South Korea holds rare air raid drill, but many citizens ignore it

By Hyonhee Shin and Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) -Sirens wailed on Wednesday as South Korea held its first nationwide air defence drills in six years to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats, but many people appeared to ignore calls to seek shelter.

The government has reintroduced the drills into the annual Ulchi civil defence exercises, held alongside the Ulchi Freedom Shield drills, which South Korean and U.S. troops began on Monday, to improve responses to a North Korean attack or other emergency.

Air-raid sirens blared at 2 p.m. (0500 GMT) on a rainy but hot summer afternoon in downtown Seoul. Community leaders in yellow jackets and hats with the “Civil Defence” logo asked people to get off the streets for about 15 minutes before the alert was eased.

But many pedestrians did not pay heed to those requests or rush to find designated shelters or nearby underground spaces.

“I didn’t know about the drill. And people don’t seem to care about it much. I don’t believe there will be an actual war either,” Na Eun, a 52-year-old architectural designer told Reuters.

Park Joo-ui, a community leader of the Jongno district in Seoul who passed out leaflets to notify the drill said he was baffled by public indifference.

“How can we be prepared for crisis when we don’t get support from our people during this drill? People are just not interested,” the 69-year-old said.

Drivers in about 200 areas nationwide had been told to pull to the side of the road. People in nearly 500 supermarkets, movie theatres and other public facilities were guided to evacuate, according to the interior ministry.

At a large office building’s basement parking lot in Seoul, hundreds of office workers gathered following instructions of civil defence instructors through megaphones, with some sipping coffee and others complaining about no air conditioning.

“Well, I don’t know if this is going to happen, but if there’s a bombing, this kind of shelter is useless, though it is still useful to know where those shelters are through the drill,” a female banker said, asking not to be named.

Medical institutions and public transportation operated normally.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol visited the Command Post Tango, a bunker complex for the U.S.-South Korea combined forces, and said that the joint drills are a “source of power to deter North Korea’s provocations”, according to his office.

In some regions bordering North Korea, residents faced additional scenarios, including chemical, biological and radiological training, wearing a gas mask and using emergency food rations, the ministry said.

The Ulchi civil defence exercises were launched in 1969 in the wake of a raid by North Korean commandos into the presidential compound in Seoul. There are about 17,000 shelters installed across the country of 52 million.

But the air defence training has not taken place since 2017.

In late May, the government caused panic among some residents when it issued a false air raid alarm and evacuation warning following North Korea’s failed satellite launch, even though the capital was far off the rocket’s trajectory.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Ju-min Park; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Lincoln Feast, Philippa Fletcher)