The Globe and Mail
December 17, 2010
Patrons at the “DMZ” tofu restaurant don't need the muted television set in the corner to tell them when tensions are high between the two Koreas. They just need to peek out the window at the parking lot to see if there are soldiers in the trenches and pillboxes that surround their cars.
These days, the parking lot is seeing an unnerving amount of action. Late last month, troops were deployed there as the entire border went on high alert after North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. On Wednesday, patrons and staff at the DMZ restaurant (which is named after the nearby Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas) were sent scrambling for cover along with the rest of the country when air-raid sirens screamed and fighter jets conducted mock bombing raids, roaring over Seoul and other cities as South Korea carried out its largest civil-defence exercise since 1975.
Kim Dong-jo has been selling tofu here long enough to have seen countless such states of heightened alert in his parking lot. But this time is different, he says. A one-time supporter of Seoul's former “sunshine policy” of showering the North with aid and kindness, the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong Island crossed a red line for him. After years of believing his country should turn the other cheek to such provocations, he now wants to see South Korea punch back hard.
“Our retaliation [the day of the Yeonpyeong attack] was not enough,” Mr. Kim said, referring to the belated return of artillery fire that day. “Even if war results, we have to give North Korea a lesson.”
Such talk is suddenly the rule among South Koreans. After years of stoically going about their lives as Pyongyang staged provocation after provocation, television images of burned-out homes and stores on Yeonpyeong Island revealed that the patience South Koreans have shown toward their unpredictable neighbour actually does have a limit.
After White House envoy Bill Richardson landed in Pyongyang Thursday for talks with Kim Jong-il's regime, the rhetoric ratcheted. If South Korea proceeds with a military drill on Yeonpyeong, “second and third unpredictable self-defensive strikes will be made,” an unnamed senior North Korean military official said in comments carried by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. The Communist regime's official website, Uriminzokkiri, also warned Friday that “if war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula.”
At the same time, restraint is not a popular option in the South. Polling shows that more than two-thirds of South Koreans say they favour “limited military retaliation” to the latest attack by the North, even though any counterattack could trigger unforeseeable results.
The angry mood is driving a newly confrontational South Korean policy toward its neighbour. Since the Yeonpyeong attack, President Lee Myung-bak has replaced his defence minister and, earlier this week, his army boss. The media slammed both of them over what was seen as the country's tepid response to the artillery assault. It took the South Korean military 13 long minutes to return fire after the North Korean shelling began, and then only lighter self-propelled artillery was used in reply.
Kim Kwan-jin, the country's new Defence Minister, immediately promised at his confirmation hearing that South Korea would “definitely” retaliate with air strikes to the next North Korean provocation. Some believe the peninsula is closer to all-out war than it has been in decades.
“If they provoke us again, we'll strike back. That's a national consensus formed between the people and the government … even the UN or the U.S. wouldn't stop us,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank run by the Ministry of Defence.
When I visited Seoul earlier this year after the sinking of the warship Cheonan (an incident that killed 46 South Korean sailors), I was stunned at how blasé most people were about the tragedy, and how many were willing to believe North Korea's claim that it had nothing to do with the torpedo attack. Today, it's equally amazing how many South Koreans think it's time to start shooting at their nuclear-armed neighbour.
“South Koreans believe now that we need to take at least some form of military measures versus North Korea. This kind of thinking was taboo in the past,” said Jeong Han-wool, who oversees public-opinion research at the Seoul-based East Asia Institute.
Polling conducted by the East Asia Institute shows that the number of South Koreans who felt “insecure” about the situation on the peninsula was less than 30 per cent as recently as March, 2009. The number who were “concerned” or “slightly concerned” about national security steadily rose through last year's nuclear test and the sinking of the Cheonan in March, soaring to 81.5 per cent – by far the highest level since the institute started tracking the sentiment a dozen years ago.
Mr. Jeong said that while the latest spike in the polling results was driven by “emotional anger” over the island attack, he didn't expect the new willingness to hit back at North Korea to fade any time soon. “This time around, the gap between political and ideological stances has narrowed. A new social consensus has been formed because this was the first time North Korea attacked South Korean soil and killed civilians,” he said.
Mr. Baek, the military analyst, said more cross-border incidents were expected in the coming months. As North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, transfers power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent is believed to need “victories” to beef up his scant military record. At the same time, all South Korean units have been instructed that the country's right to self-defence now supersedes the military's usual rules of engagement that stress the avoidance of full military engagement. “Some people in the opposition party and some military analysts say that if we strike back it will lead inevitably to full-scale war. But our stance is not to be afraid of the North Korean response because it is Kim Jong-il who should be most afraid of full-scale war,” Mr. Baek said.
Fresh live-fire exercises on Yeonpyeong Island are planned for the coming days, a move that North Korea will certainly view as a provocation since Pyongyang considers the island and the surrounding waters to be its territory. North Korea says the Nov. 23 attack was a response to similar live-fire exercises being conducted on Yeonpyeong.
The soaring rhetoric on the peninsula is unsettling even to veteran analysts who have seen many previous crises come and go without the doomsday scenarios ever playing out. The two countries have remained officially at war since the 1950-53 conflict, which ended in a ceasefire.
“Until recently, I answered with 100-per-cent certainty that there would be no new Korean war because neither side wants it and the South Koreans never overreacted,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University. “But now the South Koreans are in battle mode and their bellicosity could be very, very bad. The next time the North Koreans stage some provocation – and they will – the South Koreans will have to react in a mighty way or they will look silly. So the North Koreans will stage a counter-counterstrike and we will see a spiral of escalation in no time.”