By William Gallo
North Korea has conducted eight missile launches this year alone — the latest was this week’s test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. But in South Korea, which arguably has the most to lose from a conflict with the North, people aren’t overly concerned.
You wouldn’t know it, judging from the outside. That’s partly because North Korean state media footage of missile launches can be intense, often featuring overly dramatic narration, bellicose threats, and a Hollywood flare — complete with multiple camera angles, including some shot from drones.
That footage gets replayed on international media, which can often create a sense of crisis, especially during low points of U.S.-North Korea relations.
But in South Korea, even during times of heightened diplomatic tension, it feels like anything but an emergency.
“My main thought is: well, they did it again,” says Yoo Ye-jin, a 16-year-old Seoul resident waiting on a train at the central Seoul Station, a day after the latest North Korean launch. “I mean, yes, I heard about it. But the truth is, people in South Korea don’t seriously care.”
Yoo was sitting at a waiting area in front of a television that continually airs news broadcasts. The area is frequented by mostly foreign photographers following North Korean launches, in large part because it is a captive audience sitting in front of a screen that is sure to show North Korean missile footage. The result is photos that imply South Koreans are watching the events closely. But if you talk to the people sitting there, you’ll probably hear a different story.
Song Tae-ho, 76, is another Seoul resident sitting in front of the TV screen. “They just test so often,” he says. “I feel like we’ve become immune to this kind of news. We just don’t see it as a big deal.”
One of the reasons for South Korean disinterest may be alarm fatigue. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006 and launched about 150 missiles since 1984.
“We just think about this as part of our normal life,” says Choi Jin-bong, who teaches at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University. “This is the situation between North and South Korea. We have tension between those two countries.”
Most South Koreans, he insists, don’t believe that North Korea will invade, in large part because of the presence of the approximately 28,000 U.S. troops. Many countries, such as China and Russia, which are friendlier to North Korea and which have supported it to varying extents, also would oppose a North Korean attack, he says.
The 1950-53 Korean War is still technically ongoing, since it ended in a truce and not a peace treaty. But it has been decades since major hostilities. There have been occasional flare-ups of violence, most recently in 2010, when North Korea shelled a South Korean border island and sunk a warship, killing 50 people.
But polls suggest young South Koreans, who didn’t experience the Korean War, don’t care as much about the North. And reports vilifying North Korea just aren’t as convincing these days, says journalist Kim Hye-in, who works for a news website called Mediaus.
“The younger generation doesn’t care much about North Korea news. They’ve seen these missile launches since they were born. And anyway, many of those reports turned out to be inaccurate,” she says, noting that many South Koreans turn to foreign news coverage for what they consider to be more credible North Korea reporting.
Another reason for confidence is South Korea’s own military. In addition to relying on U.S. protection, South Korea is also developing more of its own weapons, including several new advanced missiles, fighter jets, and even an aircraft carrier.
On Thursday, South Korea conducted its first launch of a domestically built space rocket, which attempted to carry a dummy satellite into space. Analysts say the test, which was only partially successful, will have important commercial and military ramifications.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has overseen an intensification of South Korea’s military buildup, says the new weapons can deter North Korean provocations.
At a defense expo outside Seoul this week, Moon arrived in a new South Korean fighter jet. After landing, he said the state-of-the-art weapons can help South Korea feel secure that it can keep the peace.