Is South Korea Finally Ready to Cut North Korea Off?

kji-step.jpgThe New York Times, in a report bylined in Incheon, says that the Yeonpyeong attack has caused a significant shift in South Korean views about the North.

After years of backing food aid and other help for the North despite a series of provocations that included two nuclear tests, many South Koreans now say they feel betrayed and angry. “I think we should respond strongly toward North Korea for once instead of being dragged by them,” said Cho Jong-gu, 44, a salesman in Seoul. “This time, it wasn’t just the soldiers. The North mercilessly hurt the civilians.

That is not to say that he or other South Koreans will really push for a South Korean strike; people south of the border are well aware that the North could devastate Seoul with its weapons. But the sentiments reflect a change of mood in a country where people have willed themselves to believe that their brotherly ties to the North would override the ideological chasm between the impoverished Communist North and the thriving capitalist South.

The attack seemed to challenge one of the underlying assumptions of a decade of inter-Korean rapprochement, which had slowed but not stopped under President Lee Myung-bak: that two nations’ shared Koreanness trumped political differences, making a return to cold war-era hostilities not only undesirable but also impossible. “I never thought they would attack us people of the same race,” said Hong Jae-soon, 55, a homemaker who fled Yeonpyeong with most of the island’s other 1,350 residents after the attack.

If this report is accurate, it suggests that sympathy for North Korea may shift from being a relatively insignificant factor in a politician’s electability to a political liability. It may mean that Lee Myung Bak will have political cover to do what he should have done years ago and close Kaesong for good (Kaesong’s business model always depended on attracting foreign investment, and North Korea pretty much foreclosed any chance of that with some belligerent meddling starting in late 2008). It could also mean the end of inter-Korean food and fertilizer aid, which was never sufficiently monitored to prevent it from being diverted to the military and those inhabiting the top tier of the North’s political caste system. The end of South Korea’s remaining aid to the North would represent a very significant policy shift. It would also be, in my view, a more appropriate response than military action, something that feels better to call for in the abstract than after the next shells start falling. Until now, South Korean voters weren’t ready to cut up Kim Jong Il’s credit card. Has that changed?

I’m not so sure. First, and provided the North Koreans don’t do something else stupid first, it’s probably too early to tell how much of this anger will dissipate in the coming weeks (the Chosun Ilbo reports that the North may test fire one of its new medium range missiles next). Second, I still don’t see much polling data to back up an anecdotal report from a place that’s uncomfortably close to where the shells landed. This is where I need your help.

There are certainly a lot of interesting things I learn by living and listening in Washington, but one thing I really can’t assess from here is how much truth there is to reports like this. One of my big regrets is that my job and my family have made it difficult to spent much time in Korea since my DEROS date, which means that everything I read and hear about political attitudes in South Korea is based on my increasingly outdated view of an unusually fluid electorate. Just from reading the papers and watching the polls, I’d have thought that attitudes in the South had moderated and stabilized substantially, but then came Mad Cow, which caused me to question all of my conclusions and realize that many of the sentiments of 2002 still lay latent. I have the general sense that gradually, and notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, the reality of the Cheonan Incident has taken hold, and that the North’s pretty-much-undeniable atrocity at Yeonpyeong will buttress that conclusion and shift the consensus on North Korea away from “they wouldn’t” and toward “how could they?” But how much, and for how long?

Another general sense I have is that many South Koreans probably leaned toward viewing USFK as an unnecessary evil in 2002, but that most probably see us as a necessary evil now. Beyond this, there are still two political extremes that remain mostly static. And all of what I’ve just described is subject to dramatic shifts based on things whose significance might completely escape most Americans. But this is the guesswork of someone who doesn’t live in Korea anymore. Maybe you know better. If you do live in Korea, and especially if you’re a Korean speaker, I’d like to hear your assessment of the mood on the street right now.


  1. Joshua, my impression that the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island has shifted the views of Koreans on the Cheonan sinking, but I’ve seen no statistics recently. I did speak with an older Korean yesterday, a man in his seventies, and he seconded my impression, but he’s an old refugee from the North who already knew whom to blame. I thus have no hard evidence.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  2. “I never thought they would attack us people of the same race,” said Hong Jae-soon, 55, a homemaker who fled Yeonpyeong with most of the island’s other 1,350 residents after the attack.

    A shockingly ignorant comment from someone born just after the end of the Korean War and who is old enough to remember the KAL bombing.

  3. Sonagi wrote:

    A shockingly ignorant comment from someone born just after the end of the Korean War and who is old enough to remember the KAL bombing.

    Thanks to the legitimating efforts of historical revisionist scholars like Bruce Cumings, and chinboista teachers who infiltrated the school system in the 1970s and 1980s, it does not surprise me that there are still some people like Ms Hong in her age cohort.

    As for the KAL bombing, if you mean this one then I don’t fault her for having doubts. 😉

  4. Since I returned over a year ago, I haven’t discussed non-academic things with the groups of Korean teachers I teach. The artillery attack is the first time I held full discussions in class about a non-academic topic.

    The views displayed over recent events with this group of about 40 Korean adults ranging from about 25-55 years old generally fit what I’d expect given what I heard from many more Korean adults in the late 1990s. I’ve written in other comments specifics about what these teachers had to say the first two days after the artillery attack. I’ll just add this:

    Subsequent attacks on South Korean targets in the near future will push a lasting shift in SK thinking, but the artillery attack has not dramatically shifted the thinking before the Cheonan attack.

    And given the current mood, South Koreans will balk at maintaining any cut off of material and monetary aid —— if they believe the North is about to collapse.

    — Whatever greater mistrust of North Korea has risen with the Cheonan and artillery incidents — everyone I’ve heard does not want unification now. The couple of Koreans in the group I’m in contact with were for a strong military response against the North. The most common trend among them was to seek a way to offer cover for the North and restore the previous calm in their thinking about relations with the North.

    —- But, all of them, doves and hawks, said they do not want to see the North collapse or driven into all out war.

    That means they will not support consistent tough measures against Pyongyang. Not without further deadly provocation.

  5. A short version: What I heard last week from the small group of Koreans I talk to daily does not match the descriptions of anger and a shift in attitude I’m reading about in the press…….I think long-time Korea watchers can get an illustration of this by watching the videos of the street protests last week and then reading the press accounts of them. The protests were nothing but the very small protests by the usual anti-NK groups with the level of violence they have used in the past to gain attention due to their small numbers.

  6. I was helping with the translation for a CNN interview our chief ed gave to CNN on Friday last week. His point was that North Korea, for the first time in recent memory (which is all most people can be expected to retain), has killed, seemingly in cold blood, civilians, and that this is probably Pyongyang’s biggest error in more than 20 years.

    Of course he is biased, had no statistics to go on, and was definitely reflecting his own preferences, but we can say that while South Koreans are by and large indifferent to the deaths of soldiers in manageably small batches of, say, 49 (perhaps oddly, given that theirs is not a professional army), the random shelling of residential areas was a step too far for all conservatives and a lot of fence sitters.

    And we should not forget that it was anger at his Neville Chamberlain-esque inaction over both the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong that drove (former)-Defense Minister Kim Tae Young to resign last week. Many see him as a scapegoat for Lee Myung Bak himself, but that is by the by. Either way, that degree of public disattisfaction is not isolated; it has been in place since the Cheonan. And it must, in some sense, reflect a deeper belief that South Korea needs to respond to these provocations.

    However, that said, in the spirit of acting as one’s own worst enemy, many South Koreans will still manage to convince themselves that President Lee is the biggest problem here, and of course very few people are ready for reunification, which would be the hard-to-avoid conclusion of thinking about North Korea any other way than as a troubled, and troublesome, little brother.

  7. There’s a good amount of North Korea stuff in the latest wikileaks dump. ( I don’t have time to go through all of it but basically russia doesn’t consider DPRK nukes to be a threat and China wants bilateral US-DPRK talks. China seems pretty hypocritical in the cables because it agrees vehemently with the US’ policy on Iran nukes and has apparently made clear that it will severely reduce trade with Iran if further development towards nuclear weapons continues. With North Korea, of course, it will do nothing and, like Russia, it considers DPRK nukes to be trivial in nature.

    Also interesting is “a planned North Korean flight to Iran of proliferation concern” reported in 2008. We sent this cable to China. I wonder if they did anything about it…

  8. The Chosun Ilbo reports that “Nearly 70 percent of the South Koreans support limited military actions in response to North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last Tuesday.” This jibes with what I’ve been hearing from Korean friends and acquaintances. Even moderate progressive groups are getting into the act. The PDSP—\the group that sent the letter to the UNSC in support of North Korea’s position vis-à-vis the Cheonan—strongly condemned North Korea’s attack.

    If anything, two good things have come of this attack.

    1) South Koreans are finally waking up to the North Korean threat and dropping the “well, they’re people of the same blood!” nonsense.

    2) This has bolstered the already strong case in favor of the “North Korea attacked the Cheonan” hypothesis in two important respects:

    a) First, it clearly demonstrated that the North is more than capable and willing to make unprovoked barbaric attacks against South Korean targets.

    b) North Korean shells were found to have handwritten numbers on them which shows that numbering weapons is in fact a common North Korean practice and that such marking can perfectly survive the heat and pressure of a massive explosion.

  9. “North Korean shells were found to have handwritten numbers on them which shows that numbering weapons is in fact a common North Korean practice and that such marking can perfectly survive the heat and pressure of a massive explosion.”

    Very interesting. Where did you learn this?

    Jeffery Hodges

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  10. South Korean netizens said the find disproves skeptics who claimed that it makes no sense for North Korea to number high-tech ordnance with a magic marker, because it shows that the North does exactly that. Conspiracy theorists claimed that it was South Korean investigators who put the serial number on the torpedo to put the blame on North Korea.


    This is one of the reasons I tuned out when I started my job where I currently worked. Facing being away from my wife for around a year, I didn’t figure I’d have the patience to have the kinds of conversations I had with adults last go around…

    I had to listen to this argument last week. It was the most common thought expressed when I brought up the topic of the artillery attack and the conversation switched to the Cheonan…

    When the willingness to distrust the government in Seoul is so high – and the Sunshine Policy habit of wanting to see the best in Pyongyang —- sigh ——–

    A magic marker makes you believe it was your own government, not a nation with huge concentration camps —- sigh —–

  11. No. I don’t think so.

    The fact that non-conspiracy theorists now have “good ammunition” to use against those who disbelieved the South Korean government when it showed evidence that NK sank the Cheonan with a torpedo.

    That means some South Koreans quickly wanted to look for any reason to deny that the North was responsible and/or doubt the SK government.

    Several of the teachers I teach said just that — before this report came out about the artillery shells. I believe I mentioned it the other day after I first talked to them about the artillery attack: The artillery naturally led to the mention of the Cheonan and one of the immediate responses to that topic was that – they didn’t really believe the South Korean government, because the torpeodo parts had Korean writing on it, and North Korea would have removed any Korean writing on it if it wanted to secretly attack a South Korean ship.

    Several of them advanced that idea and I heard it in both big classes.

    Again, this was before the news yesterday about the writing on the artillery shell.

    (Another teacher also said that she had heard that probably an American submarine sank the ship by accident and the South Korean government was covering it up by using phony “evidence”. — but that was the wildest story. The other ones in class who mentioned not believing the evidence just left it up in the air about what they thought really happened.)

  12. My reason for asking was that the numbers on the shells have demonstrated that the North does mark munitions with handwritten numbers and that these markings can survive an explosion, contrary to the North’s denials and the skeptics’ claims.

    This is thus positive news that refutes the denials and the claims that we’d already heard during the Cheonan controversy.

    I therefore wondered why you seemed disappointed to read this.

    Jeffery Hodges

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  13. Unfortunately, our contacts in the ROK tell us that there’s still a great deal of apathy. I fear that this will blow over and it will be business as usual in a few months.

  14. HJH,

    That is what I figured. For me, the fact a fair number of average Koreans were willing to entertain Hanchongnyon-type reasoning to dismiss the possibility the North sunk the Cheonan (and disparage the South Korean government) —- outweighs the dent markings on the artillery shell will likely put into their mentality.

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