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South Korea sends mixed message with war games, unification tax

South Korea President Lee on Sunday emphasized coexistence and proposed a unification tax to prepare for any future collapse of North Korea. Monday, he expressed strong support for this week's war games with the United States.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / August 16, 2010

The USS Blue Ridge rides at anchor in a naval port in Busan, South Korea, Aug. 16, waiting for Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States. Tens of thousands of South Korean and US troops launched a fresh round of military drills Monday despite North Korea's warning that it would retaliate with a "merciless counterblow" for the exercises Pyongyang considers a rehearsal for invasion.

AP Photo/Newsis


Seoul, South Korea

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak faces a storm of criticism if he tries to push through a hefty “unification tax” to help cover the immense costs of reunifying North and South Korea in the event of the collapse of North Korea.

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 “It’s a crazy idea,” says Chang Sung-eun, who works as a personal trainer in central Seoul. “He is a very rich man. He doesn’t care. I don’t have money.”

Then again, Koreans wonder how serious Mr. Lee is about the plan, presented Sunday on the 65th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule. Standing in front of the massive newly reconstructed gate of a one-time royal palace that was destroyed by the Japanese, Lee said that “inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm,” in which “the two sides choose coexistence instead of confrontation; progress instead of stagnation.”

But less than 24 hours later, on Monday, he called for “training thoroughly” in joint exercises this week involving 55,000 South Korean and 30,000 American troops.

The remarks reflect the dual outlook of a society that is prospering as never before but anxious about rising tensions in the wake of the sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

“On the hand, we need to talk about unification,” says Choi Jin-wook, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “And we need also to talk about deterrence.”

Greater significance of these war games

The war games, called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, an annual affair, assume greater significance this year “when inter-Korean tensions have heightened,” said an official on Lee’s staff. Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea, called these games, conducted in large part in computerized displays of combat, “the largest joint theater exercises in the world.”

The games are sure to be all the more upsetting to North Korea since they're beginning soon after two sets of air and naval exercises. South Korean ships and planes finished five days of exercises a week ago in the Yellow Sea, and late last month, US and South Korean ships and planes conducted still larger exercises on the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula, off Korea's east coast.