Insights and Analysis

From Korea: ‘We Sent Them Rice, They Send Us Bombs’

December 1, 2010

By Edward Reed

While most of the news from Korea focuses on the division between South and North, there has always been another sharp division – that between the political right and left in the South. So deep has been the distrust between the two camps that polls showed that some one-third of the South Korean public did not fully accept the findings of the official government investigation that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the South Korean warship Cheonan in March this year. That deep and persistent division within democratic South Korea has always been a factor that North Korea could play to its advantage in its decades-long standoff with the South.

The shelling of civilian-inhabited Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea on November 23, broadcast in almost real time on South Korean television, has changed all of that. It is not that South Koreans have experienced a sudden upsurge of trust in their government leaders. In fact, President Lee Myung-bak and the South Korean military have come in for blistering criticism from both the left and the right since the attack. Rather, in the eyes of the vast majority of South Koreans, North Korea has lost the last scrap of claim to being a legitimate counterpart for negotiating a peaceful resolution of the national division. As people here say, the North has intentionally attacked and killed civilian people of the same blood-line. That the artillery shelling was carried out in broad daylight leaves no room for doubt about its origin or its intention. The late and lame excuse by North Korea that the South was to blame for the casualties because it used civilians as human shields only added fuel to the flames.

People in the street as well as in media editorials have quickly drawn the same conclusion:  For 15 years we have given them rice and fertilizer to keep them alive and now they have turned our gifts into weapons used to attack us. And others have observed that the North Korean slogan “Unification will come at the tip of our bayonets” can no longer be dismissed as heated rhetoric. This has been a game-changing moment for South Korean politics. The mood has fundamentally shifted. President Lee apparently did not realize this at first, and has had to scramble to ratchet up his rhetoric and his response to stay in pace with public opinion. The sentiment expressed in the editorial headline in one of the three most respected dailies, “Time for Retaliation,” appears to be widely felt. The major liberal newspaper, Hankyoreh, stated in an editorial:  “This is a truly inhumane and barbaric outrage that cannot be justified on any grounds.” While no one wants to provoke a general conflict, and there are voices calling for robust diplomacy as the best response, the overriding sentiment seems to be gaining ground that to continue to hold back will only invite further provocations by the North.

South Koreans’ mounting distrust of China as a reliable broker has also been deepened. Since early this year China has gone out of its way to provide legitimacy for the father-to-son leadership transition in North Korea. Recently, a senior Chinese leader defended China’s entry into the Korean conflict against U.S. and United Nations forces in 1950 as “a noble and just [decision] that safeguarded peace while resisting invaders.” Then, in the immediate wake of the recent attack, rather than offering condolences to the South and publicly condemning the attack, China seemed to regard both South and North as equally responsible. China appears now to be seeking to play a stabilizing role, but it will have its work cut out to repair the damage it has inflicted on its image among South Koreans.

Only a few years ago, the value of South Korea’s military alliance with the United States was being questioned by influential sectors of South Korean society. Today, as Koreans watch the U.S. naval task force putting on a show of force in Korea’s West Sea, the sense of relief is palpable. Sitting in the Command Center of the Combined Forces Command on Yongsan Military Base in Seoul on November 29, President Lee was heard to say to General Walter Sharp, U.S.F.K. and Combined Forces Commander, “I am thankful towards President Obama for so quickly making such a joint military exercise possible.” It is clear that President Lee spoke for most if not all South Koreans.

With the end of the joint naval exercises, diplomats are now consulting on how to reduce tensions and return to dialogue. But South Korea will not be able to give priority to dialogue until the Korean public receives some satisfaction from the North for what South Koreans consider an unpardonable offense. Tempers will cool over time, politics will re-emerge, and Koreans will return to their very busy daily lives; but the shift in how the North is perceived by most South Koreans is likely to persist, forcing Seoul to reexamine its strategic approach to dealing with Pyongyang.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related topics: North Korea


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