characteristics born of a common history.

"Koreans can be very expressive and volatile. In fact, foreigners sometimes think we're really rude," she said. "But, in fact, it's rarely manifest as violence.... In the end, people become desensitized."

Of far greater concern for them these days, said several South Koreans, are the more mundane issues of keeping a job, finding a spouse, moving out of their parents' house or choosing a good president in December. Sometimes it seems as if the farther away people are, the more worried they become about events on the Korean peninsula, said homemaker Kim Ok Lee, 47.

"My relatives just called about this nuclear business from Germany, all worried. I told them I don't give a darn. Here it's life as usual," she said.

Some say they believe North Korea was bluffing when it reportedly touted its weapons program. Others say Pyongyang probably has a bomb or two.

"I always thought they probably did anyway," said Park Ji Hyun, a 24-year-old language student. "So there's no great shock. I think both sides believe we'll be unified someday, so I can't see them ever bombing us."


Chi Jung Nam in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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