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.

Lee Jin-man/AP
South Korean survivors arrive as they are surrounded by relatives and media at a port in Incheon, South Korea, Wednesday, Nov. 24.

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.

South Korea’s “big three” conservative newspapers led the media condemnation of North Korea’s attack on an off-shore island in a battle against a return to complacency among many ordinary Koreans.

“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.

Litany of criticism

Beneath such reassuring words, however, runs a litany of criticism from both conservatives and liberals.

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.”

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