[Viewpoint] Blind eye won’t make danger vanish

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[Viewpoint] Blind eye won’t make danger vanish

‘How can one say that North Korea wouldn’t fire a torpedo against a South Korean naval ship? How can one use that word ‘wouldn’t’!” cried a family member who lost a loved one in the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan sailors.

North Korea torpedoed the Cheonan, but it was our assumption that it “wouldn’t” that motivated the attack that killed 46 sailors. The strange disbelief has permeated the military, from the front line off the western coast - which has more than once experienced deadly skirmishes - to the top commanding office.

But it’s not only the military, but the government and probably most of the population who are still coming to grips with the reality that they have been deluded by “they-wouldn’t” skepticism.

The opposition party, having veered away from its initial disbelief that North Korea was involved in the attack at all, is now taking aim at the government’s lack of vigilance and incompetent handling of national security. North Korea’s act of terrorism has been made evident, and even taking into account the difficulty of preventing a terrorist attack, the government cannot fully escape blame. It was slow in catching developments in the North Korean military, and its reporting system was a mess. The military and government’s early responses to the crisis, especially at the scene, were poor. The critics are not wrong on this point.

But it is strangely awkward hearing sermons on the importance of security from the architects and loyalists of the so-called “Sunshine Policy,” which was a South Korean bedrock that began with the historic meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.

We must look back to see whether their poor management of the Sunshine Policy bred the general lack of vigilance and awareness of the fact that this country remains technically at war with an enemy state.

The policy itself is not culpable. It was a meaningful experiment to tap the possibility of peaceful unification. The active inter-Korean contact has contributed greatly in presenting the South in a positive light to the common North Korean people.

But pursuit of the Sunshine Policy has cost the South something in security. The sunshine fell largely on the southerners, warming them so that they took off their suits while the northerners put on heavier gear equipped with new weaponry and nuclear arms.

Most of all, the engagement policy crippled the South’s intelligence on North Korea. Former intelligence officers say the intelligence system in North Korea has been virtually wiped out, with secret agents stationed in China and other countries fully exposed. The chief of the National Intelligence Service, which should keep a low profile while it spearheads the intelligence campaign in North Korea, stood in the forefront of negotiations with the North Koreans. Former officials from the Roh Moo-hyun administration attack the incumbent government for dissolving the National Security Council, but we have to ask what purpose that meeting served - whether it was to address security issues or lead talks with North Korea.

The Lee Myung-bak administration has remained under the influence of the decade-old engagement policy. The sinking of the Cheonan is living proof. Because the government remained oblivious to the North Korean threat in the disputed sea border, it failed to prevent a torpedo attack. The past governments are also culpable for spreading the belief that “they wouldn’t,” and the resulting popular disinterest in security issues.

While society remained under the delusion that “they wouldn’t,” North Koreans were constantly sending signals of their belligerent intentions. They became more obvious last year. Kim Jong-il was seen frequenting military drills. He attended military exercises four times this year and last, compared with just five times in the 10 years leading up to 2008. The military exercises were upgraded to full-fledged, joint naval, infantry and air force drills. In January, Kim visited the camp of a tank base nearby Pyongyang that had led the 1950 invasion of Seoul. The central TV news aired the simulation of tanks roaming through South Korea via the expressways, as far as the southern tip of Busan and Changwon. Kim was often seen at naval events, accompanied by party official Joo Kyu-chang, who has been in charge of munitions since last year.

The signs were obvious, but as the saying goes, there’s none so blind as those who will not see - and we were blind as a bat.

Tension on the peninsula is running high. Soldiers on both sides of the border will grow touchy as the South begins propaganda broadcasts. There is no knowing when the psychological warfare may turn into physical skirmishes. A war must be avoided, but if worst comes to worst, it may become inevitable. But if we back down now, we will have to live in fear of a war. Repeated provocations by North Korea have taught us that. This time, we must stand unwavering. To attain lasting peace, we must make the North Koreans realize how they wrong they have been.

We must stand united. This is no time for finger-pointing. We cannot afford to lose our focus on the front line. We must remember we are all at fault for choosing a life of deluded comfort.

*The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Heo Nam-chin

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