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Remember June 2002 and April 2010

Posted April. 28, 2010 08:08,   


It rained for two straight days on the joint funeral site at the 2nd Naval Fleet headquarters in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, for the 46 crewmen killed in the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan. All Army, Navy and Air Force personnel looked the same standing in front of the gymnasium that is now used as a funeral site; the soldiers in uniform extended their condolences and returned to their units with firm determination and resolution. All ruling and opposition party politicians who returned after visiting the funeral site told reporters and wrote in the guestbook that the crewmen’s precious sacrifice must not be in vain. A Navy source said, “I’m astonished at the change since the second (inter-Korean) battle at Yeonpyeong Island in 2002.” President Lee Myung-bak, celebrities and citizens attended the funeral site, honoring the fallen soldiers.

On June 29, 2002, a North Korean patrol ship intruded three miles into South Korean waters off the west coast. It attacked the patrol boat Chamsuri 357 first, killing six crewmen – Lt. Commander Yoon Yeong-ha, Chief Petty Officers Han Sang-guk, Cho Cheon-hyeong, Hwang Do-hyeon, Seo Hu-won, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Park Dong-hyeok. Then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the prime minister and the defense minister snubbed the funeral. President Kim did not even attend the funeral site at the Capital Armed Forces Combined Hospital while going to Seongnam Airport, which is only five minutes away from the hospital. He was to leave for the closing ceremony of the Korea-Japan World Cup in Tokyo the day after the incident.

The operational directives that represented the “sunshine policy” set the principle of pushing the enemy without firing even if the North violated the inter-Korean sea border. The South Korean Navy, which was ordered not to do anything, was suddenly attacked by the North’s preemptive attack without adequate preparation. The wife of the late Chief Petty Officer Han left for the U.S. out of anger over the government’s disinterest over the deaths of the crewmen and returned to Korea in April 2008.

The Cheonan incident is reminiscent of the legacy of the decade-long rule of the two previous administrations, which almost paralyzed national security. The problem is that South Korea is still not free from the spell of the sunshine policy. If the second naval battle of Yeonpyeong Island was a provocation made amid South Korea’s advance to the 2002 World Cup semifinals, the Cheonan incident might have been in response to the South’s export of nuclear plants to the United Arab Emirates, the country’s best showing at the Vancouver Winter Olympics with a fifth-place finish, and Seoul’s hosting of the November Group of 20 summit. The Lee Myung-bak administration has focused on economic recovery but whether it has also paid attention to national security is doubtful. An underwater guerrilla attack might have sunk the Cheonan, and Seoul apparently underestimated Pyongyang with overconfidence in its naval forces.

Amid national mourning for the Cheonan victims, the South must build a firm national security system that can incorporate the lesson that the country can be attacked if it grows complacent. When national security is at risk, everything is at risk. This is the way to ensure that the 46 fallen soldiers did not die in vain.