[Viewpoint]A rare time when everyone mournsIt is very unusual for the entire country to mourn the death of one man. Such examples are especially hard to find in our society today, since it is full of conflict over even the smallest issues. The death of Sergeant Yun Jang-ho, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, is one of those rare occasions. Government and military officials, political leaders and many citizens made visits of condolence to the military hospital in Bundang, where Sergeant Yun’s body was kept. Every network television station broadcast the funeral service, and candlelight vigils were held in memory of Sergeant Yun. Watching the scene, I was reminded of the victims of the Yellow Sea clash. On June 29, 2002, just when the country was watching the exciting World Cup third place match between Korea and Turkey, a Republic of Korea naval vessel was honeycombed by preemptive shots from a North Korean vessel in the Yellow Sea. Six young soldiers were killed in the clash, but their deaths were completely ignored by the administration.
Their funerals were hurriedly and quietly conducted in a nominal “naval funeral.” Leaders who did not attend included the prime minister, Cabinet members, the defense minister and the joint chiefs of staff. When the media attacked the government, it explained that the naval chief of staff was in charge of the funeral, and it was a custom for those higher than the naval chief of staff not to attend. However, despite that excuse, Sergeant Yun’s funeral was a special forces funeral. People higher than the special forces commander, including the defense minister, the joint chiefs of staff and the army chief of staff, attended the ceremony.
Former President Kim Dae-jung, who was the commander in chief at the time of the naval skirmish in 2002, left for Japan to attend a World Cup closing ceremony the day after the Yellow Sea clash. He returned after the funeral. When not even one candlelight vigil was held in memory of the victims, the families could not hope for a television broadcast of the funeral. As they were dying, the soldiers fired all 700 cannon shots in the vessel to repel the attack from North Korea, but these war heroes could not get the kind of honors Sergeant Yun received because the two cases were interpreted differently by the politicians.
The Yellow Sea clash was hushed up due to the needs of President Kim Dae-jung and North Korea’s chairman of the national defense commission, Kim Jong-il. With the end of his term approaching, Kim Dae-jung hoped to reignite the fire that was started by the inter-Korean summit meeting held on June 15, 2000, and induce the return visit of the North Korean leader. The last thing he wanted was the failed ending of his Sunshine Policy. Pyongyang also had no reason to continue the tension.
Right after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Washington was considering the Kim Jong-il regime to be one of its next targets. U.S. President Bush even labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” in early 2002. Pyongyang immediately expressed “regret” over the Yellow Sea clash and made many friendly gestures, proposing a ministerial meeting, holding an inter-Korean football match, attending the Busan Asian Games and installing a meeting venue for separated families. The course of events is so similar to today’s circumstances. The government is responding to North Korea’s nuclear development as it did the Yellow Sea clash, and Pyongyang is again making friendly gestures. Moreover, the presidential election is approaching again.
The difference is that the death of Sergeant Yun lacks the North Korean variable, the biggest cause of conflict and discord in our society. That may be the reason everyone grieves for him. However, different groups have different causes and reasons to mourn. The government needs to prevent the death of Sergeant Yun from turning into a selling point of troop withdrawal. The troop dispatches to Iraq and Afghanistan are maintaining the shaky Korea-U.S. alliance. Just as Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq, started the anti-Iraq War movement in the United States, the government cannot let the parents of Sergeant Yun follow in Ms. Sheehan’s footsteps. The progressive and leftist groups hope to use the death of Sergeant Yun as a catalyst for their movement calling for troop withdrawal. Following a candlelight vigil protesting the dispatch of troops, they plan to announce a statement today and stage a large rally on Saturday.
It is only fair and just for the country to respect, honor and offer courtesy to its citizens who defended the nation. Even North Korea confers titles such as “revolutionary fighter” or “patriotic fighter,” and provides the best educational opportunities and material support to the bereaved families. It is a disgrace for our country that the widow of a victim in the clash with the North left the country, resenting the negligence and indifference of the government and the people.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Du-woo