When your nuclear-armed neighbor cries wolf

Your nation is technically at war with North Korea, among the most hostile countries on Earth. It has long threatened to turn your homeland into “rubble” and is making noises about launching a long-range ballistic test missile any day now.

What do you think?

Many South Koreans will tell you plainly: baloney.

“Every day I read the news about North Korea’s latest threat, to launch this or bomb that -- then I yawn and turn the page,” said Kim Myung-gyu, who owns a restaurant in this southern resort city. “This isn’t new behavior. It just doesn’t scare me anymore.”

Just down the street, Ko Yeong-sil took a break from his restaurant job to grab a cup of coffee. When asked about the looming North Korean missile launch, he laughed.


“It’s no big deal,” Ko said. “The media tries to scare us with stories about what North Korea could do. But it’s not working.”

He sipped his coffee. “Pyongyang is babbling, just like always.”

Arriving in Tokyo this week on her first trip abroad as secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton was greeted with a warning from North Korea: Officials could test-launch a Taepodong 2 missile that analysts say has enough range to reach the western United States.

“One will come to know later what will be launched,” said a statement from the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.

U.S. officials say they have reason to take the threat seriously -- with some saying the test is a way for North Korea to grab the attention of the Obama administration’s developing foreign policy plan.

The Korean peninsula has technically been at war since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The world’s most heavily guarded border along the 38th parallel between the North and South sits only 30 or so miles north of South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

But after 50 years of chest-thumping and bluster, if the North was going to make any kind of serious military move, it surely would have done it by now, many South Koreans say. They don’t seem worried that the North Korean government has been angered by a cutoff of cash and aid during the last year by a new, more conservative government in South Korea.

A 2008 survey of 1,000 residents by the Korea Institute for National Unification showed that 34% of those polled believed a North Korean attack was likely and 4% said it was “very possible.” Nearly 60% of those polled believed that such an attack was “unlikely” or “less likely.”

“I have taught classes on North Korea for years, and I often ask students about the North -- and I have been constantly amazed by their composure and placidity in the face of developments that make many Americans unsettled,” said Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda who teaches at Dongseo University in Busan.

“The answer I usually get is that they have been living under the threat of North Korean missiles for decades. They know the North doesn’t need a nuclear weapon to hit Seoul -- they could do it with conventional ones. For them, nothing much has changed even though we perceive nuclear weapons as a quantitative increase in the threat.”

Chun Sang-chin, a sociologist at Sogang University, likened North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to the little boy in the fairy tale who cried wolf. “As in a fairy tale, the boy wants to be paid attention to by crying out, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ But later on, people in the village don’t believe him.”

Yet some South Koreans remain uncomfortable with the North.

“You just can’t predict the North,” said 50-year-old Lee Gil-tae as he rode the Busan subway.

“And that makes them dangerous.”

Jo Eun-bi, a 20-year-old college student, said she and her friends are obsessed with the subject of North Korean missiles. “I’m afraid of being killed,” she said as she strolled with a friend.

“If war breaks out, I wouldn’t be able to see my relatives far from home. My fears are very realistic.”

Park Geo-yeon dismissed such thoughts as the folly of youth. The young have no clue how Pyongyang operates, she said.

“I’m sure of one thing: They won’t ever launch that missile,” the 51-year-old homemaker said while waiting for a subway train. “And if they do, it won’t shock anyone. It’s just North Korea trying to show off again.”

Myers said many students dismiss the idea of an attack by fellow Koreans. “They say, ‘North Korea would never attack us -- they’re the same blood as we are,’ ” he said. “And I tell them, ‘Have you ever heard of a thing called the Korean War?’ ”

He said that if young people have concerns about North Korea, it’s what effect any news of the Stalinist state would have on the South Korean economy.

In between the lunch and dinner rush, restaurant owner Kam Myung-gyu sat reading the newspaper -- not politics, but a tabloid section called “Sunday Social Affairs” that carried tidbits on South Korean celebrities and pop stars.

“You know what really worries me -- the North and South reconciling politically,” he said. “It would cause havoc on South Korea’s infrastructure.

“That would be a lot more damaging than any missile launch.”