SEOUL - Despite the heightened inter-Korean tensions over the North's accelerated nuclear and ballistic missile testing, and the increasing talk of a U.S. preemptive strike, few South Koreans appear concerned by the prospect of imminent conflict.
In Seoul’s Yeouido Park, carefree crowds flock to see the cherry blossoms at their peak. Few are old enough to remember the Korea War that ended over 60 years ago, nor do they seem concerned that this region may be on the brink of war.
“Well, it is scary to talk about war as I am from the generation which never experienced war. But I don't really feel fear yet,” said Oh, a Seoul resident who would only give her last name.
North Korea and the United States seem increasingly poised for conflict over Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests aimed at developing the capability to target the U.S. mainland.
The Trump administration has placed a high priority on preventing North Korea from developing a credible long-range nuclear ballistic missile capability that could directly threaten U.S. national security.
The U.S. Pacific Command has ordered a naval strike force that includes the USS Carl Vinson nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, as well as guided missile destroyers and aircraft squadrons, to sail towards the Korean Peninsula over concerns that the North will soon conduct its sixth nuclear test.
Satellites monitoring the Punggye-ri nuclear test site have detected recent activity. Pyongyang in the past has timed provocative military acts to coincide with the April 15 birthday of its founding leader, the late Kim Il Sung, a holiday known as the Day of the Sun.
U.S. President Donald Trump Tuesday said in a tweet that North Korea was "looking for trouble."
North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2017
And during an interview on the Fox Business Network the president said, “We are sending an armada. Very powerful.” And he said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “is doing the wrong thing.”
The U.S. military move has sparked speculation that Washington may be prepared to launch a military strike to take out North Korean nuclear or ballistic missile sites. Such action, analysts say, could draw the entire region into a nuclear war.
North Korea state media Tuesday warned it is prepared for any American aggression and would retaliate with nuclear weapons specifically targeting, “U.S. invasion bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theater, but also in the U.S. mainland.”
Seoul at peace
However in Seoul, the flare up in tensions is not causing any sense of panic, even though the city is situated within range of the North’s artillery and missile arsenal. Many in South Korea see the current crisis as political theater that has been played out repeatedly in the past.
“I have heard similar stories many times before. I think the possibility for war is very low,” said Seoul resident Kim Hyo-dong.
Many see the U.S. show of force in the region as a means to increase pressure on China to take stronger measures to restrain its economically dependent ally in Pyongyang.
Others view the U.S. military posturing as a right of passage for a new U.S. president demonstrating toughness and resolve.
“Every time the U.S. had a new president, we had similar types of crises, but we passed through them without any major struggle,” said Baek, a Seoul resident who only gave his family name.
Ultimately many in South Korea expect all sides in the standoff will act with restraint to keep the peace, rather than face the risk of triggering a war that no one can win.
The government in Seoul has also downplayed the possibility that the United States would take unilateral action against the North, which would jeopardize both its allies in the South and thousands of U.S. troops based in the country. There has also been no mass evacuation of American civilians and no heightened defensive readiness measures taken that would indicate the United States and South Korea are preparing for military conflict.
North Korea remains technically at war with the United States and its ally South Korea after the 1950-1953 Korean conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. It regularly threatens to destroy both countries.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.