Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: North Korea goes to the brink, again, raising worries of war

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 14A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:50 am

Another day, another escalation in war talk by North Korea.

Tuesday, it warned foreigners in South Korea to seek shelter or leave the country because a nuclear war could start any time. The official line from the South Korean government and U.S. Embassy was that it was more bellicose bluster.

Still, it frightens me.

Intellectually, I know the Obama administration is following the right policy. Instead of playing North Korea's usual game and giving aid and making other concessions to stop the provocations, the United States is taking more forceful defensive measures, such as sending missile defense ships to the area and flying B-2 Stealth bombers over South Korea during military exercises last month.

The North Korean regime would be crazy to start a suicidal war, right?

But I can't ignore that feeling in the pit of my stomach that this time might be different. The volatile mix of a young, untested and erratic North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, and of new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is also trying to prove herself, could be set off by a tiny spark. If there's some miscalculation, a lot of people could die – maybe even some of my relatives.

While my immediate family and most of my aunts, uncles and cousins live in America, I still have some who live in Seoul. South Korea's sprawling capital of 10.5 million people is well within range of North Korean artillery and rockets, as close to the border as Sacramento is to El Dorado Hills. Tens of thousands of civilians could easily be slaughtered before U.S. and South Korean forces would inevitably prevail in a counterattack.

The near-daily ratcheting up of tensions these last few weeks made me remember the weekly air raid drills during seventh grade, the last year I lived in Korea. I also thought back to my visit to the DMZ separating North and South since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War. It's become a tourist trap where I crawled through a tunnel used by North Korean spies to infiltrate the South and ever so briefly crossed the demarcation line in a conference room.

The conflict resulted in 3 million or more casualties, mostly civilians, and laid waste to both countries. My father, who fought in the war, never talked about it much, other than mentioning he was liberated from a North Korean prison camp by U.S. troops.

Many Korean Americans have family history with the war, and I suspect they feel the same way about the current crisis. Many live in California, home to more than one-fourth of the 1.6 million Americans of Korean descent.

The next step in North Korea's cycle of escalation could be the launch at any moment of a medium-range missile, which the Pentagon says it will shoot down if it might strike South Korea, Japan or Guam. Some analysts predict provocations by North Korea will continue until Monday, the 101st anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kim Il Sung.

At least until then, Korean Americans like me will wake up every morning wondering whether this time, we'll turn on the TV and see death and destruction in our homeland.

Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee.

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