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With an Eye On the North

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SEOUL, Republic of Korea, Nov. 6, 1996 РEditor's Note: Gillert traveled to South Korea earlier this year before the recent incident where South Korean soldiers captured an officer and killed other crewmen from a North Korean submarine that had run ashore. In his vignettes that follow, Gillert translates what he heard and saw in-country: a U.S. force that feels the constant threat to peace in one of the world's troubled spots.

Every day at the demilitarized zone -- about 40 kilometers north of Seoul -- American and Korean soldiers face off with their North Korean counterparts, as politicians and officials try to reach terms for peace. Since July 7, 1953, an uneasy cease-fire has existed.

Will it be peace or war on the Korean Peninsula? Will North and South reunite as a single, free, democratic nation? Will North Korea follow up on repeated threats to enforce a communist reunification of the factions?

Answers elude these questions for some 36,000 American service members stationed in the Republic of Korea. Their only answer is to remain vigilant -- and ready -- for whatever happens. From Seoul to the demilitarized zone -- and throughout the southern half of the divided peninsula -- they wait, watch and wonder.***

YONGSAN ARMY GARRISON -- Seoul skyscrapers encircle the sprawling, forested headquarters of U.S.military operations on the Korean Peninsula. From the Dragon Hill Lodge military hotel to blocks and blocks of shops, restaurants and bars in nearby Itaewon, off-duty American service members use Yongsan as a hub for leave or liberty, or during transit to other bases.

But within the brick office buildings of the Combined Forces Command, duty is constant and focused. There, U.S. and South Korean military leaders exercise operational control over more than 600,000 military personnel of all services and both nations, always -- always -- with eyes pointed toward the north. If the North Koreans attack, the Combined Forces Command would direct a coordinated defense of the south.

"We would win," said a senior U.S. soldier, "but it wouldn't be an easy win."

***

CAMP CASEY -- "War in Korea would be several times the intensity of Desert Storm," Col. William Marshall said from the relative comfort of a sagging Army-issue chair.

Up before dawn to run with the troops, the 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division commander talked about the challenges his soldiers face -- from an unforgiving terrain and unpredictable adversary. Camp Casey is about two hours from Seoul and about 35 kilometers from the DMZ.

"It's nothing but hills and valleys between here and the DMZ," he said. "That kind of terrain really challenges tank operations. We can't let up -- in our training or our vigilance."

Teamwork drives readiness, Marshall said, and he's proud of his team. "We don't have 'a bump in the road,'" he boasted of brigade cohesion. "My soldiers are volunteers; they're intelligent and motivated. This is armistice, not peace," he said of the ongoing tensions between North and South Korea. "They know this, and it drives them."

That means no regular weekends off and few breaks from the uncompromising regimen of training, training and more training. It has to be this way, Marshall said. "Soldiers must be cohesive with each other. They cannot feel alone in the defile. Everyone here has got to pull on the rope."

***

YONGSAN ARMY GARRISON -- The majority of North Korean combat forces are positioned near the demilitarized zone separating North from South.

In an all-out war, North Korea would launch a coordinated air, land and sea attack, explained Army Capt. Jeff House, intelligence briefer on United States Forces Korea's J-2 staff. Heavy artillery would pound Seoul. Longer-ranging Frog missiles could reach Osan Air Base, some 70 kilometers from the border. And Scud missiles could reach Taegu Air Base, much farther south.

Never mind the North's air force, House said, which can boast of quantity but not quality. American and South Korean fighter-bombers would have to take out surface-to-air missile sites, but would quickly neutralize enemy air, he predicted.

Not so easily stopped, however, are the North's I, II and V Corps, trained, disciplined foot soldiers waiting to swarm across the demilitarized zone and into the South. One million active duty soldiers, backed by 5 million reserves, make up a formidable force of infantry, artillery and mechanized infantry, House said.

The North's ground force inventory includes 3,800 light and medium tanks, 4,000 armored personnel carriers, 2,400 multiple rocket launchers, 8,400 artillery pieces and 9,000 mortars.

As the battle for Seoul rages, North Korea's special operation forces would launch a second frontal attack from the sea and air. Striking Suwon and Kunsan air bases on the peninsula's west coast, and Kangnung and Taegu to the east, they'd be bolstered by the North's navy.

North Korea's sea forces include 434 gun, missile and torpedo boats, 24 diesel submarines and 194 amphibious craft, House said. Besides supporting special forces strikes deep into South Korea, they would threaten the South's sea lines of communication, he said.

Finally, there's the unknown threat of chemical and nuclear weapons. The North boasts weapons capable of delivering chemical munitions, House said. The North, he said, has been reluctant to fully cooperate with the United Nations in deactivating its nuclear reactors at Yongbyon and Pyongyang.

***

CAMP BONIFAS -- Dense fog cloaked the United Nations Joint Security Area. A steady, cold rain slapped against the vinyl sand bags around the remote bunkers and observation posts, making this line of demarcation between two enemies even more foreboding.

Standing at the center of the Joint Security Area at the DMZ, you're surrounded on three sides by North Korea. The demilitarized zone, itself, extends 2,000 meters north and south of the military demarcation line and 241 kilometers from the Hun River estuary in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east. Because there's never been a peace agreement, the demilitarized zone is considered a combat zone. Soldiers here nicknamed it "The Monastery," because no women soldiers are assigned.

Although the demilitarized zone is one of the world's most heavily militarized locations, it boasts no fortifications. Instead, 1,292 narrow markers span the zone at 100-200 meter intervals. Within the Joint Security Area itself, one-meter tall wooden stakes at 10-meter intervals divide North from South. Narrow concrete walkways connect the buildings of Conference Row, where the two sides meet to conduct peace talks. They've been talking but not finding peace since 1953.

Two villages also occupy the demilitarized zone at this military "hot zone." To the north, Gi Jong Dong, or "Propaganda Village," houses loudspeakers that blast anti-South rhetoric and boast of the North's ultimate victory. Uninhabited buildings serve as a backdrop to a towering flag pole and huge North Korean flag that flies around the clock in all weather. On a clear day, the flag is visible for miles.

South Korean families live in Jae Song Dong, "Freedom Village." By day, they work their rice paddies under the watchful eyes of American and Korean sentries and also, officials hope, envious North Koreans. At dusk, however, they must return to their homes and not venture out again before sunrise the next day. For agreeing to these restrictions, they receive a generous income from the government and send a clear message to observers from the North that their land is the more prosperous one.

A less obtrusive flagpole with a smaller Republic of Korea banner stands at the front of Jae Song Dong, like a David standing in defiance of the Goliath across the border.

American soldiers volunteer the duty. Their South Korean counterparts, all black belt karate experts, are hand-picked for their size and strength. Combined, the two nations' best stand warrior-ready.

***

YONGSAN ARMY GARRISON -- If North Korea attacked South Korea, it would go up against the combined forces of the United States and Republic of Korea.

The two countries train and serve together throughout the southern half of the divided peninsula. Their mission: deter hostile acts of aggression and if deterrence fails, defeat the forces that mount an external armed attack against the Republic of Korea.

To thwart North Korea's "million-man army," the Republic of Korea has assembled and equipped highly trained land, air and sea forces. A much smaller U.S. force in-country complements the South Koreans, bolstered by military assets based elsewhere in the Western Pacific.

The Republic of Korea army comprises 540,000 combat troops, nearly 2,000 tanks, 2,100 armored personnel carriers, 4,600 artillery pieces and more than 100 mobile rocket launchers. In the event of war, 1.3 million reservists could be called up in a few days, said Army Capt. Jeff House. The U.S. Army presence there includes 27,000 troops, 135 tanks, 150 Bradley fighting vehicles, 75 artillery pieces and 30 multiple launch rocket systems.

A well-trained, high-tech Republic of Korea air force boasts 27 fighter squadrons flying American-built F-16, F-4 RF-4, F-5, RF-5 and A-37 aircraft. U.S. Air Force assets in-country include four fighter squadrons, flying F-16 and O/A-10 aircraft.

Small but formidable, according to American military officials, the Republic of Korea navy operates 190 surface combatant ships and is rapidly modernizing. In case of war, American naval forces in the Western Pacific would quickly reinforce the South Koreans with surface combatants, submarines and Marine expeditionary forces.

United States and Republic of Korea military forces regularly train and exercise separately and together for the possibility of war, and hope collectively for peace.

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