“Citizens, prepare to evacuate and allow children and the elderly to evacuate first.” It was by this laconic alert, sent to their mobile phones at 6:41 a.m., that the inhabitants of Seoul were pulled out of bed this Wednesday, May 31. A message sent by the authorities of the South Korean capital after the (failed) launch of a satellite by North Korea, which panicked the megalopolis both by its alarmist tone and by its absence of clear instructions.

This alert “did not say where [to evacuate], why or what to expect,” thunders Emma, ​​a foreign exchange student, on Twitter. On the same social network, another resident of the capital wonders: “There are 25 million people in Seoul, where are we evacuating?” The false alarm was quickly defused by local authorities, but it raises a question that many Koreans never really asked themselves: what to do in the event of an attack?

The two Koreas are, officially, still at war: they have never signed a peace treaty. If the situation has stabilized, North Korea regularly fires missiles to show its muscles. With this threatening neighbour, the city of Seoul, close to the border, has built a network of air-raid shelters. While many understood that “evacuating” meant leaving the city, it was more likely that the authorities would recommend at that time to take refuge in these places protected from bombs and missiles.

Metro stations, underground shopping malls, car parks… In the capital, more than 3,000 places have been identified as being able to serve as refuge in the event of a bombardment. According to Reuters, this represents an area of ​​nearly 24km2 accessible in the event of an attack. These places are identified by red signs indicating in Korean and English “refuge”. A government platform and an official application allow you to locate the nearest shelter.

But accustomed to the North Korean threat, which hasn’t resulted in a real attack since the 1953 armistice, most Seoul residents don’t even pay attention to those signs anymore. Nearly three quarters of them did not know where the nearest shelter was, according to a 2014 survey reported by the Korean daily Chosun Ilbo.

Despite the official instructions available on government sites and the existence of these shelters, “people are not really aware” of the procedure to follow, agrees Pascal Dayez-Burgeon, specialist in Korea. In Seoul, despite the proximity to the border, no one has the feeling of living under threat, abounds the researcher: “It’s been 50 years that the North says every day that it will destroy the South and its capital, more no one believes it.”

The embassies have an evacuation plan for their nationals. “For France, there is a meeting every month which reminds us of the places where we should gather according to the district”, explains Pascal Dayez-Burgeon, acknowledging that “in the event of a real crisis, everyone will try to flee, there will be traffic jams, and it will be a mess”.