[Viewpoint] Shooting to kill

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[Viewpoint] Shooting to kill

The North Korean soldier must have known the woman he was aiming at was a Mount Kumgang tourist. Authorities from the North said he shot her because she ran away after he told her to stop. Does that mean the soldier was under orders to shoot anyone who runs away? Did the soldier think he would be punished if he did not shoot the female tourist? Does this mean he still would have pulled the trigger even if it was a child?

As the area must have been open only to South Korean tourists, if there was an order to “shoot those who flee,” it would really be quite shocking. There is no way a tourist would be armed, there are no military facilities to spy on in that area, and above all, Mount Kumgang is a sacred place of reconciliation between the South and the North. It is unimaginable to think that an order would exist to open fire on South Korean tourists.

Such a drastic action should only be a response to a significant threat.

But what serious threats do we bring? All South Korea brings to Mount Kumgang is noisy tourists and U.S. dollars. What is it that North Korea is so afraid of that can justify shooting an unarmed tourist?

There was an icy wind of fear stirring between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1983. President Ronald Reagan was applying pressure to the Soviet Union, calling it an “Evil Empire.” In 1983, Reagan deployed short-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, close to the Soviet Union.

On Sept. 1 of that year, Korean Air flight 007 departed from New York. It strayed from its flight plan and flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula, entering Soviet air space. Fighter pilot Gennadi Osipovich received an order to take a closer look. The control tower asked him whether the aircraft’s emergency signal was on. If it was, it meant it was a civilian aircraft. The Korean aircraft’s emergency signal was on, but the Russian headquarters ordered him to instruct the aircraft to land.

Osipovich later said in an interview, “I knew it was a Boeing aircraft. I looked through its windows, but there was no movement of passengers in the aircraft. I thought it was a spy plane disguised as a passenger plane. I fired four flares to warn the plane to land. However, there was no reaction.”

Osipovich ended up firing a missile in the air over Sakhalin, and 269 people died. Fifty-five U.S. passengers were also on the plane. Osipovich later discovered it was a passenger plane when he saw the video of the accident site. However, the Soviet authorities hid the video and continuously insisted it was a spy plane. The fighter pilot is now living a modest life in southern Russia.

Around three weeks after the tragedy, at an anti-air raid surveillance bunker 88 kilometers (55 miles) from Moscow, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov heard a warning signal while watching satellite radar. It was the signal that the United States had launched a nuclear missile. He couldn’t believe his ears, but thought that it was possible considering the Soviet attack on the passenger plane three weeks before. U.S. President Ronald Reagan could be avenging the barbaric attack, he thought.

According to regulations, Petrov should have reported it immediately. The report would go to General Secretary Yuri Andropov, and he would order a retaliatory attack, thus starting a nuclear war.

Petrov was cautious. On the satellite radar, the missile appeared, but it was not seen on the land radar. Petrov decided it was a faulty signal and reported it as such.

The Soviet authorities later investigated the matter and concluded that the cause was sunlight reflecting on clouds at an unexpected angle.

Countless journalists and historians believe that Petrov had averted a probable nuclear war.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, but North Korea is still so dauntingly closed. If North Korea is right, the soldier was just obeying orders, like Osipovich.

But if he had been more like Petrov, in a country that emphasizes national homogeneity, the North Korean soldier would never have shot a South Korean compatriot to kill her.

If North Korea had returned the woman safely, South Koreans would have seen a brighter ray of hope for national reconciliation. It might be too much to expect a soldier who has probably only seen North Korean military bases all his life to be a Petrov. However, why couldn’t Kim Jong-il or other military leaders be more like Petrov? If they had given a “No shooting” order they could have prevented the rage and sorrow of South Korean compatriots.

How scared and horrified the woman must have been in that deserted place. The horror of a closed society and close-minded people hurts my heart.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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