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'Positive thinking' after years of threats keeps South Koreans going

Ahn Young-Joon / AP

Crowds of people shop at Myeongdong, a main shopping street in Seoul, amid a tense situation over North Korea's threat of war, on Sunday.

SEOUL, South Korea – As the war drums keep beating on the Korean Peninsula, one would expect to see anxiety on the streets of Seoul, where 10 million people live just 30 miles from 700,000 North Korean soldiers and well within range of thousands of heavily dug-in artillery pieces. 

Instead, people in South Korea's capital have been calmly going about their business. No boarding up of homes or work places. No distribution of emergency drugs or gas masks. Restaurants and hotels are full. The city is bustling.

Don’t these people know that hundreds – or even thousands – could die if the North launches a full-scale attack, as it has threatened to do?

“It’s postive thinking,” explained Kwak Keumjoo, a professor of psychology at the Seoul National University. “If you keep thinking about fear and threats, life wouldn’t be worth it. So people here have a defense mechanism. They tell themselves, ‘OK, it will be all right’, or ‘Somebody will help us,’ or ‘I don’t believe it’s really going to happen.’”

Keumjoo said it’s not as much a state of denial as a numbness, brought about by living under a constant threat, 60 years after the bloody Korean War ended, not with a peace treaty, but with an open-ended cease-fire.

Claiming they will soon be engaged in a war with South Korea, North Korean officials are advising foreigners to leave the region. Pyongyang is expected to carry out a show of force with a missile that will land in the ocean. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

To survive, Seoulites rarely talk about the North. They bury their worry in the deep recesses of their minds and put their faith in their own system.

“South Koreans have the view that justice and democracy will always win out,” said Keumjoo.

‘We’re not worried about the war’
Yoo-Lim, In-Young and Na-Young are all sophomores at Seoul’s Ewha University. During a recent lunch break, none of them was gazing at the horizon, looking for a mushroom cloud.

“We read the papers, listen to the radio, go online,” said Yoo-lim. “And we’re not worried about the war.”

Why is she so calm when the media has reached a fever pitch? “Repetitive learning,” she replied. “The north has done this over and over.”

But what about fire drills? Getting under desks? Bracing under bunkers?

“No, there’s nothing like that,” said Na-Young in between giggles. “We’re just used to North Korean threats from time to time.”

That’s not to say Seoul lives in a fantasy world.

Jim Maceda / NBC News

An entrance to one of Seoul's many underground malls that also functions as a temporary shelter.

Shopping mall bunkers
Beneath its downtown streets, a maze of malls and passageways interconnect into one of the world’s largest underground shelters, big enough, officials say, to protect 2 million citizens from any potentially withering pounding by North Korea’s heavy conventional weapons – but not a nuclear attack.

Ironically, the malls are converted underground bunkers left derelict after the Korean War. Today, many buildings here have basement parking lots that descend six or seven levels, and serve as temporary shelters as well.

On the 15th of most months, sirens announce the beginning of a 15-minute civil drill, where drivers are supposed to pull their vehicles over to the curb and head for the closest shelter, clearing the streets.

But, with no real alert taking place now for some 60 years, Seoulites have understandably become complacent. Drivers stay in their vehicles; pedestrians stop and keep chatting.

“If there was an attack I wouldn’t know where to go,” Julie Yoo, a freelance journalist, admitted.  

“The Korean men call their reserve units, government officials and bureaucrats have their specially designated shelters, but Korean women, like myself, have no option but to stay at home and watch TV for guidance.”

In fact, if there ever was a nuclear attack here, Seoul has only one bunker where you might survive that kind of attack – under the Presidential Palace.

Jim Maceda / NBC News

One of Seoul's many underground malls which also functions as a temporary shelter.

“But I’m not worried,” said Yoo. “It’ll never happen!”

‘We have to study!’
In towns along the border, news reports speak of some preparations, like pamphlets distributed to locals, advising them of what signs to look for – sudden thick clouds or large numbers of birds or fish mysteriously dying.

But only 30 miles away, In-Young has anything but war signals on her mind.

“No one is saying ‘Oh there’s gonna be a war, we’re all gonna die!,’” she blurted out. “No, all our friends care about are exams coming up in two weeks – we have to study!”

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Seoul, South Korea.

Related links:

Google + Hangout with Richard Engel on North Korea tensions

North Korea warns foreigners to leave South

Full North Korea coverage from NBC News

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