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Korean Tensions Keep Military on High Alert

January 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner reports from South Korea on the state of military tensions on the peninsula. It's the first in a series of reports from Seoul.
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GWEN IFILL: Now we turn to the first in a series of Margaret Warner reports from South Korea.

Tonight, she focuses on the tense security situation on the peninsula.

MARGARET WARNER: In frigid dry dock 40 miles southwest of Seoul sits the blasted hull of the South Korean warship Cheonan. This is the vessel’s temporary resting place, a makeshift memorial to the 46 sailors killed when it sank last March.

REAR ADMIRAL LEE SEUNG JOON, Republic of Korea Navy (through translator): Due to the explosion, this section was torn apart from the ship.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s also offered as exhibit number one that the 250-foot ship was sheered in half, not by hitting an old mine or running aground, but by deliberate aim of a North Korean torpedo.

South Korean Admiral Lee Seung Joon took us on a tour with Admiral Pete Gumataotao, commander of U.S. Naval forces in Korea, to show off the findings of a five-nation investigation into the disaster.

So, this is the torpedo?

REAR ADMIRAL LEE SEUNG JOON: Torpedo screw.

REAR ADMIRAL PETER GUMATAOTAO: Truly that was the smoking gun, per se, when — when they recovered the aft section of the torpedo.

MARGARET WARNER: For decades, the ongoing state of war between North and South Korea has been symbolized by the standoff on land at the DMZ. But here, we see evidence that, for the North Koreans at least, the conflict is also very much at sea.

The so-called Northern Limit Line bisects a narrow channel of water between the North and South Korean coasts.

MAN: It is a contentious area. There’s been incidents that have occurred in that area back — back to the late 1990s.

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MARGARET WARNER: It was unilaterally drawn by the U.S. after the Korean War 57 years ago. Decades later, the North began contesting it.

MAN: The North Koreans, actually, in the ’70s was the first time they popped up and said, hey, you know, we don’t agree with this line.

MARGARET WARNER: Eight months after the Cheonan, the North struck at sea again, shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong-do near the North. Two construction workers died, the first South Korean civilians killed in a military attack in more than 50 years.

The attack brought a humiliated South Korea and a wildly unpredictable North closer to armed conflict than at any time since the Korean War. The horror of the moment is still fresh to the hundreds of villagers who fled to temporary government-provided housing on the mainland.

LEE MYUNG JAE, South Korea (through translator): I saw the shell passing over my head. And it fell in front of me. The fear that I felt was just so tremendous, and it is still so vivid to me.

PARK HAE KYUNG, South Korea (through translator): The elderly people who lived through the Korean War, they went through that. Now our children have to live through the fear.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the South Korean military come to your defense?

LEE MYUNG JAE (through translator): No. It enrages me to think that. I really thought the government would react immediately, would retaliate immediately.

MARGARET WARNER: After nearly 15 minutes, the South Korean military did fire back, but to inconclusive effect.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea: The government’s own assessment of it — and you will hear this directly from the government — was, it didn’t work very well.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens helps manage the U.S.-South Korean partnership.

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: There was a lot of reflection here on, did this — did this mean that maybe the government needed to look, not only at its military preparations, but at the way in which it has over the years responded to North Korean provocations?

MARGARET WARNER: So, both — it was really both militarily and politically or substantively, they thought, they needed to perhaps reassess?

KATHLEEN STEPHENS: I think that’s right. It gave a reality to the — the threat that North Korea poses and has posed for 60 years. But, suddenly, it became very real.

CHUN YUNG-WOO, South Korean National Security Adviser: There was some complacency in our defense posture.

MARGARET WARNER: Chun Yung-Woo is the national security adviser to South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. On taking office, despite protests from some quarters, President Lee responded to the North’s provocations and nuclear and missile programs by slashing trade and economic aid. Now the new attacks appear to have further hardened his resolve.

CHUN YUNG-WOO: The Republic of Korea, after North Korea — North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong-do, is not the same Republic of Korea that North Korea had known before. The culture of impunity has come to an end.

MARGARET WARNER: President Lee put the military on high alert and announced new rules of engagement. In late December, the military staged massive land and sea live-fire exercises, defying the North’s threat to retaliate. There was no response from the North. And Chun says that was wise on their part.

CHUN YUNG-WOO: Why don’t we let North Korea realize, you know, the consequences when — if and when they perpetrate another attack on us? I think they will certainly regret it.

MARGARET WARNER: This heightened tension between North and South has implications for the 28,500 U.S. troops that remain in Korea to help maintain the armistice.

Four-star U.S. General Walter Sharp, who would command combined Korean and U.S. forces if full-scale war broke out, is mindful of the delicate line each side has to walk between reaction and overreaction.

GEN. WALTER SHARP, U.S. Military Commander, South Korea: What we see is a challenging North Korean threat that is evolving and is focusing now on asymmetrical type of attacks and provocations. And you see not just U.S. forces, but an alliance that is getting stronger day to day. And it is — it is doing everything we can to deter North Korea, but, at the same time, to be prepared if that deterrence doesn’t work.

MARGARET WARNER: Seventy percent of the North’s million-man army and artillery moved up near the DMZ, the training tempo of U.S. and South Korean forces reflects Sharp’s motto: Be prepared to fight tonight.

Every contingency is being anticipated, from a heavy mechanized land invasion, to house-to-house urban warfare. And the hills around the capital city shelter robust air defenses. Yet, South Korea has much to lose in a conflict. The 25 million people of bustling greater Seoul would be sitting ducks to a surprise artillery attack from just 30 miles away.

GEN. WALTER SHARP: All of our goal would be to respond very quickly, to do it within a self-defense mode, to demonstrate that we are prepared, and that we’re not going to allow this to get out of hand, but, at the same time, to de-escalate it. Nobody wants to go to war over here.

MARGARET WARNER: The big unknown in this standoff is the North’s true intention. In the past week, Pyongyang has shifted from belligerence into a “Let’s talk” mode.

For insight, we turn to Oh Young Nam, a former North Korean security official who defected in 1995, but says he still has relatives in high places in the regime. He says family and friends tell him the regime is touting the latest attacks as the work of the ailing Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s son, his designated successor, the virtually unknown Kim Jong-un.

The other motive, says Oh, is what he calls North Korea’s impending economic catastrophe, which makes them desperate for aid.

OH YOUNG NAM, North Korean Defector (through translator): If the North Koreans starve to death, there is no one for the North Korean leadership to rule. Kim Jong-un is promising white rice and beef to the people. How is he going afford that? They need aid from the outside. So, the only way for the regime’s survival now is to show willingness to come back to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: The pattern has worked before: North Korean attacks or threats followed by offers of talks and aid from South Korea.

HAN SUNG-JOO, Former South Korean Foreign Minister: It takes two to tango.

MARGARET WARNER: Seoul and Washington were complicit in this pattern, says former Foreign Minister Han Sung-Joo, by rewarding, instead of punishing, the North’s bad behavior.

HAN SUNG-JOO: North Korea had some reason to believe that they can play them for a fool. But now I think they — they have to think twice about it.

MARGARET WARNER: Complicating the picture, especially for the U.S.: North Korea’s headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons. Six-nation talks to curb it have been dormant for two years. But Seoul has rebuffed the North’s new offer to talk until Pyongyang apologizes for last year’s attacks and takes steps to prove it’s sincere about ending its nuclear and missile programs.

The risk is that the North will react by lashing out again. But National Security Adviser Chun insists something has to be done to shake up an untenable status quo.

CHUN YUNG-WOO: It’s worth taking a small risk in today’s peace and stability if it serves more important, strong, lasting, longer-term peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

Chun shares defector Oh’s conviction that Pyongyang’s economy is in such dire straits that it faces an “existential crisis,” and will be forced to blink — or face collapse for lack of international aid.* (See extended excerpts of Chun interview)

MARGARET WARNER: So, you really see this as a turning point?

CHUN YUNG-WOO: Yes. Yes, I do.

MARGARET WARNER: For nearly 60 years, the closest point of contact between North and South has been here, near the village of Panmunjom at the two-and-a-half-mile-deep demilitarized zone.

COL. KURT TAYLOR, U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission: This is one of the original military demarcation sign markers. And, so, halfway out this bridge is the border between North and South Korea.

MARGARET WARNER: American Colonel Kurt Taylor runs day-to-day operations here of the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission, charged with implementing the truce signed in 1953.

I mean, do you still feel that same degree of tension, that anything could happen at any moment?

COL. KURT TAYLOR: Things are quiet up here, some people say surreal. When something happens someplace else, an incident happens someplace else, it’s just typically very, very quiet here.

We do a phone check every morning at 9:30.

MARGARET WARNER: If there’s something important to convey, Taylor’s staff picks up this hot line, which rings on the North Korean side.

COL. KURT TAYLOR: So, if they don’t answer the phone, we have a more manual solution, a more low-tech solution. And that is, we have got the bullhorn here.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when was the last time the bullhorn had to be used?

COL. KURT TAYLOR: Seventeen December. We used it to notify the North Koreans of the live-fire exercise out at Yeonpyeong Island.

MARGARET WARNER: So, they couldn’t say, no one told us?

COL. KURT TAYLOR: Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: If the North is ready to talk about last year’s attacks, as the South demands, the meeting would take place in this sparsely appointed conference room literally straddling the border.

COL. KURT TAYLOR: This is the only place where the military of North Korea is able to talk with anybody. This is our interface with them. If you don’t have the ability to talk with someone, you don’t have any way to understand what the disagreement is.

MARGARET WARNER: At present, though, the two sides are just staring down each other from either side of the border here.

COL. KURT TAYLOR: You can see, that’s the North Korean guard force headquarters. The North Korean guard who stands there, they have somewhere someone there in that position 24 hours a day. So, they have got a camera.

MARGARET WARNER: And now he’s looking at us.

COL. KURT TAYLOR: With binoculars, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: With binoculars.

And South Korean soldiers continue patrolling their half of the DMZ, hoping to deter the unthinkable, that this surreal standoff could ignite into war once again.

GWEN IFILL: We will talk to Margaret tomorrow, on the eve of the U.S.-China summit, about South Korean views of Chinese relations with the North.