October 16, 2023
SEOUL – Adding to unease among South Koreans in a conflict-ridden world this year is the recent full-blown war that broke out between Hamas and Israel early this month.
Palestinian militant group Hamas, an Islamist group based in the Gaza Strip, initiated large-scale land and air attacks on southern Israel on Oct. 7. In response, Israel declared a state of war against Hamas and launched retaliatory airstrikes on Palestinian territory.
The situation resonates with South Korea, where tensions persist between the two Koreas, marked by intermittent skirmishes and military incidents over the past decades.
An annual survey conducted on National Liberation Day — Aug. 15 — by public broadcaster KBS showed that around 75 percent of South Koreans harbor worries about the current state of national security. This marks an increase from about 70 percent in 2022 and 56 percent in 2021. The survey further revealed that more than 80 percent of South Koreans bore animosity toward the North Korean regime.
“The Israel-Hamas conflict brings back memories of the fear elicited by air raid sirens and text message warnings sent this May,” said Oh, a Korea Air Force retiree in his 30s, referring to false evacuation warnings sent by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
On the morning on May 31, an emergency text alert with a blaring siren urged the residents of Seoul to prepare for evacuation, without providing further explanation. The Interior Ministry later sent another alert, clarifying that the earlier text message had been sent in error.
This fear was compounded by the inability to obtain information about the alert on the country’s largest online portal, Naver, which briefly shut down due to high user traffic.
“I thought the siren signaled the end of my nation,” Oh remarked. “I am worried that the Hamas attack might set another precedent for North Korea, similar to the Russia-Ukraine war, emboldening North Korea to take advantage of mayhem and emerge as a new military force.”
Lee Tae-yoon, in her 50s, is also apprehensive about an emboldened North Korean leader possibly being emboldened by the latest war between Israel and Hamas.
“In this tumultuous period, where a violent escalation could potentially incite North Korea, we must be watchful of every move they make,” she said. “We may never fully understand Kim Jong-un’s true intentions, as evidenced by his questionable visit to Russia.”
She referred to the high-stakes summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin that took place on Sept. 13. The summit solidified their bilateral relations, centering on weapons development, space technologies and purportedly arms transfers deals.
For 27-year-old Kim Hee-kwon, a resident of Seoul, the potential imminent danger is signified by the Demilitarized Zone — a buffer zone and barrier demarcating North Korea from South Korea.
He said he upholds the Korean government’s efforts in shoring up its deterrence against Pyongyang.
“South Korea is adjacent to North Korea, just like Israel shares borders with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,” Kim said. “The close proximity of each nation and the immediate confrontational environment heighten tensions, as unpredictable incursions can happen at any time, akin to the startling Hamas attack.”
Growing concerns over the resumption of the 1950-53 Korean War — which ended only in an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty — were widely shared in an online community.
In an online cafe on Naver, one anonymous poster referred to the region of Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, “which houses about half of the country’s population, is so close to North Korea that the nation is exposed to extreme danger.”
Other posters also stressed the importance of remaining vigilant, highlighting potential vulnerabilities in the nation’s intelligence agencies. They highlighted that war is still a looming threat even in the 21st century.
Yet, for individuals like Park Jae-min, an office worker in her late 20s, the Israel-Hamas conflict is viewed as an improbable trigger for a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula, although it may still distress Koreans.
“I believe North Korea would know it has a poor prospect of winning once it wages a war against South Korea, and thus the chance of witnessing an actual war is slim,” Park said. “However, the Israel-Hamas war definitely gets on people’s nerves, considering the particular circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.”
What seems to lie ahead
The mounting tension between South Korea and North Korea is not likely to subside soon, given the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s hard-line stance toward North Korea.
Defining North Korea as its “enemy,” the current government is strengthening military ties with Tokyo and Washington in the face of North Korea’s military provocations and China’s growing clout.
The Ministry of National Defense called on the need for taking up a notch the nation’s monitoring and surveillance capabilities. Newly appointed Defense Minister Shin Won-shik highlighted the precarious state of the nation as “facing a heightened risk of greater substantial threats (than Israel).”
Yoon echoed a similar line of thought, underscoring the significance of demonstrating a solidified tripartite military partnership with the US and Japan in the wake of the chaotic situation in Gaza and Israel to respond to North Korea’s military activities.
Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, pointed to potential lessons that North Korea might have gleaned from the Hamas intrusion.
“South Korea should ponder what North Korea has learned from Hamas’ tactics, such as holding hostages and launching a barrage of rockets simultaneously.” Shin emphasized. “Our military system will not be able to hold up unless it takes into account every possibility.”
He further expanded to the scope of regional war, suggesting the emergence of multipolarity in the global context.
“The world might see the dethroning of one international power, the US, in the future, with the appearance of several rising powers. Continuous wars happening in parts of the world might cause American force to recede,” he explained. “That might lead South Korea to discuss the development of nuclear weapons.”