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The South Korean Divide

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated October 26, 2006

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As the global reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test softens from shouts to chatter, South Korea considers cautious steps about how to handle Pyongyang. Seoul remains concerned that strong action against Pyongyang could lead to the collapse of Kim Jong-Il’s regime and a rush of refugees across the border (Reuters). North Korea said the South's proposed travel and trade restrictions would be considered an act of war (BBC), and many South Koreans are reluctant to endorse sanctions they feel will prolong or deepen suffering in the North (NYT). The nuclear test sparked a debate within South Korea about whether it should continue its strategy of engagement known as the “Sunshine Policy” or turn toward a more militaristic approach, which could include developing nuclear missiles (CSMonitor).

While they continue to differ over how to handle North Korea, South Koreans are united in their concern over the possibility of reckless action by Kim Jong-Il igniting an international conflict. The country has already tested a new cruise missile (Australian) capable of reaching North Korea, as well as parts of China and Japan. Such actions do little to calm fears about an escalating arms race in the region. Disagreement within South Korea over its policy with the North stems from a generational divide. South Koreans over sixty from the war generation place importance on the U.S. alliance, while those in their forties and younger, known as the "386 generation" and including supporters of President Roh Moo Hyun, were part of the 1980s pro-democracy movement and feel sympathy for their impoverished cousins in the North. Georgetown University’s David I. Steinberg describes this shift in South Korean politics as a “social revolution” (Seoul Times) in which new, young leaders are “skeptical of U.S. motives and the American presence on the Korean Peninsula.” These rising twin ideologies of Pan-Korean nationalism and “Anti-Great Power-ism,” could result in a rift in U.S.-South Korean relations, writes Colonel Jiyul Kim of the U.S. Army War College.

Faced with the threat of a nuclear North Korea, conservatives in South Korea have condemned Roh’s administration (Korea Times). An editorial in the conservative Chosun-Ilbo warns: “When the skipper cannot guarantee the safety of his passengers, he is no longer the captain. He should stop prancing around and stand where he belongs.” The South Korean blog OhMyNews warns against ending the “Sunshine Policy,” a long-term strategy with a goal of reunification that “was never really designed as a short-term fix for the nuclear program.” Kim Dae-Jung, the former South Korean president who initiated the policy, says the United States should defuse the current tensions with the Kim regime by holding bilateral talks.

The stark difference in the welfare of the two countries can be seen in satellite maps showing the brightly lit South next to a North Korea in darkness. Seoul is the biggest investor in North Korea, where the per capita gross domestic product is only about $1,000 (Stratfor). South Korean firms have invested in a large industrial complex known as Kaesong, which is just across the border in North Korea. The complex employs several thousand North Koreans and produces goods the Bush administration is hesitant to accept in a free trade agreement it is negotiating with South Korea (KoreaTimes).

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