In The News

In the Rocket’s Shadow: South Korea Reacts

April 8, 2009

Notwithstanding media images of demonstrators in Seoul angrily denouncing North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket, the reaction among the general public in South Korea has been generally calm. The demonstrators in Seoul numbered in the hundreds (in a country where ten thousand is a modest turnout) and mostly represented small far-right groups. This is not to say that people are not worried. It’s just that, for South Koreans, this is only one more chapter in a very long saga with many crises, many ups and downs.

A survey by the Unification Advisory Council, taken just before the rocket test, indicated growing unease about rising tensions between South and North, a trend that started with the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak a little over a year ago. President Lee’s more conditional approach to inter-Korean relations, particularly with regard to provision of aid, brought a sharp rebuke from Pyongyang. Last summer’s shooting of a South Korean woman tourist who strayed outside a tourist enclave in the North by a North Korean soldier was a shock to South Koreans. More recently the North has put the squeeze on the joint industrial complex at Kaesong, just inside the North, where some 39,000 North Koreans are employed by 100 South Korean companies. The rocket test can only add to a further rise in the tension level.

However, few in the South seem to consider the launch itself dangerous. A Research & Research poll taken the day after the launch indicated that some 75% of South Koreans believe the North’s purpose was to gain an advantage in negotiations with the new American administration and bolster the pride and support of its own people. It is not seen as substantially increasing the security threat to the South. South Koreans have lived under the threat of missiles and long-range artillery for decades; a cross-Pacific rocket doesn’t seem to add significantly to the load of worry.

Another factor is that the Sunshine Policy of the last two South Korean administrations has left an ironic afterglow. While inter-Korean relations have deteriorated rapidly in the last year, this has not erased the impression created by a decade of cross-border contact that the North is like an angry poor cousin who is just trying to get attention and help. South Koreans now have a pretty clear picture of life in the North, and it is more a picture of weakness and decline than danger and threat.

Nevertheless, the rocket launch will reinforce some current trends in South Korean public opinion. First, it is likely to strengthen support for President Lee Myung-bak’s more conditional approach to the North that links inter-Korean cooperation to progress in denuclearization. Second, support for the continued basing of U.S. troops, which had weakened in recent years, appears to have been strengthened as a result of this reminder of South Korea’s vulnerability. It’s easy to be calm when the world’s strongest military power is in your corner.

The rocket test has also sparked a debate about how forcefully the South should respond. Some influential sources, as reflected in an editorial in the JoongAng Ilbo (April 6, 2009), one of the country’s three major dailies, are suggesting that the South arm itself with more advanced defense systems, such as its own missiles and even nuclear technology, just in case it has to go it alone with the North. There are also calls for renegotiating an agreement with the U.S. that currently limits the range of the South’s small missile arsenal (though the current range certainly reaches deep into the North). Less radical is the proposal that South Korea formally join the U.S.-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that coordinates efforts to intercept shipments of illicit arms and materials from suspected proliferators. This has already created a stir since the North has said that such a move would be considered a declaration of war.

It is not clear that most South Koreans would support such moves since they would surely ratchet up tensions on the peninsula. While a majority tell pollsters (Korea Economic Research Institute) that they support setting conditions on the South’s aid to the North, two-thirds also say that they would like to see President Lee initiate a direct dialogue with the North to reduce tensions (Hangil Research). This is the kind of nuanced response that Koreans have learned over decades living in the shadow of their belligerent cousins to the North. They seem to accept that there is always going to be an element of uncertainty, but when tensions begin to rise to a dangerous level they usually support efforts to lower the temperature. Foreign pundits and analysts can suggest strong measures, but Koreans know that no matter what happens they must share this small peninsula with the wayward regime in the North. They are also confident in what they have accomplished and seem convinced that, no matter how long the saga continues, history is on their side.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea. He can be reached at ereed@tafko.or.kr.

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