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.
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Litany of criticism
Beneath such reassuring words, however, runs a litany of criticism from both conservatives and liberals.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures North Korean attack
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While conservatives called for” retaliation,” an important, and often highly vocal, leftist, and liberal minority believes the attack reflected the failure of dialogue between the two Koreas.
That view was evident in the response of Hankyoreh, a liberal newspaper that is much smaller in circulation than any of the “big three” but remains the voice of a significant minority.
In measured words, careful to blame North Korea for a “provocation,” Hankyoreh said the incident “clearly shows the severity of the uncertainty and risk spawned by the complete breakdown of dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. “
Nonetheless, said Hankyoreh, the incident also “shows the structural frailty of inter-Korean relations in their current stage.”
Critics on the other side of the political divide blasted President Lee and South Korea’s military command for not having responded more decisively.
Lee was taken to task for having stated that the military should respond “sternly” while also saying there should be “no escalation” of the conflict.
“A lot of people think that response was confusing,” says Shim Jae-hoon, a long-time poitical analyst. “Lee’s remark was understandable but misleading.”
Mr. Shim surmises that many Koreans believe “there was a great chance, when the North Korean cannon began bombarding, for stronger retaliation wiping out their shore batteries.”
Mr. Lee Jong-min of Yonsei, who also serves as part-time ambassador for security affairs for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is more critical.
“This is the first time they’ve fired on Korean territory since the Korean War,” he says. “If a third party shot on Russian territory or on Chinese territory, there would be an immediate respose.”
Lee decries what he says is the widespread view “that it’s because of the hard-line stance of our government that North Korea was forced” to attack. “That kind of psychology is totally beyond me."
Hankyoreh did not exactly take that view but minimized the dispute in the Yellow Sea over the Northern Limit Line, below which the South bans North Korean vessels, calling it “a situation in which a small misunderstanding can lead to a major one,” and “a small clash can flare at any moment into a serious military confrontation.”
That view recalls the decade of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation between North and South Korea. Kim Dae-jung, as president from 1998 to 2003, not only met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il but agreed on a wide range of cultural and commercial ties. Kim’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, carried out the same policy until stepping down in February 2008 when he was replaced by the conservative incumbent, President Lee. Both Kim and Roh died last year.
“During the Roh administration,” Hankyoreh noted, “any unintended clashes” would “immediately set in motion channels for emergency dialogue,” in which “the situation was managed appropriately before any escalation.” This time, the paper said, “ there was no senior-level emergency communication channel operating at all between North Korea and South Korea” and that explained “ why this incident warrants more serious concern. “
Conservative newspapers, however, are not inclined to take such a charitable view.
Denouncing the attack as “a war crime,” Dong A Ilbo, historically a liberal paper that has turned conservative in recent years, said the attack was “launched at the instigation of Kim Jong-il” and South Korea “must single him out as the culprit and hold him accountable. “
The Seoul government “can hardly afford to negotiate with Pyongyang after it bombarded residential areas,” said Dong A Ilbo. “This incident has demonstrated yet again how dangerous and meaningless dialogue and negotiations are in trying to change Pyongyang.”