South Korea Divided Over Response To North Korea

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The families of two American journalists sentenced to 12 years in a North Korea labor camp have appealed for leniency. The journalists' plight and North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests have alarmed foreign governments. But South Korea — the country that potentially has the most to lose from the tensions — is deeply divided about what to do about it.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


I'm Steve Inskeep.

Families of two Americans made an appeal to North Korea. The families want leniency for two journalists who were sentenced to a dozen years in a labor camp. That conviction alarmed foreign governments, which are already worried about North Korea's nuclear testing.

MONTAGNE: Now, a handful of key governments will work out a response, and that includes the country that shares a name, a peninsula and a long history with North Korea. South Korea is deeply divided about what to do. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

(Soundbite of shouting)

ANTHONY KUHN: In the more than two weeks since former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide while under investigation for corruption, small scale protests have continued and this domestic political crisis has overshadowed the North Korean question. It has certainly overshadowed the plight of the detained American journalists who now appear to be pawns in a much bigger geopolitical game.

Near Seoul's city hall, opposition democratic labor party lawmaker Yi Jung He(ph) is hunger striking. She says President Lee Myung-Bak is using North Korea's provocations as a smokescreen for his own authoritarian policies.

Ms. YI JUNG HE (Democratic labor party lawmaker): (Through translator) When North Korea test fired missiles, President Lee and his Grand National Party used the media to play up the news. Then the National Intelligence Service released information about North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's designation of a successor. The government is just using the North Korean issue to distract people.

KUHN: Commemorating South Korea's war dead on Saturday, President Lee urged citizens to put aside their differences in the face of Pyongyang's provocations.

President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: North Korea is threatening not only our nation but also worldwide peace and stability, he said, with its nuclear testing and missile launches. As north-south tensions rise we need to come together and strengthen unity so that North Korea does not miscalculate.

On South Korea's political left are student groups and labor unions. They advocate engaging North Korea and they warn against a return to South Korea's military dictatorship. On the right, veterans and church groups say the leftists are na�ve about the dangers of communism.

Byung Jung Bak(ph) is a farmer who worked for the American army as a young man. With a grin full of silver-capped teeth, he says it's embarrassing to talk with foreigners about Korea's problems, but he voices his concerns anyway.

Mr. BYUNG JUNG BAK (Farmer): (Through translator) South Korea is so unsettled at the moment and North Korea is still threatening us. We should stop protesting and focus more on the North Korea issue. These protestors should be more patient, less emotional and just watch what our government does.

KUHN: South Koreans also differ on how to explain Pyongyang's motives. Lee Sang Hyun(ph) is director of the security studies program at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank. He expects North Korea to continue ratcheting up tensions until it has enough leverage to go into talks with the U.S.

Mr. LEE SANG HYUN (Director, security studies program, Sejong Institute): (Through translator) The North Koreans have already got the U.S.'s attention. So why won't they invite the U.S. envoy to Pyongyang for talks? They probably feel they haven't got a big enough advantage yet.

KUHN: Other analysts emphasize domestic factors. Yi's colleague at the Sejong Institute, North Korean expert Paik Hak-Soon(ph), points out that North Korea is currently focused not on the U.S. but on a mass movement to modernize the country by the year 2012.

The movement is intended to revive the country's stagnant economy and to consolidate Kim Jong-il's hold on power ahead of the transition to his successor. It's modeled partly on China's 1958 to 1961 Great Leap Forward, which, by the way, ended in a disastrous famine.

Mr. PAIK HAK-SOON (North Korean expert, Sejong Institute): Kim Jong-il actually launched a second Flying Horse movement, which is the total mobilization of ideology, politics and labor and resources and technology, whatever they have in North Korea, to make the politics quite simple.

KUHN: South Korea's patchwork of ideas and groups form a lively civil society that's at the center of their two-decade-old democracy. But it also means that any South Korean government is going to have a tough time forging a popular consensus to support its policies towards North Korea.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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