A Feb. 11 article about North Korea's nuclear program did not use correct Korean naming practice in making a second reference to South Korea's president-elect, Roh Moo Hyun. His family name is Roh, so on second reference he is properly called President-elect Roh. (Published 2/13/03)
The booming threats of war coming almost daily from North Korea are being taken here much like kimchi, the spicy cabbage served as a side dish to every meal: If it's too hot, just ignore it.
Still technically at war with North Korea half a century after an armistice, South Korea seems little alarmed by the growing nuclear crisis with its neighbor. In Japan, perhaps a more possible target for North Korean missiles in the event of war, there is only somewhat more anxiety over the crisis.
The public mood in both countries is: Let the United States handle it.
"This is a power game between the United States and North Korea," said Kwon Kee Woong, 37, who runs a souvenir shop in downtown Seoul. "The Korean people don't think it's serious at all."
"At the moment I don't feel a particular sense of urgency or crisis," said Yukiko Narusawa, 66, a Tokyo housewife. "What it comes down to is the North Korean relationship with the United States."
People in the two countries have different reasons for their blase response. Many South Koreans feel protected by a sense of national brotherhood with the North Koreans and encouraged by recent signs of cooperation from the North. Many Japanese feel protected by the U.S. military and U.S. diplomacy.
American officials are showing some signs of impatience with the what-me-worry attitude in the region. "We want to make sure this thing doesn't rub off entirely on us to come up with a solution," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. He said Tokyo could be attacked if North Korea's talk of war turned into action.
Last week in Seoul, U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard reminded an audience that with its huge capital city lying only 35 miles from North Korean artillery, South Korea has "the greatest stake" in the crisis.
Their cautions came as rhetoric in the standoff became more strident. North Korea last week threatened "total war" against the United States, said it might launch a preemptive attack and warned that any U.S. military buildup would mean "the whole land of Korea will be reduced to ashes, and the Koreans will not escape horrible nuclear disasters."
The United States, in turn, called North Korea a "terrorist regime" and stepped back from its efforts to assure North Korea it had no military action in mind.
But South Korea is distracted from such worries. The country is preparing to inaugurate a new president this month and is preoccupied with a growing scandal over allegations that the outgoing president, Kim Dae Jung, used cash to win favor with North Korea.
Some South Korean newspapers wish people were more concerned. "Military tensions are running high," said the Joong-ang Ilbo, bemoaning that "Korean society is quite relaxed."
Few South Koreans interviewed share that sense of danger. "I know, to the outside world, North Korea looks like Iraq," said Han Young Gyu, 32, a shop owner in Seoul. "But for us, we know the North Koreans very well. We are the same people. So I don't feel any sense of danger."
Belief that North and South Korea will be united -- and that the 1950-53 Korean War was the result of foreign manipulation -- has made some South Koreans perversely proud of the prospect that North Korea may have nuclear bombs. "I want North Koreans to develop nuclear weapons," said Park Soon Jae, 41, a housewife, in an opinion expressed by many people interviewed Saturday at a market in Seoul. "After all, we are one nation."
Washington's alarm and eagerness to call North Korea a "terrorist regime" brought an unusual public rebuke Saturday from the Millennium Democratic Party, whose candidate, Roh Moo Hyun, won the December presidential election. In a statement, the party suggested that "emotions have interfered in the United States in resolving the North's nuclear problem."
"Very few believe that Washington and Seoul share the same perspective on the North Korean nuclear stance," Park Young Ok, a former South Korean vice defense minister, told Hubbard at a public forum in the capital last week.
Although President-elect Hyun held himself out as a key to ending the crisis, envoys he sent to Pyongyang and Washington made no progress.
Discussion in Japan, just 10 minutes from Pyongyang by missile, has become somewhat more energized by the growing crisis. It has been spurred by such headlines as "The Day the [North Korean] Missiles Attacked Japan," which appeared recently in a weekly, and warnings such as the one delivered last week by Scott Ritter, a weapons inspector-turned-activist. He said in a speech in Tokyo that North Korea "won't be satisfied till Tokyo is reduced to a slab of radioactive waste."
The Japanese Defense Agency has pored over contingency plans for a biological attack and was reported to be considering sending two destroyers closer to North Korea to monitor possible missile launches. Six young members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party offered bills that would impose economic sanctions on North Korea. And the Japanese parliament has held unusual debate on the circumstances under which Japan could attack North Korea.
People are worried, said Yoshinori Suematsu, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, who pressed the debate in parliament. "When I have a drink with my constituents, they say things like, 'If North Korea shoots a Rodong missile, that will be it,' or 'If North Korea attacks Tokyo with nukes, Tokyo will become ashes,' " he said.
But Misako Kaji, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is arguing for calm. "American media have been writing things like the 'worst-case scenario,' saying the situation keeps escalating," she said. "But the suspicion over North Korean nuclear programs hasn't started today. It's been an issue for some time. We must respond calmly and cautiously."
In Japan's consensus-style government, actions are rarely taken quickly. And there seems little consensus among the public.
"I don't think North Korea will make a decision to attack," said Atsushi Kurano, 32, the owner of an industrial goods manufacturing company. "I am sure North Korea knows that if they did, they would be in big trouble."
But Chiyoko Saito, 45, a housewife, admitted, "I am scared. I think Tokyo will be the first to be attacked, not Seoul. The North Koreans dislike Japanese more."
Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto and Sachiko Sakamaki in Tokyo contributed to this report.