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.