Speaking at a workshop for ruling party lawmakers Tuesday, Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said the “biggest strength” that led to the inter-Korean breakthrough reached earlier in the day was that “the (South Korean) people stayed together.”
Hong, who attended days of intensive high-level talks between the two Koreas, said he responded to the North’s elusive and unreasonable attitude by saying “the people are watching” during the course of negotiations.
He had good reason to say so. The South Korean public stood behind President Park Geun-hye’s firm handling of North Korea’s recent provocations that heightened tensions on the peninsula. The liberal opposition parties and civic groups refrained from criticizing her administration in a departure from their past practices.
Ironically, a gap has surfaced in the South over the evaluation of Tuesday’s agreement. Some conservative critics have expressed disappointment with the deal, which they argue fell far short of the public demand that the North should be made to offer a clear apology for recent provocations and pledge not to repeat similar incidents.
In the six-point joint statement issued after the marathon talks, the North “expressed regret” over the injury of two South Korean soldiers in the Aug. 4 land mine explosions in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
Seoul officials noted that it marked the first time Pyongyang has expressed regret over its attack by using the subject of North Korea in a formal accord with the South. Unification Minister Hong said the South also technically secured a promise from the North not to repeat provocations by putting a clause into the deal that it would resume propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ “if an abnormal case occurs.”
Critics still said the agreement failed to confirm Pyongyang’s responsibility for the land mine blasts, and forced Seoul to halt the propaganda campaign along the inter-Korean border, which proved so dreadful for the recalcitrant North Korean regime, too early. Their suspicion heightened after the chief North Korean delegate to the high-level talks claimed the recent military tension must have taught South Korea a “serious lesson that it will bring an armed clash if it creates a groundless case to provoke the other side.”
But Pyongyang appeared perplexed that its latest provocations did not bring the results it had intended and eager to reach an accord with Seoul.
As the unification minister noted, the South Korean public’s unified stance made the North abandon expectations of internal discord in the South and step back from its bullying tactics.
A key factor that led South Koreans to stand together in unprecedented unity was younger generations’ firm negative perceptions of the North.
In a recent survey of 500 South Korean citizens in their 20s and 30s, more than 80 percent of respondents said North Korea should be held responsible for recent tensions on the peninsula, and agreed that the need for a military response to its provocations was increasing. Many reservists posted on social media that they were ready to be called up in case of an armed conflict with the North.
They seem to be even more indignant at the land mine blasts that maimed two soldiers in their age group. More fundamentally, those in their 20s and 30s, who have grown up in a democratic society, witnessing a string of provocations by Pyongyang, feel no sympathy with the rogue regime, unlike some of their preceding generation who defied past authoritarian governments in the South.
It is to be hoped that this cool, critical and resolute stance held by young South Koreans will continue to help the country maintain a unified posture that is crucial for getting the North to follow through on Tuesday’s accord.