Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Life in Korea These Days

By Richard Norman

I was recently pleased to receive a copy of the Canadian embassy’s evacuation procedure for Canadians residing in South Korea. While it assured that the risk of an evacuation is minimal, it informatively detailed how much food and water we should bring with us if we were forced out of our homes and how long we might have to wait while American soldiers aided American citizens before they moved onto the citizens of other countries with whom they have “global agreements.” But inspiring confidence is a tall order for a post-nuclear contingency plan.

The world is still noisily reacting to North Korea’s nuclear test last week; South Korea, however, is relatively calm. Even air raid siren tests this week did not disturb students in English language classes (they quietly continued their adverbs of frequency worksheet). Fifteen or twenty years ago, the response from the South Korean government and its people would have been much more visceral. Indeed, the country might well have been put on war footing. But in the wake of eight years of the Sunshine Policy, a concerted effort by Seoul to engage with the North (and for which Kim Dae-jung won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000), the South Korean perspective on the situation has shifted from one of North Korea versus South Korea to one of Korea versus the World. A plurality of South Koreans, for example, believe that the United States is more responsible for the current crisis than the government (if it can be called that) of Kim Jong-il. (China and Japan also get mentions, albeit quiet ones).

Whoever is “responsible” for the latest crisis, there appears to be no major political groundswell to give up on the Sunshine Policy (though there are divisions over the question). The policy has been looking increasingly rickety in the last few years as a variety of economic incentives, freer trade, and make-nice gestures have done little to thaw North Korea. One South Korean editorial (by no means the majority opinion) summed up the current debate very adroitly:

The [South Korean] government has persistently maintained that South Korea will persuade the North to give up its nuclear programs through dialogue under its leadership. Once Pyongyang scraps its nuclear development programs, it proposed, Seoul will pay it over W1 trillion (approximately US$100 billion) in the form of heavy oil, power transmission and perhaps building a light-water reactor. In the nebulous “comprehensive approach” toward resolution of the nuclear standoff, it may have promised an even larger sum to the North.

Yet North Korea pushed ahead with a nuclear test, regardless, demanding more U.S. carrot without paying any attention to South Korean carrot. Presumably getting the North to abandon its nuclear program now that it has tested a nuclear weapon will be rather more difficult than before that. Insisting on a formula that so signally failed when it was easier now that it is hard, then, is tantamount to giving up on a resolution of the nuclear standoff altogether.

And yet many in Korea see no problem with the status quo. They have been promised reunification, and not even nuclear tests will derail the dream. The happily-named Sunshine Policy has altered both foreign and domestic thinking. South Korean reaction to the North's missile tests in July, for example, was borderline friendly, focusing on Japan's "overreaction" rather than the aggressive act. The public school curriculum in the South has changed in the last ten years: students now consider Koreans north of the border their brothers and sisters, rather than a bloodthirsty Communist enemy. And ordinary citizens see the North's nuclear program a consequence (perhaps even justified) of American pressures and threats, not as a dangerous attempt to ensure the survival of a government that is strangling to death one half of their people.


News today of American criticism of inter-Korean projects is likely to increase feelings that the United States is trying to drive a wedge between the two Koreas.

[cross-posted at fog of war]

The photograph above is of Kim Dae-jung and Kim Il-jong (no relation) shaking hands. From