TOPICS > Politics

Flashpoint: North Korea

April 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE: On the same week that America went to war against Iraq, the United States was training for war at another international flashpoint: The Korean Peninsula. The training was part of long- scheduled and routine joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises dubbed “Foal Eagle,” but the attention these war games captured in Asia was anything but routine, taking place as they did in the shadow of growing U.S. tensions with communist North Korea. Although this battle was only an exercise, the U.S. Military says its 37,000 soldiers in South Korea are prepared for real combat.

LT. GEN. CHARLES CAMPBELL, Commander, Eighth U.S. Army: We have trained and ready formations here that are prepared to fight tonight. And because we have trained and ready formations, we have created deterrents.

JEFFREY KAYE: U.S. Army Lieutenant General Charles Campbell commands America’s main fighting force in South Korea, the U.S. Eighth Army.

LT. GEN. CHARLES CHAMPBELL: The mission of the Eighth U.S. Army, as the mission of the United States forces Korea, is to deter a North Korean attack on South Korea, and if that deterrence fails, to defeat that attack.

JEFFREY KAYE: Fears of armed conflict in Korea are growing. Last year Pres. Bush labeled North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, one of the axis of evil nations threatening the peace of the world. Tensions further escalated with North Korea’s admission last October that it had a secret program to enrich uranium, material which could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. That admission was soon followed by other provocative North Korean actions: The expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors monitoring the country’s nuclear programs; withdrawal from the international non-proliferation treaty; and the test of short- range tactical missiles. The CIA believes North Korea, ruled by strongman Kim Jong Il, probably has one or two atomic weapons and has fired up its Yongbyon nuclear facility with the hopes of building more. Pres. Bush has described the north’s policy as “nuclear blackmail.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Nuclear blackmail, is that what’s going on here?

THOMAS HUBBARD, U.S. Ambassador, South Korea: That… that is one way of putting it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Thomas Hubbard is both the United States ambassador to South Korea and an architect of U.S. foreign policy towards North Korea. He says economic desperation and political isolation are behind North Korea’s rattling of sabers.

THOMAS HUBBARD: Certainly the North Koreans have not given up their efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and, you know, they seem to be using that capability as a means of trying to extract various kinds of concessions and even payment from the international community.

JEFFREY KAYE: North Korea’s apparent willingness now to engage in multilateral talks instead of insisting on direct negotiations with Washington means that other regional powers– perhaps Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea– would play a role in resolving the nuclear crisis. Along with direct talks, North Korea had also demanded a non-aggression pact with the United States.

HAN PARK: North Koreans have always felt that security is threatened. And security is regime survival itself.

JEFFREY KAYE: Political scientist Han Park is an expert on the politics of the Korean Peninsula. He says North Korea, feeling threatened by the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war and its attack on Iraq, is afraid it’s America’s next target.

HAN PARK: So North Koreans are now thinking that this is a prelude to American attack, and I would think that North Koreans are believing right now they are the next target.

JEFFREY KAYE: But South Korean and American soldiers train for just the opposite threat: The north’s invasion of the south.

THOMAS HUBBARD: That’s also a possibility. It would be suicidal for the North Koreans, because we know who would win that conflict, but you can’t totally rule it out.

JEFFREY KAYE: While North Korea may have an impoverished economy, it’s built a formidable military machine.

LT. GEN. CHARLES CAMPBELL: The facts are that they are the world’s fifth largest armed force. They have the world’s third largest standing army. It numbers more than a million. They have probably 1,700 or so aircraft. They have 700 or so naval vessels, and embedded within that number is the world’s largest submarine force. They have the world’s largest artillery force, and they’re all forward-positioned. So it is a creditable, capable force that we confront.

JEFFREY KAYE: If North Korea invaded the south, its forces would come storming through here, the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone, or DMZ, that separates the two Koreas. The agreement that established the DMZ was not a peace treaty; it was an armistice, a cease-fire singed by military commanders. Technically, North Korea and South Korea are still at war. That hostility is reflected in the DMZ’s bleak landscape of razor-wire fencing, minefields, and watchtowers. The South Korean and American soldiers stationed here train as if conflict could come at any moment. The flatlands along the western stretch of the DMZ would be the north’s most likely invasion route, says Army Lieutenant Col. Matthew Margotta, who commands U.S. and South Korean forces in the area.

LT. COL. MATTHEW MARGOTTA: In the area that you see here, that’s the panorama, there are approximately three Korean divisions with about 45,000 troops as well as five artillery brigades just on the backside of those hills.

JEFFREY KAYE: Long-range artillery?

LT. COL. MATTHEW MARGOTTA: Long-range artillery. On the backside of these hills you see here, they have what are called underground facilities, where the artillery pieces are completely inside the mountain. And what the artillery pieces do, the doors open, the artillery comes out, can fire, go right back inside the mountain.

JEFFEY KAYE: And only 35 miles south of the DMZ is South Korea’s capital, Seoul, a metropolis of 14 million people that’s the social and economic heart of the nation. In the event of war, military planners expect this city to be struck by a barrage of North Korean artillery and missile fire, says Kim Changsu, director of the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses.

KIMG CHANGSU: If North Korea was to strike us, there’s no way we can prevent them from doing that because they are going to strike us anyway, using all this kind of long-range artillery, and there’s as many as over 10,000 pieces of artillery, longer-range artillery, which can reach Seoul, as they call it, like, sea of fire, literally.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. and South Koreans say better technology and training would give them the edge in a conflict with the north, but military leaders admit that no matter what their technological advantages, war on this peninsula would be brutal and bloody.

SPOKESMAN: It will be violent, and it will result in large numbers of casualties, both to those that serve in uniform and to those that are impacted in the civilian population. But if it comes to war, the outcome is not in doubt. The outcome is not in doubt we will defeat the North Koreans. We will defeat the North Koreans.

JEFFREY KAYE: And as in Iraq, U.S. War plans call for ending the conflict by ending the rule of North Korea’s leaders.

SPOKESMAN: The decisive win plan envisions regime change, and that would be one of the objectives of that campaign.

JEFFREY KAYE: But as the United States prepares for possible war in Korea, it’s also engaged in a peacetime struggle, a contest for the support of the South Korean people. In street protests, South Koreans, especially the young, have condemned the U.S. as an international bully, a country whose presence in Korea increases tensions between north and south. South Korean critics of the U.S. were heartened by the recent election of President of Roh Moo Hyun, who seeks greater independence from the U.S. and closer ties to North Korea. His presidency highlights a clash of attitude between Washington and Seoul. The United States — concerned about nuclear proliferation and terrorism – puts an emphasis on being tough with North Korea. South Korea, with its hopes of eventual reunification of the peninsula, wants more talk and trade with the North. It has also been trying to avoid a confrontation on the nuclear issue. Despite street protests and calls for changes in the relationship between Seoul and Washington, Ambassador Hubbard downplays anti-U.S. sentiment in Korea.

THOMAS HUBBARD: I think a small minority of South Koreans would like to see the U.S. Military presence in South Korea end. I think the overwhelming majority, 80, 90 percent of South Koreans, want the U.S. Military to remain a presence here.

JEFFREY KAYE: But in response to public criticism in South Korea, the United States is attempting to lower its military profile in the country. A half century ago, the Korean War claimed the lives of over two million people, many of whom are buried here at Seoul’s war memorial. The challenge facing diplomats and generals is how to avoid a second Korean conflict, one which could cost even far more lives.