The fine line between North and South
I just spent 10 minutes in North Korea, but unlike Current TV correspondents Laura Ling and Euna Lee, I got to walk out when I felt like and without a visit from a former president. How? I spent about six hours today in the Joint Security Area inside the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ -- a security zone two kilometers wide that runs across the entire peninsula. It is manned in South Korea by armed soldiers watching a mirror-image of armed soldiers just a few yards away in North Korea, each waiting for the other to make a hostile move.
Inside the JSA, there is a small blue building that contains a conference room that straddles the border. Literally half of it in South Korea and the other half in the North. Visitors are free to walk to the North Korean side of the room, but not to approach the door that opens to Kim Jong Il's country. Any provocative move is discouraged, because it is one of the most militarized areas on earth. Armed soldiers constantly patrol, the area is dotted with fences, barbed wire, tank barriers and even land mines.
Sporadic incidents have claimed American lives in the post war years, including a 1976 confrontation between American soldiers trimming a tree who were attacked by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers. A U.S. Army captain and lieutenant were killed.
The tension in the air is palpable. The American Lt. Col. commanding the United Nations Security detail here uses those incidents to impress on his soldiers that "it's never just another mission." That is why a quick reaction force of soldiers can be armed, ready and at the border in less than two minutes.
When you focus away from the young, intense fighting men responsible for guarding the area, you can see firsthand the economic differences between the two. Nearby South Korean farmers work their rice paddies with modern machines and farming techniques. Just across the border, North Korean farmers try to cultivate barren looking land by hand. It is hard to imagine a more stark difference side-by-side.
The Bay Area Presence in South Korea
Outside my hotel room, the lights of Seoul glitter in the windows of high rises that stretch as far as the eye can see. It is almost impossible to survey this scene and reconcile it with what the history books say: that 56 years ago Seoul would have consisted of burned out buildings and still smoking artillery craters. The city would change hands three times during the three-year Korean War and end up a burned out hulk.
Contrast that with the Seoul of today, with signs showing Bay Area stalwarts like Yahoo and Oracle with big office buildings here. Talking with a group of U.S. soldiers from the Bay Area today, it was obvious that they were ready to do their duty, pick up arms and fight should history repeat itself. But, it was just as obvious that the war, for them, is ancient history -- something their grandparents talk about; even in the media, it is largely forgotten.
In our series of reports from Seoul you will hear from some of these brave and dedicated young men and women as well as the leaders who have trained and positioned them. Stay tuned for more information about when those stories will air.
Headed to South Korea
The Pentagon is drawing down the number of combat troops in Iraq while the Commander-in-Chief decides whether to put thousands more in harm's way in Afghanistan. As usual, this relegates the situation in Korea to the back pages of your newspaper, or web news source. But, the fact is, unlike the Taliban, North Korea has millions of well armed, well trained troops ready at a few hours notice to launch a deadly attack into the South if ordered. Further complicating matters, unlike Iran's alleged attempt to acquire nuclear weapons, North Korea has proved that they already have them and are developing missiles with which to deliver them.
Politically, the North is run by Kim Jong IL -- a man of extravagant tastes, unpredictable moods and now, questionable health. He is believed to have suffered strokes and other health problems and it is not clear who would take over for Kim if he dies or becomes incapacitated. Does that turn an already dangerous situation into a potential powder keg?
Opposing Kim's armies are about 600,000 well-trained South Korean troops who will bear the brunt of the fighting, alongside about 30,000 U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. Though small in number, those young Americans are expected to fight and die just like their South Korean colleagues. Defense of the South is under the direction of a United Nations Command headed by a U.S. Army general. The man who will lead U.S. soldiers into combat, if it comes to that, is another general -- born, raised and educated in the Bay Area. Both men live with the knowledge that the devastating Korean War of 1950-53 never officially ended and armed troops from each side still watch the others every move for signs that war will break out.
I am going to South Korea for a fresh look at the tensions there and at one of the key players -- Portola Valley's Lt. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr., Commander of the 8th United States Army. How dangerous is it? What role is America playing there and why? Do the South Koreans really want and need U.S. military help anymore? And why is the U.S. feverishly training South Korean generals to take charge of defending their country. I will be looking at these questions and hearing from the "boots on the ground," the American men and women thousands of miles from home working to keep another country safe.