SEOUL — For many in this sprawling city of 10 million, the dictator to the north — who has threatened them with nuclear destruction — isn't nearly as scary as the hard-nosed former car executive leading their own country.
Tension between North and South Korea is at its highest point in more than a decade, but the politics of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak have divided his nation. The former Hyundai CEO has become increasingly bellicose in his foreign policy, South Koreans say, promoting policies that harm a famine-struck North Korean population rather than isolating the regime itself.
This comes at a moment of growing international consensus on how to deal with North Korea's belligerence.
A series of nuclear weapons tests in June, followed by a slew of threats by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, including ballistic missile launches last weekend, has set Seoul on edge.
Leaders across the world have condemned the North's nuclear ambitions. Even North Korea's biggest allies, China and Russia, appear to support political and economic sanctions, which is the same stance President Barack Obama endorsed recently when he hosted Lee at the White House.
But the unified opposition to the North is providing little comfort to the citizens in the South. In fact, the greatest opposition to the emerging hard-line stance may be coming from the people who would appear to be most at risk — South Koreans themselves.
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Christine Hwang sat in a Starbucks in downtown Seoul one recent morning, sipping an iced green tea and studying an English textbook before heading to her job at a dentist's office.
There's a low-level fear, she said of life in Seoul, that never goes away. Under President Lee that fear has intensified. "He is kind of a dictator," Hwang said of Lee.
The conflict with Pyongyang is personal for those with family in the North. Some describe it as a responsibility to help those there, regardless of its government's actions. Hwang's father hasn't seen many of his relatives in a half-century.
"I know he really, really misses them," she said.
A conciliatory approach to the North guided South Korean policy for nearly 10 years. The Sunshine Policies, as they are known, promoted economic and political engagement in hopes the countries would one day reunite. Former President Kim Dae Jung won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for improving relations between the two nations.
But the election of President Lee Myung Bak in 2007 represented a dramatic rejection of the reconciliation efforts. It's a naïve approach, Lee's supporters argued. They've only helped the North Korean government develop weapons and threaten the South's sovereignty.
Lee's focus on business-friendly policies would secure South Korea's place as a global business hub, supporters thought, and his opposition to the long-standing Sunshine Policies could weaken the North Korean regime.
Ironically, now that missiles are flying, Lee's intransigence is losing popularity.
Lee's approval rating now hovers around 25 percent, the result of an economic meltdown, his antagonism of the North and a perception that his administration's investigation of alleged corruption drove his predecessor to suicide. Roh Moo Hyun's death in May rehabilitated the reputation of the once-unpopular president and revived support for the Sunshine Policies.
Lee won't back down. He continues to deride soft diplomacy as weak and the reason the North has developed nuclear weapons.
But many in Seoul, like Christine Hwang, who have grown up dreading the possibility of again fighting family in the North, yearn for Roh's peaceful approach.
To think South Korea can strong-arm the North is folly, some South Koreans say.
"He deals with them more like they are just another business," said Sean Kook, an employee of Hewlett-Packard in Seoul.
Sunshine policies never worked, Lee supporters like Sohn Moon Jun, a Seoul medical doctor, argue. Food and medical aid — estimated at $6 billion — provided for years by the South only aided Kim's nuclear ambitions.
"Now we have to live with that kind of threat," he said.
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The Dorasan Train Station, less than five miles from the border with North Korea, is a gleaming monument to the thwarted hopes of reunification.
When it was finished in 2002, Koreans on both sides of the border anticipated they would soon be able to travel by train 100 miles to Pyongyang and back. But that train never left the station and today Dorasan is empty. There's no one at passport control. The X-ray machines have never scanned a suitcase.
Dorasan is one of several projects begun during the Sunshine Policy era that have died for lack of political will. The Kaesong Industrial Park is next.
Opened in 2004 as a joint business venture between the countries, North and South Koreans workers labored together at an industrial complex in the economically impoverished North.
Once expected to employ 700,000 workers by 2012, Kaesong is on the verge of closing. Deteriorating relations could end the project and further delay hopes for a united Korea.
With suspicion for this week's battery of cyber attacks against South Korea and U.S. government agencies pointing at North Korea, it's unlikely the two countries will be drawing closer together soon.
Brian Spegele can be reached at [email protected] or (727)445-4154.