Making sense of the North Korean artillery attacks

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.


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?


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.


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?


[photo by tiseb via Flickr]

Mysterious blue light shines over Norway

On December 9th, residents of northern Norway were surprised to see a weird blue light shining above. According to reports, the beam of light seemed to point to the sky from behind a mountain. As the light began moving in circles, forming a spiral, a brighter beam came out of the center. The phenomenon lasted for about 12 minutes.

After the light disappeared, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute was inundated with calls from people asking about what they had seen. Almost as quickly, people began speculating about what the light could have been from. Air traffic controllers who saw the light said it lasted too long to be astronomical, and it is not believed to be connected to the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

Another conjecture was that the light came from Russian missile testing in the White Sea but the Russian Navy has denied any such testing. Experts say that if the missile exploded, the leaking jet fuel could create the odd pattern. Of course, there are some who have a few more far fetched ideas. Black hole, UFO, astronomical event or man-made light show – we many never know what really caused the odd light pattern.

Free Visa Entry In Exchange for US Missile Shield in Europe?

The Czech Republic is one of 13 countries trying to renegotiate its visa-requirement for traveling to the US. Currently, Americans do not need visa when traveling to the C.R. but Czechs do when traveling to the US. The unfair visa requirement is a source of much bitterness toward Americans in those countries.

Now, Czechs have a new negotiation tool on their hands. The US wants to build an anti-missile shield in Europe — interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic–allegedly to defend the US and Europe from possible missiles from North Korea and Iran. Both CR and Poland are reluctant to agree to this because they are afraid of becoming terrorist targets. Recent polls in the Czech Republic show that 60-70% of Czechs are against building of the base. It doesn’t help that Vladimir Putin has already threatened that he will aim missiles at them if the US builds the shield there.

This is not a NATO initiative; it’s purely a US defense initiative. Is it fair for Czech to demand a no-visa requirement in exchange for supporting the US defense policy?