Saturday, May 29, 2010

Come Over and Help Us

I imagine there must be one or two people out there wondering why I haven't been posting about Korean politics this time around, especially with the growing tensions over the sinking of a South Korean ship, blamed by South Korea and the US on North Korea. I haven't been following events closely enough, to tell you the truth.

I have seen a lot of clips of Secretary of State Clinton grandstanding on Korean TV in the past few days, announcing that an independent inquiry had established North Korean guilt, which to me is as good as a confirmation of the North's innocence. Korean friends and some articles I've looked at in the Hankyoreh inform me that there is room for doubt. One friend told me today that it's normal around election time for the ruling party to stir up anxiety about North Korean aggression. Similar incidents have been happening ever since the Korean War ended in truce in 1953, but more people died (about 46) when the Cheonan sank, and it providentially occurred close to the elections, which made it useful for exploitation. On the other hand, the Lee administration's shutdown of economic activity with the North is hurting businesses in the South:
Businesses commissioned for inter-Korean processing and trade were up in arms Tuesday following President Lee Myung-bak’s announcement of plans to halt inter-Korean trade in response to the sinking of the Cheonan. The companies charged that the government’s measures “are killing South Korean businesses, not North Korea.” With the government’s focus lying solely on punishing North Korea, the abrupt announcement gave no time for small and mid-sized companies to prepare a retreat, and despite what is effectively a compulsory measure, almost no government compensation plan has been put in place. ...

For the most part, the companies commissioned to do processing plan their production six to seven months in advance, so a lot of the raw materials are already in North Korea," said an official who attended the Unification Ministry’s talk Tuesday. "If the goods that are currently being produced, or even those that are already finished, cannot go in, then it tarnishes the image not only of the businesses, but also of the company, since they are unable to deliver to the foreign contracting company, and of the state."
I suspect that measures like this may hurt the ruling party at the polls next week.

I've also learned from the Hankyoreh that President Lee Myung-bak and "a number of cabinet members" did not complete their compulsory military service. That surprised me, because not completing one's service is supposed to be a serious disability for men in South Korea. But evidently it hasn't stood in Lee's way. On the other hand, his record may partially explain his desire to appear tough toward Japan and North Korea; we have such men in US public life too, known as "war wimps" and "chicken hawks."

I was sitting on a bench in COEX Mall yesterday, writing in my notebook, when a Korean man about my age, dressed in suit and tie, noticed me and stopped to chat. "Is that English?" he asked about my writing. I admitted that it was.

After asking me the usual biographical questions -- where was I from, what brought me to Korea, what did I do back home in America -- he asked what I thought about the sinking of the Cheonan. Didn't I think that America would help Korea, as Mrs. Clinton had promised? I made a face, and told him I wouldn't rely too much on American promises. What, he asked, is she a liar? She is, I told him, and so is Obama: think of what they have said about Iran and numerous other countries. Besides, didn't he remember that in the Korean Civil War, the US had promised to help the South if the North attacked -- yet when that attack happened, there was no help until the South was almost entirely conquered?

He conceded that unhappily, but then he brightened and declared that there was nothing to worry about, because the North is very weak. There is no danger that they could do much damage to the South. I thought about that for a moment, then asked him why, if the North is so harmless, President Lee and the Americans are saying that the North is a deadly threat? That took him aback too. We chatted for a few moments more, and then we shook hands and he went on his way.

Myself, I don't believe that North Korea is as weak as this man claimed; that was just normal nationalistic boasting on his part. I believe that they could do a lot of damage in the South before they were stopped. It chills me to think of what war would do to the beautiful country I'm visiting, and to its people. Interestingly, it's China that is pressing for caution and patience now -- they don't want war on the Korean peninsula either, so close to their own borders. It's easy for the Americans to say "Let's you and him fight" -- the fight would take place far away from us.

P.S. From the Hankyoreh:

In a survey conducted Saturday by Research Plus at the behest of the Hankyoreh, 59.9 percent of those surveyed say they do not trust the military’s statements issued on the findings of its investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan. Only 34.9 percent say that they trust the military officials. Some 57.9 percent also said that the ruling government has not responded effectively to the stinking of the Cheonan, while only 34.3 percent said they think the government has carried out an effective response.

I'd call that a healthy attitude. We could do with more of it in the US.