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Yeonpyeong attack uniting South Korean public around harsher policy toward North

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."

But he added: "Since the Yeonpyeong attack, young people realize we should not sit idly by."

Shim Ho-eun, 84, also a retired lieutenant colonel, agreed that the attack may have been "a wake-up call."

"We grew up in a hard time, in poverty," Shim said, slicing the air with his hand for emphasis. "The young generation grew up in a more prosperous time. I think maybe they are lacking in patriotism. Maybe this Yeonpyeong case is a chance for them to renew their patriotism."

The old vets were highly critical of the sunshine policy, launched by Kim Dae-jung in 1998 and continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun. The policy saw some dramatic successes, including the establishment of an industrial park six miles north of the demilitarized zone, and the first summit of the presidents of North and South Korea in 2000. Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

The older Koreans also spoke in bitter terms about South Korea's education system, which they said failed to inculcate young students about the threat the country faced. Before the end of military rule in South Korea, extreme anti-communism was a staple of classrooms. But conservative critics complain that under South Korea's new democracy, anti-communism has been replaced by "leftist" teaching that plays down the threat from the North.

Lee Nae-Young, a political scientist at Korea University, said, "The recent Yeonpyeong attack clearly has narrowed the gap between the old and new generations' perceptions on North Korea and how South Korea should respond to North Korean provocations."

Although there still would be differences about exactly how the country should respond to future attacks, he said: "After the Yeonpyeong provocation, North Korea has become definitely more of an enemy state than a brother state. There has been a consensus that it is unrealistic to deal with North Korea through dialogues, and the Yeonpyeong attack has been a crucial moment to confirm that consensus."

President Lee was alluding to that emerging new consensus in his address to the nation Monday morning. Outlining a series of North Korean attacks stretching back two decades, he said South Korea's policy of restraint had only emboldened the Pyongyang regime to continue its provocative acts.

Saying he was "outraged by the ruthlessness of the North Korean regime," Lee added: "There was a split in public opinion over the torpedoing of the Cheonan. Unlike that time, our people have united as one this time."

Byun, the political science student, said it might have taken a dramatic incident like the attack on Yeonpyeong to shake young people out of their complacency. "The young generation doesn't know," he said. "When they were born, there was freedom and peace."

He added, switching to English from Korean: "The young generation doesn't know about freedom and how to achieve it. It's a big problem."

Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

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