Commentary: More trouble ahead in Korea

06/02/2010 10:30 AM

06/02/2010 10:34 AM

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.

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