South Koreans Are Anxious After North's Attack South Korea's troops are on high alert after Tuesday's military skirmish with North Korea. In Seoul, there is no panic but there is an undercurrent of anxiety.

South Koreans Are Anxious After North's Attack

South Koreans Are Anxious After North's Attack

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South Korea's troops are on high alert after Tuesday's military skirmish with North Korea. In Seoul, there is no panic but there is an undercurrent of anxiety.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.

South Korea now says North Korea's attack on one of its islands has left two civilians dead, along with two marines. President Barack Obama, speaking on "ABC News" last night, pledged that the U.S. will stand with South Korea.

President BARACK OBAMA: South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War. And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance.

MONTAGNE: A U.S. aircraft carrier is heading towards the Korean Peninsula to take part in a joint military exercise. Beyond that, there's little consensus in the South Korean capital about what to do next.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul.

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LOUISA LIM: On the orderly streets of Seoul, amid the shiny skyscrapers, it's difficult to remember you're in one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. But today, one day after North Korea attacked a South Korean island, it suddenly much harder to suspend that disbelief. That's expressly the case after the discovery of the bodies of two civilians on the island, the first civilian victims of this crisis.

Here in Seoul, there's no panic but there is an undercurrent of anxiety.

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Ms. JUNG SUO-JUNG(ph) (College Student): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I was very frightened, 20 -year-old student Jung Suo-jung, and it reminded me to treasure every day of my life.

Ms. HIR MYUNG(ph) (Teacher): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Im sad about the civilian casualties and this attack was wrong, says teacher Hir Myung, but I don't feel threatened because this does happen from time to time.

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LIM: As shells rained down on the Island of Yongpyong, North Korea's said the attack had been provoked by South Korean military exercises near the island. Seoul denies its army had been firing in the direction of the North.

Kim Dae-chun(ph), from National Defense University's Department of Military Strategy, says the North's action constitutes war, albeit a limited localized war. He says the attack, just days after the North Korea unveiled a stunning brand new uranium plant, had specific political and strategic aims, mainly securing talks with the with the U.S.

Professor KIM DAE-CHUN (Department of Military Strategy, National Defense University): (Through Translator) After unveiling uranium facilities, South Korea and the U.S. maintained their hard line position, rather than paying attention to the change in circumstances. Relations are deadlocked, so by creating tension, it's demanding attention, and it wants to get in the upper hand in negotiations. It's a kind of brinkmanship.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Or put in other words: North Korea, L'Enfant Terrible's global geopolitics is feeling ignored and throwing a tantrum. The attack is also perhaps for domestic consumption, as North Korea undergoes its own power transition to a young inexperienced leader.

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

LIM: South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak has responded by threatening massive retaliation in the event of war provocations. He's also freezing flood aid, banning South Koreans from entering the North, and indefinitely postponing the Red Cross talks with Pyongyang about family reunions. Lee has held firm that he doesnt want to reward bad behavior.

But Moon Chung-in(ph), a professor of political science at Yonsei University, says that strategy is failing and talks are needed.

Professor MOON CHUNG-IN (Political Science, Yonsei University): Sanctions are not welcomed in North Korea. Yet our government has been denying the utility of six-party processes, thereby discounting the utility of negotiation. Then what are the options? The military action.

LIM: The South is going ahead with joint war games with the U.S. due to start on Sunday. The U.S. aircraft carrier that will take part is heading towards the Yellow Sea, between the Korean Peninsula and the Chinese coast.

The North has issued a new warning, saying that the actions of the South are driving the peninsula to the brink of war.

For his part, Yonsei University's Moon Chung-in, sees the arrival of the carrier, George Washington, as unhelpful.

Prof. CHUNG-IN: What's the utility of it? Is it what, power projection?

LIM: Do you think the North Koreans would see that as a further provocation?

Prof. CHUNG-IN: Sure, and North Korea would respond in kind. North Korea is a very much worldly experienced to that kind of projection of power by South Korea and the United States. And worst now that things will get worsened, because China will be very unhappy about that kind of deployment pattern.

LIM: A but others disagree. Editorials in the newspapers are calling on president Lee to stand firm. But with North Korea engaging in a kind of provocation escalation, the stakes are getting ever higher. Some are now warning that a third of North Korean nuclear test could be next

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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