With all the saber rattling, or should I say, missile brandishing, from the erratic leader of communist North Korea, Kim Jong Ill, most of the world's attention is focused on the response from the United States.
In fact, the entire confrontation seems to be regarded as a test of wills between the US and North Korea. Occasionally, media reports refer to the million-man North Korean Army, and television footage regularly shows battalions of goose-stepping communist soliders on parade backed by increasingly sophisticated missile systems.
But that perspective ignores a vital and powerful element in the region's balance of power, the country of South Korea and its highly trained, highly motivated and highly effective armed forces.
The United States has kept a relatively small military force in Korea since the end of major hostilities there in 1953, partially as a deterrent to the communists again invading the south, and for more traditional chores such as sharing the defense of the often volatile Demilitarized Zone between the communist north and the democratic south.
For many, the US presence in South Korea is seen as the trump card in an international high-stakes card game that keeps the communists at bay. But that disregards the contributions of the south.
It is true that when the communists invaded South Korea in 1950 the south's army was not up to the challenge from the better equipped and trained communist soldiers. For that matter, neither was the US Army, and for a time early in the war it seemed as if the communists would prevail.
But ultimately the US and United Nations forces pushed the communists back, then dealt with the communist Chinese onslaught, then worked to maintain a tenuous peace, with the South Korean armed forces fighting right alongside the forces from other free countries.
The South Koreans continued to work, building, training, advancing, after the armistice, and continue their efforts to this day. American forces who were joined in South Vietnam in the 1960s by their South Korean allies were pleased to find that not only were the South Korean forces intellectually motivated, they were in fact a highly aggressive and universally effective fighting force, so much so that the communist Viet Cong feared them like no others.
It would appear in hindsight that some in the American military disregarded the South Korean contributions, to our detriment. For instance a South Korean force was operating in the same area as the infamous village of My Lai, where after months of nearly daily casualties from hidden booby traps, snipers and mines, American soldiers went on a morning rampage in 1968, killing between 300 and 500 villagers, women and children included, virtually all non-combatants.
The South Koreans had also been taking casualties in a similar fashion from a village in the area. But there the similarities stopped.
One morning the village awoke to find itself cordoned off by a wall of heavy equipment including tanks. Dubbed Operation Bulldozer, the Koreans used the equipment to run a grid back and forth across the open spaces in the village, partially collapsing underground tunnels where the communist Viet Cong were hiding.
At each depression in the earth, Korean engineers placed red flags, and when they were finished teams carrying flame throwers went to each flag, opened a hole into the tunnel underneath and let loose. Within minutes hordes of screaming Viet Cong burst from hidden tunnel entrances, making straight for a nearby stream where they were met by a unit of South Korean soldiers and a hail of gunfire.
The Koreans inflicted nearly 100 percent casualties on the Viet Cong without harming the villagers who themselves had been subjected to terrorism from the communists. The operation was a classic example of outside-the-box military thinking that not only produced the desired results but also entirely avoided a political backlash.
Without deviating too much from the point of this article, it bears mention that the South Korean tactics from 1968 could well be adapted to the present situation in Iraq where coalition troops are tasked with eliminating terrorists without killing the innocent civilians among whom they hide.
As for the present insanity in North Korea it is clear that their leader has a fixation about being a major player on the international scene, and his objectives as well as his adversaries all appear to be beyond his horizons.
But Kim Jong Ill would do well as he focuses on faraway places and people to take a good look over his shoulder.
There he will find a South Korea that over the half-century since the Korean War has developed a prosperous economy, an enviable educational system, and a standard of living that stands in stark contrast to the starvation and privation experienced under communist rule just a few miles north.
He also will find South Korean armed forces that can field a million highly capable fighters on very short notice, who are ready to defend all that they have accomplished. It isn't outside the realm of possibility, based on his actions to date, to conclude that the leader of North Korea thinks nothing of ignoring or trifling with his counterparts in the south.
But he does so at his own peril.
Fourth Of July Holiday Note:
Two signers of the Declaration of Independence, who later became presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both died on July 4th, 1826 the 50th anniversary of the signing.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006