Seoul Residents Threatened With ‘Sea of Fire’ Carry On With Life; “Even if they were to launch a nuclear attack, we’d be dead within minutes anyway.”

Seoul Residents Threatened With ‘Sea of Fire’ Carry On With Life

Choi Yong Wook woke on his 29th birthday to the news that North Korea had repositioned a missile days after threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” That didn’t stop him from a romantic dinner with his wife in one of the South Korean capital’s busiest areas.

“This is how we survive, we continue living our lives,” Choi, a Daewoo Electronics Corp. (0741) salesman, said in an interview. “North Korea has always threatened that war can break out any day. But who can believe them?”

As tensions escalate, life for 10 million South Koreans in their capital 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the world’s most fortified border goes on uninterrupted. Schools, businesses and public offices keep regular schedules and there are no reports of panic-buying in shops. While Choi and his wife blew out his birthday candles, Seoul’s LG Twins lost their baseball game against crosstown rivals the Nexen Heroes, 4-3.South Koreans have grown accustomed to North Korea’s threats, including its frequently repeated “sea of fire” warning. While the nuclear strike threat is new, the North’s bellicose rhetoric has occasionally led to direct action against its neighbor. In 2010, the sinking of a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors, and four people died when North Korea shelled a border island eight months later.

“Just look around, nobody worries about it,” said Choi, whose grandmother fled North Korea during the 1950-53 war. “Even if they were to launch a nuclear attack, we’d be dead within minutes anyway.”

Mixed Feelings

Not everyone is so sanguine. South Korea’s Kospi stock index fell more than 3 percent last week and the won dropped about 1.5 percent as North Korea said it was poised to conduct a “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike.” The Bank of New York Mellon Korea ADR index, which measures the American depositary receipts of South Korean companies, sank 2.6 percent, the most since June 21, to 171.80 on April 5.

Opinion polls reflect the mixed feelings of South Koreans as they consider how seriously to take the threats from Kim Jong Un’s regime. More than two-thirds of respondents to a poll by Seoul-based Realmeter last month said Kim will never give up developing nuclear weapons, just over half don’t expect an all- out war with the North, and 43 percent do.

The divisions may be generational. Han Jae Jung lost her husband and elder brother during the war, which ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty. Now she can’t sleep.

“I’m paranoid about another war,” the 70 year-old said on her way to visit her pastor. “If North Korean attacks, I’m not going to run. I’d prefer to wait for death at home.”

‘Showing Off’

Nearby at Bosingak square, which houses a bell tower restored after it was destroyed during the war, Oh Gyeong Hoon, 38, played on an iPad while enjoying the spring weather.

“Even if North Korea attacks tomorrow, I won’t be bothered,” the Metlife Inc. (MET) office worker said. “North Korea will make another provocation for the sake of showing off.”

Such calm belies rising aggression. North Korea fired a long-range missile in December then detonated its third nuclear bomb in February in defiance of international sanctions, and says U.S.-South Korean drills that began in March and last through the end of April are rehearsals for attacks against it.

The U.S. has responded by flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula. It has also sent two Navy destroyers to the region and is deploying a missile-defense system to Guam. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel over the weekend decided to postpone an intercontinental ballistic missile test to avoid exacerbating the situation, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be named.

Security Awareness

As a result, South Korea’s government should be raising civilian alert levels, said Sung Nak Sul, a judicial scrivener who served as a major in the army from 1977 to 1985, including near the border.

“Whether wanted or not, the war can happen at any time and we have to fight to win,” said the 64-year-old Sung, adding that his four children say he’s too combative. “Looking around Seoul and the general lack of security awareness — that’s what’s frightening.”

Seoul’s residents don’t have to go far to see reminders of the risks associated with proximity to the North. The city’s subway stations double as evacuation points in case of emergency. Almost 350 gas masks and two oxygen tanks are stocked on each side of the track at Jonggak station in central Seoul, used by nearly 100,000 people every day, said Lee Kang Se, a spokesman for Seoul Metro.

South Korea began holding monthly nationwide evacuation drills in 1972 in case of North Korean attack. Nowadays they happen once a year, and the National Emergency Management Agency is considering an additional drill in light of the North’s recent threats, the agency’s civil defense director Han Kwang Soon said in a phone interview.

In the meantime, residents cope in different ways.

“My mom recently put up newspaper clippings on the fridge on what to buy to prepare for a war and where to evacuate to,” said Kim Hannah, a 23-year-old trade major at the University of Incheon, west of Seoul. “This is the first time she’s shown so much concern for North Korea, but she also hasn’t done any of the things the clippings say we should be doing.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Yewon Kang in Seoul at; Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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