Public Opinion Depicts More Combative South Korea

Fear of conflict in Asia-Pacific escalates amid tensions.

SEOUL, Dec. 4, 2010 -- North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island appears to have pushed public opinion in the South from conciliation toward calls for a cutoff of aid, a beefing up of military capabilities and rejection of Chinese intervention.

Opinion polls show that a greater percentage of South Koreans prefer military action against the North than did following the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan in March that cost the lives of 46 sailors.

That sentiment was reflected by President Lee Myung Bak's choice for defense minister when he said today that South Korean jets will bomb North Korea should Pyongyang stage an attack similar to last week's deadly artillery barrage.

Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary confirmation hearing that South Korea will use all its combat capabilities to retaliate.

"In case the enemy attacks our territory and people again, we will thoroughly retaliate to ensure that the enemy cannot provoke again," Kim said.

Despite objections by the North and China to recent joint military drills with the United States, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it has asked the Pentagon to conduct "several more rounds" of exercises, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Although China reiterated its offer to resume regional talks with the North, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung Hwan and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed Thursday that the six-party talks should only resume after Pyongyang makes steps toward giving up its nuclear program, according to South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

North Korea's attack was "counterproductive" for North Korea, says Park Young Ho, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

"It gave the South Korean population a vivid lesson on the real characteristics and nature of the North Korean regime and system," he says.

Many experts believe the Nov. 23 artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people, is an attempt to show that 27-year-old Kim Jong Un is strong enough to inherit power from his father, Kim Jong Il.

"The power of the North Korean regime comes from the military, and Kim Jong Un needs to strengthen his control over the military," says Yun Duk Min, a North Korea expert at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul. "That's the high priority for the succession process."

Kim Jong Un is following in his father's footsteps. In 1968, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, a Navy spy ship, and North Korean commandoes attacked the South's presidential residence.

"From these military attacks, Kim Jong Il emerged as the successor," to his father, Kim Il Sung, still revered as North Korea's "Eternal President," Yun says. The latest attack "was a calculated move, and North Korea achieved their goal."

A poll by The Chosun Ilbo newspaper found that nearly 70% of South Koreans support a limited response to North Korea's shelling.

This contrasts with opinion in April, when fewer than 30% supported military action in response to the sinking of the Cheonan. And those who say the government's response to the shelling was inadequate outnumber those who say it was enough.

Meanwhile, Lee has demanded a boost to the military presence in all of the South's islands and has said he is rethinking whether to send previously agreed upon shipments of food to the North.

Though anti-North Korean protests have outnumbered peace rallies, some still want a more moderate approach.

"We must avoid a war in any case," said Sohn Hak Kyu, chairman of the opposition liberal Democratic Party.

Near the 38th Parallel, which still divides the two Koreas and within easy range of North Korean artillery, some residents are nervous about possible attacks.

"I am more worried than ever before, as this time North Korea attacked civilians," says Ryu Hyun Ju, an information officer at Dongdaemun Design Plaza. "South Korea and the USA would win a war against North Korea, but our families and our city would suffer a lot of damage."