By signing an armistice on July 27, 1953 the United Nations and North Korea essentially concluded the shooting war. But peace has remained allusive. Technically speaking, the U.S.-led United Nations forces and North Korea remain at war.
The armistice provided for a geographical separation of the two Koreas along the 38th parallel. There is a buffer between the two states that is monitored and secured by the respective United Nations (read: United States and Republic of Korea) and North Korean militaries.
I have been to the key site of Panmunjon in the demilitarized zone where the two sides meet periodically to discuss areas of concern. I was permitted to "go over to the other side of the table." Essentially this means I was in North Korean controlled territory for a very brief period and under strict security surveillance by the North Korean Army. There was no conversation between me and my hosts. Only glassy stares! There were communist soldiers, guns, binoculars and cameras in abundance.
Note that I said communist soldiers. In spite of the Cold War ending and the collapse of the Soviet Union over a decade ago, North Korea remains a communist state. They have failed miserably in that economic and belligerent condition. Poverty and starvation are rampant. In contrast, their southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea, has emerged as a capitalist dominated economy and is a premier player on the world economic scene.
Poverty and starvation are a way of life in the north. Rather than strive for the betterment of their people, North Korea spends its limited assets on maintaining a huge military force which threatens South Korea daily. There are a few million active and reserve North Korean soldiers within striking distance of the south's capital city: Seoul. They have tens of thousands of rockets and other artillery pieces which could reach Seoul within minutes and hours.
Fifty years after the armistice, the United States still has roughly 38,000 military men and women in South Korea to provide a tripwire designed to prevent any aggressive military advances from North Korea towards their southern neighbor. Presently, many of these United States forces are also within striking distance of the North's artillery and infantry forces. (There is an on-going study by the Department of Defense as to how best to relocate most of these U.S. forces on the peninsula.)
We should not underestimate the North's desire to use their military. Over the past half century, North Korea has engaged in a belligerent status towards the United States, the Republic of Korea and other nations in the region. They have probed at our forces on the land, the sea and in the air. They have conducted sneak attacks by land and sea on South Korea as well.
They have killed American soldiers in the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel. They captured our sailors on the high seas and held them prisoner for months. They have shot our aircraft from the skies over international waters. They have shown no enthusiasm for concluding this 50-plus year war by signing, and adhering to, a peace treaty.
Now they profess to being a nation with nuclear weapons capability! They have withdrawn their signature from the United Nations sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act. They announced they have nuclear weapons on hand and are pursuing others. They have advised the world that they have converted 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. This could conceivably make up to six nuclear weapons.
Is all this communist rhetoric for real? Or is it a bluff to encourage concessions and offers of money, oil and food from the United States and others? I don't know. And if the Central Intelligence Agency knows for certain, they are not making their findings public.
There are two very majors fears associated with a nuclear capable North Korea. First, there is the threat to other countries in the region such as the Republic of Korea to the south, and also to Japan and China. North Korea most likely has the means to deliver nuclear weapons within their region.
The second threat may be more likely and more ominous. North Korea is cash starved. Selling nuclear weapons, no matter the size, to terrorists or terrorist states could prove deadly to tens of thousands here in America or anywhere around the globe. Would they really do such a thing? We would be smart to remember that Kim Jong Il, their glorious leader, is not known for his stable and rational thinking.
The widely respected former Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, William Perry,
reportedly has said,
"The nuclear program now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities." I find the word imminent especially troubling when we reflect on the past six months debate on just how imminent was Saddam Hussein's threat to American cities. Bill Perry is not known as an alarmist. We should be concerned.
Fifty years since the armistice was signed. No peace treaty has emerged. Today there is the nuclear component to a very fragile agreement. No one knows what the next fifty years will bring. We can't even predict what the next fifty weeks will bring. We can predict with some certainty however, that the Korean Peninsula will be a source of major concern over the coming weeks and months.
The United Nations may soon have another chance to prove its relevance.
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