South Koreans Offer a Collective Shrug at North's Nuclear Tests

A cut-out of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set on fire during an anti-North Korea rally in central Seoul, South Korea on Saturday. Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

North Korea's fifth and biggest nuclear test jangled nerves around the world on Friday. In neighbouring South Korea, most people were more preoccupied with getting ready for a major public holiday next week.

On the streets of the capital city Seoul and beyond, resilience met resignation among a population long used to having North Korea's weapons program—verbal and real—aimed at them.

"North Korea keeps conducting nuclear tests, so it's not like we can do anything about it right now," said Chung Heyung-yoon, 60, in downtown Seoul, where people were shopping for the Chuseok autumn harvest festival that starts on Wednesday.

"We can't skip the Chuseok holiday just because we're anxious," she said.

North Korea said it successfully conducted a nuclear test, its most powerful blast yet, and that it had the ability to mount a warhead on a ballistic missile. The announcement drew condemnation from global leaders, while South Korea's military said it stood by to counter harshly in the event of an attack by North Korea. The United States said it would do what is necessary to defend its Asian allies.

South Korean shares dropped after first news of an earthquake in the North that was quickly confirmed as a nuclear test, but ended down a relatively modest 1.3 percent. The South Korean won closed down 0.5 percent after recovering from a sharp drop, but analysts did not expect any lasting financial market impact.

"People of my generation kind of doubt war will ever happen no matter what, so we tend to brush off something like this," said Jung Yeon-su, a 21-year-old man.

Since the 1950-53 Korean war ended in an armed truce, not a peace treaty, tensions have frequently flared between the Koreas, including an armed standoff last year that saw an exchange of artillery fire.

"I must say, you pay attention for a bit, but then you get numb after a while," Jung said.

For a growing number of South Koreans, especially younger people, the notion of an armed confrontation triggered by an attack by North Korea has appeared increasingly remote over the years as the wealthy, democratic South and impoverished, isolated North have grown apart. That is despite the North's steady arms buildup, and South Korea's requirement that every male serve in the military for a term that is currently 21 months.

"I heard after work that North Korea conducted a nuclear test today, but North Korea doing this is not surprising any more," said Jeon Hyo-chul, casually sipping coffee. "I just hope they pay more attention to their people," the office worker added.

But residents near the heavily armed border with North Korea have seen property values decline in recent years, as tensions simmered after a decade of warmer ties ended in 2008.

"Anything that raises tension isn't good news for land prices here, but otherwise our life will be the same and we are not really afraid," said Noh Seung-eok, who farms rice in Paju, north of Seoul and just minutes from the frontier.