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CONFRONTING NORTH KOREA

Rattled South Koreans Consider Test a Betrayal

Support appears to be vanishing for the government's policy of engaging Pyongyang.

October 10, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Some South Koreans may have been caught off guard by Monday's underground blast, surprised that North Korea meant its pledge to join the exclusive nuclear weapons club. But executives at South Korea's Asiana Airlines were not among them.

South Korean public opinion has been shifting since North Korea fired a batch of ballistic missiles off its coast in July. Until then, neither the airline nor the South Korean government gave much thought to changing the flight path of Asiana passenger jets coming from the United States, a route that skirted close to North Korean airspace.

But Asiana now takes North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at his word.

After Pyongyang declared last week that it would test a nuclear bomb, the airline's inbound flights from the United States started taking the long way around, adding 20 minutes' flying time but keeping away from North Korea's borders.

The airline's caution is a measure of the jitters on this heavily armed peninsula, where the Koreas remain in a formal state of war.

Media reports suggest many South Koreans were rattled by the test -- angry and wounded at what they see as a betrayal by a North Korean regime they had tried to cajole into reconciliation.

Many of those were supporters of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who had continued to hope that North Korea's talk of a nuclear test was just one more negotiating ploy, smug in the belief that South Korea could escape the fallout of any North Korean belligerence aimed at Japan or the United States.

Fewer defend engagement now.

Roh reacted with uncharacteristic sharpness to Monday's announced test, seeming to sense the diminishing support in South Korea's political center for those who see engagement as the best way to ease tensions.

Roh accused Pyongyang of breaking its 1991 pledge against going nuclear and told reporters: "North Korea's nuclear test has left us with little or no room to continue engaging it. I can assure you that our relations with North Korea will change drastically from this point on."

Since 1998, South Korean governments have pursued a "sunshine policy" of trying to engage North Korea, arguing that reconciliation could be achieved through economic incentives and increased contact.

Conservative critics -- the Bush administration chief among them -- denounced the policy of engagement as a naive misreading of a belligerent regime, arguing that South Korean aid and benefits were allowing a dangerous dictatorship to divert resources into weapons development.

To many observers here, Kim's decision to test a weapon settles the argument.

Conservative commentators adopted an "I told you so" tone in response to the test and dismissed Roh's conversion from soft touch to hard-liner as too little too late.

"People are now really angry with the president," says Song Young-sun, a legislator and security specialist from the opposition conservative Grand National Party.

"He was manipulating people's thinking, telling us Kim Jong Il will be docile and listen to us if we feed and clothe his people. A lot of South Koreans were saying: 'Don't worry about those North Korean nuclear reactors. They won't really test a weapon.' No wonder some people were surprised. They had been conditioned to not expect it."

There was evidence of that shock Monday. South Korea's stock market tumbled on news of the test, losing as much as 3.6% of its value before recovering to close 2.4% down.

Significantly, most of the sellers were South Koreans, not foreign investors.

"The pattern has been that it is the foreign professional investors who react severely to these threats, whereas Koreans are so used to North and South tensions that they take it in a more sanguine way," says Kim Kihwan, an advisor at Goldman Sachs and chairman of the Seoul Financial Forum.

"But this time it was the foreign money that reacted calmly. The big sellers were individual households, and that means some people were surprised."

The question for many here is how far the crisis will run.

Conservatives, sensing vindication, warned of more nuclear tests and amplified their arguments that there was no point in trying to negotiate with Kim's regime.

"Kim Jong Il has committed a reckless act," said Kim Tae-san, a former North Korean diplomat who defected and lives in South Korea. "He seems determined to take it all the way to the end."

*

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Times researcher Jinna Park contributed to this report.

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