Wednesday, March 19, 2008


South Korea is, of course, technically still at war with its northern neighbour, which at the very least, makes being exiled here by my Government on the grounds that I am free to enjoy my family life in Korea without this breaching breach of my human rights a somewhat interesting theoretical position. But aside from the vague and currently unlikely threat of a sudden nuclear attack from the North, the reality is that, at least as far as my own experience has been concerned, living in this country has probably been lot safer than living in the UK, given that large areas of my home city have the atmosphere of 1980s Beirut (car-jackings being a regular feature of the local news).

Still, actually having a definable external aggressor, and a nuclear-backed one at that, does add a certain tangible paranoia and, I suppose, requires the Government to take certain steps to ensure that if the end comes, we all die in the correct way. So there are civil defence drills eight times a year (every month except January, February, July and December), which involve sounding the air raid sirens, and scaring newly-arrived foreigners who don't know what's going on. Aside from the excitement of my first drill, I've missed most of the subsequent ones through being out of the area when they've happened, and it's taken me this long to realise that when there's a drill, flags with the '민방위' - 'Civil Defense' - logo (green, blue and yellow triangles which may be supposed to resemble mountains, psychedelic wigwams or party-hats, I'm not quite sure) are flown on the street. This means that on seeing these in future I no longer have to nervously wonder whether I should be sprinting in the direction of the nearest designated shelter, which is usually a subway which features the party-hats logo outside it, on the dubious grounds that it's better to be buried alive than blown apart.

My apartment block is besides one of the main roads through Busan, so when we had a drill on Friday I was able to watch as the drama unfolded - this is not merely a test of the air raid sirens. The first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that during the drill traffic is supposed to pull over to the side of the road, and generally does so, leaving them eerily quiet. In fact, since moving to our new place, I think it's the first time I've ever seen the road outside with no cars travelling along it, day or night. A man and woman wearing armbands - presumably Government workers, stood in the middle of the road, their purpose initially unclear. But when a taxi sped down the road it incurred the wrath of one of their whistles, though it seemed little else as the driver disappeared into the distance. Conversely, a couple of other cars were directed to pull over and did so. While ambulances lurked at the junctions, motorcyclists emerging from side-streets were warned off and proceeded to ride down the pavements/sidewalks, as is unfortunately perfectly normal in Korea even when faux nuclear attacks aren't immediately scheduled. Meanwhile, some pedestrians stood fixed to their spots, as I gather is technically the proper behaviour in such circumstances, while other people calmly walked along seemingly oblivious to the entire affair. All in all, it makes for something of a surreal sight.

Eventually the sirens were turned off and police cars, ambulances and fire trucks trundled up and down the streets. Occasionally an Civil Defense SUV rushed past, but otherwise, it was ten minutes of waiting around with nothing happening for all concerned. The city around us was deathly quiet, save for the occasional background noise and somewhat disturbingly, under the circumstances, the sound of children playing somewhere near us. Finally, whistles were blown up and down the road by the Government workers, the all clear sounded, and with seconds the streets were full of traffic, as though nothing had happened.

What this probably means is that when the real attack actually comes, people will sigh, stop where they are, and neglect to rush down the subway to the false safety of the underground shelters. But on the off-chance that Busan will not become a twenty-mile wide three-meter thick layer of melted steel and concrete, at least the roads will be clear for the fire trucks to move around extinguishing the post-blast fire-storm from their water tanks. I can also tell you the war will probably be Googled - for the first couple of minutes at least - because every time the sirens go off my blog gets hit with searches such as 'sirens busan', presumably from somewhat nervous non-Koreans.

Maybe in a country still technically at war, it's necessary to do these drills, and maybe it has as much to do about internal politics as disaster readiness - fear rather than rationale is much favoured by politicians of all persuasions, and not just in Korea. But as this country agonises about its need to attract more overseas visitors, I can only suggest that sounding what many foreigners interpret as nuclear attack warning sirens every few weeks perhaps doesn't necessarily do much for the tourist trade.


Anonymous said...

I got stuck on a bus during a drill, which meant I got to share the excitement with my Korean comrades.

Living one hour from the DMZ (maybe less, I'm not sure) I enjoyed riding the bus to school one day and wondering why they had soldiers at every intersection with flags. But when I saw the convoy of armored vehicles rolling along then I remembered where I was. :)

Congratulations on your victory. I hope you'll come back to visit and enjoy Korea under less stressful conditions.

Mike said...

Hello Mark and thanks for the congratulations. Is Korea ever less stressful? :-) I'm sure this country is going to feature fairly heavily on my travel schedule in future even if I'm living elsewhere.

It certainly seems like the defence drills are a bit more relaxed down here in Busan compared to where you are.

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