August 11, 2017 / 11:27 AM / 3 months ago

After years, South Koreans worry about North: food sales up, civil drills expanded

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Koreans are buying more gold and ready to eat meals, while the government plans to expand nation-wide civil defense drills planned for this month as rhetoric between North Korea and the United States ramps up tension.

A relief goods storage is seen inside a subway station which is used as a shelter for emergency situation in Seoul, South Korea, August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Long used to living within the range of North Korea’s artillery, people in the South have generally ignored its aggressiveness and series of nuclear and long-range missile tests.

But this week, as Pyongyang exchanged increasingly angry words with the United States, there are worries of a clash erupting along the heavily militarized frontier which divides the two Koreas.

Combat Ration Inc, which makes 2 billion won ($1.75 million) of annual revenue selling ready to eat meals, said sales had surged as much as 50 percent in the past week compared to the average.

“Since 2006, when North Korea first conducted its nuclear test, there wasn’t this much response as people became immune to frequent missile launches and nuclear tests,” said Yoon Hee-yeul, the chief executive of Combat Ration, based in the southeastern city of Daegu.

“I feel it’s different this time,” said Yoon, who’s been in the business since 2004.

Ready to eat meals maker Babmart, based in eastern Seoul, and another Seoul-based online seller, jun2food.com, also said sales have increased. Officials at both companies attributed the surge to the heightened tension.

North Korea said on Thursday its army would complete plans in mid-August to fire four intermediate-range missiles over Japan to land near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

U.S. President Donald Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was not going to get away with his “horrific” comments and disrespecting America.

“Koreans used to be numb to North Korea’s threats, however, it seems different this time, and people are taking it seriously,” said Song Jong-gil, an official of Korea Gold Exchange 3M, where sales of mini gold bars have surged five-fold since Aug. 9.

After Trump’s “fire and fury” threat heightened tension, average daily sales volume has been 250 bars, ranging in weight between 10 grams (0.35 oz) and 100 grams (3.5 oz), versus about 50 earlier, Song said, adding the trend would continue through August.

Investors widely consider gold a safe-haven asset at times of growing geopolitical risk or economic uncertainty. South Koreans, who are still technically at war with their combative neighbors, are no exception.

Experts say if North Korea did launch intermediate-range missiles toward Guam, all its other missiles and artillery would be ready for action. Hundreds of thousands of troops and huge arsenals are arrayed on both sides of the tense demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

At least 1,000 of the North’s artillery pieces are capable of reaching densely populated Seoul and its metropolitan area, home to some 25 million people.

BIGGER DRILLS

Seoul is expanding its participation in a nationwide civil defense drill, set to take place on Aug. 23, Shim Kang-cheon, a local Seoul government official, told Reuters.

The five-minute drill begins with a siren on radio, and cars are stopped at designated spots. Pedestrians are escorted off the streets and taken to safe spots like subway stations.

All of Seoul’s 25 districts will participate in the drill this year, Shim said, compared to just five last year.

In a recent message, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said, “Since North Korea is very close to crossing the red line, Seoul needs to ramp up all defense measures against North Korea’s potential threat,” said another Seoul city official who asked not to be identified by name.

The drill coincides with the four-day “Ulji Freedom Guardian” military maneuvers on August 21-24, which are held yearly and include joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korean armed forces, as well as drills for emergencies.

But many officials say there is a long way to go to raise public awareness about civil defense. At two subway stations visited by Reuters on Friday, many people didn’t know the locations were among Seoul’s more than 3,200 designated bomb shelters.

Few bomb shelters have long-term supplies of food, water, medical kits or gas masks, because the mostly private owners of the shelters get no public funding.

“Since the subway stations in South Korea have enough depth and strength, we will be able to survive attacks. It is just a shame that such infrastructure is not advertised well to the public and that we are short of emergency supplies,” said Yang Uk, senior fellow at Korea Defense and Security Forum, a research institute in Seoul.

($1=1,144.4700 won)

Additional reporting by Yuna Park, Jiwon Choi and Jane Chung, Writing by Joyce Lee, Editing by Soyoung Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan

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