Rare look into U.S. operations in South Korea

November 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
ABC7's Eric Thomas took a recent trip to South Korea where he was given a rare inside look at the U.S. presence in Demilitarized Zone along the border.

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Lt. Col. Skip Rhodes is part of the Army team keeping a close eye on a strip of land 2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long -- the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, where the last war stopped and the next one could start.

"This is the last stronghold, the last face off remaining of the cold war between South Korea and its allies and North Korea," Maj. Luke Hightower said.

More than 50 years ago, a generation of American servicemen fought and died in Korea to help repel an invasion from the north. Today, another generation stands ready to do the same.

Portola Valley native Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr. commands the 8th United States Army -- a force of more than 22,000 soldiers assigned the job of deterring aggression from North Korea, and if that fails, fighting alongside the South Korean army.

"Instead of active combat, we spend our time and energy in preparing for the potential of active combat and so there's a very high operational tempo here for training and readiness," Fil said.

The view from Camp Dora may look serene, but looks can be misleading. In the DMZ, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, U.S. soldiers and South Korean troops play a tense waiting game, watching their North Korean counterparts for any sign of hostile movement

"The North is reclusive, secretive; they work very, very hard not to allow open contact with the South," Fil said.

Fil says it is another way to hide just how bad off the North is. The country struggles to feed its people and its economy is valued at only 3 percent of the South's.

A country with little to lose is always a military threat; Kim Jong Il spends a lot on his 1 million man army, a nuclear program and a missile to carry the warheads.

But, is it a threat the South Koreans could handle without our help?

They have a 600,000 person army -- the U.S. has a little more than one army division. The 8th Army would not last long by itself, but Fil says, in a conflict, the 8th Army would have plenty of combat support from the South Koreans and from thousands of U.S. troops that could quickly be deployed.

"Korea is of vital interest to the United States, northeast Asia, and having a troop presence here is important to us," Fil said.

Tuesday, Fil will take ABC7 on an exclusive tour of the DMZ and the joint security area along the border where the wrong move could cost American and Korean lives.

BLOG: Read Eric Thomas' blog from his trip to South Korea

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