Are the US and South Korea too quick to appease North Korea?


Two and a half years ago, South Korean and American forces were conducting live-fire drills in the sea west of Korea near the island of Yeonpyeong when a cable from North Korea arrived asking if the drills were an attack. South Korean and American forces proceeded with the drills, firing south into the sea, away from North Korea. The North attacked, shelling Yeonpyeong and killing four South Koreans, including two civilians. The South returned fire and scrambled fighter jets. It seemed the peninsula was on the brink of war.

The following week, with tensions running high, South Korea and the United States continued the scheduled military drills in the West Sea. The North issued a statement warning the U.S. and South Korea to cancel the exercises and promising to fire on them if they continued.

I arrived at work that day with a brown paper bag in my briefcase. It contained my passport, $1,000 in cash, instructions from the U.S. Embassy on how to evacuate Seoul, and a transistor radio. I hadn’t listened to a transistor radio since I was a kid and I would sneak the radio into bed with me to hear the end of the White Sox game to see if Carlton Fisk would win it in the ninth by ripping a double down the left-field line. I would turn the radio on low and hold it up to my ear, listening to the roar of the crowd echo in the old Comiskey Park. Now I was carrying the same kind of radio, to tune in to news of war.

Live-fire drills were scheduled to start in early afternoon. As I met my colleagues in the lobby of our building to go to lunch, I didn’t know whether war would break out before we returned to our desks for the afternoon. Someone suggested a restaurant for lunch: Joo-Goo-Mee. The faces of my Korean colleagues lit up at the mention of the restaurant’s namesake, a squid-like sea creature that we would soon be grilling on our table, basting in red-pepper paste and devouring with garlic and lettuce wrappers.

You see, my colleagues were not worried at all. I guess this was normal for them. Every once in a while, the North Korean regime does something really bad, the South mostly just ignores it, and life goes on. Perhaps this is all pursuant to some kind of Korean understanding that I as a foreigner am not privy to.

And so it continues today. While the foreign press makes much of the North Korean threat, life in Seoul goes on. People here do not seem concerned. And I am becoming more like the Koreans, going about my business as usual. Yet I wonder if there is a danger that we are overlooking. The North Koreans sank a South Korean ship and shelled a South Korean island, yet they faced only limited retaliation. If a bully occasionally comes into your neighborhood and kills somebody, and your response is to offer him money to go away, don’t you think he’ll show up again? And next time, maybe he’ll kill more people and make more demands. Where is the line? We have seen that the South and the U.S. don’t respond when North Korea sinks a South Korean ship or attacks a South Korean island. Presumably massive retaliation would follow if the North launched a missile into Seoul. But what if the North Koreans attacked a suburb near the DMZ? Would that trigger massive retaliation, or just a few token shots back and then more bribes to the North Korean regime?

There’s a real danger of miscalculation here. Luckily, South Korea’s new president seems to understand the nature of the North Korean regime. Park Geun-Hye, whose mother was killed in a failed North Korean assassination attempt on her father, must know how dangerous and untrustworthy the North Korean regime is.

I expect the new South Korean government to stand strong against the North’s aggression. I’m less sure about the Obama administration. On his visit to Asia, which included a trip to Seoul, Secretary of State John Kerry seemed ready to concede points to the North Koreans before even beginning negotiations with them. Maybe Secretary Kerry and President Obama have some master plan I don’t know about, but so far their strategy doesn’t look good.

The United States should stand with South Korea to project strength against North Korean aggression. Most of all, we should not reward Kim Jong-un with a high-level summit. No cabinet-level officials or ex-presidents, and certainly not President Obama, should meet with Kim Jong-un. Send him Dennis Rodman instead. The legitimate government of Korea is here in Seoul and we owe it to our South Korean allies to act accordingly.

Andrew Keller is an American lawyer working in Seoul for the Korean law firm of Shin & Kim. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and a Chicago White Sox fan.

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