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GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

S. Korea's one-way affair

July 23, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

WHILE MUCH of the world is fixated on the conflict in the Middle East, there is a whole other drama playing out on the Korean peninsula that is just as crucial to global stability. Last week's U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's nuclear ambitions has not only ratcheted up tensions in the region, it is forcing South Korea to rethink its "sunshine policy" of peaceful engagement with the North. After eight years of rapprochement with the government of Kim Jong Il, a growing number of South Koreans are wondering whether the North Korean dictator hasn't been abusing their trust.

To understand South Koreans' tortured attitudes toward the rogue nation on the northern side of the most heavily armed border on the planet, it helps to watch "Spy Girl," a silly Romeo-and-Juliet-style 2004 Korean teen movie.

Hyo-jin, a fetching young North Korean spy, is sent across the demilitarized zone to capture a renegade agent who has embezzled money from the North Korean government. But while working undercover at a Burger King, she falls in love with a South Korean boy about to head off to his mandatory military service. Theirs is a love cursed by the harsh realities of geopolitics.

Only a decade earlier, making a spy into a heroine would have been considered tantamount to treason. But since the 1990s, younger generations of South Koreans have developed a more sympathetic -- yet still deeply conflicted -- view of their national doppelganger.

Products of an economically thriving and democratic nation, these generations resent their nation's military dependence on the United States, and they see the peaceful resolution of conflict with North Korea as an opportunity to assert their independence. Whereas during the Cold War South Korean politicians leveraged the North Korean threat to secure largesse from the U.S., today younger, more liberal pols stress their nation's ability to solve the peninsular standoff on its own, through economic and cultural exchange.

Not surprisingly, as attitudes toward North Korea have softened, anti-American sentiment has increased. President Bush's inclusion of North Korea in his 2002 "axis of evil" speech was understood by many as an unwelcome intrusion into South Korea's domestic politics and an attempt to undermine the sunshine policy.

By 2003, half of South Koreans -- and 71% of those aged 18 to 29 -- had an unfavorable view of the U.S. But this growing disdain for their ally is as complicated as their sympathy for their enemy. A 2004 poll found that 89% of South Koreans still trusted that the United States would "contribute military forces to reverse the aggression if North Korea were to attack South Korea."

Most of this got a hard shake earlier this month when North Korea test-fired at least six missiles into the Sea of Japan. Many saw the act less as a threat than an embarrassment. Instead of fear for their lives, the saber rattling evoked a fear that North Korean bravado reflects badly on them.

"We have an identity as citizens of South Korea," says Kim Tae-hyun, professor of International Relations at Chung-Ang University, "but we also feel part of a broader Korean nation."

Yet Pyongyang's recent brinksmanship has also caused a profound shift in public opinion, and one that reflects a less sympathetic, more aggressive state of mind. A recent survey revealed that the percentage of South Koreans who believe their country should support the U.S. government's hard line toward North Korea has nearly doubled in the last two years, from 20% in 2002 to 37% today. Meanwhile, there are also signs that the public is less willing to send aid to North Korea if the receiving nation doesn't show greater signs of reciprocity.

So far, the center-left government of President Roh Moo-hyun has been reluctant to toe a harder line. Last week, in nearly the same breath as he deplored North Korea's "wrong behavior," Roh warned against overreacting to the North's missile tests.

Still, in the face of growing international impatience with North Korea, the South was obliged to demand that Pyongyang return to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. When North Korea refused, the South suspended all food aid. On Wednesday, the North retaliated by canceling the 6-year-old program that reunites families that have been divided since the political partition of the peninsula in 1948.

Try as they might, the South Koreans, and increasingly their government, are finding it impossible to pretend that sunshine is the best policy. They may desperately want a storybook ending, but it's becoming increasingly clear that their romance with the North is unrequited. And the end of the affair only intensifies their 50-year-long national identity crisis.

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