Along the so-called Demilitarized Zone that divides South Korea from North Korea, only about 2,000 yards of wasteland separate hundreds of thousands of battle-ready troops backed by enough artillery to obliterate each other within a few hours.
Over the decades, sporadic gun battles have taken the lives of scores of soldiers on both sides. The Communist regime still sends spies and saboteurs and now drones south, keeping the war at a low boil. Naval and air clashes regularly erupt. Just south of the DMZ, South Korea keeps finding tunnels big enough to rush thousands of Communist soldiers south in an hour.
“The most dangerous place on Earth,” President Bill Clinton once called the Korean Peninsula, and it’s probably gotten more dangerous since he said that two decades ago. Following a searing U.N. condemnation this month of its Soviet-style gulags and other human rights outrages, Pyongyang threatened a fourth nuclear weapon test.
Such grandiose brinksmanship is typical of the regime. Last year, North Korea rattled its missiles at Hawaii, Guam and Washington, D.C. (no matter that it can’t yet reach them) as well as South Korea.
Faced with such threats over the years, the U.S. has embraced its own doomsday scenario. After meeting with the U.S. commander in South Korea when he was defense secretary in 2012, Leon Panetta said he had a “powerful sense that war in that region was neither hypothetical nor remote, but ever-present and imminent,” he recalls in his memoir. If the Communists invaded en masse, he wrote, the U.S. would use “nuclear weapons, if necessary.”
All of which makes Korea a kind of Cold War theater of the absurd, frozen in amber. Outright war is unthinkable, suicidal. Yet both sides talk about a future “reunification” based on the triumph of one side over the other.
Most observers think China will never permit a North Korean collapse, in part because it would propel millions of refugees into its territory, not to mention open the gates to a U.S -South Korean advance to its doorstep. Nevertheless, officials in Seoul recently showed off its Ministry of Unification, which has an annual budget of about $180 million and 200 staffers (augmented by 600 government advisers) dreaming about the future, “so people won’t be caught off guard when it actually happens,” as a slideshow there instructed the visiting reporters. Plus, according to South Korea’s JoongAng Daily, the government has budgeted as much as $500 billion for “a possible sudden collapse of [the North Korean] government or another kind of rapid and unexpected reunification.”
[excerpted from Newsweek]