Why South Korea Has to Live in Denial

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KCNA / Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, visits the Hamheung Chemical Industry University in North Korea in this undated picture

I sent an e-mail to a friend in Seoul after the South Korean government presented the evidence that made it obvious to all but the most brain-addled conspiracy theorists that its neighbor to the North had blown one of the South's naval vessels out of the water on March 26, killing 46 sailors. I wondered whether U.S. and South Korean military planners had anything filed under "lightning strike to wipe out the North's artillery positions near the 38th parallel and then decapitate the regime in Pyongyang." It was a joke — well, sort of — but unhesitatingly, my friend responded, "But no one here feels threatened by North Korea ..."

The thing about a large portion of the South Korean population is that it exists in what psychiatrists would describe as a fugue state, one in which a person suffers from a loss of memory, often begins a new life — and remembers nothing at all about the amnesiac phase. So those people can be forgiven for turning away from the fact that with the assault on the Cheonan, North Korea engaged in an act of war and abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement that established a truce on the divided peninsula. It's been 60 years since the outbreak of the catastrophic Korean conflict; the South, the U.S. and the other U.N. allies will commemorate it officially next month. The message, in the wake of the Cheonan incident, could not be clearer: no one wants another one.

Oh, I know. The message actually being uttered now is intended to be a show of strength. President Lee Myung Bak gave a speech on May 24 in which he said that although Seoul has "time and again" looked the other way in response to North Korean aggression, "now things are different." North Korea, he said, "will pay a price according to its provocative acts." A day later, the message was the same coming from Beijing, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had two days of meetings at the so-called Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the North's lone patron, China. "Our support for the defense of South Korea is unequivocal," she said. And even China, North Korea's all-forgiving ally, seemed to indicate that it would not stand in the way of further U.N. sanctions against the North, which now becomes the focus of U.S. and South Korean diplomacy. The atmospherics were intended to be harsh — the South will even restart the Cold War–era broadcasts over loudspeakers at the DMZ in which they yell really nasty things at the soldiers on the other side in order to send Kim Jong Il the signal that enough is enough.

But South Korea sort of has to exist in a fugue state. Both realpolitik and economic reality dictate it. South Korea is democratic, it's rich, and it's a trading nation that, with startling seamlessness, shifted its focus from the U.S. to China, which is now the largest customer on the planet for all the good things South Korean companies export. It has too much to lose.

And so you have to look at the reality beneath the warlike atmospherics. The New York Times reported that the U.S. and South Korean navies would "put new pressure" on North Korea by conducting joint exercises next month. The point of the exercises? "To detect submarines of the kind suspected of sinking a South Korean warship." Does that sound like "pressure" on North Korea? Or does it sound like they're going to practice what they screwed up back in March, when a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo and got away utterly undetected? Similarly, headlines everywhere proclaimed that the South was "cutting off" trade with the North. Up to a point, that was true. But it's also true that the Kaesong industrial zone, just across the border in the North — home to more than 120 South Korean companies employing more than 43,000 North Korean workers — accounts for more than half of all inter-Korean trade ... and it's going to remain in business. So is trade with the North really halted? No.

This is the balance that South Korea and its allies must strike, getting tough but not too tough — because the alternative is too awful to contemplate. Vast numbers of South Koreans just keep telling themselves that "no one feels" threatened by their brothers in the North, despite the fact that 46 South Korean sailors now lie at the bottom of what Koreans call the West Sea. The risk in this, of course, is obvious: what one Pentagon planner called the "calibrated signals" Seoul and Washington are now sending need to be read properly by Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, and his military advisers in Pyongyang.

Think carefully, then, about this question: Do you think it's clear to Kim & co. just how many South Korean soldiers, airmen and sailors he can kill without triggering the war that no one wants? He got 46 this time; had the ship's entire crew of 104 been killed, would the reaction from Seoul and its friends be any different? (Hint: No.)

So what's the answer? If not 46 or 104, is it 460? Or 4,600 perhaps? What's the red line that Kim Jong Il cannot cross without eliciting something more than yet another round of economic sanctions from the U.N. and an inter-Korean trade embargo that doesn't really put an embargo on inter-Korean trade? I bet he doesn't have a clue. And that's what's scary. Late on Tuesday the North Korean regime — having, according to North Korean defectors in Seoul, already instructed its people to prepare for "combat" — announced that it was going to sever all ties with the South. Kim is old and ailing and, by most accounts, desperately trying to install his son as his successor. The most plausible explanation for the Cheonan attack is that it puffs up the Kim clan in the eyes of the North Korean military — the key to ensuring a smooth succession in Pyongyang. For all our sakes, then, let's hope it succeeded, so he doesn't feel the need to pull another lethal stunt. Because for all the angry rhetoric and sanctions being readied, I'd bet Kim & co. think they can get away with damn near anything these days.