Why South Koreans think North Korean conflict won't escalate
In the wake of the North Korean attack on a South Korean island, the sense among many Koreans is they could carry on as usual. But some warn against complacency.
Seoul, South Korea
Outrage over North Korean bombardment of a hapless South Korean village on a small island in the Yellow Sea faded Wednesday amid the sense that the conflict was not likely to expand into a real threat against the South.Skip to next paragraph
“Time for Retaliation,” was the headline over an editorial in JoongAng Ilbo. “North Korea’s provocation has gone beyond our imagination,” it read. “With our memories of the Korean War still vivid, this massive attack confirms again the grim reality that such a tragedy can be repeated at any time.”
Despite such imprecations, however, the sense among many Koreans was they could carry on as usual after an incident that many believed might go down in history as just another of those periodic bloody episodes staged by the North Koreans. Then, too, some still believe that dialogue with the North – as occurred in the decade of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation, before President Lee Myung-bak's election three years ago – might have forestalled such an incident.
“This is one of our many dilemmas,” says Lee Jong-min a dean at Yonsei University. “We are so used to living with the North Korean threat and just say, ‘Those North Koreans are crazy.’” That response, he says, is in itself “crazy” considering that the attack was “the first time they’ve shot at Korean territory since the Korean War.”
That reality assumed even grimmer proportions Wednesday when the death toll rose to four. Two marines were reported Tuesday to have been killed and a score of others, both marines and civilians, were known to have been injured, but not until more than 24 hours later were two civilians added to the list of the dead. About 80 homes and buildings were destroyed in the shelling.
The sense among many people, however, is that such violence won't spread any time soon. Confidence was fortified by the announcement that the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier the USS George Washington will lead a strike force into the Yellow Sea on Sunday for five days of exercises with South Korean ships.
The US command here called the exercises “defensive in nature” and said they were planned well before Tuesday’s attack. Nonetheless, to many Koreans they will come as a definite response to the North Korean bombardment, a warning not to strike again.
“The United States is moving closer and closer to the South Korean government,” says Albert Kim a retired United Nations official, after hearing the George Washington was on the way with an air wing of fighter planes on its decks.”The Americans seem very happy about South Korea.”
The sense of US- Korean rapport was fortified by news from the Blue House, the center of presidential power, of a 30-minute phone conversation between President Obama and South Korea’s President Lee. The two presidents seemed to see eye-to-eye in their condemnation of the North Korean attack, their desire for China to bring more pressure on the North Koreans, and the need for retaliation.