To South Koreans, North Korea has never been a foreign country. Despite the war six decades ago and occasional military conflicts with it thereafter, North Koreans were always “brethren” who share the same history, culture and language. Even at the height of inter-Korean tensions, there were always people in the South who sympathized with the sufferings of those across the border.
This complex sentiment toward North Korea is now giving way to a more hawkish one, as the communist regime, under the young third-generation leader Kim Jong-un, has been stepping up military provocations.
Many interviewed by The Korea Herald expressed anger and frustration at how a peace-loving nation, which has abided by rules and stayed away from nuclear weapons, has become more vulnerable, while a defiant, rogue regime made headway toward becoming a formidable military power.
“Now that North Korea appears to be equipped with nuclear arms, I believe we also need to have the same power to stop the North,” Yu Young-eun, an office worker, told The Korea Herald.
“We are the weakest country here now, and I think we also need to let neighboring and related countries know that we should be in charge of the North Korean issues.”
A recent poll by Gallup Korea, conducted from Sept. 5, after the Sept. 3 nuclear weapons test by the North, shows a clear sign of hardening attitudes among South Koreans.
Of 1,004 respondents, 76 percent considered the sixth atomic detonation as a threat to security. But when asked if they thought the North would initiate a war, only 37 percent answered it was possible, while 58 percent responded that that was little to no chance of such an outcome.
However, 60 percent approved of South Korea rearming with nuclear weapons to respond to the North Korean threat, while 35 percent opposed the idea.
US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, when the two Koreas signed an agreement on denuclearization, non-aggression and reconciliation. While the South has clung to the principle of a neclear-free Korean Peninsula, the North has abandoned it, conducting six nuclear tests so far.
While nuclear rearmanent is mainly pushed by conservatives that pursue tougher policies against the North, more liberal voters also appeared to be in support of the idea, the data showed. Of the 353 respondents who viewed themselves as liberals, 47 percent approved of stationing nuclear weapons here, while 48 percent of the group opposed the idea.
What is more surprising perhaps is that more Koreans even said that humanitarian aid should be cut if the North does not give up its nuclear program.
In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 47 percent of South Koreans said that humanitarian aid should continue even if North Korea continues its nuclear program.
In the latest poll, the figure dropped to 32 percent, while the proportion of South Koreans opposed to the idea rose to 65 percent.
Left-leaning respondents were also skeptical of offering any kind of humanitarian aid, with 52 percent of them calling for a halt.
Experts viewed that the change in public sentiment reflects disappointment toward North Korea, which South Koreans considered their “northern brother” after the painful separation.
“The liberals, who were thought to be relatively more friendly toward the North, are now turning their backs, as they see their northern neighbor is not so brotherly anymore,” a Gallup Korea researcher said.
“Despite President Moon Jae-in’s suggestions for dialogue and peaceful approaches, the North is not taking the kindness and has only become a threat.”
The researcher, who declined to reveal his name, also explained that there have been actual cases of attacks against South Korea.
“One of the prime cases would be North Korea’s attack on Yeongpyeong Island. There, Koreans witnessed that, however we treat them, they can actually attack us,” he said.
In November 2010, North Korea shelled the island located 80 kilometers west of Incheon, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians, and wounding 18.
Another reason behind the shift in attitude may be Kim Jong-un, the North's leader who inherited power from his father and is now reinforcing his authority in such provocative ways, he added.
“The way the communist state continues to show enmity toward the international society is childish. It does not know what is good for them, and we see that our kindness is not returned with kindness but ignorance and hostility,” Yang Jin-young, a 26-year old student, told The Korea Herald.
Other members of the public say that the apparent irrationality of the North Korean leader seems to be the biggest threat.
“I heard Kim is very impulsive and I believe that he may really launch a nuclear bomb. We should never let that happen, and I wish all concerned nations would just ignore North Korea,” said Kim Su-jin, a 30-year-old office worker.
There also seems to be concerns about the changes in the way Pyongyang deals with Seoul and its allies.
“What the North is demanding from the South and the international society has changed. In the past, it was just financial aid to its poor economy, but now it is calling for the ouster of the US armed forces in South Korea,” said Yeo Young-soo, a 60-year-old business owner.
“What is more serious is that the North is now ignoring the South.”
By Jo He-rim (email@example.com)