Seoul: A City Held Hostage

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I don’t usually book tours when I travel, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. One such time was a visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); there is no way around it, the area is off limits to everyone except authorized personnel. The DMZ, of course, is the 2 kilometers wide stretch of land that runs on both sides of the demarcation line separating the Republic of Korea (ROK) from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This was the front line when a UN-brokered truce came into effect in 1953.

If you have been paying any attention to the news lately, you’re probably aware that North Korea has recently tested several atomic bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, causing quite a commotion around the world. This has led the US to issue a number of statements including the standard declaration that “all options are on the table.” But are they? Could a pre-emptive strike resolve or at least contain the DPRK? Despite the US’ unquestionable military superiority, non-defensive military action isn’t actually an option at all, and it’s unlikely that it has even been seriously considered at the highest levels. The reason has to do with Seoul.

To the Front Line
A North Korean soldier stands guard in the JSA

For the most part, the drive to the DMZ was unremarkable, a bland journey past depressing rectangular apartment buildings, the kind you would associate with Eastern Europe, and monotonous farmland. The Han River, which flows roughly northwest from Seoul to the DMZ, remained largely hidden behind a high fence barricade topped with barbed wire and dotted with guard towers. Civilian traffic along the river is not permitted.

The Han estuary is well guarded

The closer you get to the DMZ, though, the tighter the security. 20 kilometers out, we passed the first checkpoint, the Civilian Control Line. Between here and the DMZ lies the bulk of the ROK’s countermeasures to halt an invasion. It is one of the most heavily fortified areas in the world.

ROK MP standing guard in a building at Conference Row

By the time I finally stepped foot in the DMZ, it had become painfully obvious just how tense the situation is here. According to the truce, both sides are prohibited from having any significant military presence within the DMZ. Nevertheless, highly trained ROK soldiers dressed as military police (MP) to skirt the ban frequently patrol the area.

And then there is the Joint Security Area (JSA) where North and South Korean forces stand within meters of each other. It is here that diplomatic and military negotiations take place in a series of buildings known as Conference Row. These long one-story structures sit right on the demarcation line, which literally runs through the middle of the negotiating tables.

The JSA is also the only place I have ever been which required that I sign a waiver indicating that I understood that my visit could result in injury or death as a direct consequence of enemy action. Both sides seem poised to draw their weapons at a moment’s notice. The ROK soldiers are especially menacing, leaning eerily forward in a modified martial arts pose that gives them the appearance of defying the laws of gravity. Hundreds of people have died in skirmishes along the DMZ since the truce.

The Hostage
A Korean era aircraft at the the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul

Seoul is a city under siege. Located just 50 kilometers from the DMZ, the capital of South Korea is well within the range of North Korea’s artillery, as the friendly US soldier who was my guide pointed out. In the event of war, the question isn’t whether Seoul would be attacked but just how much destruction could be brought to bear on the metropolis before US air superiority could silence the batteries.

Roger Cavazos, who spent 22 years in the US Army and now works for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, claimed that a convention artillery barrage by the North would result in approximately 64,000 casualties within the first day and 80,000 casualties within a week, after which, the ROK would no longer have the operational capacity to target Seoul. Indeed, Roger Cavazos calls such a scenario “imminently survivable.” And while he is no doubt right that South Korea as a nation could withstand an attack, this doesn’t take into account the economic consequences of a Northern Korean assault or the fact that millions of people would likely be left homeless.

A DPRK listening post

Even more frightening is that the DPRK already has the capability to accurately target Seoul with nuclear weapons. Unlike its rockets, which are still under development and could potentially be intercepted by US missile systems in the air or on the ground, nuclear warheads could easily be lobbed over the DMV by the North Koreans without any warning. If used as part of a first assault, the loss of human life could easily reach into the millions.

The demarcation line

With the media focused on North Korea’s ability to hit the US with nuclear weapons, they have missed what has been a reality for some time. For all intents and purposes, North Korea has created a doomsday device that can destroy Seoul if it feels its regime is in danger of destruction, effectively, ruling out US unilateral military intervention. The US simply cannot put itself in a position of starting a conflict, no matter how justifiable, when the result would be a substantial loss of Korean lives. The diplomatic fallout of such an event would be catastrophic, not only vis-à-vis South Korean relations but throughout the world. Which means any preemptive military operation by the US would have to be approved by the South Korean government, a scenario that is fairly unlikely given Seoul’s past reluctance to engage in saber rattling.

The unfortunate reality is that Seoul is a hostage. The DPRK knows that as long as it threatens the city, the US is powerless to intervene. But at the same time, this places North Korea in a perpetual state of crisis. How many times has a capturer successfully negotiated his way to freedom with the police? The DPRK’s survival and that of its hostage are intrinsically linked. If one is destroyed so is the other.

Who Decides?
Statue at the the War Memorial of Korea

Back in Seoul, I walked past an anti-war demonstration being held in front of the US embassy. South Koreans hold increasingly mixed views about the US presence on the Korean peninsula. Part of the problem is the 600 acre Yongsan Garrison where US forces are headquartered in the ROK. The fact that a massive US military base is located in central Seoul is odd enough without the dozens of shops and restaurants (not to mention prostitutes) catering to Western tastes in the area. The situation is further exasperated by US military MPs who raid local bars looking for AWOL soldiers out for a good time. It’s not hard to understand why some South Koreans feel as if Seoul is a city under occupation.

Yongsan Garrison is scheduled to be moved in 2019, part of a plan to reduce the US’ footprint in the country. But the problem runs deeper than just one base. At its heart, it is an issue of sovereignty. While most South Koreans, especially the older generations, are grateful for the security guarantees that the US military provides, they would like to see the ROK exercise greater control over its own foreign policy. To outsource decision-making to another country that has ever-shifting foreign policy goals and may not fully appreciate the human consequences of its actions is increasingly at odds in a nation with a flourishing democracy and the eleventh largest economy in the world.  After all, it is the Koreans that must live their lives beneath the nuclear sword of Damocles.

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