When North Korea fired 175 artillery shells and missiles on a military installation on the tiny South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Nov. 23, Seattle’s Korean-American community reacted with surprise and anger. Tensions continue to simmer here and on the Korean peninsula, where this event has followed a sudden explosion that sank a South Korean warship last March, killing 46 sailors.
State Sen. Paull Shin, who was in Seoul last week to participate in the free-trade agreement talks, echoed the view of many local Korean-Americans. “The United Nations Security Council and General Assembly should pass a resolution unanimously condemning North Korea’s actions,” he said.
Following meetings with the state’s Korean-American community leadership, including churches, veterans, business and civic leaders, Shin said that Washington state’s Korean-American community is very concerned where the South and North Korean face-off will lead.
“Most overseas Korean-Americans are deeply perturbed about North Korea’s actions,” he said. “They support President Lee Myung-bak’s taking a tougher stance against North Korea. There is a unanimous consensus that they want to make a stronger policy to defend or retaliate against what’s coming in the future.”
For other Korean-American citizens, however, the escalating crisis evoked more complicated feelings. “My reaction to the most recent events is sadness,” said Cindy Ryu, state representative-elect in the 32nd District and the first Korean-American mayor of Shoreline. “Both my parents are from what is now North Korea. Korean-Americans seem much more expressive about this destabilization than those who actually live right next to the demilitarized zone.”
Despite fears that the joint military exercises this week may lead to military confrontation, many local Puget Sound Korean-American community leaders downplay the possibility. “Even though there is a crisis between both Koreas, I don’t think war will happen,” said Yang Joon Hwang, managing editor of the Korea Times Seattle.
“We have been living through this situation for the past sixty years. Many Koreans want the South to take a stronger reaction against North Korea, but the best way to reduce tension between both Koreas is to talk with the North,” Hwang said.
Many business leaders agree with incoming-Rep. Ryu that the more serious impact from the crisis may be on the prospects for reunification of the peninsula. “My concern is that this crisis may help solidify the division of the country,” said Seattle businessman Ick Whan Lee.
Before President Lee took office, South Korea followed the “sunshine policy,” initiated a number of years ago by then-President Kim Dae Jung to promote closer ties with the North. In Lee’s opinion, that policy weakened the position of the South while North Korea continued building their nuclear arsenal.
“I am very concerned about the future of reunification,” Lee said. “The situation is very precarious, but I don’t think there will be war. South Korea is strategically very vulnerable. Seoul has a population of 12 million people and will be paralyzed if there is any military threat. While North Korea has nothing to lose, South Korea would end up losing more.”
The Seattle metropolitan region is home to more than 70,000 Korean-American citizens, while the Pacific Northwest has over 100,000 Korean-Americans. On Dec. 4, more than 1,000 Korean Americans from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties gathered in Bothell for a dinner. Many expressed anxiety about the growing crisis.
“I’m in shock about the situation,” said Kenny Kwangsul Lee, president of the Seattle-Washington State Korean Association. “We don’t want war; we want peace. But we don’t want any more attacks by North Korea. Everyone is angry about North Korea’s shelling of the Island and attack on civilians. South Korea has expressed peaceful relations with the North, but the North has not reciprocated.”
Retired Seattle businessman Dae Won Lee, dispirited by the current standoff, fears that it might lead to a permanent rupture in relations between the two governments. “Unless there is a breakthrough on pending nuclear issues, the situation may further destablize," he said. "Unfortunately, peaceful dialogue between South and North may deteriorate for the time being.”
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