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CONFRONTING NORTH KOREA

Across S. Korea, Many See Test as a Wake-Up Blast

October 13, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — There is no rush to stockpile ramen or water. The national soccer team's Asian Cup qualifying game against Syria was played in this capital city as scheduled Wednesday, and Rain, the wildly popular homegrown pop singer, will hit the stage tonight to preview his world concert tour before 40,000 fans at a stadium here.

North Koreans may have tested a nuclear device, but no one in South Korea is building a bunker.

This country of 49 million people is angry but not unduly alarmed about the Pyongyang government's announced nuclear test. There is no run on basic goods, as there was in 1994 when initial revelations of North Korea's nuclear intentions rattled nerves and led to brinkmanship between Pyongyang and Washington.

Instead, eight years of South Korean governments pursuing an official policy of reconciliation have created a generation of adults more likely to feel sympathy for their estranged cousins in the North.

That sentiment has been wounded by North Korea's readiness to undermine South Korea's soft approach in a full-throttle push to join the nuclear club. But most South Koreans remained inured to North Korea's threats after living for half a century with Pyongyang's mercurial behavior.

"I had predicted the North Koreans would conduct a nuclear test, so I'm not at all surprised, shocked, frightened or scared," said Song Su-jong, 34, a Seoul freelance writer.

If there is any panic here, it lies with South Korea's nearly paralyzed politicians, who are split over how to calibrate their response to North Korea. The National Assembly finally agreed on a resolution Thursday that deplored the "unpardonable" test, but did not go much further than issuing a call for Pyongyang to return to diplomacy over its nuclear program.

The search for a common South Korean position contrasts with Japan's swift decision to punish North Korea by banning its citizens and goods from Japan.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is trapped between members of his liberal, governing Uri Party who remain committed to a policy of engagement with North Korea, and opposition conservatives who call the policy a failure that has aided North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Yet it is becoming apparent that the center of South Korean politics has in recent months shifted away from support for engagement, propelled by North Korea's missile tests in July as well as this week's claim of a nuclear blast. A poll by the conservative newspaper JoongAng Ilbo showed that 78% of those surveyed wanted the engagement policy changed, with more than half calling for an end to joint economic programs with North Korea, and about the same number calling for development of a nuclear bomb as a deterrent.

"I used to be more in favor of dealing with North Korea, but now I see them more negatively because they are threatening world peace with their nuclear weapons," said Song Pil-su, 22, a radiology student at Korea University in Seoul.

Like many South Koreans, Song also blames Washington for what he describes as a diplomatic squeeze that is "cornering" North Korea. But he said Pyongyang's response was "way out of proportion."

"I hope we now have an opportunity to bring about the collapse of the regime," he said.

Most South Koreans had turned away from day-to-day fretting about North Korea in recent years. Pyongyang's nuclear program was seen as more of an American problem than a South Korean one. Residents in the South Korean capital have long assumed a hail of bombs and rockets will come their way if war resumes on the Korean peninsula.

As they focused on making money and spending it, the notion of fighting another war receded to the back of their minds, much the way Tokyo residents push away thoughts of a massive earthquake.

North Korea may have erased some of that.

There is a sense in Seoul that a threshold has been crossed into a less stable era, and that South Korean policies may bear some responsibility for the shift.

"This is not good, and it's our fault," said Kim Young-keun, an animation student playing an online video game in downtown Seoul. "The soft policy has only increased North Korea's military capacity, and I don't like that they are using it to threaten instability in our region."

Many say the North Koreans' latest test has been a sobering reminder that South Koreans can be hostages to a wider drama of regional rivalries in Northeast Asia and the global struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. No longer can some South Koreans indulge in quiet pleasure at Pyongyang's defiance of the only superpower, people say. The atmosphere is no longer conducive to public expressions of pride in the prospect of a "Korean" bomb.

"Some ordinary young South Korean people say they wish for unification and think it is a positive that North Korea developed a weapon that, when we unify, will be a one Korea's power," said Gong Seong-jun, 22, an information engineering student who is also studying to be an officer in the South Korean military. "But it is a vague idea. They are not curious about the details of unification.

"And the reality is that, right now, we are divided."

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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