Postcard from Korea: The Day the Earth Stood Still

13 February 2013

Danielle Young writes from South Korea, where she is a fourth-year Media and Communications student undertaking an international fellowship at TBS radio in Korea. The fellowship is supported by the Australia Korea Foundation.

It seemed like any other day. The wind icy against my skin on the short walk to the train station; cars pushing through pedestrian crossings; travellers still returning from the Lunar New Year holidays. But that was the day the world changed.

At 11.58am Tuesday morning North Korea tested its third nuclear bomb. The US, China and Japan had all come together supporting the South by taking harsh measures to deter its rebellious neighbour, but stricter sanctions, threats of retaliation and losing its closest ally - Beijing- only made Pyongyang more resolute in its actions. And it was a success.

The test comes after threatening military action on the South for participation in the UN sanctions, saying it was tantamount to "a declaration of war", and the release of a propaganda video depicting a city disturbingly similar to New York in flames after a missile attack.

Entering the train station, I knew something was wrong. Crowds had gathered around the public televisions, watching breaking news stories I couldn't understand. Several television crews were filming the crowds watching the breaking news. There was a general uneasiness that I just couldn't explain. Something had happened, something big, and the Koreans were scared.

In my past four weeks here there has been a news story about North Korea every day. Coming from a country that only hears about it when a rocket launch or nuclear test takes place, it didn't take long to be extremely worried. I had no idea about the political tensions Koreans deal with daily, and it's little surprise with the constant threat of war that they have desensitised themselves.

As things started to escalate a few weeks ago I found myself writing radio scripts about Pyongyang most days, doing extensive research into each country's relationship with the North. I wrote an hour's worth of material on the topic for the show one day, and just as I've adapted to the food, the customs and the extreme cold, so too had I desensitised myself to the threats.

But today even the locals felt concern, with friends calling each other to check if they'd heard the news. Koreans news sites were flooded with dozens of stories on the front page within an hour, and I postponed my trip up to the border, fearing the demilitarised zone might soon become the militarised zone.

I'm told a rocket fired from Pyongyang would take two minutes to reach Seoul, and there would be nowhere to hide. Its 25 million residents would be helpless.

Only Monday the North had said the world had misunderstood its threat as meaning it would conduct a nuclear test. Misunderstood alright. The orders had already been given.

The UN has entered emergency talks and military at the border have been put on high alert. While the test only (ha!) measured a 5.0 earthquake, and the blast was smaller than anticipated, the North says that is because it was testing its miniaturised technology - the kind it needs for its long ranged rockets. And it was a success.

While the rest of the world is pulling itself together and trying to come up with new strategies to deter the Stalinist nation, North Korea has announced that this is just the first step. They "restrained" themselves as best they could, but any further hostilities and they will have no choice but to take stronger action.

Now that they have the technology, we could be seeing that propaganda video of a scorched US come to life.

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