Sean O'Grady: The diplomatic temperature rises, but the people stay cool

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The Independent Online

As you drive along one of the 12-lane freeways out of Seoul, a capital city uncomfortably close to the border with the North and a million-man army led by a lunatic who has pledged to destroy it, there is little sign of war-fever. The roads aren't full of tanks or American jeeps, but of the rush-hour traffic of a busy, driven people where 12-hour days in the office and 10-hour shifts in the factory are commonplace.

This is situation normal. Talk to South Koreans about the crisis and they seem surprisingly serene. Mention Kim Jong-il and the murder of 46 South Korean sailors, and you do not sense the bristling that arises when, say, you drop Taiwan into conversation with the Chinese. One businessman I met wasn't even aware Hillary Clinton was in town. Another offered the view that the crisis was a buying opportunity as it had depressed the Seoul stock market. After a while Mrs Clinton's messages of support didn't even lead the television news bulletins.

In fact, the next confrontation with the North the South expects to see is a World Cup football clash in South Africa. The recent 2-0 defeat of the Japanese national team has boosted their optimism.

Meanwhile, local elections on 2 June are being fought and while some opposition leaders have tried to blame the conservative government for the sinking of the vessel, few voters seem willing to look to anywhere but Pyongyang.

The truth is that South Koreans are used to the antics of Kim. They have become accustomed to the alternating currents of cold war and appeasement of the past two decades. And while Koreans retain a huge sense of patriotism, they look at what happened when West and East Germany united, and they do not want to rush to derail the economy. More than anything, they are proud of the fact that they will soon host a G20 Summit. Sixty years ago this was a broken nation where people had to eat bark to survive.

They know that there is little they or even the Americans can do about Kim. It is up to China, and she shows few signs of helping. Hence the fatalism.