The interior of an underground survival bunker for sale in Seoul, where most residents shrug off the threat of North Korean attack.
The interior of an underground survival bunker for sale in Seoul, where most residents shrug off the threat of North Korean attack. Ian Baldessari/CityLab

As fears of North Korean attack wane, some residents of the South Korean capital are finding it hard to maintain their emergency preparations.  

The Janghanpyeong neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea, is lined with greasy auto part stores and middle-aged men smoking cigarettes outside convenience stores. Amid the grit, the white glow of the glass-walled Chumdan Bunker System shop stands out. Inside the modern showroom, shop manager Jun-hyun Park is waiting for customers.

The company sells nuclear bunkers and survival gear. A demo model—an army-green bunker with hand-crank generator, air filtration system, and chemical toilet—sits in the corner of the shop. The bunkers start at about $31,000. The fledgling company sold 10 bunkers since it opened about a year ago, including one shipped to Kuwait. But business has been slow lately: Park said the shop hasn’t sold any of his bunkers since peace talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began in April.

Last year, it was a different story. In 2017, after North Korea test launched a ballistic missile over Japan and claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, tensions between two Koreas were spiking. In November, the shop’s owner, Go Wan Hyeok, told the UK’s Daily Star, “I’m wishing that he presses the button and shoots the bomb!” But Park has toned down that rhetoric. He says he hopes the relationship between North and South Koreas can be “friendly and peaceful.”

Nuclear fears may now be ebbing in the wake of this week’s unusual “denuclearization” meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in Singapore, but the attitudes of both the North Korean dictator and the American president have been known to fluctuate dramatically, and a state of war still technically exists between the two Koreas. Seoul lies just 25 miles from the demilitarized zone, and the city of 11 million is well within range of a potential North Korean attack, nuclear or otherwise. This is one place where survivalist “prepper” culture would seem to make a lot of sense.

Indeed, the South Korean capital boasts a vast network of more than 3,000 underground emergency shelters in subway stations and apartment building basements—reportedly enough space for the entire city’s population, if everyone agrees to take up only 2.3 square meters. But the North Korean standoff is now 70 years old, and most Seoulites have long since grown numb to the threat, despite official attempts by the South’s government to try and raise emergency preparation awareness among younger people.

In 2014, the Korean Ministry of the Interior and Safety issued a smartphone app called Emergency Ready to help guide people through disaster. It gives basic instructions for a variety of emergencies, including CPR procedures and how to distinguish the meaning of Seoul’s various air-raid sirens (one-minute continuous siren for an incoming attack, three-minute siren for an attack in progress). The app also includes a locator to help people find the nearest shelter. (One rather significant flaw: If cellphone service goes out, the locator service doesn’t work.)

Soo-min Lee, a 19-year-old student at Hongik University, was waiting for a city bus when she was asked about the the app. She’d never heard of it, and had no idea where the nearest emergency shelter was. Where would she go if North Korea was about to bomb Seoul? She pointed to a nearby department store. The correct answer was the subway station, whose stairs were just a few feet away.

Seung-yep Woo, 45, is far more aware of the threat. He’s a leader of the Korean “war prepper” community. This is a relatively small group who have taken it upon themselves to prepare and teach others how to deal with the dangers posed by armed attack, natural disaster, or a public health crisis. Besides running an online forum called Survival 21, with more than 20,000 active anonymous preppers, Woo lectures, writes books, and appears on television shows to raise awareness of personal disaster preparation. He covers the basics, like what to keep in a survival pack and how to sanitize water. At an elementary school workshop in late May, he taught students how to make a metallic heat-reflecting blanket out of empty potato chip bags.

Prepper Seung-yep Woo demonstrates how to make an emergency blanket for Seoul school children. (Ian Baldessari/CityLab)

He doesn’t trust the local or federal government’s ability to handle a true emergency. “It seems like the government agencies specializing in disaster management are more focused on preventing public panic rather than actually keeping people safe and knowledgeable,” Woo said through an interpreter. “That is where I have stepped in.”

Though Seoul’s thousands of subway stations and apartment building basements may provide enough emergency shelter space for the city’s residents, Woo is skeptical of the conditions people can expect to find there. “Once people are down there, then what?” he said. “Most have no food, very little water, and usually fewer than 100 gas masks for thousands of people seeking shelter in each subway station.”

But even Woo said he’s also started slipping in his own preparation lately: He recently used up his spare propane fuel, ate his stockpiled canned food, and drank his emergency water.

The lax state of emergency preparation in South Korea is a focus for Kyoo-man Ha, professor of emergency management at Inje University and the Korean representative to the International Association of Emergency Managers. He claims that the country lacks an adequate emergency response system, which stems from both a lack of knowledge and politics. “Beyond any problems concerning whether shelters are stocked or available is the issue of a lack of a national response framework,” Ha said. “In the U.S., there are overarching agencies like FEMA, and they have a plan for all types of disasters and contingency plans for all of those. We don’t have anything close to that.”

The Korean government paid for Ha to study disaster management in the U.S., where he attended the U.S. Emergency Management Institute, as well as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Iowa State University. He said he hoped to repay his country by bringing back what he learned from the more established American systems, but he said the government has been unwilling to accept his research because it is critical of agencies responsible for public safety.

In Korean politics, Ha said, there’s a culture of changing an organization’s name if it fails to do its job, so it’s telling that the agency responsible for disaster response has changed names eight times in the last 20 years. After the sinking of the 2014 Sewol ferry, which killed 299 passengers and seven responders, the agency formerly known as National Emergency Management became the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

“And now already it is the Ministry of Interior and Safety. I lose track though,” Ha said. “It is very frustrating, because each time it changes I have to go back and revise my research articles.”

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