Political and military leaders on all sides have assured the public that they are prepared for a potential war with North Korea, but how prepared is the public?
For decades, the likelihood of war seemed remote, but that was before North Korea developed nuclear weapons, and power in Pyongyang and Washington shifted to relative rookies at the art of international diplomacy, both of whom have issued provocative statements and threats against each other in recent weeks.
South Korea, North Korea, and Japan all carry out civil defense exercises in case of attack, but do so in drastically different ways. North Koreans drill for an attack daily, directed by loudspeakers that choreograph daily life. South Koreans conduct a national civil defense drill once a year, and military-aged males take annual training.
Japanese citizens, accustomed to finding shelter or mobilizing in case of earthquake, are wired into a nationwide text message alert program that also warns of potential North Korean attack. On Tuesday morning, local time, when North Korea fired a missile over the island for the first time in two decades, Japan’s high-tech gadgets chirped, giving Japanese citizens time the crucial few minutes necessary to prepare for a potential attack.
South Korea doesn’t have that system. And North Koreans don’t have smartphones.
South Korea may be the weakest link of all three because of an underestimation of the North Korean threat, the distractions of modern life and the unpopularity of politics that demands the country prepare for war. To improve their preparedness, South Korea should increase and expand drilling for an attack and how to evacuate Seoul, experts on the country said, but doing so faces political and cultural hurdles.
South Koreans in the 20th century were far better prepared for a North Korean strike than they are in the 21st century, with most of the country having grown up after the Korean war’s end. But detente between Seoul and Pyongyang in the 1990s also dropped civil defense from the list of highest national priorities.
During the Cold War, “people knew what to do, how to evacuate a building,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of International Affairs, who grew up in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, Lee said South Korea had become “very affluent and completely in denial” and prone to think of the North as a backwards beggar state or a child screaming for attention.
In the South, “there are thousands of very sturdy subway stations that will serve as bomb shelters, however there is no guideline, no education, no sense of awareness of what to do if there is an attack, a bombing, in the huge metropolis that is Seoul. All hell would let loose. People would panic and fend for themselves. And there certainly is no equipment in terms of protection against chemical weapons. There’s none of that available,” he added.
There is a mandatory civil defense training for men under the age of 40, teaching citizens how to assist emergency services, “but basically nobody takes that seriously.”
Globally, Lee put South Korea low on the ranking of civil defense preparedness.
“On a scale of ten, I would say North Korea is 10, maybe Israel is nine and Japan is seven or eight. And South Korea is probably a one or two, really not prepared at all.”
Extending training to everyone, men and women, and all ages would be a good step, Lee said, but that requires political will on the part of the South Korean government.
“But it just isn’t popular. When the government talks up the risk of war and contingency plans, people don’t like it,” he said.
After all, a government that must answer to voters would be loathe to remind them that all there’s a real risk their lives could be upturned at a moment’s notice. Dennis Wilder, a Georgetown professor and a former CIA officer focused on East Asia, said that improving of relations after the Cold War meant preparedness fell by the wayside.
“When the relationship improved, it didn’t fit with politics. If you’re talking about negotiating and you’ve got the Sunshine Policy and these kinds of things, how to do you convince people that they need to do drills every month, if the relationship is improving? When it began improving in the late 1990s, the drills became much less important and sort of for show,” Wilder said.
“There are concerns about investment and trade. You don’t want to give the world the impression that South Korea is an unsafe place to visit for tourism or trade purposes so you’re not eager to go back to a war footing,” Wilder added.
North Korea’s regime doesn’t have to worry about a ballot box, or attracting foreign direct investment in the traditional sense. Also, South Korea doesn’t have the same historical experience with aerial bombardment as its neighbors do.
“Japan was bombed with atomic weapons in 1945, so that psychological trauma is still present,” Lee said. “During the Korean War of 1950 to ‘53, North Korea was bombed really severely. We’re talking about World War II style indiscriminate bombing killing civilians, destroying as much property and buildings as possible, by the U.S. air force. And this is a serious bone of contention for North Koreans still. Due to that traumatic experience and hundreds of thousands of North Korean citizens were killed during that war, North Korea has built — we don’t know how many — tens of thousands of underground facilities, military facilities and evacuation centers. North Korea’s subway system in Pyongyang the capital city is reportedly 150 meters (300 feet) underground.”
North Koreans, despite a lack of resources, know their muster points by heart and hear little else about the world besides war being imminent. Nevertheless, poorly constructed shelters might end up being their tombs in case of all out war with their neighbors and the U.S.
But how much of that system is useful, and not just painted over, Soviet-era rust, remains unclear.
Gregg Scarlatoui, the executive director of the The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, an advocacy group, said that civil defense in North Korea might not end up saving many lives, at least outside of Pyongyang, but simply serves to indoctrinate the public into a state of fear and obedience to the regime.
“Civil defense preparedness in North Korea is very much part of the regime trying to create a guerilla mentality. People are told at all times that they are under siege, that the American imperialists have them under siege, that they’re poised to attack at any time and on the brink of war. They’ve been told these stories for decades, and rather than preparedness, the point of that is indoctrination,” Scarltoui said.
On the surface, the North Koreans seem more organized, but that organization is mostly for show.
“Every North Korean household has a checklist they must maintain, an emergency kit at home, so basically, some basic stuff, bandages, each and every family must acquire the items needed for the emergency kit. Everyone must be part of a neighborhood watch unit, everybody watches everybody else, the head of the neighborhood watch unit, the inminban, comes to every home checks these kits to make sure they’re not expired. But this is less about preparedness and more about creating this siege mentality,” he said.
“There is an underground shelter at every single facility in North Korea,” Scarlatoui added. “I was talking to a North Korean who were telling me that the shelters at schools are a joke. They’re obviously not deep enough. Sometimes they’re covered with wooden blocks or branches, so they’re saying if a bomb dropped not on the shelter, but in the immediate vicinity, they’d all be dead.”
Wilson Dizard is a national security editor at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @willdizard.