My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did


This is a re-print, in English, of an editorial I wrote last month in the Busan Daily newspaper. Here is that Korean version.

BI contacted me, because I teach a course on terrorism at Pusan National University. As far as I can tell, it is one of the only such courses in Korea. So when the global reaction to Paris arrived in Korea, they asked me for a few thoughts. The most important point is: Don’t go bananas.

After the Paris attack, the Korean government is talking seriously about passing counter-terrorism (CT) laws and developing a domestic CT capability. This is wise, but there is a lot for Korea to learn from all the mistakes the West has made in the GWOT. By now it is pretty widely accepted that the US wildly over-reacted to the 9/11. The Iraq war especially helped create a helluva lot more terrorists than we were facing before, and ISIS would not exist without the invasion. Remember:

1. Modern democratic societies are pretty safe.

2. Some domestic crime and violence is part of the cost we pay for freedom and our open societies.

3. Flipping out about Muslims in our countries does no good; they’ll just turtle, rather than helping the security services.

So the big post-9/11 lesson from the West for Korea on jihadist terrorism: Keep it all in perspective. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning or your HDTV falling off the wall than a jihadi.

The full essay follows the jump:

This month witnessed the worst terrorist attacks in the West since 9/11. Over one hundred people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris. The Islamic State (IS) has taken responsibility. While Western states have grappled with Islamic terrorism for decades, South Korea has primarily wrestled with asymmetric provocations from North Korea, such as August’s landmine attack or the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. These attacks might be considered terrorism, although that designation is somewhat disputed. The United States, for example, has removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Nevertheless, the Korean government is considering anti-terrorist legislation in the wake of Paris.

The terrorism debate is new in Korea. At Pusan National University, I teach a course on terrorism. I routinely find that Korean students know far less on this topic than American students who have been learning this material for more than a decade. This is not obviously a problem; Korea’s exposure to urban and Islamic terrorism, which drives the Western debate, is limited. Nevertheless, Paris revealed just how vulnerable large modern cities are. Cities such as Paris, Seoul, and New York are filled with ‘soft targets’ – shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters, and so on – where defenseless citizens cluster in relaxed environments. These are prime targets for modern terrorism. So as the debate comes to Korea, there are several lessons from the West’s experience that can help frame the Korean discussion:

1. Absolute security is impossible to attain.

Liberal democracies pride themselves on their openness. We do not spy on our citizens unless absolutely necessary. We do not demonize minority groups. We dislike walls, gates, identity checks, armed soldiers on our streets, and so on. We accept that some amount of crime and violence is inevitable. This is the price of freedom. Police states can use extreme and brutal measures to stamp out violence such as terrorism, but the price – the destruction of personal freedoms – is intolerable to us. When democracies do flirt with such techniques, such as the American use of torture for several years after 9/11, we lose who we are. We must not act like the terrorists in order to defeat them. We must realize that we will never completely stamp out crime, terrorism, and other such violence. We must try to manage it as best we can. There will always be failings and loss, sometimes painful, but that is the price we pay to retain our open societies.

2. Do not demonize or unnecessarily target Korea’s Muslim community.

Much of the current terrorism debate focuses necessarily on jihadist terrorism. As the Korean debate heats up there will naturally be a focus on Korea’s small Muslim community. Here too, the government should tread carefully. A central element of the democracy we are fighting to protect is religious liberty. Koreans have the constitutional right to take up Islam. To target Korea’s Muslims without clear proof that the community has provided succor to terrorism would not only violate the values of the Korean constitution, it would almost certainly brew a backlash from that population. Remember that the jihadist narrative plays to a sense of victimhood and grievance in Islam, that Muslims are mistreated and abused by the West, Israel, India, and so on. It is critical to deny them this ideological weapon by not focusing populist racial or religious animus on Korea’s Muslims, as for example the National Front does in France. Far better is for the Korean National Police Agency (KNPA) to reach out to community leaders and try to draw them into cooperation, such as community policing. It should also be noted that Korea’s Muslim community has not actually suffered from radicalization. So far, only one Korean Muslim has joined IS. There is no need to over-react.

3. Keep your distance from the Middle East.

One reason why the West is a target of jihadist terror is its many decades of intervention there. The British and French had imperial roles in the region going back to the nineteenth century. As the Cold War heated up, the United States got sucked into the region in the 1950s. When al Qaeda and IS speak of Western imperialism, there are referencing a long list of interventions which have only accelerated in the last decade, such as the Iraq war, the heavy use of drones, tacit support for the overthrow of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, or US support for Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate use of force in Yemen. At this point, it should be clear that the West does not have the ability to order the Middle East, and that our regular intervention there breeds blowback. I would argue that the West should try to retrench from the Middle East. That may not be possible for the West at this late date, but for Korea, which has only a very small footprint there, this is an easy choice. In short, Korea should stay out of the regional and sectarian divides roiling the Middle East. It will only make Korea a target, much as China is becoming due to its treatment of its western Muslims.

4. Build a basic counter-terrorism/anti-terrorism capacity.

As I mentioned, when I teach terrorism in Korea, I find students and academics know very little. This is understandable. The central issue in Korean foreign policy is North Korea. But post-Paris, it may be wise for Korea to build up some infrastructure. After 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security provided funding to universities, police departments, think-tanks, and so on to build-up an analytical and operational response capacity. Korea might do the same. Universities and think-tanks could develop courses and conferences on these questions. For example, there is Islamist terrorism in southeast Asia, and I have heard fear that it might spread to Korea as Korea opens up to more immigration to counter its declining birth-rate. This could be investigated. Or the KNPA and police departments in large cities might develop response task forces to deal with a major urban violence incident. Nor must this cost a great deal of money. The Korean police almost certainly already have crisis response training and units due to the possibility of war with the North. Similarly, the US military has worked on terrorism for years, and those skills could be easily shared given how deeply interwoven the US and Korean militaries are. Here in Busan for example, the US military has an anti-terrorism officer who works on these issues already.

Urban Islamist terrorism is not a serious threat to Korea, and it is important not to over-react in the wake of Paris. Korea is a safe place, and Korea’s Muslim community is not radicalized. Nevertheless, Korea, like all modern democracies, abounds in soft targets and vouchsafes the democratic freedoms that make it hard to prevent terrorism and criminal violence. A calm, measured response, which absorbs the West’s lesson since 9/11, would be wise.

Robert Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is professor of political science at Pusan National University.

One thought on “My Op-Ed for the Busan Ilbo on the Paris Attacks: Korea should Not Overreact like the West did

  1. Pingback: 2 Saudi students held in US for possessing arms - RiyadhVision

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