Mike Tharp: Troubling times on peninsula

May 29, 2010 

Korea has lit up our radar again.

The peninsula that claimed 37,000 American lives and probably millions of Koreans in the 1950-53 "police action" has emerged again as a flash point.

This time, it's publicly about North Korea sinking a South Korean warship with torpedoes, the South's and international community's condemnation of the act and, this week, North Korea's cutting all ties with its neighbor across the DMZ.

"Publicly," because trying to figure out Pyongyang's true intentions is like trying to nail Jello to a wall. Whatever its motives, the threat of war in Northeast Asia rattled currency and stock markets worldwide.

I pay more attention to Korea than most Americans because I've been to South Korea 60 times or so and North Korea once, in 1979, for about two weeks. I was with the first group of American journalists allowed into the country since the 1953 armistice.

More importantly, two of my brothers served there. My oldest brother Webb was a Navy corpsman with the 1st Marine Division at the bloody "Frozen Chosin" Reservoir in 1950. He won a bunch of medals, including a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, and never talked about it.

My next-younger brother James was an Army first lieutenant north of Seoul in 1967-68 and helped hunt down North Korean assassins trying to kill President Park Chung Hee at the Blue House official residence.

I was only in Korea as a civilian -- but at an extraordinary time for both the country and any foreign correspondent lucky enough to be in the neighborhood. My visits occurred between 1976 and 1990. During that time, South Korea transformed itself from a third-world basket case economy and military dictatorship to the world's 12th-largest industrial economy and a bastion of democracy.

During that unprecedented national and social transition, I made friends, Korean and foreign, in Seoul.

Over time, people I knew on my first visits moved on up -- a professor became minister of Sports and helped Seoul secure the 1988 Olympics; a dissident back bencher became one of the most powerful members of the national assembly; a government flack emerged as the man whispering in the ear of presidents.

Tragically, the man most experts regard as the architect of South Korea's remarkable economic progress, Stanford-trained Kim Jae-Ik, was killed in Burma in 1983, along with several cabinet members, by North Korean murderers. He and his family and I were close.

Today, lots of people believe North Korea has developed nuclear weapons. I don't. I think they want us to believe that so what little clout they have is magnified. But whether the weird little gulag has nukes is mostly irrelevant.

Conventional weapons -- artillery, aircraft -- could lay waste to much of Seoul, 25 miles south of the DMZ, in an hour or so. "North Korea would likely lose any conflict with South Korea (where 28,500 U.S. troops are based) but not before inflicting massive damage on South Korea's capital," two McClatchy D.C. reporters wrote this week.

Some doubt the North would step off that military ledge. Bradley Martin, friend and colleague on the 1979 visit, wrote one of the best books on the Hermit Kingdom, "Under the Loving Care of the Heavenly Father: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty" (www.amazon.ca/Under-Loving-Care-Fatherly-Leader/dp/0312322216).

He thinks Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, is content to play off the big boys -- the U.S., China, Japan, Russia -- against one another to get whatever he can from them.

We all hope Bradley's right, not only because of the friends I still keep in Korea (visited them in 2007), but because the nation stands as a beacon in how economic and technological development = prosperity = freedom of thought and speech.

Two of our most prominent Mercedians, UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang and centenarian Korea expert Evelyn McKune, would be crushed if North Korea were to act on its crazy words.

Yun Suk Kim, a seasoned journalist in Seoul and former president of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, e-mailed this month about a report she'd heard from "an activist" who had a source "now in the military." The source said North Korea had deployed "Sniper Corps suicide troops" to blow up that South Korean warship.

That's the danger: the nut factor. The Kims, father and son, may have created a dynasty, but they also have destroyed a people. North Korea is the only place in the world where not much has changed over the past 31 years when I was there.

An excerpt from the book, "Korea Witness: 135 years of War, Crisis and News in the Land of the Morning Calm," could have been written on this May Day. All five of us American correspondents were in Kim Il Sung Square on communism's biggest holiday in 1979:

"After I linked arms with a very pretty woman and sashayed several circles, I asked one of my Mr. Kims (minders) to please ask her name so I could put it in my story. She was chatting tidily with a few other women when Kim tapped her roughly on her shoulder with four fingers. Startled, she turned with gaping mouth and stared at the Kim Il Sung button in his lapel. She nearly collapsed with relief when he uttered his harmless order, but the shine of terror in her eyes has stayed with me to this moment. That one paralyzed glance told me all I needed to know about how millions of North Koreans were forced into their robotic role as denizens of the Workers Paradise."

We can all hope that on coming Memorial Days, some of the people we honor will have served during the only war in Korea.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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