NK Reminds Us It Is Enemy
By Michael Breen
If, as appears increasingly clear, North Korea sank the Cheonan, President Lee Myung-bak is compelled to respond. Just what he may do, however, without making things worse, is an open question and one that we may assume he has been discussing with aides as the salvage and investigation of the vessel has progressed.
Given the country's distaste for military action, the most likely response will be changes in operational procedures and upgrading of facilities and weaponry, along with some high-level personnel changes, not because they're needed but because they're what the public understands.
But there is another step the president may take. That is to remind the citizenry that North Korea is ``the enemy." As simple as this sounds ― and in terms of execution, all it requires is presidential face-time with a speechwriter to get the wording right ― this may prove monumentally difficult.
To make that point, consider a parallel development this month. After the Cheonan sinking, the Unification Ministry asked unionists organizing this year's May 1 Labor Day celebrations to disinvite labor leaders from North Korea who were scheduled to attend. Given the likelihood of North Korean involvement and a general rising of tensions, the government agency responsible for North Korean matters considered it inappropriate.
The answer was no. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the South's umbrella groups, went ahead and arranged for about 100 officials from Pyongyang's umbrella General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea to fly into Gimpo airport on April 30 for three days of joint activities.
The three bodies then issued this joint statement: ``We object to any action which implants distrust and causes disputes between people of the same blood." There is no irony here. If that statement carried the slightest whiff of an illusion to the attack on the Cheonan, the northern unionists would be getting tortured as we speak.
In other words, the South Koreans, who function in a democracy, were aligning themselves with alleged unionists from North Korea, a country considered on all accounts, including labor rights, as one of the least free in the world, against their own government.
What is the cause of their moral confusion?
To examine that question, imagine for a moment that the Cheonan had gone down near Dokdo while the Japanese navy was conducting maneuvers and that the culprit was ``friendly fire," i.e., a mistake by an ally. South Koreans of all stripes would be canceling events with Japanese counterparts.
That's because bonds with foreigners based on common ideological or professional interests, be they human rights, labor or environmental activists, are paper thin and cannot be compared with blood ties.
The fact that so many South Koreans feel the way our labor leaders do is testimony to the force of blood ties. Not only do the Korean clans, with their centuries of history, span the DMZ. Not only are there shared historical references and language. But, when they meet, Koreans of North and South find each other so familiar.
But this blood connection is a delusion. The classic error here is to assume that shared external features automatically translate into a meaningful internal connection. But you are not my brother because you went to the same school and speak the same language. You are my brother if you share the same values.
Thus, South Koreans should consider their Japanese neighbors who share their values of democracy, peace, human rights, the rule of law and freedom, as closer than the North Koreans.
Of course, in many cases, they do. The problem is that it is politically incorrect for Koreans to say so. And that is what President Lee should address.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.