South Koreans Stay Calm as They See Showmanship in the North’s Escalating Threats

by Braxton Taylor

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s recent escalation of threats and more tests of weapons aimed at South Korea haven’t done much to upset the calm in the nation’s capital.

“We learned to be numb,” said Renee Na, a 33-year-old office worker in Seoul who was one of a dozen South Koreans who sounded more indifferent than scared when talking with The Associated Press.

“Our generation grew up seeing North Korea use nuclear provocations as showmanship to maintain the stability of its regime,” Na said. “When they act up, it doesn’t feel like a real threat, but more like an annual event they stage when they need to shore up internal unity or want outside help.”

That’s a stark contrast to recent comments from Pyongyang, where leader Kim Jong Un said in January that his nation was abandoning its fundamental objective of peaceful reconciliation with South Korea. He also repeated a threat to annihilate the South if provoked.

At the same time, North Korea has conducted a streak of weapons testing, including what it described as simulated nuclear attacks on the South.

Worries about a direct provocation were amplified after the North fired hundreds of artillery shells into waters near its disputed western sea boundary with South Korea, prompting the South also to fire.

For now, there’s concern in South Korea — but not alarm.

And it’s nothing like 1994, when waves of panicked crowds emptied stores of instant ramen and rice after a North Korean negotiator threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”

North Korea has mastered a cycle of raising tensions with weapons demonstrations and threats before eventually offering negotiations aimed at extracting concessions. The result is that many South Koreans believe North Korea is using its old playbook to get attention during an election year in South Korea and the United States.

There’s widespread doubt that North Korea, an autocracy that values the survival of the Kim dynasty over anything else, would risk war with U.S.-backed South Korea. Washington has warned repeatedly that the North’s use of nuclear weapons would result in the end of Kim’s rule.

The fast-paced, competitive nature of life in South Korea makes it easy for many to ignore North Korean threats. And public interest here in North Korea tends to mirror the rise and fall in tensions.

“Personally, I don’t think Kim Jong Un currently has a reason or ability to wage war,” said Min Seungki, another Seoul resident. “The North Koreans clearly see a South Korean government that is unfavorable to them. They are also trying to be noticed by (Donald) Trump and the Republicans, who they prefer over the Biden administration, which didn’t show much interest in dealing with them.”

But there’s also a sense that South Korea has few options to counter the leverage Kim has with his nuclear arsenal. Years of missile launches and other weapons tests have moved Kim much closer to his goal of having a nuclear arsenal that could viably strike both his neighbors and the United States.

South Koreans are increasingly worried Washington may hesitate to defend the South if Kim has more missiles with the range to strike the U.S. mainland.

South Koreans’ security anxieties have long been kept in check by the U.S.-South Korea alliance and by past inter-Korean projects such as South Korean tours to the Diamond Mountain resort and the jointly operated Kaesong factory park, said Han-Wool Jeong, director of the Korea People Research Institute. Those joint economic projects, pushed by past liberal governments in Seoul, were halted as inter-Korean ties worsened under subsequent conservative governments.

Jeong said many now believe South Korea’s security depends entirely on the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Since taking office in 2022, conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has moved to expand the South’s combined military exercises with the United States and Japan to cope with the North’s evolving threats. He has also sought stronger assurances from Washington that the United States will decisively protect its ally if North Korea attacked with nuclear weapons.

But those steps have not slowed Kim’s weapons demonstrations, which likely reflect confidence over his steady weapons advancement and his strengthened ties with Russia.

Some South Korean experts have called for the U.S. to more dramatically show its defense commitment to its ally, including returning the tactical U.S. nuclear weapons withdrawn from the South in the 1990s. Others insist the South should pursue a nuclear deterrent of its own.

While many analysts downplay the possibility of a war on the peninsula, some believe Kim may choose to raise pressure on the South with a direct but contained military action.

The poorly marked sea boundary — the site of skirmishes and attacks in past years — could be a crisis point. Both Koreas in recent months have breached their 2018 military agreement to reduce border tensions, which had established buffers and a no-fly zone.

“It’s clear North Korea wants to use the April parliamentary elections to create momentum in South Korea for Yoon’s removal from office and could possibly conduct a large provocation to increase military tensions to the maximum and try to influence voters to oppose Yoon’s hard line,” said Bong Youngshik, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei university.

The animosity between the Koreas is keenly felt by Kim Giho, a fisherman on the western border island of Yeonpyeong, where a North Korean artillery bombardment killed four people in 2010.

“When tensions rise like this, our boats can’t move in and out of sea, and that hurts our livelihoods,” Kim said. “We are again evacuating to shelters with our military resuming firing drills and that really raises our sense of isolation, tension and fear. It’s especially traumatizing for older people who experienced the shelling of 2010.”

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AP journalist Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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