letter from seoul

Back to practicing for a worst-case scenario

South Koreans in the city of Paju don gas masks during a nationwide emergency drill, which simulated a military attack by the North.
South Koreans in the city of Paju don gas masks during a nationwide emergency drill, which simulated a military attack by the North. (Chung Sung-jun)

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By Chico Harlan
Thursday, December 16, 2010

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

Classrooms 3 and 4 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 - in 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 the cities of Seoul and Pusan, staging a mock attack.

When air-raid sirens went off at 2 p.m., police tried their best to stop traffic nationwide. Workers, shoppers and tourists were directed into subway stations. Many, including Kim's students, tried their best to grasp a threat that only recently had 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 of an attack. Kim told her students to stay calm, and she continued teaching.

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

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

Two South Korean marines and two civilians had died. Kim thought about what this meant for her son, a soldier stationed near the Demilitarized Zone.


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