Young South Koreans worry about rising tensions with North Korea

Military tensions were spiking again on the Korean peninsula Thursday, as South Korea held a naval exercise with live firing. North Korea responded by scrapping accords designed to prevent clashes on the Korean sea border.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 2010

SEOUL -- In a college cafeteria here Thursday, a large-screen TV flashed breaking news of South Korean warships staging anti-submarine drills, dropping depth charges and firing big guns into the Yellow Sea. The naval exercise took place in waters near where a North Korean submarine apparently fired a torpedo that sank a South Korean ship two months ago and killed 46 sailors.

At a table in the cafeteria, three civil engineering students wolfed down rice with spicy soup and fretted about what that sneak attack portends for their professional future. Echoing the fears of many young people in this rich, wired and achievement-obsessed country, they said that never before in their lives has North Korea loomed so large -- as a potential threat to personal safety and as an irksome complication in career planning.

"If this crisis continues for much longer, it will hurt my chances of getting a job," said Yoo Youn-seong, 24, a senior at Chung-Ang University. "The stock market has gone down and international investors may decide to stop putting money into South Korea. I am also a little bit afraid the North will attack."

The March 26 sinking of South Korea's warship has metastasized in the past week into a major international security crisis. Seoul has disclosed detailed evidence linking Pyongyang to the attack and has canceled most economic links with the North. The Obama administration is pressuring China, the principal benefactor of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to support U.N. Security Council sanctions against his government.

Gen. Walter L. Sharp, commander of 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, said Thursday that North Korea should "cease all acts of provocation."

In furious reaction, Kim's government, while indignantly denying that it sank the ship, has said it will cut all relations with South Korea. It added Thursday that it was unilaterally repealing military guarantees for the safety of cross-border exchanges between the two Koreas. The move could lead to closing the Kaesong industrial complex, located just north of the heavily armed border between two Koreas. It is the sole remaining symbol of economic cooperation between the countries.

But the ship-sinking crisis also has another dimension, one that is especially disorienting to young people in South Korea, many of whom have grown up thinking of North Korea as yesterday's irritant.

Three years ago, in a poll conducted before a presidential vote, only 3 percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They were more concerned about economic growth and higher salaries. The young, many polls found, were particularly indifferent to North Korea and the fulminations of its odd dictator.

A "sunshine policy" that began after a North-South summit in 2000 had seemed to diminish Kim's menace. South Korea bought itself peace of mind by showering the impoverished North with food aid, fertilizer and economic investment. Polls here found that despite North Korea's periodic petulance -- exploding small nuclear devices in 2006 and 2008 and launching a flurry of missiles -- most South Koreans viewed Pyongyang as a manageable worry.

The Cheonan incident appears to have significantly altered that view.

"I never before factored in the possibility of a war," said Kim Sun-young, 32, a researcher in molecular science at Yonsei University in Seoul. "But I am now very nervous and worried, especially if there is a nuclear attack. It would mean the end. Maybe I will have to move to a different country."

Six out of 10 South Koreans approve of the sanctions against the North that President Lee Myung-bak announced this week, according to a Gallup Korea poll published Thursday in the Chosun Ilbo daily.

The poll echoed other recent surveys showing that about 70 percent of South Koreans support the government investigation that blames Pyongyang for sinking the 1,200-ton warship.

Young people in South Korea have in the past been highly critical of Lee's leadership. Lee has taken a relatively hard line on North Korea, cutting food aid while demanding that it improve human rights and end its nuclear weapons program.

Shortly after Lee took office in 2008, tens of thousands of mostly young people protested for months in downtown Seoul, denouncing support for the import of U.S. beef and demanding that he resign.

Now, 51 percent of people in their 20s approve of his sanctions against North Korea, the Gallup Korea poll found.

"South Korea has been giving, and North Korea has been taking," said Park Jae-hyun, 24, a senior at Yonsei University. "I think the North has been ungrateful, and I support Lee Myung-bak's strong response to the sinking of the ship."

Still, a highly vocal coalition of young people, labor activists, opposition members and left-leaning intellectuals does not trust Lee's government. Web sites here brim over with assertions that its investigation of the ship's sinking was a fraud.

Kim Jo-Young, 20, a nursing student at Yonsei University, said she suspects the Cheonan was blown up by South Korean plotters to enhance Lee's popularity.

Yet she also thinks the risk of a conflict with North Korea is rising, and she fears for her career.

"I feel like I really can't live in South Korea anymore," she said. "I am personally very stressed."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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