A Bible and a gas mask: New normal in S. Korea
SEOUL | At downtown Seoul’s posh Koreana Hotel, every room has a nightstand with a Bible, a room-service menu — and a gas mask.
Call it the new normal in South Korea.
A year of increased tension with nuclear-armed North Korea has shattered the hopes held by many South Koreans who wished for better relations with their aggressive, communist neighbor.
In March 2010, a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 seamen. In November, the North fired nearly 200 artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, hitting military and civilian sites and killing four people.
Two weeks ago, jumpy South Korean marines fired rifles at a civilian airliner landing in Seoul, after mistaking it for a North Korean warplane. No one on the Asiana Airlines flight from China was injured.
“Before Cheonan and Yeonpyeong, there was denial and a kind of nostalgic feeling toward North Korea,” said Choi Kang, professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
He said many South Koreans thought “we should have better relations with North Korea. We should provide food aid, blah, blah, blah.”
“Since the attacks, South Koreans’ general understanding of North Korea has become very negative, and I don’t think it’s reversible at this point in time,” he added.
The bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island marked the first time Pyongyang had attacked South Korean territory since the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace treaty.
“Prior to this, targets were military. Targets were kind of localized,” said Army Maj. Gen. Larry Wells, deputy chief of staff for U.S. forces in Korea.
“I think prior to the sinking of the Cheonan, a majority of South Korean citizens would say, ‘ We know North Korea is there. We know what’s occurring there, but we don’t think they’d ever attack us.’ “
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak responded to the attacks by suspending the largescale aid that dovish predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun had provided almost unconditionally.
Chun Young-woo, senior secretary to the president on national security and foreign af- fairs, said Mr. Lee has the “same goal” as Mr. Kim and Mr. Roh but argued that their socalled “Sunshine Policy” had given Pyongyang a dangerous sense of entitlement.
“Under the Sunshine Policy, we used to provide abundant food and fertilizer and almost ever ything North Korea wanted,” he said.
According to the United Nations, North Korea faces “regu- lar, significant food shortages.”
“North Korea could dictate the terms of inter-Korean relations,” Mr. Chun said. “And whenever we had talks with them, they were not grateful. They said, ‘This is the tribute you have to pay for peace, and we will keep our nuclear weapons.’ They took it for granted.”
South Koreans have dramatically turned against aiding North Korea since the two attacks. Support for cutting or abolishing aid to the North increased to 57 percent from 32 percent, according to a poll by the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore.
Seoul also is demanding an apology for the attacks before it resumes talks with the North.
“When it comes to official, high-level dialogue on political and security affairs, I don’t think that we can just pretend as if nothing occurred last year, that we can just shake hands and smile,” Mr. Chun said.
“That doesn’t mean everything will be resolved with an apology. If inter-Korean relations are going to change fundamentally, we require denuclear ization,” he added, reflecting his government’s desire for the elimination of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
While most South Koreans are blaming the communist North for increasing tensions, Mr. Lee’s political opponents are blaming him.
“If the current government’s North Korean policies had succeeded, we would not have had either of the two attacks,” said Park Joo-sun, a leading lawmaker from the liberal Democratic Party.
At Seoul’s Koreana Hotel, guests are provided a Bible and a gas mask a sign of South Koreans’ growing suspicions of North Korea’s militar y intentions. Recent incidents have dampened hopes for improved relations.