WASHINGTON – How provocative has the United States been to North Korea?
For almost two months, the U.S. and South Korea have had more than 200,000 ground troops, tanks, helicopters, fighter bombers, strategic bombers, submarines and destroyers exercising close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and a disputed sector of the Yellow Sea on the border between the two Koreas.
When a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter made a hard landing Tuesday, injuring six crew members, it was noted in passing that the accident occurred at the Jipo-ri Range — about 20 km from the DMZ.
The joint exercises will continue through April. Supposedly to ease any North Korean concerns, live firings, such as those from M1 tanks, are mainly aimed south.
Yes, Kim Jong Un is just the latest family member running a harsh, militaristic dictatorship in which two-thirds of his nation’s 24 million people are hungry and in poverty, while he and others have a relatively luxurious life in Pyongyang.
Yes, North Korea has over the years committed violent acts against the South and violated U.N. Security Council resolutions by conducting nuclear weapons tests and developing and testing long-range ballistic missiles. And in recent months, North Korean civilian and military leaders have threatened South Korea and the United States.
But try, for a moment, to put yourself in the shoes of Kim, who is believed to be around 30 years old.
He succeeded his father in December 2011 and for the past five months has been maneuvering to consolidate his authority over the Korean Workers’ Party and the Korean People’s Army. Early on, he replaced three older generals who had been close to his father and talked of getting closer to the people.
He appeared in public with his young wife, visited a theme park and talked of solving the North’s crippling food shortage. He got the party last month to adopt a policy of economic development but balanced it with a plan to increase nuclear forces. Last November, he made Kim Kyok Sik defense minister, choosing a hardline general who was accused of the deadly shelling of a South Korean border island in 2010. He also chose a reformer, Pak Pong Ju, as prime minister to replace Vice Marshal Kim Jong Gak, a member of the military.
Last month, Kim called on Washington and Seoul to halt their annual joint exercises and then released a torrent of threatening rhetoric. What better way to solidify power, as the youngest world head of state, than to go further than his father and grandfather in challenging — at least verbally — the United States?
My perspective on North Korea is informed by history — including my own.
In 1970, I visited the DMZ during an 18-month period when I worked for Sen. J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Directing a probe of the military involvement in U.S. foreign policy, I was in South Korea to learn what U.S. forces were doing on the peninsula, along with Seoul’s role as a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War.
Two things I learned then still influence me.
In a briefing at the DMZ, I was informed that tensions were high because of events that happened two years earlier.
In late January 1968, North Korean commandos had raided the Blue House presidential residence in Seoul in a failed attempt to assassinate then-President Park Chung Hee. Days later, North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, an electronic intelligence gathering ship that was outside the 19-km limit but within an area claimed by Pyongyang.
In the intervening time, patrols from both Koreas worked within the DMZ, which is nearly 260 km long and around 4 km wide. Sometimes the frequent confrontations turned into firefights. That dynamic has continued, reflecting the ups and downs of political relations.
The other point I never forgot: U.S. fighter bombers, stationed in South Korea, used to train by flying toward the DMZ and at the last minute veering right, dropping their bombs parallel to the buffer zone. When I asked why the North Koreans wouldn’t consider that threatening, I was told it had been happening for years and that Pyongyang was used to it.
Back then I also learned that the United States had for years stationed tactical nuclear bombs and nuclear artillery shells in South Korea, some less than 15 km from the DMZ.
Such knowledge led the North Koreans to begin their pursuit of nuclear weapons — first from the Soviet Union, then China and finally from renegade Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
The administration of President George Bush removed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korean soil in 1991. That same year, the two Koreas signed a joint declaration that called for a bilateral nuclear inspection regime to verify the peninsula’s denuclearization.
Negotiations on inspections never came to fruition, however, and the sudden death of North Korean leader and state founder Kim Il Sung in 1994 led to new tensions.
There have been starts and stops in nuclear weapon negotiations since.
Pyongyang’s three nuclear tests and its satellite in orbit have made the young Kim appear to be a greater nuclear danger.
Some specialists expect more than rhetoric, given that in 2010 his father attacked a South Korean Navy ship and shelled an island off the west coast.
In a situation like this, the United States’ provocative exercises with the South have the plus side of preparing us in case North Korea goes beyond just firing off military bluster.