Air Raid Sirens Break the Silence
Yesterday, the 15th of December, as happens every month on the 15th, unless the 15th falls on a weekend, there was an air raid drill at 2PM to allow South Koreans to practice what they would do in the event of a North Korean invasion. Yesterday was slightly different though, in that South Korea decided to make this one even more special with fighter jets flying across the skies of Seoul so that people could really see what it would sound like, though I’m not sure 15 jets would really be all North Korea would send down here, if North Korea invaded. They had public service people out on the streets directing people to the nearest bomb shelters, ie basements and subway stations, so they could understand what they should do. Of course as happens every month a new foreigner to the region freaks out at the sound of these sirens and stories across the net abound.
Looking back at my first year, I was living in Songpa which is on the Southeast side of Seoul pretty far out on the purple subway line. The first time I heard a siren it sounded very reminiscent of the tornado sirens I had grown up listening to in Ohio and I found it odd to think tornadoes also struck Korea. Just as I was wondering how often tornadoes hit Seoul two fighter jets went racing across the sky out my very large bedroom window. They were very low and having grown up near the Wright Patterson Air force Base seeing a fighter jet was nothing new. However, unlike Ohio where there is a law about how low and how fast a jet can be flying near residential areas since they are not supposed to hit the sound barrier over neighborhoods, these jets were doing just that, and just over our apartments. This was not a good sign to me. The last time I saw fighter jets flying that fast and that low and breaking the sound barrier was September 11th in the US when Wright Patt. fighter jets were out patrolling the skies and they were landing all of the planes. The only plane to fly over Ohio at that time was the Presidential airplane and fighter jets were breaking the sound barrier over our houses so that the President’s plane could have all the space it needed to fly. Having that as my last memory of a very similar situation of course I jumped to the conclusion that North and South Korea were going at it once again and I was in the middle of it and I had only just come to Korea a month earlier. Just my luck. Exiting my apartment I saw no one on the street and no one running around worried so this led me to the secondary conclusion that everyone else knew the evacuation route except me and I had already missed the boat. Calling friends and teachers I found this was not what I had concluded through observation but was a drill that happened every month and was in fact very similar to our tornado drills back home.
The second time I wasn’t at work when the drill took place I was in Jamsil sitting outside of a cafe with two Korean friends. The sirens went off and out of no where people up and down the street with yellow sashes starting halting pedestrians and moving them to safe zones. I’ve often wondered since then how many Koreans are just walking around with these yellow sashes in their bags so they can do their duty if North Korea strikes. How else would it work if they weren’t always carrying around these sashes so that people could easily see who to follow on every other day except drill day? They came to us and since we were sitting outside of the cafe they told us we’d have to move in because there was to be absolutely no one on the sidewalk. The traffic halted and even though the lights turned to green no one moved. This was another thing I didn’t really understand. If all of the traffic across Seoul just halts how are any emergency vehicles or military trucks supposed to get through. At the very least shouldn’t they be directing the traffic to park? Alas, everything was only explained in Korean and at the time I couldn’t speak or understand much, except to say I was hungry or tired and hello and thank you, which wasn’t helping me in this situation, so I just followed the womans waving arms and moved indoors. Fifteen minutes later everything was back to normal and just as suddenly as they had appeared the yellow sash adorned Koreans disappeared into the crowds.
Since then I have found it amusing to sign on to Facebook when these drills occur to see the rants and questions of the newbies who have just come to Korea. Some of them I respond to with calming words and explaining the normalcy of this and others I just watch as their comments from people back home fill up with worry. It’s amusing and at the same time slightly annoying that there still is yet to be a section in training when people first get here about this. There should be more comments on foreign websites and places to go so that foreigners already have an expectation. Koreans are so desensitized to this that most of them don’t even stop what they’re doing. They stay inside and go about their business, in the event of an actual attack I think more people would respond to the news on the TV than the siren they here. I suppose it’s the same back in Ohio when a tornado strikes. I would hear the siren on an off day, not the normal first Monday of the month and instead of assuming that a tornado was coming first off I would go to the window and check the sky. Was it grey? Was it yellow? Were there warning signs to take this siren seriously? Or, was it just an accident by the guy in charge? I guess if the day comes in Korea for an off day of sirens I’ll probably do the same thing.