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S. Korea on Edge Over Threats

Military Buildup by North Shadows South’s Longtime Calm

South Korean vehicles return from the North Korean city of Kaesong at the customs, immigration and quarantine office in Paju, South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom, Thursday, April 4, 2013. North Korea on Wednesday barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run factory park just over the heavily armed border in the North, officials in Seoul said, a day after Pyongyang announced it would restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons material. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean vehicles return from the North Korean city of Kaesong at the customs, immigration and quarantine office in Paju, South Korea, near the border village of Panmunjom, Thursday, April 4, 2013. North Korea on Wednesday barred South Korean workers from entering a jointly run factory park just over the heavily armed border in the North, officials in Seoul said, a day after Pyongyang announced it would restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons material. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Seoul — Life in this bustling South Korean capital has long been defined for the most part by traffic jams and luxury shopping malls, long days of work and longer nights of sipping rice liquor. Residents rarely appeared to imagine that their routines could be upended in minutes by the unpredictable young leader to the north and his 10,000 artillery pieces.

But after years of largely ignoring threats from North Korea, some residents say they are becoming a bit jittery, with Pyongyang’s fury reaching levels not seen in at least two decades.

Coffee shops are still packed, and pop music pulses from storefronts, but South Koreans’ concerns are palpable in quieter moments. Their phones buzz with news updates on the North’s latest moves — its declaration of war; its announced restart of key nuclear facilities; its barricade of a joint industrial complex near the border. Children ask their parents what would happen if fighting broke out and where they would go for safety.

Yesterday, the fear spread to South Korea’s stock market, which sustained its biggest daily fall of the year. The South’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said the North had moved an intermediate-range missile to its eastern coast, perhaps for testing or drills.

“There could be war, or there could be peace,” said Joo Yang-yi, 26, a graduate student who studies North Korea.

Rather than play down the possibility of an attack, South Korean officials in recent days have emphasized their ability to strike back promptly. They have also welcomed recent U.S. shows of force in the region, including a brief deployment to the peninsula of nuclear-capable stealth bombers.

South Koreans differ in their views of their increasingly belligerent northern neighbor. Some speak with confidence, saying the North’s near-daily threats are part of a coherent plan to force negotiations, not spark war. But others fear that the North’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, might push things too far, perhaps because he thinks he needs a major conflict to coalesce domestic support.

That divergence is reflected in public opinion polls. Over the past two months, the percentage of South Koreans who say the North is their top concern has more than tripled. Still, that represents just 26 percent of respondents; more South Koreans care about job creation than about Pyongyang. After two fatal attacks by the North in 2010, South Koreans were at least as angry with their own government as they were with Pyongyang. When the North killed two soldiers and two civilians by shelling a front-line island, the South responded by lobbing 80 shells toward the North. Then-President Lee Myung-bak was criticized for not taking more serious action, leading to his pledge — reiterated by the current president, Park Geun-hye — to counter with greater force if provoked again.

One lingering concern, voiced by a minority of South Koreans, is whether the United States can act as a sufficient deterrent to the North at a time of defense budget cuts in Washington and major crises in the Middle East. The United States has tried to assuage those worries, and deter the North, by flying stealth bombers over the peninsula and speeding up the deployment of a missile defense system to Guam.