South Korea's mixed messages to North: anger, and a Christmas tree

South Koreans erected a huge Christmas tree that can reportedly be seen from the North's side of the demilitarized zone. But a sense of brotherhood has been sharply strained by the North's recent attack.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
South Korean Christians sing a hymn in front of a Christmas tree on top of the Aegibong Peak Observatory just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Gimpo, west of Seoul on Dec. 21.

Christmas may be the last thing on the minds of many North Koreans this year, but that didn’t stop their neighbors to the south on Tuesday from sending a message designed to raise their spirits.

The method of delivery was a giant, brightly lit Christmas tree, reportedly visible from Kaesong, the border city on the northern side of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South. The tree serves a propaganda role, reminding of repression and the lack of religious freedom in the North. Yet even in the tumult of plummeting North-South relations, it may also serve as a beacon of continuing Korean brotherhood.

That sense of brotherhood may account for something that observers say has been noticeably absent since North Korean forces unleashed an artillery barrage onto the villagers of Yeonpyeong Island: the kind of mass protests for which South Korea has become known.

Over the past decade, the US was frequently the target. The streets filled with protesters in 2002 after two US soldiers ran over and killed two South Korean schoolgirls. Two years ago, Koreans vented their fury again when imports of US beef were controversially resumed.

But the recent attack failed to yield an outpouring of comparable magnitude, despite a year of military confrontations and casualties – a contrast that may speak to the ties that bind across the border.

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“It is really ridiculous. Forty-six sailors were killed on the [sinking of the South Korean naval vessel] Cheonan in March and this time two soldiers and two civilians have been killed by the bombardment,” says Shin Woong-jae, a photographer from Seoul. “Why isn’t there any protest against North Korea?”

Politics, it seems, looms large. Like elsewhere in the world, the streets, says award-winning Korean War historian Andrew Salmon, are “the province of the left.” But there are also blood ties; Koreans on either side of the divided peninsula seeing themselves as one. For the 10 years before current South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took power, continues Mr. Salmon, there was a left-leaning government that extended an olive branch north.

Jin Hyung-won, a student educated in China, goes further. “If another country did what North Korea did, I am pretty sure South Koreans would protest,” he says. “What matters to the general public is a nationalistic attitude toward the North because the North and South share a culture; we are brothers.” For people on the left, he adds, that makes it difficult to criticize North Korea “too much.”

In that sense, analysts point to the long history of foreign invasion withstood by the Korean peninsula as a whole – linking the modern enemy states with a shared historical grievance.

For others, nervousness about the unpredictable North must also be factored into the equation. “South Koreans know that if they do protest, it will make North Korea more angry,” says Kim Song-eun, a student from Daegu.

The Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong may or may not have been lobbed purely in the direction of the Southern-controlled outcrop’s marine garrison – the North claims its territory was fired upon first – but the world at large stood aghast as it became clear two civilians were among the dead. Local media quickly reported the incident as the first attack on Southern land since the end of the fratricidal Korean War in 1953.

Though some conservative hawks would have struck back with greater force, milder voices on the right who have taken to the streets in protest speak in terms of “self defense.”

“We don’t want to make war on this peninsula,” says lawyer Suh Suk-koo. Still, he laments the smaller numbers demonstrating, though he argues that the majority of South Koreans likely “don’t like the North Korean dictatorship.”

Feelings of kinship may be prominent and rooted – at least in recent times – in the role of foreign powers in splitting the Korean peninsula, says Salmon. But, he cautions, “It is important to distinguish between left-wing forces who are antigovernment and people who are pro-North Korea. It is perfectly normal in a democracy to be in opposition. It is quite another to be supporting a state killing your own people.”

Yet Salmon says some of the fraternal goodwill could be waning in light of the combined 50 deaths wrought by the attack on the South Korean warship – blamed on the North – and the Yeonpyeong shelling.

The sentiments of Oh Young-jin, who until recently says he felt a strong sense of connection with the people of the North, may provide some validation for Salmon’s assertion.

“There was a basic sense of unity shared between North Korea and South Korea – that has been compromised by the two incidents this year,” says the former presidential house foreign press secretary. His parents were from North Korea, he continues. “So even though I used to have an affinity with North Koreans, after the two incidents my sense of brotherhood is forgotten.”

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