In a briefing at the DMZ, I learned tensions were high because of events 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, a U.S. electronic intelligence gathering ship that was outside the 12-mile limit but within an area claimed by the North Koreans.
In the intervening time, patrols from both sides worked within the DMZ, which is 160 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide. Sometimes the frequent confrontations became firefights. That dynamic has continued, reflecting the ups and downs of political relations.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry says North Korea's nuclear missile program is dangerous, and the world is united in trying to stop it. He also said the United States is open to credible negotiations.
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The other point I never forgot: U.S. fighter-bombers, stationed in South Korea, trained by flying toward the DMZ and at the last minute turning right, dropping their bombs parallel to the DMZ. When I asked why the North Koreans wouldn’t consider that threatening, I was told it had been happening for years and 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 within 10 miles of 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 Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan.
The George H.W. Bush administration moved the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991. That year, North and South Korea 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, and the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in 1994 led to new tensions.
There have been starts and stops in nuclear weapon negotiations since.
North Korea’s three nuclear tests and its satellite in orbit have made the new North Korean leader appear to be a greater nuclear danger. Some specialists expect more than rhetoric, given that in 2010 his father attacked a South Korean ship and shelled an island.
In a situation like this, our provocative exercises with Seoul have the plus side of preparing us in case North Korea goes beyond just firing off military bluster.