South Korea has staged its largest-ever air raid drill. The 15-minute nationwide exercise took place Wednesday afternoon, amid a period of heightened tensions with North Korea.
An air raid siren sounding near Namsan Mountain in central Seoul, that was the signal, along with a notification aired nationwide by radio stations, for the 48 million people of South Korea to stop whatever they were doing.
As a dozen fighter jets shrieked overhead to simulate a North Korean bombing and artillery attack, motorists halted in traffic and pedestrians were ordered to take cover, either in the freezing outdoors or to head into nearby designated shelters.
Those who did not immediately comply were confronted by civil defense wardens. Some of the passersby grumbled, but eventually obeyed.
A motorist, who would only identify himself as Kim, sitting in his car in the middle of a major avenue, complained he was in a hurry and had tried to avoid getting caught in traffic during the drill.
"I don't want to meet this situation in the street. [In the] office is OK," he said. "On the street, I cannot go, driving, right?"
Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, speaking on the radio during the national time out, said the air raid drill is meant to prepare citizens to effectively respond to a situation similar to the November 23rd artillery attack by North Korea on Yeonpyeong island.
The prime minister says he hopes the exercise is a valuable opportunity for citizens to grasp the reality of the country's national security situation.
At a Seoul hotel, U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens acknowledged she was rushing through a luncheon speech to the American Chamber of Commerce so the audience would not be caught outside during the air raid drill.
The ambassador says the United States and South Korea are working very closely, through military and diplomatic channels, to develop countermeasures to North Korea's belligerency. But she says it is China, which has the most significant role to play.
"It is critically important that China continue to play a strong role in making clear to North Korea that there are consequences for its actions," said Stephens. "We hope that China will work with us to send a clear, unmistakable message to North Korea that they have to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose and end their provocative actions."
Two South Korean marines and two civilians died in the North's shelling last month of Yeonpyeong. It was the first attack on a civilian-populated area here since 1953, when the Korean civil war was halted.
The two Korea's technically remain at war. Pyongyang has warned that continuing artillery exercises by Seoul and its joint military drills with the United States are bringing the peninsula closer to war.