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Calm In Seoul As The North Korea Question Grows More Urgent

A shelter sign is displayed at the entrance to a subway station in Seoul on Wednesday, a day after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. Subway stations are designated as shelters in case of aerial bombardment, part of the city's response to the threat posed by North Korea. But many Seoul residents take the threat in stride.

North Korea's test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week has led to global furor and in some cases, fear. But not in North Korea's neighbor to the south.

On the bustling sidewalks near Seoul's Yonsei University, packs of students stream in and out of skincare stores, dessert cafes and coffee shops. College senior Esther Bang has caught up on the headlines and knows that North Korea's recent launch was considered successful. But beyond that, she seems unconcerned.

"I think it's just, like, a whatever attitude that we are having," Bang says.

Even a North Korean milestone — launching a missile that could threaten the South's long time ally, the United States — isn't enough to rattle people here or shake up any routines.

"It's so common for us to hear this news, and this type of conflict has been going on for like 40, 50 years," she says.

South Korea has lived under the threat of attack by its hostile northern neighbor for decades. It has a desensitizing effect.

"So this is not an unusual situation for most South Koreans to deal with," says North Korea researcher Bong Yong Shik of the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank. He says the relative calm may actually be helpful during a time of heightened geopolitical tension.

"The calmness pervasive among South Koreans can be a good asset for the leadership," Bong says. "But that does not mean South Koreans do not care about what kind of North Korean policy South Koreans should make. They do care about national security policy."

South Koreans elected a new president, Moon Jae-in, in May. With Moon at the helm, Bong says there are growing calls for diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang — especially since other options — like a military strike — could be catastrophic.

"There's growing support in favor of giving diplomacy a chance in South Korea, of course in China and even in the United States," Bong says.

While the United States has not been willing to meet with North Korea unless Pyongyang agrees to put de-nuclearization on the table, Moon has a less ambitious short-term goal. He has said he's willing to talk to North Korea — even if it's just to get to a freeze — a pause — of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

"Maybe a pause as a short-term solution is possible," says former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry, who recently met with North Koreans in back-channel conversations. She says for talks to get somewhere, the U.S. and its allies would have to be prepared to give something up.

"A pause could be possibly on [the table]," she says, "but that would mean for us to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, and that's very important for the North Koreans."

This type of question — de-nuclearization versus a pause or freeze — is something workaday Koreans like Lim Sang-woo say they are happy to leave to the policy-makers.

"My friends, we never debate about that, because for us, that topic is not that popular," Lim says.

It's not that he's unaware of the consequences of something going wrong on the Korean peninsula. "If they try to attack Seoul by missiles, maybe Seoul will be devastated. But not only Seoul," he says.

Being under an existential threat for so long means you learn to live with it.

"If you come here, it's not that dangerous a place, I think," says Lim.

In this busy city, all the talk of a North Korean threat is just part of the daily noise.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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