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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Korea - Living With The Threat of War

Well, by the end of 2010 I had spent about 9 months in Seoul working on a major transformation sponsored by the CEO of one of Korea's largest companies. Living in Seoul has been life changing. For one thing I've experienced how Koreans live with the constant threat of war.

Sinking of the Chenon
When I arrived in Seoul in April of 2010 the Chenon had just been sunk. You'll remember this as the sinking of a naval vessel where 46 South Korean sailors lost their lives. An international panel concluded that the sinking had been at the hands of the North Koreans - who of course strongly disagree.

The politics surrounding the Chenon were interesting to watch. The US decried the North while China took a strong stance on non-committal. There were several months of blustering and then things cooled down.

For my part I was amazed at how the average Korean took little notice of what was going on. It was business as usual ... "what can we do."

Then in early November, militarism faded while hopes turned to financial reform on a global scale and US-Korean trade on a bi-lateral scale while the g-20 met in Seoul. However, even the graciousness of the Koreans couldn't bring success to the G-20. Everyone went home extolling their agreement to sit down and develop agreements at a later time.

Shelling of Yeonpyeong Island
Everything seemed normal on the Korean peninsula until November 23rd. I was sitting at my desk that afternoon when I got an email from my son who works in Paris. It had a tone of panic: "are you alright? can you get out of there? be safe!" I had no idea what he was talking about. I went to the web and sure enough, the North had just unleashed an attack on the island of Yeonpyeong. Two military were dead as well as two citizens. Here we go again.

I got up and walked around our offices to ask how people viewed the incident. Most people didn't know it had happened and those that did still had a nonchalant attitude. That evening I was driving to dinner with one of my client EVP's. I asked about her reaction. She hadn't heard. Her driver turned on the TV to show her the news. She was annoyed, but not concerned - "what can you do?" This was fully four hours after the attack. She floats around at very senior levels and yet no one she dealt with that afternoon had mentioned the attack.

Ever Decreasing Concentric Circles
I've learned a lot about Korea in the last year. I've learned that things aren't black and white even when we want them to be. I've learned that South Korea has not signed the armistice to officially end the Korean War - they live in hope of reunification. I've learned that the demarcation border that runs into the Yellow Sea has always been disputed by the North; and I've learned that the North warned the South not to do live ammunition naval exercises in the disputed waters.

So yes, we all believe that Kim Jung-Il and his heir apparent Kim Jung-Un are pushing the envelope, but does President Lee Myung-bak of the South have to keep the tension high? Since the Yeonpyeong bombardment the South has put a more aggressive defense minister on the job and it continues to flex it military muscle - along with its alley the United States.

It seems that this whole Korean mess just continues in a state on numbness. Everyone knows that all out war would be devastating and would also be over in about 10 minutes. It's questionable whether the Chinese would engage - it sees the North more and more as a "bad boy" and its global economic power has taken away the need for the North to act as a protection buffer from the US in the South. The only problem is that 10 minutes of hell from the North would result in millions of dead in the South.

Why do North and South put up with this? How do they break with the tensions of the past? You would think that after almost 60 years that someone would find a way to break the cycle. Why hasn't it happened? I'm sure there are many social-economic-political-military reasons that make sense; however, maybe they simply can't break with the orthodoxies that keep them apart. Maybe tension is better than the alternative; that is, figuring out how to include everyone on the Korean peninsula in the modern world.