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THE BIG READ: The asylum next door

Malcom Moore | 2013-04-16 00:47:57.0
Anti-North Korean protesters in central Seoul yesterday. North Korea celebrated the 101st anniversary of its founder's birth with flowers yesterday but there was no sign of tension easing between North and South

A marble plaque less than 90m from the Blue House, South Korea's presidential palace, marks how close 31 North Korean commandos got to assassinating the leader of their sworn enemy.

Blending into the crowds, the commandos managed to avoid detection for two days and walk almost to the front gate. The raid, in 1968, is one of many reminders of the difficulties South Korea faces in containing the North.

Living only 27km away from such an unpredictable and belligerent neighbour might induce paranoia. But the mood in Seoul remains serene.

"This has gone on for several decades and is a repeated pattern," said Young-hoon Kim, a professor of psychology at Yonsei university. "People would be stockpiling necessities if they felt any threat, but we are not seeing that."

But the relative calm in Seoul is also a product of Korea's complicated psychology.

"The Korean War was a truly terrible disaster," said Jinseng Park, a South Korean psychiatrist. "A lot of people deny this might happen again because many people would die and the effect would be felt around the world."

Watching or reading the blustering North Korean news bulletins is illegal. Discussion of North Korea remains taboo and most people have little knowledge of its history.

Under the "Sunshine policy", a decade of rapprochement which lasted until 2008, South Koreans were taught in schools that the North is not an enemy.

"We were told the North were Koreans like us and all their aggression was aimed at the Americans," said one 39-year-old South Korean professional.

"For my national service, we were taken to a bunker to learn about national defence. But what they taught us was calligraphy and yoga."

The generation raised during the Sunshine policy has much sympathy for the North and some even believe South Korea should kick out the 28000 American soldiers who guard the peninsula.

"A lot of South Koreans support the North Korean nuclear tests, in the belief that those nukes will one day be ours," he said.

A survey of army cadets five years ago found that more of them considered the US as the "main enemy" than North Korea. Even the country's most famous son, the pop star Psy, once sang: "Kill those f *** Yankees . slowly and painfully."

Nonetheless South Korea is troubled by the crisis, says Dr Park. "People feel in a hurry, they cannot even wait for their food in a restaurant. There is a uniquely Korean emotion, called han, a feeling of deep regret and pain."

At the Interesting Sculptor cafe, a fortune teller reports requests for prophecies about the North.

"They ask if they will bomb us," said Chul Myung, 45. "I tell them Kim Jong-un is a puppet and he will last five or six years before chaos descends. I do not predict a missile." - ©The Daily Telegraph

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