[Viewpoint] 97 minutes in Seoul Plaza

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[Viewpoint] 97 minutes in Seoul Plaza

At 8:43 p.m. on Tuesday, I dropped by Seoul Plaza while on my way home from work to visit the altar for the sailors whose lives were sacrificed in the Cheonan tragedy. It wasn’t too crowded. Some 20 people were standing in line to pay their respects. To their left, pictures of the sunken vessel were on display. Beside them, a letter was posted.

“When God gave us Gyun-seok, our dear child, as hope for us, we were truly grateful and overjoyed. When you came back as a cold body, we could not even look at you. Gyun-seok, you are now in heaven where there is no sorrow or worry. We hope that you achieve whatever you would love to achieve, and rest in peace,” it read. One could sense the mother of Petty Officer First Class Cha Gyun-seok struggling not to be overcome by sadness and hoping for the best for her lost son. I found myself crying.

At 9:05 p.m., I wanted to talk to the people who came to mourn on the day that the altar was set up. A woman in her mid-30s came away from the altar, wiping tears from her face. She said her cousin was serving as a sailor in Jinhae, South Gyeongsang. She was too sad to say more. Her husband, Gweon Jin-wook, a banker, continued for her.

“The local elections and the FIFA World Cup are coming soon. Koreans are fickle. Will we remember the sailors forever, or will we forget about the tragedy?” He suggested that the day the Cheonan sank be designated a national holiday.

I asked how the money donated to the sailors’ memory should be spent. Gweon said if the money is allocated equally to the families of the victims, it could cause problems. Rather, a foundation should be established and the families of the victims must benefit from it over a long period, he said.

I said that some of the money could be used to build a memorial hall. Gweon opposed the idea, saying, “The government must do it. If the donations are spent to build a museum, that would make only the builder happy.” He seemed to suggest that such issues would emerge right after the memorial service for the sailors, and that we must resolve them in a reasonable way.

At 9:24 p.m., a non-Korean came out of the altar. He was Bruce Klingner, the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. He is an expert on Korea who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency and has a vast network in diplomacy and political circles here.

I asked him what he thought tore the Navy ship in two. He answered that a torpedo looked like the cause. He once saw the result of a torpedo test in Australia, he said. I asked, if North Korea was involved, should the South Korean government retaliate militarily? He avoided answering the question directly, and instead asked what I thought. I said our government would be unable to carry out military retaliation because there were too many things to consider. He did not comment on that, either.

His attitude reflected the stance by Washington, which does not want to worsen the situation. Klingner said the tragedy will weigh heavily in the U.S. strategy for Northeast Asia and in international politics.

At 9:56 p.m., a man in a black military uniform paid his respects to the sailors and wrote a message in the book left by the altar for mourners. He wore a name tag that read Woo Byeong-yeong. He said he was discharged from the airborne rangers 15 years ago. He said we were attacked by North Korea, and if we do not retaliate something even worse will happen. His Army experience makes him believe that North Korea will attack us again in six to 12 months if we do not take stern measures, he added. I said the South Korean government would do what is necessary, but the veteran said that I was mistaken.

I changed the subject, and said I heard that military discipline these days is not as strong as before. He said that is because we do not discipline our children enough at home or at school. He said North Korean soldiers are stronger than we think, and in military discipline we are no match for them.

The other day when I was on my way to work I found myself walking in the same direction as 10 soldiers who will soon be discharged from the Army. I started talking with them. I asked if it was true that these days soldiers call home in the summer and ask their families to send sunblock. One of them smiled and answered, “It’s true, although money would be better.”

Woo had reason to be worried. What is lacking in our Army is not firepower but discipline.

At 10:20 p.m., I looked at the board where messages for the victims were posted. There were some 1,000 notes. One read, “The wrecked Cheonan must be displayed in public to make sure a dishonor of this kind will never be repeated. That is the best way to remember our 46 heroes forever.”

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is the national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Choi Hyung-kyu
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