Disillusioned South Korea weighs response to North Korean flare-up

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak made a tough-sounding speech today, but his critics say it comes too late. US and South Korean warships engaged in 'high-intensity' war games while NKorea makes new threats.

Ahn Young-joon/Reuters
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks to the nation during a news conference at the presidential house in Seoul on Nov. 29. Lee on Monday denounced North Korea’s attack on a remote island in the Yellow Sea nearly one week ago as 'a crime against humanity.'

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, in an address to the nation Monday, denounced North Korea’s attack on a remote island in the Yellow Sea nearly one week ago as “a crime against humanity.”

Mr. Lee, talking on South Korea’s television networks, said he could hardly “contain [his] anger over the North Korean regime’s cruelty” in a bombardment that killed four people, including two civilians and two South Korean marines.

Moments after he spoke, North Korea again fired off a rhetorical blast against the United States and South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, 50 miles south of the scene, promising “merciless punishment.”

While the war of words raged between North and South Korea, the flotilla, led by the aircraft carrier George Washington, conducted what a South Korean military spokesman said were “high intensity” war games featuring mock attacks and target practice “on a 24-hour basis.”

The exercises are to wind up Wednesday, but concerns about the will of the South Koreans and the Americans to defend the South effectively were sure to persist. “It’s just rhetoric,” says Chang Ki-tak, a retired businessman, after listening to Lee’s speech. “It was a hard-line speech, but anybody can say those things.”

On the streets of Seoul, clouds of concern seem to have cast a shadow over the lives of people who might prefer to shrug off the attack on Yeonpyeong Island as an isolated episode, one of a series since the Korean War ended in an armistice – not a peace treaty – in July 1953.

“That’s the second attack we’ve had in recent months,” says Lee Nam-bok, a housewife otherwise preoccupied with making kimchi, the fermented and pickled vegetable that is traditionally made at this time of year. “Our president said the same thing after the attack on the Cheonan” – the naval vessel that was split in two by a torpedo and sank with a loss of the lives of 46 sailors in March.

The ambivalence of the South Koreans about how to retaliate for these attacks, or stave off another one, was evident in the conflicting signals about South Korea’s defense of the island.

First came a report that the South had positioned long-range artillery and rockets on the island and would conduct a drill. Then the South canceled the drill, clearly not wanting to risk a provocation that would give North Korea a pretext for another artillery barrage against the island or several other islands strung out within six to eight miles of the North Korean coastline.

Lee’s speech, cast as a strongly worded warning, reflected the disillusionment shared by many South Koreans after numerous attempts at getting North Korea to give up its hostile military-first policy as well as it nuclear program.

All South Korea got in return, Lee said, was “nuclear development and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island." As a result, he went on, “We know that it is difficult to expect North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and military brinkmanship on its own.”

An underlying concern was the real commitment of the US to the defense of its South Korean ally, despite the show of force of the naval exercise.

“That’s a very delicate issue,” says Kim Tae-woo, longtime analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The key question is: Will the US intervene? The US may want to limit its responsibility and intervention.”

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