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Finlandization is the term coined during the Cold War to describe how independent nations can be cowed into neutrality by a powerful neighbour. It referred, a little unfairly, to Finland's pragmatic approach to the Soviet giant next door. The Cold War is over, but Finlandization lives on. Consider recent events on the Korean peninsula.

When North Korea thumbed its nose at an outraged world by launching seven test missiles last week, South Korea responded with an almost nerveless calm. While regretting the tests and holding back some aid, Seoul called for "patient dialogue" with Pyongyang and made no move to cancel scheduled talks with North Korean officials. It even chided Tokyo for overreacting. "There is no reason to fuss over this from the break of dawn like Japan," sniffed the office of President Roh Moo-hyun. On the streets, most South Koreans shrugged off the tests as the latest antic of a bothersome neighbour, no more. Television networks did not even interrupt their coverage of a World Cup semi-final match to broadcast the news.

If this were just the admirable phlegm of a resolute people, it would be one thing. There is something much stranger and more troubling at work in South Korea. In recent years, as memories of the devastating Korean War have faded and a new, affluent generation has come of age, South Koreans have adopted a dangerously blinkered, almost delusional view of their neighbour to the north.

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Most get far more worked up when Japan's prime minister visits a shrine to Japanese war dead than when North Korea tests missiles that could carry nuclear warheads into South Korean cities. The big news in recent weeks was not North Korea's pending missile tests, but a quarrel with Japan over a South Korean ocean survey near some disputed islets. This week, when a Japanese official suggested, speculatively, that Japan might use force to knock out North Korean missile bases, South Korea even accused Tokyo of using the crisis as a pretext for a military buildup.

Even stranger than the hostility against Tokyo, which at least has roots in Japan's history as a colonial occupier of Korea, is South Korea's rising anti-Americanism. Labour groups denounce a planned free-trade agreement with the United States. Student groups rant about U.S. imperialism. A recent poll of South Koreans aged 17 to 23 showed that nearly half would side with North Korea if it were attacked by the United States.

It is a confused nation that feels suspicion and even loathing for its democratic allies and trading partners, but views its totalitarian enemy with benign tolerance. The regime that rules North Korea is the most fanatical in the world today. South Koreans, of all people, should understand its nature.

It is they who were overrun by the North's invading troops in 1950, starting a war that killed millions and laid Korea to waste. It is they who saw most of the South Korean cabinet killed by a North Korean bomb in Rangoon in 1983 and a South Korean airliner blown up by North Korean agents in 1987. It is they who, even today, face a million North Korean soldiers who are poised to invade once again in the world's last Cold War standoff.

Yet, they have somehow talked themselves into believing that they can tame the North Korean tiger with a little scratching behind the ears. Seoul launched its "sunshine policy" in 1998, hoping to coax North Korea out of its perpetually belligerent mood with trade, aid and cross-border contacts.

Apart from some meetings between separated relatives and a series of inconsequential bilateral confabs, South Korea has little to show for it. Earlier this month, Pyongyang announced that it was pulling out of a plan to open a railway link between North and South. Then, last week, it went ahead with the missile tests, ignoring an almost plaintive South Korean plea "not to put a friend in danger."

A wiser nation would join its allies to confront the North. Instead, South Korea tries to smooth things over with its dangerous neighbour, keeping a low profile, drifting toward neutrality and distancing itself from its true friends. Classic Finlandization.

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mgee@globeandmail.com

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