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Longtime Seoul residents respond to island attack with a shrug

Visitors and foreigners are worried, but after decades of threats from North Korea, locals call it 'life as usual.'

November 24, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — Kalyn Taylor was on a sightseeing trip with her in-laws at Seoul Tower, a tourist hot spot with a panoramic view of South Korea's capital, when she saw the television images showing billowing smoke and licking flames from North Korea's attack on a South Korean island.

Taylor, a mother with a 1-year-old son, felt her heart sink.

"I was scared Seoul might be a target," said Taylor, 20, who moved here less than a year ago with her husband, a soldier stationed in the U.S. military base in Seoul. The family feared the situation may be serious when Taylor's husband got a call from his sergeant telling him to keep his phone handy.

Yet all around her, Seoul's bustling populace seemed to nonchalantly continue about its business without blinking an eye, Taylor recalled.

"It seemed like it was just an everyday thing," she said Wednesday as she shopped with her family in Itaewon, an area near the U.S. base that is popular with Westerners.

Although North Korea's attack unsettled governments and analysts worldwide, and set off alarm bells among tourists and newcomers to Seoul, residents appeared unshaken.

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, residents of this city have grown used to provocations. After all, Seoul sits within reach of North Korea's short-range missiles and newspapers here are filled with reports of the latest threat from the North's leader, Kim Jong Il.

"It's not like they haven't done this before," said Park Suk-ok, a shopkeeper at a Crocs store where Taylor was eyeing a pair of shoes for her son.

As Park cataloged her stock, she brushed off the attack as par for the course, even though her friends and family overseas were peppering her with worried phone calls and e-mails.

"It's just life as usual.... Years ago when I was in school, we might have panicked that we were headed for war, but by now we're used to it," she said.

Seoul natives weren't the only ones who believed the attack was nothing to worry about. Many foreign residents said they were frustrated by what seemed to be a repeat scenario.

Tyler Deuling, a Canadian who has been running a bar in Itaewon for more than six years, said few customers Tuesday night seemed affected by the news. Half of his staff members, who are all Korean, hadn't even heard about the shelling, Deuling said.

"The North always makes noise when they want something," said Deuling, who was showing his visiting parents around Itaewon. "It's about that time of year. They want more food, more oil."

French businessman Sam Johnson, who arrived Monday on a working trip from Strasbourg, France, said that when he saw the news while waiting for a train, his first thought was that he needed to leave the country. But when he called his Korean friends in a panic, they seemed untroubled.

"They said it wasn't the first time, that everything's going to be OK," he recalled.

Nearby, Lee Yeon-sook, 75, was opening her sidewalk cart for business. She said she was far more concerned about the lack of customers at her stand, where she sells colorful furry hats in the shape of animals and cartoon characters.

"I went through the Second World War and the Korean War," she said with a sigh. "If I was alarmed by something like this, I'd long ago have died of worry.... I'm too busy earning a living."

But the indifference shown by the locals didn't keep Taylor from her worries. Her mother-in-law, Vicki, quipped: "She was surprised everybody's not freaking out in a bomb shelter somewhere."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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