Defusing tension

Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 1:42 a.m.

The tense situation on the Korean Peninsula is described by some media as a crisis of nuclear brinkmanship. But although serious, some in Gainesville's Korean community say, it really is little more than a North Korea desperate for aid trying to get the attention of the United States.

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From left, Hannah Choi, Han Kang, Prof. Hee-Won Kim, standing, and Pastor Hee-Young Sohn gather at their chuch The Korean Baptist Church of Gainesville.

Lee Ferinden/Special to the Sun

"There is little chance of war breaking out because North Korea doesn't have any resources to carry out a war," said Hee-Won Kim, 44, an assistant professor in the radiology department in the University of Florida's College of Medicine, who came here from his native Seoul in 1992.

"The nuclear matter is kind of a leverage thing," Kim said. "But it is not the leverage of a superpower. It is the leverage of someone who doesn't have anything."

Renewed tensions began in October after the North Korean government acknowledged it had a clandestine nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States. In response, the Bush administration and its allies cut off oil shipments to North Korea.

Since then, North Korea has reactivated a nuclear facility, expelled two U.N. weapons inspectors, and illegally moved some troops and small weapons into the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. The United States, which has said it thinks the situation can be defused diplomatically, also has refused to conduct talks until North Korea shows that it is shutting down its nuclear programs.

Local Koreans say the crisis is a major topic of discussion whenever they get together.

"We have discussion groups about Bush's policies," said Hannah Choi, a former computer programmer who now is the webmaster for Gainesville's Korean Baptist Church.

The 400-member church is a cultural center for Gainesville's Korean community. Koreans here number almost 1,000, virtually all of whom are from the Republic of South Korea. About 400 are students at the University of Florida, where about a dozen South Koreans are on faculty. Many belong to another center of culture and support, the Korean Student Association.

Some people say the general consensus among the city's Korean community is that the Bush administration is mishandling the situation.

"People think Bush's policies are kind of aggressive," said the Rev. Hee-Young Sohn, pastor of the Korean Baptist Church.

At 53, Sohn, a former medical doctor and professor from Seoul who immigrated to the United States in 1987, is part of South Korea's older generation. The bulk of his congregation is between 30 and 40 years old, a generation he said sees the Korean Peninsula somewhat differently from their parents' generation.

"I'm from the Cold War generation," said Sohn, who switched careers in 1989 and began studying for the ministry. "But now I, too, think like the younger generation that the situation in North Korea and South Korea is somewhat the result of the power struggle between Russia and the United States during the Cold War. We feel that we are kind of a victim."

Kim said that today there is a more open feeling toward the North among South Koreans. Many think reunification of the Korean Peninsula is not only possible, but probable in their lifetimes, he said.

He noted that South Korea's new president-elect, Roh Moo-hyun, is an advocate for reconciliation and is calling for direct talks with North Korea.

"The key party now is South Korea," Kim said. "The new president-elect insists on the importance of dialogue between the two parties. It's basically a matter of the Korean people rather than a matter of the American people."

Of Bush, Choi said, "I'm sure he is concerned about our situation." But she said Bush may not understand all the issues that are in play, including the seriousness of the reunification effort. "In Korea in the last two or three years, we are trying very hard to get together and be united," she said.

Kim said that while he is confident Bush doesn't want war with North Korea, he thinks the United States wants to subordinate Pyongyang's communist government. But that would be a major mistake, he said.

"The most important thing is to reopen dialogue with the North, dialogue that includes the interests of South Korea," he said. "But it is very important to North Korea that it maintain its dignity. The only thing they want to do is to survive while maintaining their national identity.

"I think the Americans might not understand that dignity is very important to North Korea," Kim said.

He said local Koreans feel Bush administration "hardliners," such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are wrongly pushing to subordinate North Korea. There also is a sense, he said, that hawks in the administration are "utilizing the North Korean nuclear leverage for their own purpose to support the defense industry."

"I think the ball is on the United States' side, not North Korea's," Kim said. "North Korea disclosed its nuclear weapons program in hopes they could open dialogue with the Americans, but the situation didn't turn out as they expected. The Bush administration utilized the North Korean situation for their purpose - they justified their previous viewpoint of North Korea as one of the 'axis of evil.'

"But that is very ridiculous to me," he said, "because North Korea doesn't have any power to be part of an axis of evil. It cannot compete with the United States."

Kim said that what North Korea really wants is food, fuel and other aid from the outside world to help its economy and people survive. In its dialogue with North Korea, he said, the United States needs to send the message that it would provide such help.

"The real North Korean intention is to get help from the United States but not be subordinated," he said. "I'm sure North Korea would hear that kind of message."

Kim said he thinks there are maybe half a dozen people from North Korea in the Gainesville area. But they keep to themselves, he said, and he thinks contact with people from South Korea is discouraged if not forbidden by the government of the North.

He plans on a personal level to do what he can to defuse Korean tensions.

"One of my New Year's resolutions," Kim said, "is to try and find some of the North Koreans here and start a dialogue with them."

Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or arndorb@

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