Kim's faith in the good intentions of his heavily armed neighbor is prevalent throughout most of South Korea. It's a belief that seemingly cannot be shaken even as the North Korea nuclear crisis worsens. Pyongyang is refusing to return to six-party negotiations with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia on dismantling its nuclear program, and is sticking instead to its familiar diplomatic tactics of ambiguity and provocation. Last week, North Korea jangled nerves around the region again by announcing it had unloaded 8,000 fuel rods at its Yongbyon reactor—a step that would allow it to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium for a stockpile already estimated at up to eight weapons. The North lobbed a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan (or East Sea) earlier this month. And U.S. officials have been warning that spy satellites have detected increased activity around a suspicious test facility in the northeast of the country that may presage an underground A-bomb test. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon last week told a local TV news service: "I'm extremely concerned that the situation is getting worse."
That gloom hasn't yet filtered down to ordinary South Koreans. And the startling disconnect between official views of the danger that Kim Jong Il's despotic government poses to the world and the sanguine attitudes of South Korean citizens is making it desperately hard for diplomats from Washington and Seoul to forge a common strategy for defusing the crisis. After years of regarding North Koreans as bitter enemies, the prosperous, democratic South now holds a benign view of the hunger-wracked police state. To southerners, North Koreans may be brothers from another planet (as the International Crisis Group put it), but they are brothers just the same, impoverished relations deserving help, not international censure and isolation. Many South Koreans—including some government officials—are more worried that Washington could respond to a Pyongyang provocation with military action, plunging the peninsula into war. From South Korea's perspective, "they have two black boxes to deal with—the North Koreans and the U.S. government," said a Seoul-based Western diplomat. Which box is blacker? According to a poll published last week by the Munhwa Ilbo daily and the Korea Society Opinion Institute, nearly one in two South Koreans say they would support North Korea if the U.S. launches a military strike without the South's consent. In a poll conducted last year by Seoul-based Research and Research, 39% of respondents said the biggest threat to South Korean national security was the U.S., while 33% said they feared North Korea the most.
These results reflect the rise of a more nationalistic generation of South Koreans who are frustrated with America's dominant role in the fate of the peninsula. Younger citizens want their leaders to carve out a new, more independent position—one that envisions the eventual, peaceful reunification of the two countries. South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, elected in 2002 thanks to strong support from younger voters, said in a speech in Los Angeles last year that he could understand why North Korea might feel it needs nuclear weapons as "a deterrant for defending itself from external agression." (Roh still insists that the long-standing alliance between the U.S. and South Korea remains strong.)
Roh's statement might seem startling to outsiders, but it's the consensus in places like Ilsan. Seoul was keenly aware of the threat from the North's Korean People's Army when the South created the town from scratch in the 1980s. Lying across one of the main invasion routes to Seoul, the area was the scene of frequent skirmishes during the Korean War. Planners carefully spaced Ilsan's new high-rises to slow any onslaught from enemy tanks and troops. In those days, the town's proximity to North Korea made it an unpopular place to live. Today, property prices are as high as those in the rest of metropolitan Seoul. "Lots of people want to live here," says real estate broker Kim Bok Chun, 50. "There's lots of fresh air." The threat of a nuclear test by the North? "This isn't affecting the price of apartments," he says. "North Korea won't attack us with nukes—we're the same race." Says Lee Do Hwan, another employee of Ilsan's Lotte department store: "I agree with North Korea's position on the Bomb. They can use it for their defense. It is the U.S. that's caused the crisis in the peninsula."
These sentiments are reflected in the strain between Washington and Seoul over how to deal with Pyongyang. For decades, South Korea and the U.S. both treated North Korea as the enemy. But in 1997, with the election of pro-democracy activist Kim Dae Jung as President, Seoul changed course. The South's leaders realized that if Kim Jong Il's government collapsed and the North unraveled, the burden of feeding millions of starving North Koreans and rehabilitating the North's crippled economy could devastate South Korea's own economy for years to come. Seoul started to send aid across the Demilitarized Zone to help Pyongyang modernize and—it was hoped—gradually become more self-sufficient by substituting capitalism for Marxism. Seoul is building a massive factory complex in the North Korean city of Kaesong, not far from Ilsan, and South Korean tourists regularly visit a resort enclave on North Korea's southeastern coast. Last year, 27,000 southerners visited the North, up from 16,000 in 2003. While the U.S. pushes for economic sanctions, South Korean trade with North Korea soared from $403 million in 2001 to $697 million in 2004, according to South Korean government statistics. The U.S. wants to isolate Kim Jong Il. South Korea continues to promote transportation links.
The most serious rift between Seoul and Washington arose late last year over contingency planning on what the U.S. and South Korea should do if the North Korean government starts to fall apart or a disgruntled North military officer stages a coup. Under current guidelines, a U.S. general would lead American and South Korean forces in any shooting war with the North, as long as the allies agree that the situation warrants military action. But under what circumstances would troops be called in? Worried that signs of instability in the North might mean nuclear weapons were falling into unknown hands, Washington wanted to revise the war plans to give it more flexibility to move quickly to prevent chaos. South Korea objected, fearing that Washington might use the slightest wobble in the Pyongyang government as an excuse to invade. "The U.S. wants more power if it sees a need to intervene," says opposition lawmaker Kwon Yong Sae. "There will be conflict between the U.S. and South Korea if something like this happens."
Tensions have worsened as a result of South Korea's opposition to the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 passed by the U.S. Congress. The law earmarks the spending of $24 million a year to improve human rights in the repressive country. But many South Koreans, including lawmakers in the Uri Party, which supports Roh, see the legislation as an attempt to destabilize North Korea—which happens to be exactly the way Pyongyang reads the law. Seoul's decision in April to abstain from a vote on the North's human-rights record at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva didn't help, either.
Officials from Seoul and Washington continue to insist that all is well between the two sides—in public, at least. "Our alliance has never been stronger," a senior U.S. State Department official said last week. "The steady pace of visits and consultations is evidence of that." But there's also plenty of evidence of ongoing divisiveness. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, a former ambassador to Seoul who now leads U.S. efforts to stop Pyongyang's nuclear program, recently met over dinner with the editors of several South Korean online media organizations to try to bridge some of the gaps. One journalist asked why the U.S. didn't just accept that North Korea won't give up its weapons of mass destruction, and recognize the country as a nuclear power. Hill fired back, asking why the assembled journalists didn't write more about North Korean human-rights abuses. "It was a very heated debate," said a participant. "Things got pretty aggressive."
There is one event that could bring the North Korea policies of Seoul and Washington into closer alignment: a nuclear test by the North. Roh was livid after Pyongyang declared it had nuclear weapons in February, says a South Korean official. Seoul hasn't officially turned down a North Korean request made in January for 500,000 tons of fertilizer. But the planting season is almost over and Seoul is uncharacteristically sitting on the request. Meanwhile, senior officials from the North and South Korea are scheduled to meet this week; according to South Korea's Unification Ministry, Seoul will again press Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks. But polite prodding could give way to big sticks if the North detonates a nuclear device. "The situation would slip out of control," says a senior South Korean official. "It would create such an uproar, such a strong reaction from around the world." A brother's patience is not boundless.