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Asia

How South Koreans view Pyongyang's belligerence

As tensions between the two Koreas mount, people in South Korea are growing concerned about the fiery rhetoric emanating from the North and the severity of the threat posed by its regime. Julian Ryall reports.

North Korea has a track record of threats against its enemies - primarily South Korea and the United States - but the dire warnings that have emerged from Pyongyang since the United Nations approved a new raft of sanctions against the regime have been more vitriolic than usual.

The Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army on Monday, March 7, announced that it was ready to carry out a "pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice" that would involve "indiscriminate" nuclear attacks on targets in South Korea, the mainland of the US and other US military facilities in the Asia-Pacific region.

The regime of Kim Jong Un has clearly been emboldened by a successful underground nuclear test in January, followed by the launch of a rocket to put a satellite into orbit in February. Analysts view the launch as a disguised test of a long-range ballistic missile.

Show of force

As well as raising the ire of the international community, with the UN Security Council voting unanimously for even more stringent sanctions, Pyongyang's belligerence has led to an increased show of force, with over 300,000 South Korean troops taking part in the largest joint military maneuvers with the US in the allies' history.

The military drills, which began on March 7, and the deployment of nuclear submarines, an aircraft carrier fleet, fighters and refueling aircraft, as well as specialist units trained for beach invasions, have not gone unremarked in the North, which insists the exercises are a prelude to an invasion.

Südkorea: Einkaufsstraße in Seoul

Seoul is less than 60 kilometers from the border with the North and within range of Pyongyang's artillery

Analysts, however, are playing down the increasingly dire threats emerging from Pyongyang.

"A lot of this - if not virtually all of this - is for a domestic audience," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "North Korea has just started a 70-day period in which all parts of society are expected to demonstrate their loyalty to Kim, part of the run-up to the congress of the Workers' Party of Korea," Pinkston told DW.

Demonstration of loyalty

"The military are equally expected to show their loyalty, which is one reason why we are seeing these threats now," he added.

"Also, all this propaganda feeds into the rhetoric aimed at the domestic audience, who are being told that they will have to make even more sacrifices because of the unfair sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations," Pinkston said.

Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University, agrees that "talk is cheap" and that the rest of the world has, to a degree, become "dismissive of Pyongyang's bluster."

"Maybe they think that by being hyper-aggressive they can make South Korea and the US reconsider the hard lines that they have adopted, but I think that is very unlikely to happen," he said.

And while the belief is that it is very unlikely that North Korea will make good on its threat of a nuclear first strike against its enemies - a move that Pinkston said would be "suicide" - there is concern that Pyongyang may wish to make a statement of intent that falls just short of an attack that would draw a devastating reaction from the South and the US.

Such smaller scale assaults could take the form of cyber attacks, artillery bombardments across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), provocations along the sea border off the west coast of the peninsula or even North Korea withdrawing from the United Nations.

Assaults under way

And such attacks appear to have already started. On March 7, the South's National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that North Korean hackers had been able to access the smart phones of a number of senior government officials, while other attacks had been detected against infrastructure targets in the South, including the national railway company.

The NIS called an emergency meeting of ministry officials on Tuesday to warn them of the dangers they face and to draw up new measures to keep the hackers at bay.

Among the public, the prevailing sense is one of uncertainty, believes Rebecca Park, a resident of Seoul. The South's capital city is less than 60 kilometers from the border with the North and well within range of Pyongyang's long-range artillery.

"One perception that people would mostly agree on is that the threat is real," she said. "Where it differs is the specific interpretation of the nature of the threat and thus the opinion one should have in response to the threat.

Generational gap

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Harsh new sanctions against North Korea

"This difference seems most stark between the generations," she added. "The younger generation - those in their 20s and 30s - generally see the threat as fleeting and without substantial consequences.

"But to the older generation, the provocation is felt more as a real threat, as this is the generation that experienced the Korean War, or at least the more serious and direct provocations in the past," she said.

Media coverage obviously colors people's perceptions of the scale of the threat, she said, although most media outlets have been "hesitant to declare outright that this is a real threat," Park noted.

"I wish I could give you a more clear-cut answer, but unfortunately the situation makes that impossible," she said. "I would say that the most unequivocal response towards North Korea is that people are uncertain. Uncertain, that is as to how to even feel about the threats."

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