SEOUL, South Korea—Many South Koreans shrug off North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, saying that while a nuclear-armed Pyongyang may menace the United States and Japan, it's unlikely to attack its prosperous southern neighbor.
Their attitudes changed markedly under the "sunshine policy" launched in 1998 by former President Kim Dae-jung, which fueled investment in impoverished North Korea and helped defuse the fear that the Korean Peninsula might be at war once again.
But North Korea's entry into the global nuclear club may be a coda for the sunshine policy. Some South Koreans say engagement has failed to encourage significant reform in North Korea. Others view it as appeasement, saying their nation has served as a virtual ATM for North Korea.
The sunshine policy, which also has put Seoul in conflict with Washington, clearly is nearing sunset.
"Public opinion is divided," said Choi Jang-jip, a Korea University political scientist. "After the nuclear test, questions have been raised about people's trust in the policy."
A prominent political scientist, Nam Sung-wook, said he expected the policy "to expire in the near future" because it had failed to halt North Korea's nuclear quest. "North Korea is a brand-new country since Oct. 9," he said.
The sunshine policy dramatically increased the exposure of South Koreans to North Korea, and many South Koreans came to believe that they were forestalling North Korea's economic collapse and setting the pace for eventual orderly reunification. Each month, tens of thousands of South Koreans cross the heavily fortified border to visit a mountain sanctuary resort in North Korea, getting a small taste of life on the other side.
Now, however, polls show that an increasing number of South Koreans think that Seoul should stand up more firmly to Pyongyang, even as their fear of North Korea has diminished.
"You need to use a stick as well as a carrot in conducting the engagement policy," said Kim Yong-won, a 25-year-old university student studying computer science.
The pillars of the policy are two massive cross-border investment projects, the Mount Kumgang resort—Diamond Mountain in English—and the Kaesong Industrial Zone.
About 40,000 South Koreans go each month to the resort in the Kumgang Mountains, a site exalted in Korean literature as the embodiment of the peninsula's scenic beauty. Some 1.35 million South Koreans have traveled to the resort, crossing the once-feared Demilitarized Zone into North Korea.
The Kaesong Industrial Zone, an hour's bus ride from Seoul just north of the DMZ, employs 9,000 North Koreans now and is slated to grow rapidly in the next few years.
The Hyundai Group, which has financed the projects, has pumped in about $1.6 billion, helping to increase cross-border trade to more than $1 billion last year.
Newspapers fill with emotional stories of reunions among relatives who were separated after the 1950-1953 Korean War. Some 14,600 people have been reunited, and tens of thousands of South Koreans, mainly businessmen, have visited North Korea under the sunshine policy, mostly searching for opportunities.
"For 50 years, before Kim Dae-jung's sunshine policy, only 200 South Koreans had visited North Korea," said Jung Chung-rae, a legislator from South Korea's ruling Uri Party.
As a result of the increased exposure, Jung said, polls consistently show that fewer than 10 percent of South Koreans feel an immediate threat from North Korea.
The last major nuclear scare occurred in 1994, when Pyongyang threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Panic ensured, with many South Koreans fleeing to markets in "ramen runs," believing that catastrophic war might erupt.
But a majority of South Koreans now think that North Korea is using its newfound nuclear capacity as a bargaining chip and would target other nations—probably Japan and the United States—only if pushed to the wall.
"I don't think Kim Jong Il will fire nuclear weapons toward South Korea because that would be killing his own brethren," said Oh Sang-tae, a 64-year-old deliveryman for an office-supply store in central Seoul.
Like many residents of Seoul, he said he wasn't sure where there might be a secure bomb shelter. The Donga-ilbo newspaper reported recently that the city of some 10 million people has nuclear shelters capable of holding only 1,500.
Conservatives, who've long decried the sunshine policy, said many South Koreans had grown foolishly inured to real threats of war.
"Maybe people are numb," said Cha Myung-jin, a legislator with South Korea's largest opposition force, the Grand National Party. "The threat has been going on for so long, people don't feel it."
Pyongyang is known to have 8,000 artillery pieces dug into mountains and aimed at Seoul, ready to lob conventional, chemical and biological shells.
From his perch at Seoul's South Gate Market, vendor Kim Myong-seon—who sells military surplus gear, including gas masks—said citizens weren't nervous as they once were.
"It was after Sept. 11 that people bought gas masks," he said. "People thought South Korea could be another target of al-Qaida because it is a U.S. ally."
Now sales are slow. No one is rushing out to stock up for conflict.
"Nobody is frightened," Kim said. "It's not like in the past."
Yet polls have found that South Koreans do worry about the role the Bush administration may play in a crisis, fearing that they might get dragged into a war and dreading anything like the war U.S. troops are waging in Iraq, where some 2,400 South Korean troops are posted.
"I am afraid of President Bush. It is possible he could start a war in Korea as he did in Iraq," said Cho Sung-moo, an electrical engineering student at Chonnam University in Seoul.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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