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North Korean bombast and war games? Seoul residents take it in stride

South Koreans appeared more focused on protesting the new president and chatting about K-Pop than the prospect of imminent attack from North Korea.

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South Korean protesters hit a huge banner with a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a rally denouncing North Korea's threat and supporting South Korean President Park Geun-hye near the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 11, 2013.

Lee Jin-man/AP

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Over this weekend in Seoul, one could hardly imagine that Armageddon might be hovering around the corner.

In crowded cafes and coffee shops, headlines blaring North Korea’s latest rhetorical twist and turns, and news programs of people interviewing one another, are largely ignored. K-Pop and quiz shows, serial dramas and sports remain the top fare on TV. Asked if anything fateful or serious might be happening, people are likely to wonder why the question.

“All is normal here,” says a middle-aged Korean woman. “We don’t know about all that” – “that” being talk by commentators and headline writers, fueled by statements from Pyongyang, of a North Korean invasion, artillery and missile strikes, a nuclear attack, a "Second Korean War."

The absence of panic offers a strange counterpoint to the declarations from North Korea of cancellation of the armistice that ended the Korean War nearly 60 years ago. It’s as though outrageous rhetoric from Pyongyang was so familiar that people are inured to it – and there was little more the North Koreans could say to send crowds rushing to get out of the line of fire.

A threat to “destroy” South Korea – or turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”? Another threat to “abrogate agreements with South Korea” – and cut off the “hotline” between the two Koreas? Talk from Pyongyang of “all-out war”?

“I don’t know about any agreements,” is the laconic response of a young office worker. “What are they? It’s not really my concern.” 

As if to punctuate the mood, echoes of demonstrations waft down one of the main streets in central Seoul. A few hundred people – watched closely by hundreds of policemen – are carrying banners and shouting slogans at the iconic Jonggak intersection. But their ire is not nuclear but the presumed policies of the conservative, and newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye. They are unhappy about unemployment, corruption, suppression of free speech, and the rising costs of education. North Korea is not among their issues. 

Not that North Korea goes totally unnoticed. Grill people about what they think Ms. Park should do to head off North Korean rhetoric, and responses are quite mixed.

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One prevailing view is that she should find a way to negotiate, if only in secret. Nobody favors lighting the fuse that might touch off a North Korean attack – or incidents similar to those in the Yellow Sea in 2010 when a torpedo exploded under a South Korean Navy corvette, killing 46 sailors. In a another incident, North Korean shore gunners fired on a South Korean island, killing two marines and two civilians.

In a coffee shop in a neighborhood of small theaters and restaurants, a gentleman who identifies himself as a professor patiently explains why a "Second Korean War" is not in the offing. President Park, he says, has sent “secret emissaries” to North Korea, quietly assuring official contacts – all contacts in the North are by definition “official” – that she really only wants to negotiate.

Then, from Beijing, come reports that the Chinese are slowly persuading the North Koreans to cool it. The Chinese may have gone for the UN Security Council’s latest sanctions to keep the Americans happy, he says, but they’re assuring the North Koreans that life and business will go on as usual – if the North Koreans don’t do anything to upset the “stability” that China values most.

The North's rhetoric comes with qualifiers – action if the Americans dare do this or that. The operative word, says the professor, is “if.” Not now, is the inference – maybe next time or the time after that.

At Incheon International Airport, many of the planes are full or nearly so – but with young couples going off for holidays in sunny Southeast Asia. Business travelers are rushing to the US, Europe, and Japan; tourists from Japan are arriving on the peninsula in search of bargains.

Nobody, it seems, is here at the airport to escape a North Korean attack. In fact, nobody seems to have heard a thing about such a ghastly prospect.

“I don’t know anything about North Korea,” says a smartly suited young woman at an information counter, as she turns to a traveler asking about the flight to Phuket, a beach resort in Thailand.

“Oh no,” she says, getting back to her somewhat persistent questioner. “I haven’t heard anything. I haven’t been watching the news.” 

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