Saturday, August 08, 2009

Insights on the South Korean view on North Korea

The current crisis over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons has unmistakable parallels with the events of early 1994. Tensions spiked as North Korea warned it would consider any sanctions an "act of war".

There is, however, one key difference. In 1994, the US was prepared to attack the North Korean nuclear complex, says Kim Young-sam, who was South Korea's president at the time.

South Koreans' continuing quandary in the long-running nuclear standoff is that they may loathe North Korea for having invaded the South in 1950, for starving its people and for building nuclear weapons. But with the carnage of the Korean War still fresh in their collective memory, they also recoil whenever they sense the US is pushing North Korea too hard, fearful this might provoke Pyongyang to lash out in a suicidal attack.

In 1994, Kim said: "The Americans were quite adamant about attacking Yongbyon. They had 33 warships positioned off the east coast. I said absolutely no to the United States unilaterally bombing Yongbyon. The North Korean artillery would have been rolling out within three minutes, and Seoul would have turned into a sea of fire."

His rush to shield North Korea from an American strike speaks volumes about the complicated mix of disdain and fear, kinship and even nationalistic pride South Koreans -- even many politically conservative, anti-communist South Koreans -- feel about the North.

As the government engaged North Korea, surveys showed that the South Korean public considered the US a bigger threat to peace than North Korea. One liberal politician said that if the US planned to attack Yongbyon, he would lead thousands of "peace-loving" South Koreans across the border to form a human shield around the nuclear complex.

Whichever side they take, ordinary South Koreans hardly see the nuclear crisis in global terms, but rather within the highly local context of how to end the war and possibly reunify the peninsula.

[Straits Times]

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