ISIS’ Strike on the ROK’s Libyan Embassy Is a Wake-Up Call For Seoul

on April 20 | in Asia-Pacific, Terrorism

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ISIS gunmen killed two local security last week outside the South Korean Embassy in Libya. There were no Korean casualties, but the incident rattled the ROK Foreign Ministry enough for it to consider moving its three employees from Tripoli to Tunisia. The Blue House has condemned the attack as an act of aggression.

South Korea’s lack of a clear policy on terrorism will certainly affect U.S. interests. An ally that cannot hold its own weight, particularly when it comes to handling attacks specifically targeted to its own nationals, is cause for American concern, which already has a plate piled high with managing crises all over the world. Having one more country that’s well-equipped to assist Washington respond to these incidents would be a huge plus for the U.S. But does Seoul have an effective counterterrorism strategy in place?

For South Koreans, the word “terrorism” has long been associated with “North Korea”: consider the 1983 Rangoon bombing, the 1987 Korean Air Flight 858 explosion, and most recently, the Sony hacking incident. It’s only been in recent years that this lens has taken a wider focus for Seoul, going beyond Pyongyang’s occasional — and predictable — outbursts on the Peninsula.

The recent incident involving the Islamic State indicates the group is willing to target foreigners of any nationality. The group has taken hostage of, and killed Brits, Jordanians, French, Belgians, and — very close to home for South Koreans — Japanese citizens. The group’s latest attack has proven unnerving to many South Koreans.

Also, this isn’t the first time that South Koreans have been a target of terrorism. In 2004, al Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State’s predecessor) kidnapped and beheaded a South Korean interpreter. In 2007, the Taliban captured 23 South Korean missionaries; two were killed before the Taliban released the remaining hostages.

As Seoul continues to raise its profile as a middle power (with aspirations for a greater economic presence), it will have to take a less Peninsula-centric approach when it comes to national security. Korea is no longer just a consumer or recipient of security and economic assistance. It has military presence in many U.S.- and U.N.-led missions, including Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Pakistan. It contributes regularly to global peacekeeping efforts and sends development assistance to countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. Seoul’s overseas volunteer program, World Friends Korea, is the second largest in the world, behind the U.S. Peace Corps.

Furthermore, South Korea is increasingly becoming a destination for employment, education, and immigration by foreigners. Several years ago, I did a study on the long-term foreign policy, security and economic implications of a multicultural Korea, focusing on the rise of its Muslim population. Back then, the country was more hesitant to warm up to the notion of a heterogeneous society, with few policies in place to protect foreigners’ rights.

However, Korea has taken some progressive steps since then. The first-ever non-ethnic Korean was elected to the National Assembly in 2012. Television shows regularly feature multicultural families, with some programs and advertising companies even spotlighting mixed-race children.

It’s hard to imagine South Korea reverting back to a homogenous, mono-ethnic society. Not only is this impossible, given Seoul’s increased participation in external affairs, but it would be a pretty self-destructive move for a country that’s so bent on becoming a global power.

This means Seoul will need to develop a sharper counterterrorism policy and strategy. It’s one thing for the Blue House to have a supporting role in U.S. and international counterterrorism efforts. But a thoughtful, proactive counterterrorism policy that can promptly and firmly respond to terrorist aggression at home and abroad will reinforce Seoul’s image as a valuable player in the international community. It will also strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance — an ever-present objective for Seoul — and create incentives for Washington to commit to its security guarantee in Northeast Asia.

It’s not enough for a government spokesperson to verbally condemn terrorist acts after these incidents have taken place. The South Korean National Assembly and the Blue House need to engage in serious discussions to come up with a coherent counterterrorism policy and measures to anticipate and respond to these acts of aggression

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So far, no terrorist attacks have taken place on South Korean soil. But as one South Korean pundit pointed out, it may not be too long until hostile groups commit destructive acts in Korea. The Blue House needs to be prepared to handle these foreseeable catastrophes clearly and competently.

Soo Kim is a former CIA analyst and linguist for Northeast Asia. She specializes in leadership dynamics, decision-making, authoritarian regimes, and political psychology. She is currently a national security fellow at a DC-based think tank.

photo: The Blue House. Cheongwadae (Christian140, Wikicommons)

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