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Civil Defense Drill Alarms Foreign Community
[Opinion] Korean government failed to inform ex-pats
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-16 18:22 (KST)   
At 2 p.m. in Seoul, the bustling sounds of daily activity were drowned out by the sudden scream of jets passing low over the city. Many of the expats in Seoul peeked nervously out their windows, wondering if the present crisis involving North Korea and the United Nations had gone from the negotiation stage to saber rattling. In the distance, the sounds of sirens -- indications of air raids -- further increased the uncertainty of what was occurring. Fortunately, after 30 minutes and much trepidation, it was learned that these were tests carried out by the National Emergency Management Agency.

As evidenced by some of readers of the largest blog in Korea, Marmot's Hole, many foreigners were unaware that the Korean government was planning on conducting these tests. Most Koreans were in the know, and some warned their foreign friends, but looking at the three largest English daily newspapers in Korea, there was no mention of the government's plans to test their emergency warning system. It was an oversight that needlessly alarmed the already nervous foreign community.

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During the late Choson period, the Korean court was very concerned about alarming the foreign community. An alarmed foreign community might request protection from their navies, which would lead to even further alarm not only amongst the foreigners, but also amongst Koreans. The Korean government sent messengers to the different embassies in Seoul to notify them of any large gatherings or firing of weapons within the city. In the past, diseases were believed to be caused by evil spirits and weapons were fired in the air in an attempt to scare them away.

Occasionally word was not sent in time and the foreign community, which was very sensitive to anti-foreign uprisings, was needlessly alarmed. Sometimes it was the foreign community that was to blame for causing alarm. Commanders of the various legations would sometimes neglect to inform the Korean government of their intent to conduct target practice in the vicinity of Seoul.

Perhaps the best-known example of panic and hysteria caused by an uninformed public was when Orson Welles presented his chilling account of 쏻ar of the Worlds on a radio broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938. Although prior to the start of the broadcast the station had warned the public that it was merely a drama, many people missed the warning. Within a short time hysteria followed.

The New York Times the following day carried as one of its front page headlines, 쏳adio Listeners in Panic, Taking Drama as Fact. It went on to describe how some people fled their homes to escape the "gas raids from Mars," and the police station switchboards were flooded by calls from the concerned public. Many people actually believed that they witnessed aliens landing on earth, and scientists searched the skies for more of the falling meteors.

I was informed last night by one of my brothers that the EBS (Emergency Broadcasting System) seemed to be conducting more tests on the TV and radio since the North Korean nuclear test and the subsequent crisis. He also informed me that the small city he lives in has been testing its air warning sirens, an event he has found completely disquieting and further alarming him and my parents as to my safety in Korea. I asked a friend who recently left Korea and is now living in San Francisco if he had noted any increased vigilance and testing of emergency systems. He replied affirmatively, and that his daughter's school had conducted drills, but he quickly noted that he believed it was more likely due to the increased concern of earthquakes rather than the threat of nuclear holocaust delivered by a North Korean missile. Ironically, a large earthquake struck Hawaii as we were speaking.

While I welcome the increased vigilance of the various governments in ensuring their emergency warning systems are working accordingly, I also feel that it is the responsibility of the governments to ensure that their citizens and visitors are made well aware beforehand that such tests will be conducted and when.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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