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Living on a Madman's Frontline

Most people live in peril of nuclear strike and have resigned themselves to living with constant risk.

world Updated: Apr 07, 2013 01:57 IST
Hindustan Times

Nervous Chinese fear war fallout
Jonathan Kaiman, Guardian

Every time North Korea threatens a nuclear strike, Ge Weihan receives a frantic call from his mother. Although the 34-year-old filmmaker moved to Beijing years ago, his parents still live in a small Chinese village less than 25 miles (40km) from the insular nation.

"If a war ever actually breaks out, I'm very nervous about what it would do to my hometown," Ge said.

"It's hard living right next to a country that seems willing to do anything."

Residents of Ge's home village in mountainous Kuandian county have become accustomed to an influx of Chinese troops every time tensions flare on the Korean peninsula - just in case things spin out of control.

Yet this time the soldiers are so numerous, and media reports so shrill, that even the most hardened villagers are nervous.

It's no accident that China is the North Korea's most important ally, economic lifeline and primary source of humanitarian aid - a political meltdown in the country could send an unsustainable flood of refugees into border areas such as Kuandian and push a US-friendly unified Korea right up to China's doorstep.

Yet the vast majority of Chinese people consider North Korea just as strange and frightening as western observers.

"It's just awkward," said Ge, who has lived among North Korean refugees. "It's an extremely awkward situation for the government, and that makes common people feel awkward as well."

Beijing rarely deviates in its response to North Korean tempers. Officials express concern - or "serious concern" as of Wednesday - and request that the international community "remain calm" and "exercise restraint".

Chinese news outlets have given North Korean declarations of war slightly less airtime than their western counterparts.

China's official newswire Xinhua published a dispatch from a Pyongyang-based correspondent on Thursday about how life in the city is business as usual.

According to the report, 100,000 Pyongyong residents are preparing for North Korea's most important national holiday - Kim Il-sung's birthday, on 15 April - by planting trees throughout the city.

Prices in Pyongyang's "foreigner" supermarkets are stable, according to the report; schoolchildren are just beginning a new term. The city hosted an athletic competition on Thursday amid radio broadcasts warning residents to remain alert for provocative actions by American imperialists and their South Korean puppets.

Despite the state-sanctioned front of tranquillity, China's social media sites betray a widespread mix of curiosity, confusion, and unease. Some users on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo wondered if this had all been an elaborate joke.

"Actually lets hope that Kim does start a war - that he uses self-destruction to save the Korean people," said one user in a widely forwarded post.

Yet the most popular North Korea-related topic by far was a brief news report about a bottle of North Korean spring water discovered in a Chinese supermarket.

Weibo users expressed shock at its £1 price tag - significantly higher than most domestic brands. In the subsequent debate about the cleanliness of North Korea's water supply, mentions of war were hard to find.

South Koreans get on with life
Martin Fackler, NYT

As Lee Jae-eun retrieved her squirming twins from day care and loaded them into a two-seat stroller, she barely glanced up at the olive green Blackhawk helicopter that swept overhead, just above the high-rise apartment buildings.

Even in peaceful times, low-flying military aircraft are a common sight in this residential community near the heavily fortified border that separates capitalist South Korea from the communist North. But these are not placid times, and the roaring helicopters are one more reminder of rising tensions wrought by North Korea's recent barrage of war threats.

Still, said Lee, a 34-year-old homemaker, residents have resigned themselves to living with the constant risk, and occasional tantrums, from their bellicose northern neighbor.

"Sure, our radar is up to new danger," she said, holding one of her year-old daughters and surrounded by other mothers picking up their children. "But living here makes you used to it. It's not such a big deal."

In recent weeks, the heavily armed North's cherub-faced young leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened South Korea and the US with nuclear attack, declaring that a "state of war" exists on the Korean Peninsula. Refusing to be cowed, South Korea's newly elected president, Park Geun-hye, the democratic nation's first female leader, responded by ordering her generals to strike back if provoked.

Despite the steady drumbeat of war talk, life seems to go on as usual in most of South Korea, the industrial powerhouse that lifted itself from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become one of Asia's economic success stories. Nowhere is the determination to hold on to the South's hard-won middle-class living standards more apparent than in Munsan, a distant suburb of the South Korean capital of Seoul that sits on the edge of the tense border: the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which lies where the fighting stopped 60 years ago.

Once a collection of farming villages known for their local delicacy of tasty eel, Munsan was transformed into a boomtown of tall white apartment buildings and neon-lighted shops a decade ago during an era of political rapprochement with the North and soaring property prices in the fast-growing South. More recently, development has slowed after the global financial crisis hurt the South's export-driven economy and new tensions with the North have scared away some prospective buyers.

Some of the 47,000 residents who live here now say they have learned to accept the helicopters' near-constant rattling of their windows, and the columns of tanks that sometimes block roads during training exercises, making their children late for school. They say they have also learned how to ignore the rows of concrete bunkers and guard towers along the highway they use every morning to commute to Seoul, 35 miles to the south.

They just tune out the dangers and focus on enjoying their daily lives.

Responding to such concerns, Paju city employees held an evacuation drill last week with the police, firefighters and the army. In the event of an attack, residents would be led to one of nine underground bomb shelters that the city built after the North's last violent provocation, the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island three years ago that killed two civilians. The shelters have been freshly stocked with flashlights, medicine, gas masks and first-aid kits, officials said.

"If this is just going to continue until we give aid, then let's just give them some aid," Park Soon-yi, a 44-year-old homemaker, said with a laugh. But she was only half-joking, as she shopped in the upmarket Hillstate high-rise condominium and retail complex.

"Then they'll be quiet, and leave us in peace."

First Published: Apr 07, 2013 00:35 IST