Island attack gets attention of South Korean youthSouth Korea's young men and women have gotten used to living with a belligerent neighbor. They've learned to brush aside the threatening language from North Korea. Routine air-raid drills didn't mean much to them.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's young men and women have gotten used to living with a belligerent neighbor. They've learned to brush aside the threatening language from North Korea. Routine air-raid drills didn't mean much to them.
Until last week.
That's when the North shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island — killing two civilians along with two marines — and suddenly, young people were paying attention.
The attack was the closest brush with warfare for this generation — born long after the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce but not a peace treaty.
“I was very scared,” said Seo Ki-don, a well-dressed 19-year-old student hanging out in a coffee shop in the trendy Seoul neighborhood of Shinsa-dong.
He got a call from a friend in the military whose unit had been told to prepare for war. In South Korea, young men are required to serve two years in the armed forces, and Seo's tour is due to start next year.
“I was actually, first of all, scared for my friend,” he recalled, “and then I realized that would be my situation in the future.”
The possibility of more clashes was raised again Saturday when South Korea's new defense minister warned North Korea will plot a new kind of provocation.
“Though we do not want war, we should be never afraid of it,” Kim Kwan-jin said in an inauguration speech. “If North Korea carries out a military provocation on our territory and people again, we must retaliate immediately and strongly until they completely surrender,” Kim said.
Kim said Friday that the military would air strike the North if it stages another similar attack.
The tough words came as President Lee Myung-bak's government faced intense criticism that its response to North Korea's attack was weak.
Skirmishes occur periodically along the two Koreas’ disputed maritime border, but the Nov. 23 assault on an island famous for its delicious crabs was the first since the Korean War to target a civilian area. Two of the dead were construction workers whose bodies were found in the rubble.
The two dead marines were in their 20s, and their sacrifice has captured the hearts and minds of young South Koreans.
Yoo An-na said she was horrified when she first heard about the deadly attack on Twitter.
“I thought, ‘Is this really happening? Could war really break out in our country?’” the 26-year-old smartphone app designer said.
Her mother called, saying: “An-na, war could happen. North Korea is acting very dangerously.”
More than a week later, Yoo's feelings have shifted back toward indifference, even as tensions remain high.
“Now I feel more like, ‘Whatever,’ ” she said with a smile, iPhone in hand as she waited for a friend at a bus stop in Seoul.
Many young people poured out their grief, worry and anger online.
Seo, the student entering the military next year, said his friends’ anger exploded on Facebook and Twitter.
“A lot of Koreans were expressing hatred (for North Korea) on their Facebook statuses,” he said. “And also I did — in not-so-good language — and a lot of people seemed to follow it and wrote comments.”
His own post, he said with a sheepish smile, cursed North Korea and warned: “Don't mess with us.”
The initial shock gave way to anger, he said.
“I think people weren't really freaked out,” Seo said. “It's just they were really mad that North Korea keeps doing this, but we can't do anything about it. The government's just afraid.”
North Korea, which does not recognize the sea border drawn in 1953 by the U.S.-led U.N. Command, had warned the South to call off military drills in waters it considers North Korean territory.
South Korea went ahead with the live-fire exercises, and the North struck back with an artillery barrage that reduced homes to rubble.
The attack came eight months after a torpedo strike on a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors — the worst attack on South Korea's military since the war.
Lee must balance calls for a harsh response with the knowledge that Seoul — a city of more than 10 million people — is only 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the heavily militarized border and within easy range of North Korean artillery.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Friday that North Korea has recently improved its ability to hit the capital: North Korea now has 5,200 rockets, about 100 more than it used to, the agency said, citing an unidentified South Korean military source. The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it could not confirm the report because it involves military intelligence.
The U.S. and Japan began one of their biggest-ever military exercises Friday, mobilizing more than 44,000 troops, hundreds of aircraft and a U.S. supercarrier. The drills — scheduled well before the island shelling — come just after the U.S. and South Korea concluded maneuvers in the Yellow Sea.
Seo and other young people said they had little idea what to do if war were to break out.
“I'm pretty sure civilians don't know exactly what to do,” Seo said. “We never had that training. Shouldn't we have training programs where we go to areas of refuge?”
Yoo, an app designer, said her family has no special plans for an emergency.
“My mom said if war happens we should go underground, like the subway,” she said.
Her friend Kim Do-hyun, a 26-year-old former marine, said most South Koreans probably had a simple plan: Stock up on instant noodles.
Many, particularly former marines such as Kim, said they were profoundly affected by the death of the two young marines.
The profile page on a social networking site for one of them — 22-year-old Staff Sgt. Seo Jeong-woo — registered 198,000 hits on the day he died, 85,000 more by the following evening, and more than 13,000 condolence messages by the next.
His profile photos reveal a stylish young man who loved to ski, lift weights and modeled himself after South Korean actors and pop stars — like legions of young men his age.
Kim noted that Seo had written in his online diary that he was excited for his vacation, which was due to begin that day, and that he hoped the winter seas would be calm enough for the ferries to operate.
He rushed back to his military base after hearing the artillery, reports said. He and Pfc. Mun Gwang-wook were killed.
“The deaths of my fellow marines hit close to the heart,” Kim said. “Since I had served in the marines, I feel like I was more aware of what happened, and I was more upset than others.”