By Juni Kim
In light of recent terrorist incidents that have spread across the globe, South Koreans have voiced concerns about global terrorism possibly reaching their shores. A poll conducted by Korea Gallup in 2015 indicated that 70 percent of South Koreans believed that a terrorist attack similar to the attack in Paris last November could occur within South Korea’s borders. Of those polled, 56 percent of respondents also indicated that ISIS or a different Islamic terrorist group would likely be the perpetrator of such an attack, with only 14 percent of respondents indicating that North Korea be the perpetrator.
The South Korean government has echoed these concerns. During a ministerial meeting held last month regarding terrorist threats, South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn emphatically warned, “Korea should no longer be considered a safe zone from terrorist attacks.” In a rare press release, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) revealed last June that ISIS had specified USFK bases in the South Korean cities of Pyeongtaek and Gunsan as potential targets for future attacks. The South Korean Ministry of Unification warned of a potential terrorist attack by North Korea in retaliation for recent North Korean defections and joint U.S.-ROK military exercises. Concerns over terrorism prompted the South Korean National Assembly this past March to pass an anti-terrorism bill, which expanded the NIS’s information-gathering power.
The apprehension shared by both the Korean public and government warrants reflection on the true threat level presented by global terrorism to South Korea. While South Korea has been the victim of North Korean terrorist activities for decades, radicalized terrorist groups like ISIS present new challenges to South Korean security.
The frequent occurrence of North Korean provocations against South Korea has been an unfortunate reality spanning back to the Korean War. Although fatal provocations like the Cheonan sinking and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010 are typically classified as military attacks, North Korean activities like the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 and the abduction of Japanese citizens from the late 1970s to the 1980s are more closely associated with terrorism. In a National Security Session, South Korean President Park Geun-hye warned that North Korea could resort to terrorist attacks to cause unrest in South Korean society. Given North Korea’s prior willingness to target South Korean citizens, the threat of future terrorist attacks under Kim Jong-un should be treated as an ominous possibility.
Unlike North Korea, the emergent threat of terrorist groups like ISIS represents a murkier threat to South Korean security. A New York Times map of ISIS attacks shows that major terrorist attacks conducted or inspired by ISIS have mostly occurred in traditionally Western countries or countries with a Muslim majority population. East Asia, including South Korea, has largely been free of major terrorist activities.
Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University, noted South Korea’s geographic isolation works as a natural protection against foreign terrorist threats. He stated, “Korea, because of the demilitarized zone, is effectively an island… It’s hard for terrorists to get here, everybody can be vetted through a few small ports of entry.” Limited travel options to South Korea does make the cost of staging an attack more difficult for foreign terrorist groups, but South Korea’s location is not a certain preventative factor against such attacks.
However, the ideological motivation for radical terrorists to specifically target South Korea has not been persuasively demonstrated. Although propaganda from terrorist groups like ISIS associate South Korea as part of the larger global threat against their cause, South Korea still remains largely under the radar from targeted radical animosity. Dr. Alon Levkowitz of Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv noted that South Korea’s emphasis on economic priorities over political involvement in the Middle East has kept Korea from becoming a major target of terrorist attacks. In a recent interview with KEI, he stated, “Being neutral allows Korea to do business and not be seen as a preferred target for ISIS.” South Korea also houses a small Muslim population of 0.3 percent and has maintained a long and relatively peaceful history with Muslims. ISIS connections of South Korea to the larger global threat against their proclaimed state have yet to resonate with ISIS sympathizers and materialize into an urgent danger for South Koreans.
South Koreans have also expressed concerns over the difficult challenge of preventing “lone wolf” attacks conducted by an individual or a small group inspired by a terrorist organization. Groups like ISIS notoriously encourage terrorism abroad and frequently claim responsibility for lone wolf attacks. Fears of similar actors in South Korea increased after a South Korean teen fled to Syria to join ISIS in January of 2015. Later that year officials apprehended two other Koreans who also intended to join ISIS. Worries over further online recruitment by ISIS prompted the Korea Communications Standards Commission to ban Korean access to ISIS recruitment posts. Despite initial concerns that these cases may be the start of a larger trend, additional Korean recruits beyond these examples never materialized. Disaffected youths and young adults certainly exist in South Korea, but their grievances are more motivated by the faltering job market and demanding work conditions instead of ideological animosity.
A terrorist attack directed or inspired by an international terrorist group like ISIS in South Korea is certainly possible, but not probable. South Korea has benefitted largely from its understated presence in the Middle East and has avoided being a major target of the global terrorist narrative. A terrorist attack conducted by North Korea represents the more urgent threat to South Koreans. North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho’s recent defection and the start of U.S.-ROK military exercises this week have increased concerns of North Korean retaliation, which President Park warned could come in the form of a terrorist attack. Although North Korea may conduct a more typical provocation like a missile test, the threat of a possible terrorist attack targeting South Korean citizens should be treated seriously.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Hojun Song contributed to this piece. He is currently a graduate student at Tufts University and was formerly an intern at KEI. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from hojusaram’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.