South Koreans see North Korea's restraint as calculated

On Yeonpyeong Island and on the streets of Seoul, South Koreans say that North Korea is hoping to portray itself as a voice of reason by not responding to South Korea's artillery drills Monday.

Truth Leem/Reuters
People watch a television news report on the South Korean military's planned firing drill on Yeonpyeong Island, at a railroad station in central Seoul on Dec. 20.

North Korea Monday failed to follow through on its pointed threats to deliver a double dose of retaliation after the South carried out a live-fire artillery drill near the disputed sea border between the two states.

But for many relieved South Koreans, the decision not to respond was merely a bluff intended to extract concessions – and appease an unimpressed international community.

The 90-minute-long afternoon exercise off the southwest coast of Yeonpyeong island passed off without even the hint of a countermeasure from the North, according to observers on the scene.

As the night progressed with still no sign of another attack after the drill’s 4 p.m. close, fears that the frontline outcropping would be the center of another escalation in tensions were gradually quelled. With it, a realigned calm appeared to descend over South Korea.

For Jung Sung-san, a defector who escaped from North Korea in 1995, the non-response was inevitable.

“The fact North Korea is not responding to this drill means they have already calculated their own tactics under the table,” says Mr. Jung, the director of a play on life inside a North Korean prison camp. “I think the joint South Korean-US drills that happened in November involving the USS George Washington already showed the North we are not going to cave in.”

Choi Dae-suk, a North Korea expert based at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul, took a similar stance. He believes the North made a “rational decision” not to respond having already demonstrated during the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong that the maritime border was disputed territory. “For the South Korean government, because the area where the drill was practiced is our own territory,” Choi continued, “it was a rational decision to proceed with the drill.”

Yet he believes the North may have decided that by not delivering on its latest threats, it could emerge as the voice of reason – in turn making the South “look like they did something wrong against the advice of international community members.”

Others argued that the presence of US military personnel prevented the promised attacks.

On the island, residents who chose to stay put were sent scurrying for the refuge of air raid shelters in the morning as the South Korean military readied their guns. Around the same time, word was emerging from the United Nations Security Council that attempts to meet consensus on denouncing North Korea’s strikes last month had failed. China shot down an agreement by refusing to condemn its neighbor and ally.

Emotions inside the shelters were running high. When the South’s guns started to roar, some of the islanders – edgy and nervous – began to lash out.

“Some people were slamming the doors and some were misunderstanding what the fire was,” said Lee Yu-jin, a reporter with a Seoul daily who was on the island when the order came to seek refuge. “They just wanted it to be over. They were inside for nine hours, it was cold, and they wanted to go home.”

For Oh Ji-lim, an older islander, the drill may have been the final straw. “I am not sure I can live here the rest of my life now,” she said. Fellow resident Shim Yu-taek was more circumspect, claiming: “North Korea is not going to fire back so it is OK.”

On the bustling streets of downtown Seoul, meanwhile, where the fruits of the South’s economic miracle are as bright as the ubiquitous neon lights, there was a sense of agreement.

“Even though there are risks between the two countries regarding security, I think that North Korea is just playing with us, hoping that they can get something through provocations,” said Ahn Young-eun, a young kindergarten teacher, who indicated she agreed with the decision to push ahead with the drill. “I think the tensions between North and South will be shaped by the US government.”

Not everyone shared the sense of calm. Kim Man-ki, a clothing vendor in a busy commercial area in central Seoul, reckons the exercises should not have been carried out. The threats, he says, were just too grave. “When the drills started today, I felt a great fear,” he confides, pointing to his fellow street vendors. “For people like us, it is a direct blow because foreigners will not come to Korea.”

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