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For South Koreans, fear of war looms large

From Jiyeon Lee, CNN
A South Korean soldier talks to residents gathered in a bunker ahead of the live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong island.
A South Korean soldier talks to residents gathered in a bunker ahead of the live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong island.
  • The younger generation has not seen Pyongyang as a significant threat
  • The shelling on Yeonpyeong Island changes that
  • Island residents worry that the conflict could swiftly spiral out of control
  • "It's very serious for us to think about these kinds of events," one student says

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- A few months ago, most South Koreans would have laughed at a question that now looms large in their minds: "Will there be a second Korean War?"

Living for decades through missile launches, naval skirmishes and nuclear tests conducted by their troublesome neighbor North Korea, South Koreans learned to brush things aside and move on with their daily lives.

Pyongyang became more like a bothersome brother than an enemy nation -- especially to a younger generation that had never seen battles fought at home.

But that changed instantly on November 23, after North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island killed four South Koreans.

Grainy security camera footage showing people fleeing for their lives sent chills down people's backs. It showed them that North Korea remains an immense -- and nearby -- threat.

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The country was on high-alert as the South Korean military pursued a live-fire drill Monday near the same waters where the November attack took place. Gearing up to evacuate or hide in bunkers, islanders hoped for the best, but worried the conflict could swiftly spiral out of control.

They said that the drills needed to happen, but noted that the timing might lead to another attack.

"Of course, it's better not to do them," said Paek Soon-nyeo, 84, as she headed toward what would be the last ferry out of the island before the drills.

After the drills ended Monday, residents anxiously waited to see what would happen at a time when North Korea's next step was anyone's guess.

Is war a possibility? Few people shrugged off the idea.

The shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island was a wake-up call for people here, who realized they don't have the slightest clue of what to do if North Korea were to attack the country.

What used to be a widely ignored practice was viewed in a different light. Average Seoul citizens took cover in subway stations and descended downstairs in office buildings in a simulated air-raid on that day.

"We actually don't participate very well, because nothing happened between North Korea and South Korea. But recently it has happened, so it's very serious for us to think about these kinds of events," said Chung Woo-sub, a university student who ducked into the subway station.

In the minds of the younger South Koreans like Chung, dramatic images of North and South Korean leaders shaking hands in Pyongyang are fresher than old tales of war-torn memories.

But recent developments on the peninsula might have changed that.

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