By carrying on as normal.
It was a gloomy, cloudy day with heavy rain showers and a thunderstorm on the 15th of August in Seoul – National Liberation Day: the day that Korea was liberated from Japanese rule in 1945 after the second world war but was then separated into two countries. This year on that day Kim Jung Un threatened to bomb Guam. Then he decided to fire missiles over Japan. Sigh. So what’s going to happen now?
If the air raid sirens go off, we should take cover underground, apparently.
President Trump said he would respond to attacks from North Korea with ‘fire and fury’. But Pyongyang is only 121 miles from Seoul (as the crow flies). That’s much closer than my hometown Liverpool is from London. (178 miles). And similar to the distance between, say, Washington DC and Philadelphia (123 miles).
So, North Korea is only a hop, skip, and a jump from here. But it doesn’t really feel like that. It can feel like a million miles away until you go to the border and see how close it is. There are the organised tours to the DMZ. But there is another place where locals go to gaze at the North. And that’s at the Unification Observatory in Goseong-Gun, Gangwon Province on the northern most part of the east coast of South Korea.
You have to go there by car (no walking or cycling). And first stop off at the Tongil Security Park to fill in an application form and pay the 3,000 won entrance fee. This gets visitors in to the Unification Observatory and the Korean War Exhibition Hall.
We thought we could just rock up whenever we felt like it, but no. There are set times throughout the day that visitors can enter the area and first everyone has to sit through a video about how the country became divided. We happened to arrive just in time to catch the 12 o’clock showing.
So first everyone headed over to the auditorium and once the video was over we were free to get in the car and drive to the Observatory.
But not before having a look around the souvenir shop which sells all sorts of local products from the east coast and Gangwon Province such as seaweed, mushroom flour, noodles, and honey. One of the most popular gifts to buy (according to the lady on the counter) is the DMZ liquor, a blend of soju, brandy, honey and other ingredients. (yes, we bought a bottle)
At the Observatory entrance soldiers collect the registration forms and make sure that drivers turn off the black box in their car. Then the soldiers check what’s in the boot of the car before you are allowed to enter.
Then it’s a walk uphill to the observatory. A Buddha and a Statue of the Virgin Mary stand nearby.
And what can you see from the observatory?
Telescopes (you need to put in 500 won) are available to get a closer look but all there is to see is a nice beach and some mountains in the distance. It’s a place to ponder over the closeness of the two countries. And how this used to be one country. There are no North Korean soldiers staring back at us.
Concerned expats on Facebook groups have been asking about what to do in the event of an attack from the North. Information about what to do has been vague.
Koreans are carrying on as usual. Well on the surface anyway. Firstly because the problems with the north have been going on FOR YEARS. And secondly, there’s nothing ordinary people living here can do about it anyway. It’s in the hands of the leaders of other countries. God help us. (yes, now might be a good time to turn to religion)
So the coffee shops of Seoul are still full and the majority of people seem to simply sigh at everything that’s going on. But behind the scenes there are some people surreptitiously preparing EMERGENCY PROVISIONS just in case.
A Korean lady told me that she took advice from a website and bought a lot in preparation before August 15. She bought 60 litres of water (recommended amount for 2 people), tins of fish and veg; 36 packs of ready cooked rice, medicine including pain killers, antiseptic creams, creams for burns, bandages, iodine, a wind up radio, and gas masks. She wanted to buy the most expensive masks which cost around 200,000 won each. But they were SOLD OUT. From several companies. So she had to buy the next best one instead.
It’s an uneasy relationship with the north. On the one hand there is the threat of war but people are curious too about what’s going on up there. As well as tourist sites set up at the border to look out at the North Korean mountains, there are TV shows starring North Korean defectors who shed light on the life they left behind to come to the South.
TV SHOWS WITH NORTH KOREAN DEFECTORS cover all sorts of topics about life in the North.
In one show North Korean ladies spoke about life in the army. And how they had to march with their legs so straight out in front of them that it made their knees hurt.
Another explained how in the event of war, Kim Jung Un will go to one of his many hideouts in the mountains. She has been to one hideout. The hideouts have entrances that are so well camouflaged you can’t see them. And inside is everything you need to survive including lots of good food. She said there is no way that he would ever be found.
So with the heightened tension it seems the Korean government felt the need to organise some sort of emergency drill. And so on August 23 there was a NATIONAL EMERGENCY DRILL carried out at 2pm.
But it was a rather half-hearted affair which involved making anyone out and about take cover in the nearest subway station when the siren went off. I was in central Seoul just before 2pm and saw a group of helpers with armbands getting ready to usher people into the subway.
But I was in the coffeeshop by 2pm and didn’t even hear any siren. Even though the coffee shop was in the station I didn’t see anyone gathering anywhere. Other people in the coffee shop carried on as normal too.
So what happened?
Not much it seems. Some say there is no point having a drill because it will only cause panic and nothing is going to happen anyway. Or if there’s a nuclear attack there is nothing we can do. So what’s the point?
I asked a man in his 30s what he would do if he was sitting in his apartment and the air raid siren went off.
He looked at me for a moment and then said, ‘nothing!’