Making sense of the North Korean artillery attacks

Seoul, South Korea

I left Uijongbu, South Korea in the second half of September 1998. My olive drab duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I walked to the bus that would take me to Osan Air Base and a flight back to Boston. My one-year tour had come to an end, and it was time to leave, with eight months in Georgia all that stood between me and my discharge.

It was a busy year, particularly because of the U.S. missile strikes on Tanzania and Afghanistan, not to mention the entangling of a small North Korean submarine in South Korean fishing nets. Because of this, not to mention my proximity to the DMZ (and North Korean artillery on the other side of it), I took an interest in activity on the Korean peninsula that has not waned in the ensuing dozen years. So, when I awoke this morning to news of an artillery exchange on the west coast of South Korea, I paid attention immediately.

Seoul, now the second largest city in the world, is only around 35 miles from the DMZ, making it highly vulnerable to attacks from North Korea. Uijongbu has turned into a second city of sorts – think of it as similar to Stamford, CT in relation to New York City – turning it into a valuable target, as well.

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Though most North Korean artillery can’t reach Seoul – Business Insider reports that only 17 of them can – there’s plenty of havoc that can be wrought between the capital and the border.

Early in my tour, a simple lesson was communicated: get comfortable with your protective mask (called a “gas mask” by those not in the business of wearing them). My memory has faded – it has been a while after all – but I think I can recall it with some degree of accuracy. In Seoul, you have 60 seconds to don your “pro mask” in the event of an attack. In Uijongbu, it shrinks to 16 seconds. In Dongduchon, where I was stationed for a few months, you have nine seconds … and in Panmunjom, on the DMZ, all you have time to do is gasp.

This is the reality of the peninsula. Seoul is an incredible destination – and one that should be on your list. The DMZ tour is a unique experience, I’m told (I couldn’t go because of service obligations the night before), offering a rare look at one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Nonetheless, it remains a region at risk.

Well, how risky is it?

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That’s difficult to say. During my stint in South Korea, there was little happening day to day to remind you of the unpleasantness only a road march away. We conducted the business of keeping the army running in much the same manner that we did when I was stationed in Georgia. The growth of the South Korean economy demonstrates this on a larger scale, and even the recent attack seems unlikely to be followed by an all-out war. The shelling has been called the most aggressive act since fighting was ended by cease fire in 1953, but there have been other instances of hostility in the intervening decades, from acts of terrorism to exchanges of small-arms fire.

The timing of the incident also indicates that there is underlying motivation aside from an urge for conquest or destruction. U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth indicated that it probably wasn’t coincidental, reports Time Magazine, saying that it followed the inspection of a new nuclear facility by former Los Alamos labs director Siegfried Hecker (who, interestingly, spoke at my undergrad commencement ceremony in 1997, only a few months before I checked in at Dongduchon’s Camp Mobile to begin my tour). Also, the recent leadership succession announcement, in which Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un was anointed, may have played a role.

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Doubtless, this event will have an effect on tourism to South Korea – especially if financial market activity is a reasonable indicator. A reminder that we live in (and travel to) a world at risk, however, shouldn’t act as a deterrent. I miss Uijongbu and Dongduchon, sipping soju and chomping yaki-mandu. It’s a strange environment, moving freely when you know the same opportunity isn’t afforded a dozen miles away, which only serves to define the experience further.

So, you tell us: would you visit South Korea right now?

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[photo by tiseb via Flickr]