South Korea practices for worst-case attack

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 1:07 PM

SEOUL - Kim Kyung-ji began sixth-period math class Wednesday afternoon by giving her middle school students three-ply, nonwoven face masks, to use during the simulated air strike by North Korea. Kim told all 30 youngsters to wrap the masks around their ears. She instructed them to move quickly - staying low to the ground, if possible - when the siren went off.

Classrooms 4 and 3 will exit the second floor before we do, Kim told them. We'll follow after that.

"Do we get any drinks or snacks?" one student asked.

"If North Korea really attacks we're not going to line up," another said. "We're just going to run."

For at least a few minutes Wednesday, South Koreans everywhere - border towns and beach towns, offices and schools - play-acted a worst-case scenario. As part of the largest South Korean civil defense drill in 35 years, a dozen fighter jets flew low over major cities Seoul and Busan, staging a mock attack.

When air raid sirens went off at 2 p.m., police tried their best to stop traffic nationwide. Workers and shoppers and tourists were directed to underground subway stations. Many, including the students in Kim's classroom, tried their best to make sense of a threat that only recently ceased to feel abstract.

Kim had been in the middle of a lesson on functions and equations when a few students' cellphones started buzzing Nov. 23 with news about an attack. Kim told her students to stay calm, and she continued teaching.

Half an hour later, the school day finished, Kim hurried to the first-floor teachers' lounge and read online about the news. South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island had been shelled by a North Korean artillery strike. Photos showed dark smoke clouds rising from the island. A news broadcast that night called it the first air strike on South Korean soil since the Korean War.

(See a list of incidents between North and South Korea over the last 25 years.)

Two Marines and two civilians had died. Kim thought about what this meant for her son, a soldier stationed near the demilitarized zone.

If nothing else, the attack prompted South Koreans to recommit to civil defense drills, which had long been conducted three times annually - and patently ignored. At Ahyeon Middle School, few teachers could remember conducting drills that forced students to leave the building. So in preparation for Wednesday, administrators dusted off emergency plans: Here is the order in which classrooms should file out. Here is where each class should gather at Ahyeon subway station. Here is how much time it should take.

Minutes before 2 p.m., Kim gave her class a quick review of the protocol. She didn't even mention North Korea. She described the drill as a way to "prepare for any circumstances where we have to evacuate the school."

An earlier public address announcement had reminded students to take the drill seriously. But the roomful of 13-year-olds somehow felt giddy: Here was their free ticket out of math class.

When the air raid siren started, it came out with an unfortunate stutter - more like a bodily noise - and Kim's classroom began howling. A few boys pushed one another, and 30 students rushed to the exit.

Kim positioned herself between the students and the door - after all, Classrooms 3 and 4 needed to leave first - but soon everybody was out, into the hallway, down four flights of stairs, into the 19-degree cold, across a soccer field, into a brick courtyard, up a ramp, under the school entrance gate, and down into a subway station where some 500 middle- schoolers were pressed against brick walls.

The whole thing had taken five minutes.

The students stayed calm and quiet, but for a few shoots of "Save me, Jesus!" and "Hallelujah." One student in Kim's sixth-period class, Choi Jung-moon, described North Korea as half enemy, half tortured family member. But if Seoul really had been attacked, she said, "I think everybody would die. North Korea's weapons are very powerful."

A few minutes later - this time, with much less cohesion - students exited their underground bunker, returning to the school grounds. Administrators ushered them into the soccer field grandstand, where, shivering, they watched a quick emergency preparedness program.

An ambulance rushed around the perimeter of the field, two medics performing a mock life-saving mission. Four firemen set a cardboard box aflame and instructed two students on how to use a fire extinguisher.

Finally, a representative from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology - First Vice Minister Seol Dong-geun - took a microphone and addressed the middle school.

"The attack by North Korea on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23 means that North Korea could attack South Korea in the future," Seol said. "The North's provocations have become very serious, and it's now attacking civilians. So it is very important to have our preparations in line. ... So do your best in your study, but also pay attention to national security."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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