Saber rattling from North Korea.
Is this just bluster, blackmail or a true threat?
My father served in South Korea during what the U.S. calls the Korean War. It has also often been called the Forgotten War, sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam. For Koreans, it is only one of many conflicts among many, mainly with the Chinese and Japanese.
I spent two tours in Korea, as have many of my fellow Soldiers and other service members.
So I want to share a little personal perspective on this small but crucial peninsula next to China and Japan. This is definitely the CliffsNotes‘ version, condensing 70 years of history into a post, so know that much is left out.
Geography is critical to understanding the current issues. Historically Korea has been invaded and occupied over and over again. Look at the map and you see why this little peninsula is so vulnerable.
After World War II the U.S. and Russia divided it into a communist North and a capitalist South, along the 38th Parallel.
When the North invaded the South, we sent in an ill-prepared force — the infamous Task Force Smith — fresh from easy garrison duty in Japan. North Korean troops wiped out this undermanned and undertrained unit.
Fast forward. Four major sweeps up and down the peninsula. President Truman firing Army General Douglas McArthur for pushing too deep into China and giving the Chinese an excuse to invade. Our Soldiers being taken as prisoners of war. Claims of brain washing. An armistice in 1953. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along that 38th Parallel.
Military mental-health issues were present during that war, too. You can read about some of them here.
My first tour of duty in Korea was in 1990, as the division psychiatrist for the 2nd Infantry Division (the Indianhead Division). I was stationed at Camp Casey, about 10 miles from the DMZ.
Four days after I arrived, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
We were worried that if there were ever a time for the North to re-invade the South, this could be it, while the U.S. was busy on the far side of Asia. We were, in the troops’ mordant vernacular, DIPs — dead in place — mere speed bumps for North Korean tanks. The North Korean soldiers way out-numbered us. Stop-loss was imposed, no American troops could leave, and we got crowded and grumpy as the attention focused on Iraq and the Gulf War.
But there was no invasion. No Indianhead combat patches.
Four years later, I was back in Korea, this time in Seoul, as Kim Jung Il threatened to annihilate Seoul in a “sea of fire.” Again, threatening words, but no action to back them up. As it turned out, the most dangerous part of the year was when the South Koreans rioted — against the U.S. troop presence in their country.
Fast forward again. The 2nd Infantry Division fought in Iraq and now resides mainly at Fort Carson, Colo. Lots of Indianhead patches on right shoulders, at last.
A new Kim is in charge in the North, the son and grandson of North Korea’s prior leaders. Bellicose threats are once again flying across the DMZ.
Once again, South Korea is ambivalent about our presence. America (possibly, once again) underestimating the resolve and toughness of the North. Once again, China’s position is blurry. The sweep of the Yalu River. The whole world watching this little spit of land.