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Korean community in Northwest feels confrontation’s tensions

State Sen. Paull Shin outside the Capitol Building in Olympia Credit: Senate Democratic Caucus

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.”

Some Korean-American business leaders like Boeing executive Kim S. Cheung express pessimism that any rapprochement between the North and South is possible. “Starting with long-range missile tests, and frequent boycotts of six-party talks and family reunion, tensions and distrust between the two Koreas are growing to the point that some Koreans do not believe that reunification will become a reality in the future,” Cheung said.

“We are angry and upset about the North’s continuous aggression and the South’s lukewarm attitude toward such international criminal acts. We ought to stop such acts by all means. China has a significant political and economic leverage over the north, but China has been of no help in mitigating the crisis,” he said.

Cheung stopped short of saying that current tensions could escalate into an all-out military confrontation, however.

“We all know that the North is not that stupid to wage a war in the Korean peninsula. The North’s socio-economic problems are indeed an economic opportunity for the South. And the North knows it,” Cheung added. “I am sure we will ultimately find a way to a mutually beneficial solution.”

University of Washington political scientist Yong Chool Ha takes the long view in his assessment of the crisis. “As much as we condemn North Korea’s abnormal behavior, the North will continue their provocative actions as long as it feels insecure,” Ha said. “It won’t easily collapse due to China’s support for its minimal survival. At this point, the U.S. position is to insist on North Korea’s showing a sincere attitude and actions in demonstrating its willingness to denuclearize itself.”

“The North Korean conundrum will not be over until the surrounding powers put it into an international formula, so that the North Korean regime starts its own domestic reforms,” Ha said. “Alternatively, there is a low level of possibility of implosion if the current economic crisis persists.”

A few hours before the Nov. 23 North Korean attack began, Victor Cha, a former national security official who frequently dealt with North Korea in the Bush administration said, “North Korea is the land of lousy options.” University of Washington anthropologist and Korea scholar Clark Sorensen agrees.

“As for myself, this crisis proves how difficult the North Korea issue is and how few options the United States really has,” Sorensen said. “North Korea retains the ability to create provocations, and because of the danger of escalation into full-scale war, which would require a full-scale U.S. commitment, both South Korea and the U.S. are constrained in addressing these provocations.”

Taking a more geopolitical view, Sorensen sees dangers in terms of northeast Asian regional security. “The problem for China is that their strategy with North Korea is to keep things quiet so that ‘China can peacefully rise,’ but North Korea has continued to create provocations that bring U.S. forces into the area – something that China doesn’t like” he said. Further sanctions seem pretty futile, but on the other hand negotiations leading to concessions seems to just empower the North Koreans more.”

At the heart of the crisis, Yong Chool Ha believes, is what he terms “regime survival.” He said, “North Korea has been playing nuclear politics with the United States. The reason is very simple: They want to secure a security agreement with the United States as a security deterrent from South Korea. Because of this game, the peninsula situation has become an international and regional issue.”

“The situation is that while North Korea badly needs the United States’ attention beyond just nuclear issues, the U.S.’s position is to approach mainly from the nuclear perspective. But the U.S. has to deal with the North as a partner to the 1953 armistice agreement in order to finalize the long-continuing, unfinished situation in the peninsula,” Ha said.

As many political analysts have observed, China could hold the key to a resolution of the current crisis. “Beijing has both the capacity to bring the situation back from the brink, and an obvious interest in doing so,” said Darryl Johnson, former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and diplomat in China. “The problem with the Chinese, from the U.S. standpoint, is that they have been unwilling to take the lead in this process, except for hosting the six-party talks.”

Local Korean Association business leaders share that assessment. “China is not on North Korea’s side, but it’s caught in the middle,” said Korean Association president Lee. “China and the U.S. are in a power game.” Businessman Ick Whan Lee said that China is reluctant to get involved. “President Hu Jintao and the current Chinese leadership are more concerned with building their economy. China apparently has decided to back North Korea.”

In spite of mounting international tensions and concern over further brinksmanship by both North and South Korea, and the U.S., many Seattle-area Korean-Americans continue to hold out hope that the Korean peninsula crisis might be resolved peacefully.

“I think North Korea wants to talk with South Korea or America,” said journalist Hwang. “That is the main reason North Korea attacked South Korea’s small island of Yeonpyeong. I don’t think that will have any impact on long-term U.S.–South Korean relations or on regional partners such as China.”

Ryu even sees an important lesson in the international crisis. “We all comment that the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-Il, is crazy. The current events show how important who our political leaders and policy makers are,” she said.

“Unless citizens of any country stay engaged and make good choices about who they elect, or allow to be their decision makers, many will also face destabilizing dynamics such as what the Korean peninsula is living through.”

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