Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 4 News List

Island attack gets attention of South Korean youth

AP, SEOUL

South Korea’s young men and women have gotten used to living with a belligerent neighbor. They’ve learned to brush aside the threatening language from North Korea. Routine air-raid drills didn’t mean much to them.

Until last week.

That’s when the North shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island — killing two civilians along with two marines — and suddenly, young people were paying attention.

The attack was the closest brush with warfare for this generation — born long after the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, but not a peace treaty.

“I was very scared,” said Seo Ki-don, a well-dressed 19-year-old student hanging out in a coffee shop in the trendy Seoul neighborhood of Sinsa-dong.

He got a call from a friend in the military whose unit had been told to prepare for war. In South Korea, young men are required to serve two years in the armed forces and Seo’s tour is due to start next year.

“I was actually, first of all, scared for my friend,” he recalled, “and then I realized that would be my situation in the future.”

The possibility of more clashes was raised again yesterday when South Korea’s new defense minister warned North Korea will plot a new kind of provocation.

“Though we do not want war, we should be never afraid of it,” Kim Kwan-jin said in an inauguration speech. “If North Korea carries out a military provocation on our territory and people again, we must retaliate immediately and strongly until they completely surrender.”

Kim said on Friday that the military would air strike the North if it stages another similar attack.

The tough words came as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government faced intense criticism that its response to North Korea’s attack was weak.

Skirmishes occur periodically along the two Koreas’ disputed maritime border, but the Nov. 23 assault on an island famous for its delicious crabs was the first since the Korean War to target a civilian area. Two of the dead were construction workers whose bodies were found in the rubble.

The two dead marines were in their 20s and their sacrifice has captured the hearts and minds of young South Koreans.

Yoo An-na said she was -horrified when she first heard about the deadly attack on Twitter.

“I thought, ‘Is this really happening? Could war really break out in our country?’” the 26-year-old smartphone app designer said.

More than a week later, Yoo’s feelings have shifted back toward indifference, even as tensions remain high.

“Now I feel more like, ‘Whatever,’” she said with a smile, iPhone in hand as she waited for a friend at a bus stop in Seoul.

Many young people poured out their grief, worry and anger online.

Seo, the student entering the military next year, said his friends’ anger exploded on Facebook and Twitter.

“A lot of Koreans were expressing hatred [for North Korea] on their Facebook statuses,” he said. “And also I did — in not-so-good language — and a lot of people seemed to follow it and wrote comments.”

His own post, he said with a sheepish smile, cursed North Korea and warned: “Don’t mess with us.”

The initial shock gave way to anger, he said.

“I think people weren’t really freaked out,” Seo said. “It’s just they were really mad that North Korea keeps doing this, but we can’t do anything about it. The government’s just afraid.”

The Yeonpyeong attack came eight months after a torpedo strike on a South Korean warship killed 46 sailors — the worst attack on South Korea’s military since the war.

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