Saturday, May 29, 2010

Attack Bares South Korea’s Complex Links to North

MUNSAN, South Korea — Like many South Koreans, Choi Byung-wook said he felt outrage over the North Korean attack that sank the warship Cheonan and killed 46 sailors. But he also said that he did not expect the hostilities to get any worse and that his nation must continue to engage the North.

“Inside, we are furious,” said Mr. Choi, 46, a government employee who shopped on a recent afternoon at a mall in this city just a few miles from the South’s heavily fortified border with North Korea. “But even with 46 dead, cutting off North Korea is not an option for us.”

Mr. Choi’s views are typical in this affluent nation. Since the government released evidence implicating North Korea in the attack, reactions in South Korea have ranged from anger to betrayal and even disbelief that North Korea would launch a strike against a neighbor that had showered it with fertilizer, investments and food aid.

But as the ship’s sinking has blown into an international crisis, South Koreans also seem divided over how to respond. Many appear reluctant to press the government to take action for fear of provoking the North even further. There is also strong sentiment here that regardless of the attack, South Koreans must continue to engage the North Koreans, whom they still view as impoverished if sometimes dangerous relatives.

“South Korea has a dual perception of North Korea as both brother and enemy,” said Lee Nae-young, a political scientist at Korea University. “After the Cheonan, the majority sees the North as enemy, but the brother view also remains.”

For now, public opinion seems to have swung behind President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who has taken a tougher line toward the North than his most recent predecessors did and responded to the sinking by cutting most economic links with North Korea. A poll by Gallup Korea, released Thursday by The Chosun Ilbo, a newspaper, showed that 60 percent of respondents supported the government’s sanctions against the North.

Political analysts say Mr. Lee has seized on the Cheonan attack as an opportunity to lift his approval ratings, which were hovering below 50 percent before the crisis. They say he has skillfully used the results of the investigation into the sinking to undermine the South Korean left, which has been more sympathetic to North Korea, even to the point of accusing Mr. Lee of provoking the new hostilities. He also announced the findings of the investigation on the same day that campaigning began for crucial midterm elections.

Some opinion surveys now show Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party, which had once been trailing in the polls, now enjoying a commanding 16-percentage-point lead over the opposition Democratic Party before the voting on Wednesday.

Analysts say the sinking of the Cheonan has created wide public support for Mr. Lee’s stance of imposing conditions on aid to the North. They say it may also prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the so-called sunshine policy of his liberal predecessors, who in 2000 started giving the North aid with no strings attached in the hopes that it would open up and become less belligerent. Public support for that policy began to falter after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 and continued to drop with the killing of a South Korean tourist in North Korea and then the North’s second nuclear test last year.

“We can’t just keep throwing money at North Korea if they do this,” said Lee Eun-chan, 72, a retired construction worker who recently ate dinner at a restaurant in Munsan.

But while passions are running high, they are tempered by a deep-seated resistance here against returning to an era of cold-war politics and hostility toward the North, political analysts say. A strong core of support for maintaining ties with the North cuts across South Korea’s otherwise divided landscape. Even President Lee has not called for permanently ending ties, but rather for resuming aid, trade and investment only when the North reciprocates by curtailing its nuclear programs.

There is a strong sense of shared ethnic identity with Northerners, which runs deep enough that South Korean newspapers gave glowing coverage of the North Korean soccer team, which won its first World Cup berth in 44 years, even as they railed against the attack.

Also, some here fear that the North’s desperately isolated leadership might try to threaten the South’s economic prosperity if it is not appeased, or that cutting off the North would return the peninsula to an era of confrontation.

A minority of South Koreans denies that North Korea fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan, disputing the official account. Conspiracy theories abound, with some saying that the ship was actually sunk as the result of an accident or even by the United States, to provoke South Koreans into taking a firmer stance against the North.

While most of the business community has stood by the conservatives, Mr. Lee has alienated one group: the approximately 700 South Korean companies that do business with North Korea or invest there. Many complain that they will suffer huge losses if economic ties are severed. Particularly concerned are the 121 companies that have invested in the industrial park at Kaesong, which the North has recently threatened to close.

“The companies are upset,” said Kim Kyung-woong, chairman of the Council for Inter-Korean Civil Economic Exchange, a lobbying group. “They thought their business was supposed to free from politics.”

The conflicting emotions stirred by the Cheonan’s sinking are also apparent in Munsan.
“It may be stupid of us not to just sever ties, but it is not that easy with North Korea,” said Park Eun-joo, 48, who sells shoes at a local shopping mall. “We are living better than they are, so we have to forgive them.”

Su-Hyun Lee contributed reporting. By MARTIN FACKLER and Seokyong Lee New York Times

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