For South Korea-U.S. Summit, The Big Question Is Still North Korea | KERA News

For South Korea-U.S. Summit, The Big Question Is Still North Korea

Oct 15, 2015
Originally published on October 16, 2015 9:11 pm

President Obama and the Pentagon are hosting South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, this week. At the White House summit Friday, the two leaders are expected to reaffirm one of America's longest-running alliances in Asia. But the tough policy question they have to tackle is what to do about South Korea's unruly northern neighbor.

At Camp Red Cloud, a U.S. Army base an hour north of Seoul, the training to prepare for war happens year-round. It's at places like this that the alliance between the two countries is obvious, as soldiers from both nations work side by side — part of a Korea-U.S. alliance forged in the theater of war 65 years ago.

"This is ground zero for the alliance where [Republic of Korea] and the U.S. combine at the user level, at the lowest tactical level, I would say, to really, you know, execute policy," says Maj. Gen. Ted Martin, the 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-US Combined Division commander.

And their simulations are never too far from reality. As recently as August, tensions flared when land mines maimed two South Korean soldiers on the border. The South retaliated by blasting propaganda loudspeakers at the North, and North Korea showed its displeasure by readying its forces to fight.

"We're in South Korea, we're looking at North Korea. And should North Korea devolve into some sort of chaos, if they decide to invade, whatever the situation might be, war fighter [exercises] are supposed to make sure the division can communicate with all its troops," says Lt. Col. Chris Hyde.

Broad policy questions are on the agenda as Obama meets with Park. The summit — rescheduled from this summer — now falls after that August brinkmanship on the border.

"We're focused on this in real time," says Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who maintains denuclearization is still the goal. But even in the face of international sanctions and warnings, North Korea doesn't seem to be deterred from its weapons development — or testing.

"The last time North Korea took a provocative action and tested, the U.N. Security Council not only took strong steps against North Korea then, but said if there were future provocative actions, there would be significant measures taken as a result," Blinken says.

The question is what best "measures" to consider. Tufts University's Lee Sung-Yoon suggests sanctions against individuals — and sunlight.

"Engage the North Korean people, rather than the regime," Lee says. "That is, reach out to the North Korean people about the outside world, about freedom, about the conditions of life in that other Korean state, the one that is far more pleasant."

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has worked to reinvigorate his nation's economy, but not at the expense of the military, which got a huge show last weekend. So, should any new battles break out, it's alliance leaders like Gen. Martin who'll have to act on the ground level.

"Before Iraq and Afghanistan, even the units who had to go on really short notice, they had time to think about it. They had time to go home and make sure they had their little plans for their families squared away. Here, should the unthinkable happen, that's it, we're in it," Martin says.

An alliance that's lasted for decades has gotten stronger, partly because of an unruly neighbor to the north.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow, President Obama is hosting South Korea's president at the White House. The two will reaffirm one of America's longest-running alliances in Asia. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu reports there's also an issue on their agenda that's been a frustrating one for a while. That would be North Korea.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Generators power an elaborate tent camp at this U.S. Army base north of Seoul.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRIS HYDE: Basically, this is nerve center. This is the operations center.

HU: Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hyde takes us through a war game.

HYDE: Exercise War Fighter is really about making sure the division is ready to go to battle.

HU: But the simulations aren't so far off from reality.

HYDE: We're in South Korea. We're looking at North Korea, and should North Korea devolve into some sort of chaos, if they decide to invade, if there's, you know - whatever the situation may be, War Fighter is supposed to make sure that the division can communicate with all its troops.

HU: Here at Camp Red Cloud, the U.S. Army and Republic of Korea soldiers work side-by-side.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready, go.

HU: It's part of a Korea-U.S. alliance forged in the theatre of war 65 years ago, a war that technically never ended. As recently as August, tensions flared when landmines maimed two South Korean soldiers on the border. The South retaliated by blasting propaganda loudspeakers at the North. And North Korea showed its displeasure by readying its forces to fight.

MAJOR GENERAL TED MARTIN: This is the first place I've been where we have a laser beam-like focus on, you know, where we're most likely to be called to serve.

HU: That's Major General Ted Martin, the commanding general of the U.S.-Republic of Korea combined forces here.

MARTIN: This is ground zero for the alliance where ROK and U.S. combine at the user level - at the lowest tactical level, I would say, to, you know, really execute policy.

HU: The larger policy questions are on the agenda as South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, meets with President Obama.

TONY BLINKEN: We're focused on this in real-time.

HU: Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken says denuclearization of North Korea is still the goal. But even in the face of international sanctions and warnings, the North doesn't seem to be deterred from its weapons development or testing - Blinken.

BLINKEN: The last time North Korea took a provocative action and tested, the United Nations Security Council not only took strong steps, but it said if there were future provocative actions, there would be significant measures taken as a result.

HU: The question now is, which measures? Tufts University's Lee Sung-Yoon suggests sanctions against individuals and sunlight.

LEE SUNG-YOON: Engage the North Korean people rather than the regime. That is, reach out to the North Korean people about the outside world, about freedom, about the conditions of life in that other Korean state, the one that is far more pleasant.

HU: North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has worked to reinvigorate his nation's economy but not at the expense of the military, which got a huge show last weekend. Should the alliance have to engage that military, General Ted Martin says it won't be like units that were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

MARTIN: They had time to think about it. They had time to go home and make sure that they had their little plans for their families squared away. Here, should the unthinkable happen, that's it. We're in it.

HU: An alliance that's lasted for decades has gotten stronger partly because of an unruly neighbor to the north. Elise Hu, NPR News, Uijeongbu, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.