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Pride, Anger and Indifference Mark S. Koreans’ Reactions to NK Launch

New America Media, News Report, Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee Posted: Apr 07, 2009

Editor's Note: There is speculation that the launch of a rocket by North Korea Sunday might have failed but reaction among South Koreans ranges from pride to anger to indifference, writes NAM reporters Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee, who are based in Seoul.

SEOUL -- Couples strolled leisurely through Seoul’s Samchong district, a stone’s throw from the presidential Blue House, while children ran amok in a nearby playground as a North Korean rocket tore over the Pacific on a sunny spring Sunday. Few seemed to notice.

Indeed, reactions among South Koreans to the North’s launch that Washington described as “provocative” run the gamut from complete indifference to utter disgust. Some even say they felt a sense of pride that fellow Koreans, albeit the enemy, were attempting to make their mark in space. Or acquire nuclear weapons.

“I’m not anti-American,” said 37-year-old Kwan Suk-hyun, a bank manager in Seoul, “but I can’t stand how they play the role of big brother here all the time.” He said he felt a touch of disappointment when the launch failed.

Shin Hye-sung, 40, a social worker in an affluent southern Seoul neighborhood, echoed that view, saying that if the North acquired advanced nuclear or satellite technology, it would be a “point of pride” for all Koreans and “beneficial to a future unified Korean peninsula.”

Japan, which had been the most vociferous in denouncing the North in the run-up to the launch, released a defense paper early this year stating it would go nuclear if and when a nuclear armed and unified Korean peninsula emerged. “Both China and India have nukes. Why would Japan only be concerned about Korea,” Shin said dismissively.

A day after the launch, the Wall Street Journal’s front page showed older Korean men in downtown Seoul burning effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, with signs that called on the communist nation to scrap its nuclear ambitions and instead feed its people. The rally carried over to the next day, with one protester, a former Korean War veteran, stating flatly, “Kim Jong-il doesn’t give a shit about his people… the food aid they’ve received all went to feed the country’s military.”

Officials in Seoul and Washington said hours after the launch that they detected no new satellite in orbit and quickly described the launch as a failure. Military sources claim the second and third stages of the rocket failed to separate and splashed into waters some 2,000 miles from the launch site on the North’s east coast. Reconnaissance efforts are under way to recover the debris to determine whether the rocket did in fact carry a satellite or a long-range Taepodong-2 missile.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency declared the launch a success, however, and said its Kwangmyongsung-2, or Bright Star, satellite was now in orbit and broadcasting “patriotic” songs from space. The North made a similar claim after a failed launch in 1998 that fizzled into waters in the East Sea seconds after lift-off.

Kun Duk-Soon, 45, works in an office near the city’s main financial center. She says she’s skeptical the North even has the technology to develop a functional satellite, but notes they will likely continue to claim success as part of their domestic propaganda. “Overall, though,” she adds, “it’s just another headline. It hasn’t even come up in conversations at the office.”

That indifference was reflected in the country’s main bourse, which closed at a six-month high Monday as investors “shrugged off” the launch, while the local currency continued to gain against the dollar. “The market widely shrugged off a long-range rocket launch by North Korea as the impact of the firing was already factored in," Bae Sung-young, an analyst at Hyundai Securities, was quoted as saying in the Korea Times.

North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament is set to convene on April 9 to reappoint Kim Jong-il as head of the National Defense Commission, the state’s highest decision making body in charge of its 1.9 million-strong army. Experts have suggested part of the North’s aim in conducting the launch was to solidify domestic support ahead of the session.

Kim, who turned 67 in February and reportedly suffered a stroke last August, has not named a successor amid lingering doubts over his health. With the United Nations’ World Food Program estimating a third of the North’s 23 million people are in need of food aid, the regime may in fact be suffering from a crisis of confidence.

B.R. Myers wrote in an editorial for the New York Times that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline policy towards Pyongyang may also have exacerbated doubts about Kim’s authority among his people. Lee’s “message to the North Korean people is clear,” Myers writes, “their Dear Leader is not as feared and respected as they have been led to believe,” adding the result has been a “crisis” of which the world remains unaware.

Seoul’s incumbent government cut off food aid to the North soon after taking office a year ago, hoping to pressure Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear program. Inter-Korean relations rapidly deteriorated soon after, while tensions mounted steadily ahead of Sunday’s launch.

Still, many here remain largely unaffected by the North’s latest “provocation.” Park Sung-Hee, 33, is a housewife who lives just outside Seoul. She accuses the media of exaggerating threats posed by the launch and insists most South Koreans “know that war is not going to break out.”

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