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Threat level low, no plans to evacuate families in South Korea, U.S. officials say

SEOUL — Despite North Korea’s attack last week on an island populated by civilians and the communist nation’s assertions that the region is on the brink of war, military officials say the threat level in South Korea is low, and there are no plans to evacuate U.S. civilians living there.

Such a move is “not even close” to being considered, U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten said Tuesday.

Since the artillery barrage, life has largely continued on as normal at the largest U.S. military base in South Korea, U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan, in Seoul. Still, there remains an undercurrent of worry among some.

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“I have a suitcase packed and a diaper bag packed and ready to go,” said Carrie Mathes, who lives in Seoul with her husband, a private first class, and their 8-month-old daughter. The couple said they will wait to see if anything happens following the ongoing naval exercise between the U.S. and South Korean navies to decide whether she and their daughter return to the U.S. before her husband’s tour ends next summer. The exercise is scheduled to wrap up Wednesday.

Mathes said families she knows are worried about whether they are safe in South Korea, and are frustrated with the lack of information the military has given them about the security situation, most of which has been posted on the internet.

Her relatives in the U.S. are particularly concerned about her family’s safety.

“They’re pretty much sounding like it’s World War III over here,” she said.

But not everyone at Yongsan is worried about more confrontations with North Korea.

Capt. Orlando Lopez, stationed at Yongsan with his wife and two young children, said the family has not considered leaving South Korea since last week’s attack. Lopez said he believes the peninsula is safe.

“We listen to the news, but we don’t let it affect our lives,” he said. “Right now, we think it’s calmed down.”

Army officials have used their Facebook page to try to keep troops and their families calm following the recent events.

Lt. Col. Jeff Buczkowski, an 8th Army spokesman, said USFK Commander Walter Sharp and 8th Army Commander Lt. Gen. John Johnson have posted messages on the internet as “reassurances that we don’t feel that there’s a threat here, and we feel that the situation is normal and we keep on monitoring the situation.”

If soldiers don’t feel safe, they can elect to send their families back to the States through a program known as Early Return of Dependents. In Europe, troops use the program to send their families home when they deploy to combat zones. Since the recent flare-up with North Korea, USFK has seen no increase in the number of troops applying for an early return to the U.S., according to spokeswoman Lt. Col. Angela Billings.

If the situation were to escalate, the U.S. Embassy could order an evacuation of non-essential personnel. But embassy spokesman Aaron Tarver said there are no plans for such an evacuation.

The embassy issued a warden message the day after the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, encouraging U.S. citizens living or traveling in South Korea to register with the embassy so government officials can contact them during an emergency. However, the embassy has not issued a travel alert, the State Department’s typical measure for alerting citizens to significant security risks in an area.

The embassy last issued a travel alert in October, warning Americans of possible violent demonstrations during the Nov. 11-12 G20 summit in Seoul.

While civilians have not been evacuated from South Korea since the outbreak of the Korean War, USFK rehearses evacuation procedures twice a year because of the threat of conflict with North Korea. During USFK’s evacuation exercises, approximately 10,000 people pass through evacuation control centers at U.S. military bases across the peninsula to practice for a real-life withdrawal in the event of an attack or natural disaster. A small number of volunteers usually evacuate all the way to Japan via ferry as part of the exercise.

In addition to U.S. government noncombatants, the U.S. would have to evacuate about 140,000 civilians from South Korea during an emergency, including private U.S. citizens and their families, and citizens of the countries that make up the U.N. Command, officials said. Billings said she could not estimate how long it would take to complete a real evacuation because there are “so many variables” involved in an emergency situation.

The military cancelled a planned evacuation exercise in May to avoid the appearance that it was being held in reaction to the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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