[Viewpoint] The buck should stop with LeeWhile South Korea was burning up with World Cup fever, North Korea once again threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
This can be regarded as a historic threat in the annals of communism, having first been used to intimidate Seoul in 1994. It was a bluff, but an effective one: South Korea cowered when Pyongyang issued its blackmailing threats. It remains to be seen if it will work again. Is defeatism endemic in South Korea?
The North’s threats would not have worked against U.S. President Harry Truman.
As World War II came to an end in 1945, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany and ruled its two parts. In June 1948, the three Western forces planned to establish an independent West German government in the region they occupied. In response to that, the Soviet Union blocked off routes from western countries to the German capital, Berlin. The Soviet Union threatened to starve 2.5 million Berlin citizens and occupy the city.
Truman’s military, political and diplomatic advisers said to withdraw U.S. forces from Berlin. They worried that another global war could break out if the United States stood against the Soviet Union’s blockade.
Truman said flatly, “We stay in Berlin,” then he ordered the largest-ever airlift operation in history. The Soviet Union unsealed the blockade 11 months later.
Truman proved how the courage of a president can change the course of history. If the United States had withdrawn from Berlin, the Soviet Union would have occupied the city and the reunification of Germany would have taken far longer to achieve.
Sixty-two years later, President Lee Myung-bak is facing a critical decision. He can delay resuming broadcasting propaganda and flying leaflets condemning the Kim Jong-il regime across the border. Or he can carry out stern countermeasures for the March 26 attack on the Cheonan warship, as he promised on May 24 in front of the South Korean people and the souls of the heroes who died protecting their homeland.
Even before North Korea’s latest threat, the Lee administration seemed to be wavering. The military appeared to give up the leaflet plan, and reduced the number of loudspeakers it planned to install; it is doubtful that the military will eventually resume its broadcasts. Diplomats also seem to have backed down from their pledge to push for a “strong UN Security Council resolution.”
With this retreat, the Lee administration has given the wrong signals, both domestically and internationally. Because of it, the president’s perseverance and confidence will continue to be challenged. Lee wasn’t able to uphold law and public order in the summer of 2008, when protesters staged massive street rallies to oppose the resumption of U.S. beef imports. The same political forces will think they can weaken punitive countermeasures against the North this time, too.
If Lee gets weaker and falters, North Korea and China will continue to disdain South Korea. Kim Jong-il will harden his opinion that South Korea is run by cowards. When South Korea condemned China for receiving Kim Jong-il earlier this year, Lee expressed determined resolution through his public address, and China responded to that. Right after the president issued a resolute statement on May 24, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who visited South Korea, said, “China will realize justice.”
Since then, China seems to have reverted to its earlier position, neither acknowledging the probe results nor agreeing to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. Now, China is even pressuring South Korea. The Global Times, a sister paper of the state-run People’s Daily, has bluffed: “It would be difficult for South Korea to take even one step forward on the Korean Peninsula issues without China’s understanding and cooperation.”
As head of state, Lee has to take ultimate responsibility for the nation’s security. The Kaesong Industrial Complex will be a tricky problem, but Lee should not give in to any threat. If North Korea destroys its loudspeakers, South Korea should destroy the North’s artillery camps. North Korea would not dare to initiate a massive military response, such as turning Seoul into a sea of fire, because the North is afraid of a full-scale war. Such a provocation would mean the end of the North Korean regime.
Standing firm will send stock prices fluctuating and South Korean society faltering. But the market will rebound within several days if Lee communicates determination to the people. Only then will the North and China change their minds about South Korea.Truman was a businessman who didn’t have a college diploma. He was called “a timid country boy from Missouri” due to his innocent and rustic style. But the timid country boy hung a framed note from writer Mark Twain in his office: “Always do right.” And in the end, his courage defeated the Soviet Union.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Jin