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South Koreans Divided on N. Korean Nuclear Threat - 2003-01-04

South Koreans are deeply divided over how serious a threat they feel is posed by North Korea's program for nuclear weapons development. Older people express great concern, but many younger South Koreans appear to shrug off the issue.

A visitor to Seoul's bustling streets would never guess that, across the border in North Korea, the government is moving toward reactivating nuclear facilities.

Life in this prosperous nation of 48 million people flows on, with most people apparently focused on their usual activities - enjoying winter holidays with family and friends, or trying to get ahead in the nation's flourishing business sector, one of the few financial bright spots in Asia.

While residents are well aware of the North's recent moves toward restarting the nuclear reactor and reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, many South Koreans, especially the younger generation, view the impoverished, Stalinist North as a weak country needing economic help and political dialogue to bring it out of its isolation.

"Some people criticize that we are giving too much to the North," said 34-year-old Cho Nam-hyo, a salesman in Seoul. "We, in South Korea, are rich enough to eat, and have enough to live on. They are our brothers. So, I think, we should share with them."

Many say they share the views of current leader Kim Dae-jung and his protégé, President-elect Roh Moo-hyun. They have warned in recent days that the proposed U.S. policy toward the North, which some American officials call "tailored containment," could fail, and would just increase tensions on the peninsula. The policy calls for tough sanctions, with North Korea's neighbors also cutting back economic ties to the communist state.

Voters, mostly in their 20s and 30s, elected Mr. Roh last month, because they support his view that relations with Pyongyang should be based on dialogue, trade and financial assistance.

But as soon as the election was over, North Korea said it would reopen the Yongbyon reactor. Days later, it expelled United Nations inspectors, saying both decisions were in response to the U.S.-led move to halt fuel aid shipments to the North. That came after North Korea's admission in October to a U.S. envoy that it had a secret program to enrich uranium, in violation of the two nations' 1994 "Agreed Framework" accord. The Bush administration says it will not negotiate with the North, until it abandons nuclear weapons development, rejecting the North's demand for a mutual non-aggression treaty.

Many South Koreans, such as 26-year-old-nurse, Roh Hyon-ok, who recently took part in a rally against U.S. policy, believe the U.S. stance is too inflexible. She also wants South Korea to play a leading role in working with the North to maintain peace. "North Korea will never start a war," she said. "They will not bomb South Korea, and, besides, this is a Korean issue. The U.S. should not meddle in our affairs."

Such words shock South Korea's older generations, who tend to be staunch supporters of their nation's half-century alliance with the United States, and the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops defending South Korea.

"John" is a 67-year-old South Korean and former war veteran, who worries that young people do not take seriously the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. "They never had experience in the war, with history, with the cruel war between South and North," he said. "They were brought up recently. I myself witnessed and experienced the war. I understand. They never know. This is a problem."

Balbina Hwang, a Northeast Asia analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, says that many young South Koreans feel caught in the middle of tensions between the United States and North Korea. "The problem is that the nuclear issue is of utmost priority for the United States," said Ms. Hwang. "But South Koreans do not see the issue as a problem at all, because it is not even an immediate threat to them. They see North Korea's nuclear issue as something that is being used to threaten the United States, and even perhaps Japan, but not South Korea. So, I think, there is a huge gap between the South Korean threat perception and the U.S. threat perception."

A domestic issue is involved, also. Thousands of South Koreans were angered by the deaths last year of two young South Korean girls, struck and killed by a U.S. military vehicle on a training mission. Outrage escalated when a U.S. military court ruled the deaths were accidental.

Numerous peaceful rallies have since taken place, with young South Koreans singing songs and chanting slogans by candlelight. They are calling for revisions in the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, which outlines U.S. jurisdiction over U.S. troops stationed in the South. In recent weeks, some demonstrators have also criticized U.S. efforts to get North Korea to stop its nuclear programs.

But President-elect Roh, who will take office next month, has met with protest leaders, appealing to them to stop the demonstrations. He is now preparing a compromise solution to solve the nuclear crisis, which reportedly involves concessions from both Pyongyang and Washington.