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On Seoul streets, hawks outnumber doves on North Korea

SEOUL - To South Koreans, North Korea has never been a foreign country. Despite the war six decades ago and occasional military conflicts with it thereafter, North Koreans were always "brethren" who share the same history, culture and language. Even at the height of inter-Korean tensions, there were always people in the South who sympathised with the sufferings of those across the border.

This complex sentiment toward North Korea is now giving way to a more hawkish one, as the communist regime, under the young third-generation leader Kim Jong-un, has been stepping up military provocations.

Many interviewed by The Korea Herald expressed anger and frustration at how a peace-loving nation, which has abided by rules and stayed away from nuclear weapons, has become more vulnerable, while a defiant, rogue regime made headway toward becoming a formidable military power.

"Now that North Korea appears to be equipped with nuclear arms, I believe we also need to have the same power to stop the North," Yu Young-eun, an office worker, told The Korea Herald.

"We are the weakest country here now, and I think we also need to let neighboring and related countries know that we should be in charge of the North Korean issues."

A recent poll by Gallup Korea, conducted from Sept. 5, after the Sept. 3 nuclear weapons test by the North, shows a clear sign of hardening attitudes among South Koreans.

Of 1,004 respondents, 76 per cent considered the sixth atomic detonation as a threat to security. But when asked if they thought the North would initiate a war, only 37 per cent answered it was possible, while 58 per cent responded that that was little to no chance of such an outcome.

However, 60 per cent approved of South Korea rearming with nuclear weapons to respond to the North Korean threat, while 35 per cent opposed the idea.

US tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from South Korea in 1991, when the two Koreas signed an agreement on denuclearisation, non-aggression and reconciliation. While the South has clung to the principle of a neclear-free Korean Peninsula, the North has abandoned it, conducting six nuclear tests so far.

While nuclear rearmanent is mainly pushed by conservatives that pursue tougher policies against the North, more liberal voters also appeared to be in support of the idea, the data showed. Of the 353 respondents who viewed themselves as liberals, 47 per cent approved of stationing nuclear weapons here, while 48 per cent of the group opposed the idea.

What is more surprising perhaps is that more Koreans even said that humanitarian aid should be cut if the North does not give up its nuclear programme.

In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 47 per cent of South Koreans said that humanitarian aid should continue even if North Korea continues its nuclear programme.

In the latest poll, the figure dropped to 32 per cent, while the proportion of South Koreans opposed to the idea rose to 65 per cent.

Left-leaning respondents were also skeptical of offering any kind of humanitarian aid, with 52 per cent of them calling for a halt.

Experts viewed that the change in public sentiment reflects disappointment toward North Korea, which South Koreans considered their "northern brother" after the painful separation.

"The liberals, who were thought to be relatively more friendly toward the North, are now turning their backs, as they see their northern neighbor is not so brotherly anymore," a Gallup Korea researcher said.

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