How South Koreans are learning to stop worrying and get used to the bomb

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The Independent Online

Fireworks lit the night sky in Busan, South Korea's secondlargest city, and an orchestra belted out a rousing anthem to launch this year's international film festival. Schoolgirls screamed and cameras flashed as the country's leading actors walked the red carpet, and traffic built up on the waterfront as usual. People still filled the restaurants, eating the national delicacy kanji and the shops were busy as they normally are on a Thursday night.

Not exactly a picture of a country quaking with fear at the prospect of nuclear annihilation after the news that North Korea had tested a nuclear weapon. But South Koreans are resilient.

For the people of Busan and the capital Seoul, the nuclear test is merely the latest in a series of stunts by North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, designed to prop up his regime, one that most Koreans consider bankrupt. This is not a real threat for them.

Lee Chong Kuen, 55, who has a trading business, reckoned the test was just the latest ploy by Kim Jong-il to keep his military afloat. "North Korea's military needs to stay powerful so Kim can feel the country can compete with the US," he said. "He needs to keep the population poor and this is a great way to do it.

"Of course Kim does not want people to live well; he wants to stay powerful. Kim should be condemned but I do feel genuinely sorry for the North Korean people because they are under a communist regime; they have no other choice."

Although the international focus has been on the six-nation talks involving both Koreas, the US, Japan, China and Russia, Seoul has also been trying to work out a lasting peace treaty with Pyongyang to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean war. Technically, the two have been at war since.

The South Koreans have had to deal with a lot of sabre-rattling from across the border, which helps explain why most people shrug when asked about the test, and say they have seen it all before.

There were the long-range tests in 1998 when a missile flew across the Sea of Japan, signalling that Pyongyang had intentions of nuclear might. Then there were the announcements that the North Koreans were building nuclear capability, that North Korea had left the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, the news they had the bomb, more missile tests and finally this week's boast that they had tested a nuclear device.

Kim Jong Il is said to crave international attention and has been irked by the focus on Iran's nuclear programmes and the way the world is fixated on Iraq, fellow members of the triumvirate that President George Bush calls the "axis of evil".

Park Ji Yong, 23, a student of international politics at the elite women's college Ewha University in Seoul, said: "It's been a while since North Korea has been in the limelight. I don't think it's a big threat because they always use something like an attack to win international attention."

On the waterfront in Busan, one woman said: "This has been going on a long time. He's always throwing around this nuclear issue, and hates losing limelight because of Iraq. Everyone thinks he's insane, but clever too. I don't really see it as a big threat.

"Korea is now the ninth nuclear power so we feel we should also have nuclear weapons. Japan wants them too, so there's going to be a domino effect."

Many South Koreans seem more worried about the cost of reunification. Hong Min Yong, a student in Seoul, said: "They're not like us. I'm worried reunification will bring down South Korea. Some students from the North came to my college on an exchange programme and I didn't feel a connection to them; they felt like foreigners. I can't forgive the North for the nuclear tests, but the Americans should have treated them better."

Others feel North Korea needs support so when reunification happens, the economic and social costs will not be so high. The South Koreans have a lot to protect. Their liberal democracy is the world's 10th-largest economy and the streets are filled with sleek KIA sports utility vehicles and top-of-the-range Hyundais. Half of the country's 48 million people live in or around Seoul, said to be the world's second-largest metropolitan area.

In North Korea, people are said to be so malnourished that they sometimes resort to boiling grass to stay alive. For a long time, until its workers were expelled from the country, the United Nations' World Food Programme fed 6.5 million of North Korea's 23 million people. Aid experts said Pyongyang did not like the warming of bilateral relations between South and North.

Ms Park added: "We are all of the same blood. I am in support of aid of all sorts because reunification is inevitable and it's better to have a stronger North Korea to unite with than a weak one. Reunification right now is not the best solution and the US can't wage a war, because if North Korea is shattered, America will have to pick up the pieces."

But there is a belief in South Korea that Korea's problems need to be solved by Koreans. Hong Seok Jun, 23, a business studies student, said: "There are two schools of thought. One is that the South Koreans should help North Korea but the other group thinks international help is better. I think [South Korean President] Roh Moo Hyun is doing a bad job because he is trying to bring down the South Korean economy by focusing on solving the problem ourselves without international help."