Kim Jong-un is a real problem. To truly appreciate the North Korean threat, you have to understand the geography of the Korean peninsula.

Years ago, I had a meeting fall apart at the last minute on the back end of a business trip to Seoul. I’d been to South Korea lots of times, but never had any down time to mess around. Our local sales person graciously offered to kill the day with me.

“Have you ever been to the DMZ?” she asked.

“The what?” I replied.

“The border between North and South Korea,” she said.

“Um … nope,” I said, wondering if I was missing something. “Why, is that like a thing?”

“You’ll see,” she said.

I saw.

Turns out, the North Koreans had dug a whole bunch of large tunnels – big enough for tanks and heavy artillery – beneath the heavily mined, two and a half-mile wide demilitarized zone. Had they not been detected and closed off, a million troops could have invaded Seoul in a matter of hours.

For all I know, they still can. But that’s not the problem.

The tour included a trip through one of the tunnels, a fascinating view of the DMZ and a meet-and-greet with some of the 35,000 American troops currently stationed there. We also visited a monument commemorating the nearly two million U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War.

There were street vendors at the site. One was selling bugs, slow roasted in a giant wok-like thing. We eat popcorn, pretzels and peanuts. They eat roasted insects. Whatever. All I know is, they were crunchy. But I digress.

Just 35 miles from the border lies Seoul’s sprawling metropolitan area, home to 25 million people, not to mention corporate behemoth Samsung. That’s why the prospect of war with North Korea is not feasible. Even if a first strike were flawlessly executed, Pyongyang might still get some missiles off, kill countless innocent people and American troops, and cripple the nation’s economy. A protracted conflict could be much worse.

That’s the problem. If Kim Jong-un’s threats of long-range missile strikes on U.S. cities makes you nervous, imagine living in Seoul.

Image credit Prachatai via Flickr

  • Dirk Duden

    Good point Steve! I visited Seoul many times on business, truly loved the people and place. Something happening to them seems unthinkable to me. Yet history is full of that and your article illustrates it very well. There’s only one upside to the DMZ and that is, that it turned into a nature reserve with endemic life. But one idiot could well destroy that and much more. Two idiots even more so. And it seems we have plenty of them.

  • Interesting. My wife is Corporate Director of Quality for a construction and engineering firm (Gilbane) with projects worldwide, including Guam, South Korea, Japan, and Okinawa (along with Europe, Israel, Arab states, and Afghanistan). She’ve been over there many times, and knows many people in the region. Without revealing details, I can say that they have significantly ramped up evacuation and mitigation measures planning (problematic as they may be).

    I listened to an Atlantic podcast with Mark Bowdon yesterday, wherein he predicted that this idiotic, juvie mutual taunting rhetoric between Trump and Kim will remain just that — talk (in light of the devastation the would otherwise ensue). Though, all we need is one miscalculation and precipitous action that can’t be walked back.

  • Anurodh Sharma

    Steve, I feel India and the world face threats from like of North Korea…… and countries supporting terrorists !