Living With A Nuclear Neighbor

Don Chapman
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August 17, 2005
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This is the first of a three-part series based on an East-West Center fellowship that involved travelling in South Korea. Cosponsored by the EWC and the Korea Press Foundation, the first Korea-U.S. Journalists’ Exchange Program gave six U.S. journalists the opportunity to visit South Korea for 10 days while six Korean journalists visited the U.S. Then we met back at the East-West Center to compare notes for two days. Respecting the East-West Center as I do, it was a great honor as MidWeek’s editor to be chosen among the American six, which also included Reena Advani of National Public Radio in Washington, Michelle Burford of Oprah Magazine in New York, Vanessa Hua of the San Francisco Chronicle, Courtnay Peifer of Newsday in New York, and John Walker, a producer with the Fox affiliate in Washington.

In addition to this three-part series, a presentation I gave on relations between North and South Korea during the colloquium portion of the Korea-U.S. Journalists’Exchange Program at the EWC on Aug. 1 will be posted at under MidWeek’s Editor in Korea, along with more photos.

Tensions remain high at the DMZ, as evidenced
when two North Korean soldiers marched down
from their headquarters and put their toes on
the border line for a stare-down with reporters
and U.S. and South Korean soldiers

The smartest thing North Korean dictator Kim Jung- Il ever did — and he’s done far more than most people give him credit for — was to mass his artillery along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and aim it at Seoul. This was the opinion expressed by a Korea expert on the staff of the Commander-U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, who briefed me before I left for Korea. After visiting the country, I agree. Those weapons skew everything in discussing the future of the Korean peninsula, one of the world’s true hot spots.

Barely 30 miles south of the DMZ, the South Korean capital is a vibrant city of 11 million, the heartbeat that drives the 11th largest economy in the world. If Kim Jung-Il were to unleash his weapons — conventional as well as chemical and biological — it’s estimated a minimum 300,000 people would die in the first day of a war.

Which explains the gas mask in my room at the Koreana Hotel, and similar masks in Seoul’s subway trains.

Not that anyone in Seoul seriously believes Kim Jung-Il would actually pull the trigger, and the threat certainly does not slow the city’s dynamic commerce, nightlife and shopping — or enthusiasm at the Doosan Bears vs. Samsung Lions baseball game I attended in Seoul. The threat of war is his strength, but an actual attack would lead quickly to his demise, which he seems shrewd enough to understand. And Kim’s foremost goal, experts in South Korea and the U.S. agree, is maintaining his regime, staying in power for at least long enough to perhaps hand over the reins — and this is just conjecture because he has not declared a successor — to his 24- year-old son, of whom little is known except that’s he’s a sports nut.

Nutcase is one of the terms that often come up in discussing the North’s “Dear Leader,” as do madman, wacko and kook. South Korean diplomats, eager not to say anything that would give him an excuse to pull back from recent negotiations, will say off the record only that he is “quirky” and “an unusual leader.”

But he’s an unusual leader who owns a small arsenal of nuclear weapons — actual, not suspected WMDs — that could reach, he says, Honolulu and U.S. West Coast cities. And he has plans to rapidly expand his nuke capacity.

Meanwhile, the Camp Smith source said, the North is already launching daily attacks against America — e-attacks.

“He has some very highly rated hackers,” the Army officer said, “not necessarily based in North Korea, maybe in China, South Korea or Japan. They’re doing their best to get inside our military and government sites, as well as those of corporations and universities to steal research.”

An attack from their cousins to the North was
the last thing fans of the Doosan Bears baseball
team were thinking about

Beyond stealing secrets, he added, the North also tries to infect those systems and crash them.

Perhaps it’s to be expected — we’ve never signed a peace accord, just an armistice, so technically we’re still at war. One of the conclusions to which I came in Korea is that, 52 years after the armistice was signed on Aug. 15, 1953, it would be in the best interests of the U.S. and South Korea to sign a peace treaty with the North and officially end hostilities. Better to deal with the issues of today and move forward. In any event, with the backing of China on North Korea’s northern border, and with all of those artillery shells and missiles poised along the southern border aimed at Seoul, it’s a war we’ll never win in any meaningful sense.

It’s also the destination-Seoul artillery that would probably preclude the U.S. from conducting a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facilities.

But just probably.

The U.S.’s refusal to declare that option off limits is one of several things that make South Koreans increasingly nervous about their relationship with America.

YOU WILL never find anyone who loves America more, an official at the U.S. embassy in Seoul told us, than South Koreans of post-Korean War generations. It was the U.S. victory over Japan in 1945 that ended that nation’s brutal 35-year occupation of Korea, which included forcing Koreans to speak Japanese and take Japanese names, while Korea’s last crown prince was forcibly moved to Japan and married to a cousin of the emperor. Five years after WWII when soldiers from North Korea stormed across the newly created DMZ, conquered Seoul almost immediately and within weeks drove nearly to the southern port city of Busan (Pusan), it was the U.S. (with 20 United Nations partners) that stepped in to save the South from communist tyranny. By the time an armistice was signed in 1953, 38,000 U.N. troops and been killed, 33,629 of them Americans. Another 105,785 U.S. troops were wounded. More than a million Americans served in the Korean War, and at least that many have pulled duty there since, the American presence offering the greatest deterrent against further military aggression by the North. Without our presence, the miracle of South Korea’s economic and democratic rebirth would never have happened.

At Panmunjeom, North Korean soldiers attacked
a South Korean soldier, who was positioned as the
guard in the center of this photo is, through the
door behind him and tried to drag him away

But in the ’60s and ’70s, ensuing generations recall, the U.S. looked the other way as Syngman Rhee, who had led the Korean independence movement from Hawaii, and a succession of military generals ran a dictatorship where the torture and murder of dissidents was common.

Today’s university students in South Korea were born after democratic reforms changed the country’s way of life in the late ’80s, have been raised in comfort and take for granted that they live in a prosperous and “wired” society. (South Korea sends more students to study at U.S. universities than any country except China and India, which have 20 times the South’s population.)

And as South Korea has emerged as an economic power, its citizens are demanding a stronger role in its dialogue with the U.S. as well as other nations — starting with their cousins across the border, as well as China, the increasingly powerful neighbor just across the Yellow Sea. At the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, where we met with a group that included three former ambassadors, they emphasized that the new South Korea expects to be respected as an equal partner.

And though U.S. and South Korean interests ran parallel for decades, they have begun to diverge. While the Bush administration has sounded bellicose in dealing with the North, the South has offered a “Sunshine Policy” — sending food and fertilizer to the North, where 2 million to 3 million people are said to have starved in recent years and cases of cannibalism have been reported. The South is also building an “economic zone” at Gaeson, North Korea, teaching the backward nation about modern manufacturing.

Park Chan-Bong

A major tenet of the Sunshine Police is the reunification of the peninsula. Park Chan-Bong of the Reunification Ministry, one of two men we interviewed who would be part of the Six-Party Talks just a couple of days later, spoke softly but strongly, and obviously from the heart, when he said “There is no reason for anyone to oppose reunification” of North and South Koreas. He pointed out that Korea was a unified nation from the year 676 until it was divided roughly along the 38th Parallel by the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945 — unified for over 1,300 years, divided for just 60. So when President Bush included North Korea in his “Axis of Evil,” South Koreans shuddered, and were not surprised when Kim Jung-Il used it as an excuse to ratchet up his nuclear program, as he did again when the U.S. invaded Iraq, sending the message to Kim that his regime could soon be the next to be changed.

“I feel that the Bush administration is trying to control us,” a student at Chungnam National University in Daejeon told us.

Another emphasized that the Korean War was a civil war, caused when the U.S. and Soviets divvied up the peninsula, and turned into an ideological battle when first the U.S./U.N. and later China became involved.

The dozen students with whom we spoke agreed that they do not believe North Korean nukes would ever be used against the South. The concern of the Korea expert at Camp Smith, however, is that North nukes could very well find their way into the hands of terrorists — Kim Jung-Il already has dealings with countries such as Syria, Pakistan and Iran — and end up in the U.S.

Anti-U.S. resentment runs so high with some on the far left in South Korea that there is talk of attacking and tearing down the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Incheon Island, where he led the shore assault that reclaimed Seoul and turned the Korean War in the South’s favor. Police permanently post dozens of riot cops surrounding our embassy in Seoul, and an armored assault vehicle is parked outside just in case.

That said, even younger South Koreans understand the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. The Chungnam student who felt Bush was controlling her country protested that the 32,500 U.S. military personnel in Korea can get away with murder, literally, citing a recent case in which a U.S. soldier beat a Korean woman to death and another incident in which two soldiers were absolved of running over and killing two Korean girls during a training maneuver. But when I asked if she would like all U.S. troops out of Korea, she answered without hesitation: “No, we are not yet a unified nation.”

A memorial to the U.S. soldiers
killed in the ax attack

DRIVING NORTH out of Seoul with the mighty Han River, broad and muddy as the Mississippi, to our left, green rice paddies to the right, I wonder aloud about the razor wire curling along the top of metal mesh fencing that parallels the river. No, it’s not to keep fishermen away from the river, replies Kim Ji- Hyuk of the Korea Press Foundation, but rather to keep out infiltrators from North Korea. Soon we begin passing sentry booths, where South Korean soldiers armed with automatic rifles stand guard with eyes on the river and the expressway.

Hostile is a good way to begin explaining the atmosphere at the DMZ. Dark, heavy, spooky are others, and we feel it the moment our driver Mr. Lee pulls the van to the side at a security checkpoint. Security at Hawaii’s military bases seems small potatoes compared to precautions here. Then there’s a large poster showing a booted foot stepping on a land mine and detonating it. The writing is in Korean hangeul, but the meaning is clear — don’t venture off the road. Nobody knows the exact number, but a high-ranking officer in the U.N. command, a U.S. Army officer, says 2 million to 3 million land mines still litter the DMZ, two and a half miles wide and stretching 130 miles across the peninsula from sea to sea.

Tension mounts as we drive past sentry posts and tank guards, to prevent the North from storming across and attacking the South again, and fills the air at Panmunjeom, where both sides have headquarters. There’s plenty to be tense about — since the armistice was signed, 92 Americans have been killed in action at the DMZ, 132 wounded. The dead include Capt. Arthur Bonifas, for whom the U.N. command post is named, and 1st. Lt. Mark Barrett, who on Aug. 15, 1976, were attacked by North Korean troops and hacked to death with axes as they attempted to chop down a large yellow poplar tree that blocked line-of-sight between two U.N. guard posts. We visited the site, marked with a plaque and a cement circle the width of that tree. “I visit here fairly regularly,” the Army officer says, “just to remember what these people are like.” (It’s said the ax used in the murders is part of a shrine honoring the attackers on the North side.)

This is the one place where the Cold War remains very much alive.

A few yards away is the Bridge of No Return, across which POWs on both sides were repatriated after the war. The bridge is the Military Demarcation Line, the ultimate boundary. On the other side is a guard post where, our military guide says, “there’s probably a sniper aiming at you right now.” With the Six-Party Talks due to start the next day, I asked, were we at least marginally safer? “Marginally,” he replied. “With these guys, you never know.”

The last Americans to cross the bridge were the captain and crew of the USS Pueblo a year after the Navy spy ship was captured by the North in 1968 — although President Clinton strolled halfway across the bridge during a visit, causing his Secret Service guards’ and several military officers’ blood pressure to rise rather dramatically. “He gets popped,” an Army officer said with a shudder, “it starts World War III.”

We also visited the blue building that sits astride the North- South boundary — the line running down the middle of a long, polished conference table where Military Armistice Commission representatives from both sides still meet. Doors from both North and South lead into the building, and until recently both were kept unlocked. Then a South Korean soldier posted at the door leading to the North was sneak-attacked from behind by North Korean soldiers, who attempted to drag him away. Kicking and fighting, he escaped, but the door now remains locked until it needs to be opened.

Leaving the building, snapping a few photos, we were suddenly confronted by two North Korean soldiers who marched down from their command post and, with boot toes on the line, glared at us for several minutes from just 20 yards away, an obvious attempt at intimidation. “That’s rare, they almost never do that,” the Army officer said. “They must have known this was not the usual tourist group. “The other thing that was unusual is that they both were watching us. Normally, they’ll face each other. That way, if one of them makes a break for it and runs for freedom, the other is supposed to see it immediately and shoot him.”

Unfortunately, there was no time to play Panmunjeom’s 9-hole golf course — “world’s most dangerous,” reads a sign. Slice a ball off the fairway here, you let it go. Beyond the course are more mine fields.

It may be a sign of improving relations between North and South Korea that both sides recently removed propaganda billboards — “Yankee Go Home,” read one — and are in the process of dismantling huge loudspeakers that blasted propaganda messages across the DMZ.

But there is one quite positive note to this wretched but for now necessary place called the DMZ. Against all expectations, it has become an environmental safe haven for many native species of birds, animals and plants that have been threatened in the South by the amazing economic boom and development, and in the North by terrible mismanagement that includes deforestation and subsequent floods.

Hey, maybe every country ought to have a DMZ.

In MidWeek-The Weekend on Friday: Travel notes and tips from Korea.

In MidWeek next week: Is Kim Jung-Il a megalomaniac madman or an astute bargainer? Will he ever give up his nukes? What promise do the Six-Party Talks hold when they restart on Aug. 29?

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