SEOUL, South Korea - The morning after the South Korean navy ship Cheonan was sunk in March 2010, I awoke to a column of army soldiers in camouflage battle dress climbing my hill in north-central Seoul, with heavy machine guns and entrenching tools in tow.

The sinking of the Cheonan, widely attributed to a North Korean torpedo (a finding North Korea denies), killed 46 sailors and put the country into a state of high alert, and the pre-election rhetoric of South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's conservative-party government toward the North was grim and unforgiving.

"We had been forgetting the reality that this country faces the most belligerent regime in the world," he said.

That morning, the streets of Seoul - just 30 miles south of Panmunjom and the Demilitarized Zone - were unusually full of jeeps and transports bearing soldiers. And on the subway, the same topic was on everyone's lips: "What to do about North Korea?"

Still, the striking thing about that day and about the weeks that followed, which were my first experience with the periodic breakdowns in relations between the Koreas, was how completely ordinary life in the capital remained.

Living in America and hearing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, I had imagined air-raid sirens and a population fleeing to bunkers. Instead, I saw people calmly going about their daily lives: a nation heading to work and going shopping, children attending school, and businessmen sharing drinks in a karaoke bar at day's end.

My South Korean friends - all of the younger generation that had grown up in an age of prosperity - explained that North Korea is a problem, not an enemy, that talk of war benefits no one, and that it is misguided to blame the North Korean people for the actions of their government.

Someday, the situation will improve and perhaps the two Koreas will be unified, they hope, but in the meantime they are resigned to living next door to the world's biggest problem child - a starving nation run by a bellicose monomaniac - and bearing patiently and without undue alarm that nation's desperate cries for attention.

In the streets of Itaewon, Seoul's tourist quarter, travelers browsed for knickknacks, and tailors offered fittings for handmade suits. Throughout the city, I did not see a single gas mask.

The division at the heart of the Korean Peninsula was still a raw one, and among the older residents, who remembered the Korean War and the devastation and misery that followed, there were angry words for a North Korea that simply could not keep the peace.

Still, what I saw of Seoul that day was the heart of what it means to live here. It is a city with its own unique set of problems, even anxieties, but it's hardly a city under siege.