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     Jun 15, 2006
Of soccer mania and missiles
By Donald Kirk

SEOUL - A month ago, if anyone on the streets here or anywhere else in South Korea were asked to define the word "Togo", the response would have been a shrug of disbelief - except possibly on the part of a small minority of sophisticates wondering if the word was a mispronounced variation of "to go", as in "latte to go".

While the term "to go" has entered the local lingo at some of the country's trendier coffee-shops, Togo with a capital "T" until lately was as far from the concerns of Koreans as some newly discovered planet. In fact, the comparison may not be fair to astronomers, considering the publicity their discoveries sometimes get in the local media.

All that changed on Tuesday night, however, when upwards of one

and a half million people, mostly young and swathed in red shirts, flooded the streets here and in every other South Korean city and town, yelling in alternating joy and consternation as if the country were in mortal combat with a small African country named, yes, Togo.

By the time it was all over, South Korea had proved its might, and everyone could again relegate Togo to the pages of geography books.

The South Korean soccer team, barely, had edged out a hard-tackling Togo 11, actually 10 after their captain was red-carded and sent off, coming from a goal behind to win 2-1 in the opener for both teams of World Cup 2006 in Germany. Koreans could now take a deep breath and focus on how their beloved Red Devils might possibly defeat highly favored France, which managed a scoreless draw with Switzerland.

The grating music, the chants of tens of thousands massed on city squares and streets, and the images on huge overhead screens were a noisy reprise of the burst of pride just four years earlier when South Korea had co-hosted World Cup 2002 with Japan. The main difference: this time the dozen cavernous World Cup stadiums, built at a cost of more than US$100 million, were empty, as they are most of the time, and the games were half a world away.

In a society that has made an art form of organized protest, the nationwide turnout on Tuesday night was the ultimate demonstration, a reaffirmation of national success and a relief from reminders of trouble ahead. For two days, before and after Tuesday's match, the Red Devils dominated front pages and television news, driving away unpleasant news of an "imminent" launch of a long-range North Korean missile and divisive dissent against the policies of the left-of-center President Roh Moo-hyun.

It was that way in 2002 when a 48-ton US Army armored vehicle rolled over two 13-year-old schoolgirls, crushing them, in the second week of the World Cup. And then, two days before South Korea's final match with Turkey on June 30, 2002, a contest for third-place ranking that Korea lost 3-2, five South Korean sailors were killed in a shootout with the North Koreans south of the "northern limit line" in the Yellow Sea.

Such was the fervor over the Red Devils then that the deaths of the two girls were marginalized until afterward, when people began turning out by the tens of thousands in demonstrations in central Seoul and outside US military bases. The protest reached its peak in the autumn after the refusal of the US command to turn the two sergeants who had been driving the vehicle over to Korean authorities and their acquittal by a US military court. The outrage over the two girls was one reason the conservative Lee Hoi-chang lost his second race for the presidency, defeated by Roh in December 2002, five years after losing, by a narrower margin, to Kim Dae-jung.

This time the issues may be more sharply defined - though not yet by a tragedy that captures emotions across the country as did the deaths of the schoolgirls. The central issue, now as then, is what to do about North Korea, what's become of the military alliance with the United States - and whether these two issues will come to an alarming, crunching climax soon after the last shouts of World Cup fans have died away.

The North Korea issue, much to the distress of South Korean as well as US leaders, is likely to get worse before it gets better. US reconnaissance planes have sniffed out how close the North Koreans are coming to test-firing a Taepodong II ballistic missile with a range as far as the west coast of the United States. Meanwhile, Pyongyang threatens to shoot down any planes that intrude into North Korean air space.

The latest Northern threat was considerably stronger than the usual, almost ritualistic accusations of US spy flights. The statement accused the United States of sending three RC-135 planes - four-engined turboprop versions of the C-135, fitted out with an enormous array of electronic gear - over North Korean waters in a "violent infringement of sovereignty and a grave violation of international law".

The North Korean air force vowed, moreover, to "sternly punish the aggressors if their planes continue illegally intruding into the sky" and carried a grim reminder of what it called "the wretched fate of the EC-121 large spy plane in the 1960s". That reference recalled the shootdown on April 15, 1969, 90 miles off the North Korean east coast, of a US Navy reconnaissance plane in which all 31 crew members were killed.

The unusually strong tone of the statement was proof in itself that the planes had been closely scrutinizing the site on the northeast coast, in North Hamgyong province, where North Korea has positioned the missile for testing. North Korea came out with its warning after senior officials in Seoul, both on the record and for background, and reflecting information provided by the US, warned of the imminence of a launch.

North Korea has test-fired a Taepodong prototype once before - on August 31, 1998, when Taepodong I flew over the main Japanese island of Honshu. The missile landed harmlessly enough in waters south of Vladivostok, but Japanese were outraged by the ease with which North Korean fired a missile over their territory.

This time, Pyongyang is prepared to launch a missile capable of traveling much further, on the basis of technology and equipment reflecting North Korea's success over the years in engineering missiles. The system relies first on a Nodong missile, the initial vehicle to be fired from the site. Then a Scud would be fired from the Nodong and, finally, a rocket mounted on the Scud would complete the journey. Theoretically the rocket could travel several thousand nautical miles, though it would be likely to travel a much shorter distance on an initial test flight.

The question, though, was whether North Korea had put on an appearance of the imminence of a launch as a ruse to alarm the United States - and impel Washington to ease up on retaliation for North Korea's counterfeiting US$100 bills. US officials suggested that a compromise might be possible after Banco Delta Asia in Macau had finished going over its books and unfrozen North Korea's accounts. Banco Delta Asia suspended its long-standing relations with North Korea after the US Treasury Department banned firms dealing with BDA from doing business with US institutions - the decision that North Korea brands as "sanctions".
A South Korean Foreign Ministry official said a launch would "negatively affect North-South relations, the stability of Northeast Asia and the six-nation talks over North Korea's nuclear program". A launch would also deepen the rift between the United States and South Korea. There is no way Seoul would respond with anything other than aggrieved statements, leaving retaliation, economic or diplomatic, to the United States while opposing any move that might risk armed confrontation.

Confrontation of a different sort, though, is inevitable. Several hundred farmers - their will steeled by dissenters led by a Catholic priest who was a highly visible figure at the forefront of street protests in 2002 - hold out in a rural district about 65 kilometers south of Seoul in a campaign to get them to leave their land. South Korea promises to turn the land over to the Americans for a huge new military base but is clearly reluctant to force a struggle characterized by images of elderly farmers battling with helmeted police.

The government is hesitant, worried about its rising unpopularity as demonstrated in local elections at the end of last month in which "ruling" party candidates won only one of 16 elections for mayor of major cities and provincial governors. The World Cup plays into the hands of conservatives, affirming the pursuit of patriotic fun while distracting from the sort of protests that shook the established order in the second half of 2002 and may embarrass the government again as thousands of police swarm over the site of the proposed US base.

Such concerns, though, could hardly have been further from the thoughts of the crowds on Tuesday night.

A holiday air infused the atmosphere. Sidewalk stands purveyed red shirts emblazoned with symbols and signatures of star players. Crowds hushed and groaned as Togo scored the first goal but came to ear-splitting life on each of South Korea's second-half goals, and the fireworks and song echoed into the early morning hours as crews cleaned up the streets and buses and subways, running two hours later than usual, finally got everyone home.

Like Korea's successes in World Cup 2002, victory over an unknown country named Togo was a narcotic that momentarily swept away the same old fears that keep Koreans in a perpetual stage of underlying insecurity and fear for the future.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been in and out of Korea since 1972.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

The geography of the Korean psyche (Jun 5, '06)

Korea's ruling party heads for big defeat (May 30, '06)

US feels sting of South Korean protest (May 16, '06)


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