Coffee shops here are still packed, and pop music pulses from storefronts, but South Koreans’ concerns are palpable in quieter moments. Their phones buzz with news updates on the North’s latest moves — its declaration of war; its announcement of plans to restart key nuclear facilities; its barricade of a joint industrial complex near the border. Children ask their parents what would happen if fighting broke out and where they would go for safety.
On Thursday, the fear spread to South Korea’s stock market, which suffered its biggest daily fall of the year. The South’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said the North had moved an intermediate-range missile to its eastern coast, perhaps for testing or drills.
“There could be war, or there could be peace,” said Joo Yang-yi, 26, a graduate student who studies North Korea.
Rather than play down the possibility of an attack, South Korean officials in recent days have emphasized their ability to strike back promptly. They have also welcomed recent U.S. shows of force in the region, including a brief deployment to the peninsula of nuclear-capable stealth bombers.
In the event of an attack, South Korea will “respond immediately without political consideration,” said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share government thinking. “At the initial stage, South Korea is self-sufficient in terms of our ability to strike back. But [thereafter], we will need cooperation from the U.S. and neighbors.”
Divergence of opinions
South Koreans differ in their views of their increasingly belligerent northern neighbor. Some speak with confidence, saying the North’s near-daily threats are part of a coherent plan to force negotiations, not spark war. But others fear that the North’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, might push things too far, perhaps because he thinks he needs a major conflict to coalesce domestic support.
That divergence is reflected in public opinion polls. Over the past two months, the percentage of South Koreans who say the North is their top concern has more than tripled. Still, that represents just 26 percent of respondents; more South Koreans care about job creation than about Pyongyang.
Even the segment that is concerned about the North is far from panicking. During a crisis 20 years ago sparked by North Korea’s announced intent to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some in South Korea rushed to stock up on canned goods and water. This time, grocery-store shelves remain full.