As South Korea holds first civil defence drill after 6 years, public apathy a cause for concern

South Korea has some 17,000 designated shelters all over the country, mostly in subway stations and the underground car parks of apartment complexes and shopping malls.

Wendy Teo

Wendy Teo

The Straits Times


A police officer at City Hall subway station and vehicles stopping along Sejong Boulevard in Seoul during the drill. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

August 25, 2023

SEOUL – When the siren began at 2pm on Wednesday for South Korea’s first civil defence drill in six years, receptionist Lee Jeong Eun stayed at home instead of heading to the nearest emergency shelter like she should have.

The shelter, in the basement car park of her apartment block, could not have been closer, but the 36-year-old, who lives alone in a flat on the 17th floor, said: “No way am I taking that many stairs!”

Separately, a 22-year-old university student who had received alerts about the drill on her mobile phone chose to ignore them, saying she no longer cared about such exercises after having practised them in high school.

“The missiles from North Korea may be threatening, but I’m now used to them since they have fired so many and yet nothing happened,” she reasoned.

Such desensitisation appeared to be widespread as Korea conducted its first nation-wide civil defence drill on Wednesday after a break of six years.

Civil defence exercises, which aim to prepare the South Korean public for a North Korean air raid, had not been staged since August 2017, when there was a temporary thaw in relations with the North under the administration of then President Moon Jae-in, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there is now renewed urgency against the backdrop of a rising nuclear threat from North Korea, which threatened a “thermonuclear war” following a trilateral summit between the US, South Korea and Japan at Camp David in the United States last week.

North Korea is accusing the leaders of the three countries of coming together to “detail, plan and formulate” nuclear war provocations.

On Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a test of strategic cruise missiles, in response to the US and South Korea’s annual Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) military drills that started that day and will continue till the end of the month.

The civil defence drill is traditionally held at the same time as the military exercises.

North Korea has also said it will launch a satellite-carrying space rocket between Thursday and Aug 31 in the direction of the Yellow Sea and East China Sea.

In the face of such threats, South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck Soo had urged the public to “actively participate” in the drill, and to familiarise themselves with evacuation tips in times of emergency, when he spoke at a preparatory meeting for the exercise earlier this month.

A 2022 Interior Ministry survey of 1,000 South Koreans found that while 58.2 per cent of respondents viewed the situation with North Korea as serious, 61.8 per cent felt an all-out war was unlikely.

More than half did not know the location of their nearest air-raid shelter.

And out of the five Korean people asked by ST on the morning of the drill, only one could pinpoint the exact location of the nearest shelter, while the rest only knew they could seek shelter at a subway station.

South Korea has some 17,000 designated shelters all over the country, mostly in subway stations and the underground car parks of apartment complexes and shopping malls.

Locations of the shelters can be found on the government’s National Disaster and Safety Portal website, Emergency Ready app, or via navigation apps Naver Map and Kakao Map.

Lotte Department Store in Myeongdong, which is located near Seoul City Hall, has the largest capacity in the city centre at more than 58,000.

Addressing the lunch-time crowd before the start of the drill, a public announcement urged customers “not to be alarmed and to please continue with daily activities”.

Seoul’s City Hall subway station – where two train lines intersect – was a hive of activity on Wednesday. There were exhibits of civil defence equipment and combat gear, a cardiopulmonary resuscitation workshop and a stand where members of the Seoul Metropolitan Government Women’s Association prepared and handed out war rations of barley rice balls and boiled potatoes.

Madam Im Jeongsuk, 61, who leads the association, told The Straits Times: “We would like to remind people of hardships during war, where the priority is on survival and not taste, and people had to eat grass and barley. By doing this, we hope to strengthen people’s minds.”

But it appeared that it would take more than just a taste of wartime rations to re-sensitise the public to the threat of war.

When the air raid siren sounded at 2pm sharp, pedestrians were seen still going about their way in the rain rather than ducking underground like they were supposed to.

An official holding a civil defence flag at the top of Seoul’s City Hall subway exit tried valiantly to stop people from climbing up the stairs to the ground level.

They simply walked around him.

Traffic was supposed to stop on the right side of the road as part of the drill, but merely slowed down instead.

At the subway station, Seoul Mayor Oh Se Hoon inspected the exhibits underground before he was accosted by a group of ajummas (Korean middle-aged women) who were there specifically to take a photo with him and not because of the drill.

Mayor Oh did not make any comments to the media and left when the drill ended 20 minutes later.

An office worker who took part in the drill and was evacuated to a designated shelter with a colleague said she did not feel such exercises were particularly effective.

“I don’t really think that North Korea poses a direct threat to our security. I feel that whatever they have done, it is more for warning than a direct attack. Even if we undergo civil defence training, will it be the same as a real wartime situation?”

Professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul Leif-Eric Easley felt that such mindsets need to change.

“The civil defence drills are an opportunity for national and local authorities to practise their logistics and communications for disaster preparedness. In addition to learning the location of nearby shelters, the public may gain awareness about the North Korean threat and the need for South Korea-US defence exercises.”

Referring to the recent cruise missile test, Prof Easley said: “North Korea’s naval cruise missile may appear technologically behind, but it is still a real threat. The latest test shows Pyongyang’s intention of attacking South Korea from many angles if it believes the Kim regime is at risk.”

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