The view from Seoul: outrage and self-criticism

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South Korea's "big three" conservative newspapers led a chorus of media condemnation yesterday of North Korea's attack on an off-shore island in a battle against a return to complacency among many ordinary Koreans.

"North Korea's provocation has gone beyond our imagination," said an editorial in JoongAng Ilbo, one of the big three papers. "With our memories of the Korean War still vivid, this massive attack confirms again the grim reality that such a tragedy can be repeated at any time."

Despite such imprecations, however, the sense among many Koreans was they could carry on as usual after an incident that many believed might go down in history as just one of many occasional bloody episodes staged by the North Koreans.

While conservatives called for "retaliation", a significant leftist and liberal minority believed the attack reflected the failure of dialogue between the two Koreas.

That view was evident in the measured response of Hankyoreh, a liberal newspaper that is much smaller in circulation than any of the "big three" but remains the voice of a significant minority.

In measured words, careful to blame North Korea for a "provocation", Hankyoreh said the incident "shows the severity of the uncertainty and risk spawned by the complete breakdown of dialogue between North Korea and South Korea."

Hankyoreh acknowledged the incident was "a deliberate provocation from North Korea" but said it also "shows the structural frailty of inter-Korean relations in their current stage". The piece looked back fondly on the previous era of so-called "sunshine policy".

Conservative newspapers, however, were not inclined to take such a charitable view. Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest newspaper, said North Korea had launched the attack after having "found that bullying and cajoling the South has become more difficult". The purpose, it said, was "to ratchet up tensions and stir up public sentiment against the government's hardline North Korea policy".

As business returned to normal, and even the stock market showed a modest gain after fears of a sudden slide, the media varied outrage with criticism of the government for having not responded forcefully.

"The government has long been on the defensive, precluding any military retaliation against enemy attacks to prevent a war on the peninsula," said the English-language Korea Times, published by Hankook Ilbo, a paper known to be liberal in its politics.

The South, said the paper, reflecting a view often heard in conversations here, "cannot maintain deterrence as long as it is long on words but short on action in dealing with the hostile and brutal regime".