Yeonpyeong attack uniting South Korean public around harsher policy toward North

International tensions and growing diplomacy are both evident in the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. One week ago, North Korea shelled a South Korean island in a long-disputed sea border area.
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:21 PM

SEOUL - With a brazen daytime artillery barrage of a civilian-inhabited island, North Korea's reclusive leaders may have achieved something that had previously eluded South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak: uniting the South Korean public around a more aggressive policy toward the North.

Lee took office in 2008 vowing to end the decade-long "sunshine policy" of his two predecessors, which increased political and economic ties with North Korea as a way of reducing military tension on the Korean Peninsula. But Lee found the Korean public deeply divided, with little appetite among many for a return to a more confrontational approach.

After North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean naval warship, the Cheonan, in March, killing 46 sailors, South Korean opinion was sharply split, with a large number of young people not believing the official government-led report that found Pyongyang responsible for the attack.

The split largely reflected what analysts and average Koreans agreed was a generational divide.

Older Koreans, especially those who fought in the Korean War or had a living memory of it, were vastly more inclined to view North Korea as a hostile enemy to be confronted. Young people, particularly those in their 20s who came of age during the sunshine policy, had no interest in a conflict and were just as inclined to disbelieve their own political leaders as to blame North Korea.

But North Korea's Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed two civilians and two soldiers, may be narrowing that divide.

"My generation is only thinking about resolving the situation peacefully without war. My parents always factored in war as a possibility," said Choi So-young, 22, a civil engineering student at Yonsei University in Seoul. "My view has changed about North Korea. This is the first time in my life I'm thinking about war."

Another student, Byun Jong-kuk, 25, who is studying political science at Yonsei, said, "Definitely there is a generation gap."

"The older generation was educated with the anti-communist focus," Byun added. "But people in their 20s, we've gone to high school and university under the government's sunshine policy. I think the gap was very vivid during the Cheonan sinking. But the country is unified now."

In another part of the city, where a group of octogenarian Korean War veterans gathered Monday for their monthly buffet lunch followed by a chat in the next-door coffee shop, the talk was much the same - about the latest North Korean provocation, the government's response and South Korea's youth.

Lee Chong-sik, 81, a retired lieutenant colonel who still carries shrapnel in his back from the 1950-53 war, said the policy of outreach to the North "ruined" many of South Korea's youth.

"Young people have no knowledge of history," he said. "They are educated to think 'we don't want war.' You can't expect them to fight for the country."

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