Thousands of Australians are in Seoul, only about 40km from the North Korean border.
Thousands of Australians are in Seoul, only about 40km from the North Korean border. News Corp Australia

Why the government is taking North Korea's threats seriously

NORTH Korea is boosting its threats of nuclear attacks, and the Australian government is taking them very seriously.

But there's one area the rogue nation keeps threatening to hit, and it's one that could affect thousands of Aussies.

The capital of South Korea, Seoul, is a bustling city that houses swarms of Australians travellers and expats.

Though it's only about 40km from the nation that's posing the greatest military threat to the western world, a huge number of young travelling Australians flock to the area during or after their studies to teach English to local children and interested adults.

Along with other tourists, a not insignificant population of Korean Australians board the twice-daily flights to the capital, particularly around the mid-year holiday period. And that's not to mention the numbers of Aussie workers who make the 10-hour journey to conduct business in South Korea.

As of Thursday this week 1363 Australians were registered as being in the Republic of Korea, and many times that are believed to be living there or travelling unregistered.

Oh, and yesterday, its neighbour North Korea threatened to "reduce (South Korea) to ashes".

Through its state media channels, North Korea has warned the United States of a "super-mighty pre-emptive strike" that would flatten its neighbouring nation.

Thousands of Australians are in Seoul, only about 40km from the North Korean border.

A report in the Rodong Sinmum, the official newspaper of the North's ruling Worker's Party, said US military personnel could be targeted in South Korea.

"In the case of our super-mighty pre-emptive strike being launched, it will completely and immediately wipe out not only US imperialists' invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the US mainland and reduce them to ashes," it said.

The rogue nation has made frequent and fearsome threats against South Korea, as it has the US.

Although North Korea's threats have for years been taken as largely inflammatory, the Australian government has indicated it is now taking its rhetoric very seriously.

Reacting to a mock-up video showing missiles devastating the US that was shown to crowds of cheering North Koreans and the nation's satisfied leader Kim Jong-un, Australia's foreign minister Julie Bishop said the threat was being interpreted as genuine.

"The mock-up video that they showed recently is not a laughing matter. In fact it demonstrates the seriousness of purpose that North Korea has in seeking to target the United States," she told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday.

"Of course if it targets the United States then all countries in the region are also under threat."

Ms Bishop acknowledged there were "escalating tensions" on the Korean peninsula, and said they were a results of "North Korea's provocative and illegal actions in carrying out nuclear and ballistic missile tests, in defiance of international law and particularly numerous UN Security Council resolutions".

North Korea has threatened to target US troops in South Korea, but there have been no safety warnings for Australians in the area.

Yet despite the level of consideration with which Australian authorities are taking North Korea's threats, the thousands of Australians in South Korea - a nation both at the receiving end of specific threats and the closest in proximity to the rogue nation issuing them - are being given no sign to worry.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told "The level of advice for the Republic of Korea (ROK) remains at 'exercise normal safety precautions' - the lowest of four advice levels. The advice remains under close review and reflects our best understanding of the safety and security environment."

DFAT said it recommended Australians in or travelling to the area subscribe to the department's travel advice "so that any change in assessment on safety and security is promptly brought to their attention".

Korea expert and University of Technology Sydney associate professor Bronwen Dalton told she believed DFAT had a "sensitive situation" to deal with regarding travel advice to the region, and that they were doing the right thing.

"In Korea, particularly the younger generation, has got North Korea fatigue. They're not worried. It is not even in the top five topics of discussion, they're actually preoccupied with the chaos of their own political situation," she said.

"Their rhetoric has been pretty full on for many years, and very little has changed."

Considering that, it may seem curious that authorities are only now beginning to take note of the rhetoric.

But Prof Dalton said it was impossible to know whether the legitimacy of North Korea's threats had increased, or if it was just their language that had.

"One thing authoritarian regimes do is really boost a sense of military threat because it gives them a bump," she said.

"They are loving this and blowing it up and milking it for all it's worth. Kim Jong-un's not safe, that's why he has to keep assassinating people. This bragging and threatening is a great way to keep his military generals on side."

Prof Dalton said that while there was no arguing South Korea was susceptible to damage if North Korea did launch the scale of attack it has threatened, she argued the threat would be no greater than other parts of the world.

She said a former Australian ambassador to South Korea has told her: "If Seoul goes, everything goes".

"It sets off a chain of events that are so serious it doesn't matter where in the world you are," she said.

"The point is, North Korea has the capacity to level Seoul, at least to make serious damage to Seoul with its conventional arsenal. The biggest deterrent is the fact that after some serious damage to Seoul, North Korea would potentially be flattened too."

Prof Dalton said Seoul was as prepared as it could be. Regular drills see sirens sounded and citizens head underground in practice runs, and gas masks and facilities housing protective gear are stationed around the city.

For the latest safety advice for Australians in the Republic of Korea visit Smartraveller.

News Corp Australia

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