SEOUL - Life in this bustling South Korean capital has long been defined by traffic jams and luxury shopping malls, long days of work and longer nights of sipping rice liquor. Residents rarely appeared to imagine that their routines could be upended in minutes by the unpredictable young leader to the north and his 10,000 artillery pieces.
But after years of largely ignoring threats from North Korea, some residents say they are getting a bit nervous, with Pyongyang's fury reaching levels not seen in at least two decades.
Coffee shops are still packed, and pop music pulses from storefronts, but South Koreans' phones buzz with news updates on the North's latest moves - its declaration of war; its announced restart of key nuclear facilities; its barricade of a joint industrial complex near the border. Children ask their parents what would happen if fighting broke out and where they would go for safety.
On Thursday, the fear spread to South Korea's stock market, which sustained its biggest daily fall of the year. The South's defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, said the North had moved an intermediate-range missile to its eastern coast, perhaps for testing or drills.
"There could be war, or there could be peace," said Joo Yang-yi, 26, a graduate student who studies North Korea.
Rather than play down the possibility of an attack, South Korean officials in recent days have emphasized their ability to strike back promptly. They also have welcomed recent U.S. shows of force in the region, including a brief deployment to the peninsula of nuclear-capable stealth bombers.
If attacked, South Korea will "respond immediately without political consideration," said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share government thinking. "At the initial stage, South Korea is self-sufficient in terms of our ability to strike back. But thereafter we will need cooperation from the U.S. and neighbors."
A SPECTRUM OF PERSPECTIVES
South Koreans differ in their views of their increasingly belligerent northern neighbor. Some speak with confidence, saying the North's near-daily threats are part of a coherent plan to force negotiations, not spark war. But others fear that the North's new leader, Kim Jong Un, might push things too far, perhaps because he thinks he needs a major conflict to coalesce domestic support.
That divergence is reflected in public opinion polls. Over the past two months, the percentage of South Koreans who say the North is their top concern has more than tripled. Still, that represents just 26 percent of respondents; more South Koreans care about job creation than about Pyongyang.
Even the segment that is concerned about the North is far from panicking. During a crisis 20 years ago sparked by North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some in South Korea rushed to stock up on canned goods and water. This time, grocery store shelves remain full.
"We have no alternative to remaining calm, because what we can do to personally prepare for emergency? Virtually nothing," said Park Hyeong-jung, a North Korea researcher at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "We live in a congested area of more than 10 million population. What a catastrophic chaos we will have if individuals begin to worry about tomorrow."
A HISTORY OF ASSAULTS
Over the past several decades, Park said, South Koreans have been "gradually immunized" about the North's threats. And for all the North's recent anger, nothing it has done recently compares with the galling attacks of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, which included hacking to death two U.S. soldiers in the demilitarized zone; numerous assassination attempts on South Korean presidents; and the midair sabotage of a South Korean passenger plane.
After two fatal attacks by the North in 2010, South Koreans were at least as angry with their own government as they were with Pyongyang. When the North killed two soldiers and two civilians by shelling a front-line island, the South responded by lobbing 80 shells toward the North. Then-President Lee Myung-bak was criticized for not taking more serious action, leading to his pledge - reiterated by the current president, Park Geun-hye - to counter with greater force if provoked again.
On Thursday, North Korea accused the U.S. of trying to bring down its "dignified social system."
The Obama administration has shown little interest in talking with the North, and the North seems to have little interest in toning down its rhetoric.