All Calm in Seoul, But Some Foreigners Really Did Pack Their Bags

A tiny minority of expats in South Korea took Pyongyang's words seriously
April 10th, 2013
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SEOUL – Foreigners in South Korea were left both concerned and confused by a semi-official statement from North Korea yesterday that warned non-Koreans based in the South that they should prepare to evacuate the country in the event of an inter-Korean war.

The release of the statement, attributed to a relatively unknown North Korean organization but carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), was seen as the latest in a long series of increasingly aggressive threats from Pyongyang, following the imposing of UN sanctions in February, and the beginning of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises last month.

“In the event of a war, we do not wish to see foreigners in South Korea come under any harm,” the statement, said, warning that foreign residents, tourists and workers in Seoul should consider preparing evacuation plans.

The statement followed a similar warning issued last week that said North Korea would be “unable to guarantee the safety” of foreign diplomats in Pyongyang, none of whom took the the statement’s advice to leave seriously.

But although Pyongyang has made similar threats in the past, the current media noise is causing some expats to take the rhetoric seriously.

“This is the first time I’ve been to South Korea, so naturally I’m a bit worried,” said Xiao Ma, an overseas Chinese student at university in Seoul. “All the other foreign students around me are worried, but Koreans seem used to it, it’s been like this for them since the 1950s.”

In rare cases, foreigners have “evacuated” Seoul, despite repeated attempts by analysts to play down Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric. “One of my friends left for the airport this morning,” Zoe Chau, a hotel receptionist from Hong Kong told NK NEWS. “She felt Seoul was too close to the action so bought a ticket to Jeju Island, she’s there now.”

Taiwanese residents in Seoul blamed media in Taipei for causing panic at home. “The Taiwanese media is going crazy over this, and so are our parents,” Wei Hsu, an overseas student in Seoul said. “They’re over-exaggerating things, it’s making my friends and family worry about me and making me want to come home.”

A tiny handful of Westerners living in South Korea have also reportedly left the country, pressured by worried parents at home. One young English teacher in Jeolla-do surprised South Koreans by suddenly leaving for the airport yesterday, the Segye Ilbo reported. “I’m sorry I had to leave my students behind,” a note left by the teacher said. “My family members kept asking me to come back, they were desperate.”

Dongdaemun Market, a popular shopping spot for mainland Chinese and Taiwanese tourists was notably quieter on Monday morning, a source familiar with the market told NK NEWS. Trade had been normal this time last week, the source said, but visitor numbers notably dropped over the weekend.

In one case, the manager of a Chinese trading company failed to return to Seoul on a pre-scheduled trip because of the increasingly aggressive rhetoric. “He was scared,” the source said, “And now he’s worried he’s not going to be able to continue importing South Korean goods.”

The current global media attention surrounding events on the Korean peninsula have left some long-time Korea observers scratching their heads: “We have a group in the county at the moment led by Dan, one of our guides, and he phoned in today on his mobile saying everything is as normal as it ever is,” Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours wrote on the tour group’s Facebook page this evening. Pyongyang first threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” in the 1990s, a threat which has decidedly lost its impact over the years.

In the South, the only reminder of a conflict that is widely-reported to be imminent is the soft rumbling of military helicopters buzzing over the capital; a sight that, in Seoul, is reassuringly normal. Foreign journalists swarming to would-be conflict hotspots like Yeonpyeong Island are struggling to find panicked-looking Koreans to interview for their editors at home.

“The Western media were playing the worst possible role, i.e. both exaggerating the tension level and at the same time taking every opportunity to turn it all into an unserious story,” Brian Myers, author of The Cleanest Race, told NK NEWS via email.

But although the thought of actually following North Korea’s advice to evacuate is more a source of amusement than panic for the majority of foreigners in Seoul, some find it hard to escape word-of-mouth panic.

“All it takes is for one person on Weibo to say they’re scared, and other people could start to worry,” Guo Wei, an overseas student from Shandong told NK NEWS. “The Chinese media still has a tendency to exaggerate things though, China’s so concerned with its own economic development; they want to show that China’s stable, and the rest of the world is chaotic,” Guo said, echoing similar statements from other Chinese residents in South Korea.

However, where some aspects of the Chinese media may be prone to exaggerating the severity of the current threats, its tendency to parrot official statements can also lead to a less selective picture emerging.

“When they said foreigners should leave South Korea, it was just a recommendation – I don’t see why that should be a problem. I don’t believe this’ll get as bad as the media is saying. Even my parents don’t believe it, they’re not worried about me,” said Wang Kai, a journalism student from Weihai.

“The Chinese media isn’t exaggerating anything. They’re showing images of daily life carrying on as normal,” said Wang, using her smartphone to bring up a Chinese press photo showing a Sino-North Korean border crossing laden with trucks ferrying goods.

“When a headline comes out saying ‘North Korea Might Launch a Missile’, it naturally worries people,” Guo Wei told NK NEWS.

“One of my friends called the Chinese embassy in Seoul to ask if she should leave. They just told her; ‘don’t worry, study hard!’”

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About the Author

James Pearson

James Pearson (@pearswick) was the NK News Seoul Correspondent.

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