North Korea's first nuclear test in October 2006 put South Korea into a state of shock. The North had crossed a red line drawn by the international community. Through the UN, Washington raised the possibility of full-blown sanctions, maritime blockades and even precision strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities. The sense of crisis was intense, and the South Korean stock market reflected that, with the KOSPI dropping 2.41 percent and the junior Kosdaq 8.21 percent, prompting authorities to temporarily suspend trading. The won tanked. In just one day, the bourse's total market capitalization dropped by W21 trillion (US$1=W1,091).
In May 2009, the South's response to the North's second test was markedly different. The KOSPI dropped by 71 points just six minutes after news of the test broke but then rallied and closed down a mere 2.85 points from the previous session. Analysts at the time said investors had got used to the frequent crises involving North Korea.
On Tuesday, when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, the KOSPI fell 5.11 points. Market watchers say it was merely a small blip. North Korean provocations, ranging from the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and long-range rocket launch, barely register on the stock market now.
Foreign experts say South Korea has grown accustomed to living next door to an unpredictable suicide bomber who threatens to blow himself up unless his livelihood is guaranteed. South Koreans have learned to shut out circumstances beyond their control.
The international community has been no different in its approach to the problem. Whenever the North resorts to a provocation such as a nuclear test, countries around the world are quick to issue condemnations and the UN Security Council issues a slightly modified set of sanctions against Pyongyang.
The international community and the UNSC act as if they had delivered an almighty blow, but they know that such measures alone will be ineffective in getting the North to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
It is time for the South Korean government to admit the reality and tell the public. So far, the efforts of the international community to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear ambitions have had no effect. China, the only country capable of swaying the North, has largely been ineffective. Despite Beijing’s threats to halt aid shipments, Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test.
The three places in the world with the heaviest concentration of arms are the India-China border, the India-Pakistan border and the border separating North and South Korea. India, China and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and a balance of fear largely becalms the areas where those three nations meet.
But the Korean Peninsula is different. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear power. Even if it is supported by U.S. troops stationed here, South Korea is effectively facing the North with its bare fists.
South Koreans have silently endured North Korea's threats as it developed rockets that can travel further and more powerful nuclear bombs. Unless the country completely overhauls the security paradigm it has grown used to, its future is bleak. Merely issuing strongly worded statements and pledging to bolster defenses, which is what Seoul did after North Korea's first and second nuclear tests, will have no effect on the North, and the public knows it.
By Kang In-sun from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk