By Steven Borowiec
SEOUL, South Korea—South Korean officials promised “enormous retaliation” if more North Korean attacks follow the shelling Tuesday of tiny Yeonpyeong island. For more than one reason, they can be glad that hasn’t happened.
To match the North’s aggression would cause a destructive conflict; to do nothing is to appear weak. A taxi driver in Seoul told me North Korea would never have attacked if the South still had a strong leader, like one-time military dictator Park Chung-hee. The driver said policies of engagement with the North had made the South into a pushover, a country that can be attacked without fear of serious retaliation. Nowadays, it seems everyone has a theory on how to handle North Korea.
Regardless, some things are fairly clear. To justify its military-first regime, North Korea always needs fresh evidence that the outside world wishes ill on the country. Its leaders need to present some acceptable reason why so many North Koreans are starving.
According to North Korea expert Brian Myers, “If the U.S. and South Korea cannot do anything for fear of Seoul coming under attack, and are foolish enough to make this line of reasoning public, then a future ‘provocation’ is merely a matter of time.”
Twenty-something Kim Jong Un is expected to take over leadership from his aging father soon, but the training wheels aren’t off yet. Some consider the North Korean attack a kind of practice for the young Kim, a way to demonstrate experience in dealing with conflict.
Myers plays down that angle: “I don’t like the current Western journalist habit of attributing NK’s every show of belligerence to the succession dynamic. It implies that things will change in the future once Kim Jong Un is settled in. I don’t consider that likely; when you are a military-first state, you have to keep flexing your muscles on the world stage.”
North Korea claims to have taken exception to South Korean military exercises near its territory. South Korea and the United States regularly hold military exercises in the Yellow Sea.
“I fear that as the initial shock wears off, criticism will focus on President Lee’s [Lee Myung-bak] allegedly hard-line policy towards Pyongyang, as happened after the [South Korean naval ship] Cheonan sinking. In that case, the North will draw the logical conclusion that it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by escalating its acts of aggression,” Myers said in an e-mail.
Residents of Seoul have been mostly cool, almost indifferent. People who live here generally don’t get nearly as excited about the provocations of the Kim dynasty as people elsewhere. The questions that dominate the domestic conversation are concerned less with possible war and more with damage to the economy. Threat of violence is part of the background in Seoul; the city’s workaholic residents can’t allow themselves to be too bothered by it. After a sudden decline, the South Korean market recovered quickly the day after the incident.
Seo Myung-seok, vice president of Tong Yang Securities and one of the country’s leading financial analysts, expressed confidence in the country’s fundamentals. “The Korean stock market reflects the basic economic situation, and the situation in South Korea is good. I’m not concerned about North Korea’s crazy behavior,” he said.
Several hundred residents of Yeonpyeong and other islands were taken by coast guard boat to the mainland. Once there, most went to stay with relatives.
Evacuees who didn’t have other arrangements stayed at a large public bathhouse in Incheon near the coast. The bathhouse, usually a place of recreation, quickly became a makeshift refugee camp that contrasted sharply with its décor of fake palm trees and walls covered in pictures of idyllic beaches.
Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone still regard each other as members of the same tribe. Evacuee Kim Eung-seok said, “We don’t understand why people of the same blood are attacking each other.”
Island resident Jeong Young-ah still isn’t all that worried. “I don’t think they’d do anything serious there; it is a safe place to live. If they really wanted to start a war, they’d go up the Han River.” The most common sentiment from evacuees was a simple desire to resume regular life.
Some evacuees left behind family members who are helping to reconstruct damaged and destroyed buildings. Among those left on the island was the father of 15-year-old Bang Hye-soo. When asked about her mood, in the style typical of South Korean teenagers, Bang began to play with her mobile phone, shrugged and said, “It’s whatever.”
AP / Yonhap
South Korean villagers watch smoke rising from Yeonpyeong island near the border on Tuesday. North Korea fired dozens of artillery rounds at the South Korean island, setting the peninsula on edge once again.