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CIVILIAN COMPLACENCY. People pass by a sign for a bomb shelter before a civil-defense drill in Seoul, South Korea. Once or twice a year, the streets of South Koreaís busy capital freeze for several minutes at the sound of a siren, with cars stopping on roads and pedestrians moving into buildings and subway stations, part of a nationwide drill aimed at preparing against a North Korean attack. But critics say the remarkable scenes mask aging policies that are failing to train South Koreans at a time when the threat posed by North Koreaís nuclear and missile program is growing. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

NO REAL PREPARATION. A woman passes by Dae Han Moon Gate during a civil-defense drill at City Hall in Seoul, South Korea. Kim Dae Young, a military expert at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the drills are failing to equip people with even basic information, such as how and where to evacuate and how to secure drinking water and other supplies during a crisis. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #17 (September 4, 2017), pages 2 & 7.

Civilian drills grow lax among South Koreans used to threats

By Kim Tong-Hyung

The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea ó Once or twice a year, activity on the streets of South Koreaís capital freezes as a wailing siren marks a nationwide drill aimed at preparing against a North Korean attack. Cars stop on roads. Pedestrians move into buildings and subway stations. Government buildings are evacuated.

The scenes during the latest air-raid drill are remarkable for turning parts of this usually bustling city into a ghost town. But a closer look raises questions about whether the exercises are adequately preparing South Koreans while the threat from North Koreaís nuclear and missile program grows.

For many, thereís no real training, just people standing around in schoolyards or other gathering spots, staring into their smartphones, chatting amiably, or just looking bored or frustrated.

Many schools donít participate in the air-raid drills and those that do often escort children outside. Leaving their buildings would be a good idea during earthquakes, but a terrible decision during attacks.

The country has nearly 19,000 evacuation shelters, mostly built in subway stations and the parking garages of apartments and large buildings. Yet a 2014 government survey found that an overwhelming number of South Koreans did not know which shelters were closest to their homes.

"No, I donít know. I donít think anybody knows," 31-year-old Park Ji-na said shortly after the recent drill.

The 2014 survey, by the National Disaster Management Research Institute, also found that only 10 percent of the 145 adults polled had CPR experience, and just seven percent owned gas masks.

Most South Koreans have lived their entire lives facing threats from North Korea, and few show great worry.

"Realistically, the people who live in this country arenít thinking much about" the threats, Park said. "They are on the news all the time, but itís not like they are real threats affecting our lives."

National and local governments and even companies organize the exercises. South Korea launched its current civil-defense program in 1975, when the country was still run by a military dictator. Through the 1980s, nationwide evacuation drills were held on the 15th of nearly every month.

In decades past, civil servants wearing yellow armbands whistled people off the streets and teachers ordered school children to crouch under their desks for exercises that lasted 30 minutes. There were even nighttime drills where people were instructed to turn off the lights and televisions in their homes to deter an imaginary attack by North Korean bombers.

The drills became less frequent and more casual after the 1990s amid rising public complaints and a temporary improvement in relations between the rival Koreas. Today, though North Koreaís nuclear weapons development and fierce rhetoric have drawn deep international concern, South Koreans are both inured to the threats and distracted by life in a country that is now one of Asiaís busiest and most vibrant.

Kim Dae Young, a military expert at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the drills are failing to equip people with even basic information, such as how and where to evacuate and how to secure drinking water and other supplies during times of crisis.

Noh Sang-yeol also was among those who did not know the shelter closest to his home. The 65-year-old said thereís a need to strengthen training programs because the current drills are doing "nothing at all" to prepare people.

"I read from the newspapers that people in Japan, Guam, or Taiwan are preparing well and even stacking up on food in case of emergency, and that made me think whether I should begin buying water or battery supplies," he said.

An official from Seoulís Ministry of Interior and Safety said that although South Korea is considering whether its civil-defense programs should be strengthened, it would be impossible to bring quick changes.

"These drills are intended for the entire nation and changes canít be made overnight by one or two people sitting on a desk," said the official, who didnít want to be named, citing office rules. "There should be close and comprehensive studies on peopleís willingness to participate and their awareness of national security issues before we could specifically determine what kind of training would be possible."

The air-raid drill followed North Koreaís two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July and its threat to lob missiles toward Guam in August. The government had planned to send military planes over major cities emitting colored smoke to simulate an attack, but the flights were cancelled in Seoul and many other areas due to heavy rain and low clouds, according to the interior ministry.

Government workers during the drill distributed leaflets instructing people what to do during an attack, which included recommendations to prepare gas masks, raincoats, and soap in case of nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks. It also reminded people to evacuate to the higher floors of buildings, instead of subway stations or parking garages, in case of chemical attacks.

The civil-defense drill coincided with a large-scale joint military exercise between Washington and Seoul that ran through August 31. The annual exercise has predictably drawn a verbal outburst from Pyongyang, which claims the war games are an invasion rehearsal.

The lax civilian drills bother experts, who say stronger training is crucial, especially for the 25 million living in Seoul and its neighboring metropolitan areas. They would only have minutes to respond to incoming North Korean missiles or artillery shells.

The practices of the 1970s and í80s wonít return, but experts say the drills should at least focus on giving people practical skills in rescue and evacuation.

Even the Southís emergency infrastructure is lacking, said Kim, the military expert. Aside from a few facilities in small border islands that have occasionally seen military skirmishes between the Koreas, South Koreaís civilian shelters are not equipped to handle attacks involving nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, Kim said.

"The government should start building bunkers that could withstand nuclear attacks in Seoul and the neighboring metropolitan area," Kim said. "Civil defense needs to become a more important part of the national defense strategy as North Korean threats grow."

The ministry official, however, said upgrading thousands of shelters to protect against such attacks would be financially implausible.

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