With the war of words between North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump ramping up, and the law of unintended consequences coming into play, I think it's a good time to take a look at North and South Korea, two nations with a common culture and language, divided by a 64-year-old war and subsequent political patronage.
The North was founded with the strong influence of Stalinism, which can still be seen in its absolutist ruling family, its rigid social regimentation, its heavy-handed propaganda and its incessant military parades. It is a country that is in a state of perpetual war-preparedness. Its small economy is geared toward maintaining an enormous military complex, an army of a million soldiers, a considerable number of artillery pieces, all trained on South Korea's capitol city, Seoul, and it's surrounding areas. Now it has long-range missiles, with possible nuclear warheads, whose sole purpose is to threaten other countries in the region and even the continental U.S.
In stark contrast, South Korea has lived for the past 64 years under the protective umbrella of an American military presence. Two years of military service is mandatory for every able-bodied male citizen, and the ROK (Republic of Korea) military is a formidable force in itself. When I served in the U.S. Army, I was stationed for a year with the Second Infantry Division in what is known as Area One - the region between Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea. Prior to the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, units stationed in this area of South Korea were the most forward deployed in the U.S. military. Because of this proximity to a hostile state, soldiers were stationed there for one year only, like any other combat zone, and their dependents were not allowed to accompany them.(1) I met a young female soldier who told me she had just given birth prior to her deployment in South Korea and had to leave her newborn child with her parents for the duration of her tour of duty. I myself was married during my tour, but had to leave my wife back in Denver.
Stationed on Camp Casey, with my own artillery battery headquartered on nearby Camp Hovey, during my year in Area One my unit was subject to strict curfews and numerous unannounced "alerts" in which we were awakened at three or four o'clock in the morning, dressed in "full battle rattle" (LBV [load bearing vest] & kevlar helmet), got our M16s from the arms room, proceeded to the motor pool, cranked up our track vehicles and sometimes even rolled out of the motor pool to establish a firing point for our howitzers.
The alerts were accompanied by a siren that resounded over the Army post and the adjacent town. One of the things that struck me about these alerts was that they had no effect whatever on the Korean citizenry. All the while we were flailing around as if war had commenced, ordinary Koreans went about their ordinary lives as if there was nothing to get excited about. While North Koreans were living with imminent war, South Koreans lived in blissful peace, making for themselves a technologically advanced and rather beautiful country. Seoul itself is a magnificent city with one of the finest subway systems in the world, bristling with department stores, restaurants and nightclubs, and populated by millions of people for whom war is at most a rumor. It was virtually impossible for me to picture Seoul under attack from North Korea's long-range artillery and rocketry, let alone the target of a nuclear attack.
The reality of a war with North Korea was never brought home to me as an actual possibility during my tour in South Korea, despite the proximity of the DMZ, the curfews and the alerts. But fighting a war was what I was there for. Our artillery batteries engaged in live fire exercises, but there were no tank trails for our track vehicles to travel on. We had to drive them on the commercial roads and highways of South Korea, jockey for position in traffic with Hyundais and Daewoos back and forth from our garrisons to our firing points. The absurdity of our presence on a city street was never brought home to us more powerfully - and the prospect of war more distant - than when our 155mm self-propelled howitzers, bigger than an Abrams tank, were being cut off in traffic by Hyundais.
Soldiers returning from their year in South Korea sometimes brought home with them souvenirs like ballcaps on which were sewn the message "I'm sure to go to heaven because I've done my time in hell." Hell? Despite our proximity to an enemy poised to destroy us and as much of the resplendent cities of South Korea as they could reach, soldiers in Area One had weekends and every national holiday off, could be found "downrange" (off post) every evening in girlie bars drinking heavily,(2) and had easy access to legal prostitutes around just about every corner.
Watching as events unfold nearly twenty years after my tour of duty in South Korea, part of me itches for a final resolution to a conflict that seems to go on forever. But another, probably better, part of me will never forget the mornings off post, when Koreans who, unlike their counterparts in the North, have chosen life instead of death, embraced another day of peace, mindful of the past and of possible futures, but happily observing the terms of a 64-year-old ceasefire and enjoying an uninterrupted peace.
(1) Military members could bring their dependents to live in off-post housing, but only at their own expense. The only personnel who could afford to do this were, of course, officers.
(2) To my knowledge, no one has addressed the reasons why military members have such a well established reputation as heavy drinkers. My own guess is that what these young men and women seek in their off duty hours, so far from home, family and the life they could've been living had they not enlisted, is oblivion. The message I found at the bottom of every glass was always the same: tomorrow.