Oscar Holland highlights the way in which last year’s attacks on South Korea have changed its people’s attitudes towards their northern counterparts, and assesses what impact this may have on future relations.
When one South Korean mother lost her son to the North Korean torpedo that struck a navy ship in the Yellow Sea last year, she could be forgiven for using her grief to attack her government’s foreign policy. But instead of criticising the administration’s increasingly aggressive attitude, she donated the 100 million won (£57,000) compensation back to the military to fund new weapons.
Her act symbolised the South Koreans’ increasing intolerance towards their former compatriots. Over a year on from the incident (which is still vociferously denied by Kim Jong-il’s government) the mood in the South has changed dramatically. The Yellow Sea attack renewed a sense of public impatience towards the North that was exacerbated by the subsequent shelling of the South-owned Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010. This latter bombardment left four dead and restored the tangible threat to civilian life that had lain dormant since the 1960s.
In fact, the seriousness of last year’s events has rapidly eroded the lenience that is so often afforded to the North’s erratic behaviour, which has thus far kept the rival states from full-blown conflict.
Until very recently, restraint had characterised Seoul’s foreign policy. The government’s more belligerent right wing voices had always been smothered by the compassion of the electorate. There existed a genuine sense of sympathy in the South, and a belief that those across the border were the victims of a crippled economy and food shortages caused by Kim Jong-il’s incompetent regime. Nowhere was this attitude more apparent than in the treatment of defectors, who were provided with generous financial aid packages and comprehensive training to adapt to life in the capitalist South.
But Kim’s unpredictable actions have worn away this goodwill or, at the very least, made many South Koreans realise that ‘tough love’ may be a more effective solution. The countless column inches once dedicated to stories on Northern malnutrition and calls for collaboration have been replaced with editorials warning of further provocation. The opinion polls have followed suit, showing growing support for aid restrictions and expanded military capacity.
As in most functioning democracies, the government’s stance is rapidly aligning itself with the momentum of public opinion. South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, who was seen as hard-line and regarded with some caution upon his election in 2007, actually faced widespread accusations of weakness for his delayed response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Just as national empathy shaped the ‘Sunshine Policy’ (the extraordinarily soft diplomatic approach pursued by successive liberal governments since 1998), Lee’s rhetoric is rapidly coming to reflect the growing climate of fear.
Perhaps most dangerously, the President has used these collective suspicions as a mandate to strengthen the US’s position in the region. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times last June, marking the 60th Anniversary of the start of the Korean War, President Lee expressed a telling vision of the role of the US. ‘I firmly believe,’ he wrote, ‘that future generations in both countries will further advance the strong Republic of Korea-US alliance into one befitting the spirit of the new age.’
The new age is a challenging one, and the South Korean electorate has responded to its rejuvenated alliance with a subdued sense of acceptance. This is in stark contrast to the growing disquiet about the Americans’ military presence that reigned before the attacks. The plan to relocate the US army from its traditional base in Seoul was not just a rejection of the unruly soldiers who brought drunken brawls to the bars and streets of the capital – it was a sign that South Koreans wanted to pursue an independent and less antagonistic foreign policy. Instead, their seemingly anachronistic Cold War partnership has visibly resumed with huge joint naval drills and chummy rhetoric.
These changes in public and political sentiment could not have come at a more decisive time. As Kim Jong-il descends further into ill-health, the modern history of the Korean peninsula approaches a tipping point. Forces both inside and outside North Korea will compete to fill the vacuum left by the ailing leader’s eventual death. Unless his third son and successor Kim Jong-un can seamlessly assume the role of omnipotent dictator, the emergence of opposition voices could mark a sea change in Pyongyang’s relationship with its submissive citizens and the international community at large.
Such forecasts are well founded. Regimes that depend on the personality cults of their leaders are notoriously unstable in these transition periods. Like his father before him, Kim Jong-un will rely on an intense propaganda campaign and strict military control to reach the divine status of his predecessor. The prevailing mood in the South during this rare window of opportunity could define the future trajectory of regional and global politics.
Peace-keepers are hoping that the right incentives will prompt political concessions and lure Pyongyang back to negotiations on nuclear disarmament. There exists a muted hope that the future leader’s political inexperience will make him receptive to such outside pressures. Having attended an international school in Berne, Switzerland, Kim Jong-un will also be acutely aware of the view that the world holds of North Korea and the comparative poverty of its people. Whether this will lead to a more cooperative, less isolationist foreign policy is difficult to say, but it is hard to imagine a western-educated leader being more indifferent than the current elite to the devastating effect of North Korea’s pariah status.
Conservative forces, however, see far more radical opportunities in the imminent transfer of power. Although North Koreans are exceptionally isolated and have barely any history of collective dissent, the Arab Spring will not have gone completely unnoticed. Instigating a revolution might be a big ask, but Seoul could seek to covertly disrupt the channels of communication that Kim Jong-un will rely on to win the support of his military.
If uncompromising public attitudes continue their ascendancy, then this may not be all. The South Korean government may have secured the approval that it needs to take stronger military action. Further strikes on Southern soil could provoke a firmer response from Seoul that will both reassure the electorate and undermine the new North Korean leader’s authority. Testing the resolve of the Northern regime through force may not be the political suicide it once was.
It has been a year of turmoil on the Korean peninsula and there may be troubling times ahead. Decades of petty border skirmishes made it easy for South Koreans to forget that they sit below the world’s most heavily militarised border, but Kim Jong-il’s arbitrary aggression has served as a reminder. Intended as a sign of strength, Pyongyang may have roused the sleeping dragon that was keeping it safe.