I was sitting at a coffee shop in Seoul, watching the smiling face of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on television as the North tested its improved anti-ship missiles. The Yonhap News Agency's report intoned seriously, "The North's provocative acts have never ceased, raising tension on the divided peninsula." For a brief moment, I was reminded that Seoul is within range of North Korean artillery, rockets and missiles and just 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the Demilitarized Zone — a remnant flashpoint of the Cold War.
This impression lasted only a moment. Within seconds, the news shifted to coverage of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak and then to a variety show. By and large, Seoul offers few reminders that North Korea is a threat — or even exists. The perception of the modern Korean Peninsula constantly on the brink of war is a foreign one. When I lived in South Korea two decades ago, this sense of danger was more real: North Korean submarine crews were still regularly infiltrating and roaming the countryside, triggering nationwide manhunts. The city held monthly air raid drills and signs warned people to report suspicious activity. Even then, however, these cautions faded, and life quickly returned to normal.
Today, the DMZ has become a tourist attraction, a chance to feel a tingle of danger before taking the bus back to Seoul. Both the North and the South continually parade their supposed tensions — but these rarely block the visits to the border. The panic over Middle East respiratory syndrome, however, did manage to cancel all visits to Panmunjom on the DMZ northwest of Seoul.
Because of the MERS outbreak, I had to travel to Ganghwado, the island at the mouth of the Imjin and Han rivers, north of Incheon and west of Seoul, to see the border. This is where the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the Demilitarized Zone into the Yellow Sea, begins.
South Korea controls the island, and North Korea begins on the other side of the river. The shores of the portion of Ganghwado closest to the border are surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard posts. Rice fields press up against the fences, and parallel rows of plants wave over the flooded fields. Even though Ganghwado is close to Seoul, it is no bustling metropolis. Instead it is a sleepy island of small farms, narrow hilly roads, beaches and mud flats, interspersed with a few marine bases, guest houses and tourist trails.
In places, the waters separating the North and the South are less than two kilometers across. Just across the river is a key North Korean agricultural region, and the fields are filled with farmers, a few tractors running alongside. There is a single visible North Korean guard post that looks unmanned. Villages sit just a little inland. Some of these are fully occupied. Others are partly or completely empty — Potemkin villages built to impress in a time when such propaganda was believed effective and when North Korea's economic development exceeded that of the South.
The Island Bulwark
Just as today Ganghwado is a frontline bastion for South Korea against North Korea, historically the island was a key defensive position against foreign invasion of the Korean Peninsula itself. When the Mongols invaded Korea in the 13th century, the king of the contemporary state of Goryeo moved his palace to the island for protection. He held out there for 30 years before Goryeo fell. In the 17th century, again, the Joseon kingdom's leaders moved briefly to Ganghwado during the Manchu invasion.
In the 19th century, Ganghwado was once again at the center of Korean defense against incursion. This time, Joseon was trying to prevent the spread of Western power into the peninsula. Ganghwado was fortified to guard the mouth of the Han River and artillery put in place to protect the narrow channel between the island and modern Gimpo to the east. Strong tidal flows, thick mudflats, high rocky hills, and twists and narrows in the strait all provided natural enhancements to the defenses.
In 1866, the Koreans fended off a French assault following the killing of French missionaries and Korean Catholics. That same year, a U.S.-flagged private schooner, the General Sherman, forced its way up the Taedong River near Pyongyang against the warnings of the local population, and found itself stranded outside the city as the flooded river returned to its normal flow. This mild beginning built gradually into a clash between the United States and Korea. Through a series of unfortunate incidents, the General Sherman was eventually burned, the crew killed, and the attempt to force open a closed Korea to trade aborted. The United States sought redress, but it failed to make any meaningful contact with Korean authorities.
In 1871, an armed diplomatic mission was sent to Seoul, primarily to sign a treaty for the safety of shipwrecked sailors, but also to open trade and address the General Sherman incident. The Koreans welcomed neither the U.S. ships nor the proposed treaty. Seoul argued that the Americans had no need for Korean goods and the Koreans could not afford American goods. Unlike the Japanese reception of Commodore Matthew Perry's ships in 1853, the Koreans were unimpressed with the U.S. steamships and their launches as they sounded the river along the east side of Ganghwado.
After issuing warnings for the Americans to stop sounding the river, the Korean forts on Ganghwado opened fire on the U.S. launches. The Americans responded by launching an amphibious marine assault against the Korean forts on June 10, 1871. In three days of fighting, around 650 U.S. sailors and marines sacked five forts, killed nearly 250 Koreans for a loss of just three Americans, and ultimately left without accomplishing any of their diplomatic goals. What one contemporary American newspaper called "Our Little War with the Heathens," the Koreans saw as another example of the viability of their isolationist policy — one more foreign power kept at bay.
But the Korean victory was short-lived. In 1875, a small clash between the Koreans and a Japanese ship, the Unyo Maru, attempting to force open trade led to the Koreans finally submitting to a foreign power, Japan. Korea opened its ports in a treaty a year later, paving the way for a treaty with the United States in 1882. Eventually, Korea lost its sovereignty entirely to Japan.
In the 1970s, South Korea rebuilt several of the forts along Ganghwado that had been involved in repelling French and U.S. forces. The country was emerging from the devastation of successive wars and was becoming an industrial powerhouse. It now sought to preserve its national heritage. Sitting along the ramparts of Chojijin, the southernmost fort along the strait, I can see the tide racing out, the mud flats expanding. It was through this mud that the U.S. forces trudged, pulling cannon through knee- and waist-deep sticky fetid mire.
Just a few miles south of Ganghwado at Incheon, another U.S. amphibious landing is remembered far differently. Here, over four days in September 1950, U.S. forces broke through behind North Korean lines and eased pressure on the Pusan perimeter, reversing the course of the Korean War. These two assaults, though 80 years apart, highlight one of the strange aspects of the enduring relationship between the United States and Korea. They are relations forged in war, sometimes as allies, sometimes as enemies. The South Koreans recognize the need for U.S. support, which allows Seoul to live as if North Korea did not exist. But U.S. military support is also a constant reminder that South Korea is unable at the moment to protect itself, that it is a nation surrounded not only by its off-balance brother, but also by powerful nations that have in turn coveted, intervened in or even invaded the peninsula.
A Prawn Among Whales
Korea is geopolitically vulnerable. A proverb describes it as a prawn swimming between whales. When the whales move, the prawn risks being crushed. The peninsula indeed sits at the intersection of great regional powers, at the crossroads of maritime and continental Asia. It is at the convergence of the vast northern plains and steppes of Mongolia and Siberia, the fertile coast of China, the vibrant fishing grounds of the Yellow Sea and the East Sea. For much of its history, Korea has sought to secure independence by giving a nod to China to keep the Middle Kingdom at bay, pressing out to the north into Manchuria to defend against invading horsemen and pressing out to sea to grab Tsushima island to quell maritime piracy. More often than not, the peninsula has focused inward as a hermit kingdom, kept safe it its mountain redoubt. North Korea has embraced this isolation. South Korea, however, struggles with it. The country relies on global trade and investment. South Korea is dependent on its international connections, but it has little ability to ensure its interests abroad.
While South Korea relies on U.S. goodwill, it still occasionally tries to find ways to strengthen its own military, outward diplomacy and security. South Korean presidents move back and forth between seeking more independent defense capabilities and returning to serving as an auxiliary of U.S. forces. Seoul struggles to develop modern weaponry, contained by its U.S. defense relations. It is a country trying to balance the regional economic heft of China (and Beijing's burgeoning military) with its strong strategic relationship with the United States. Seoul is constantly struggling with the U.S. push for closer integration in defense posture with Japan, an island neighbor with which the peninsula has longstanding animosity. The South is a fiercely independent country that, by its location, depends on a distant power and that carefully tries to preserve its independence amid dominant neighbors.
Returning to Seoul, my trip came full circle, and I witnessed the back and forth between South Korea and the United States first hand. Sitting across the street from the U.S. Embassy, just outside the gates of the main Joseon-era palace in central Seoul, was a group of protestors, demanding that the South Korean government not allow the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system on Korean territory. China has strongly opposed THAAD and many Koreans do not think they can afford to sour this relationship. But it is hard for Seoul to deny that it may benefit from a more integrated missile defense system and accompanying radar. North Korea has been demonstrating improvements in missile technology, and the U.S. forces in Korea have little interest in being just the old "tripwire," the forces that were more a guarantee of additional forces in time of war, rather than the frontline of a counteroffensive against any northern aggression. Integrated missile defense is a key element to keep U.S. forces capable of carrying out their mission in a time of conflict. And so Seoul has vacillated. It has few options, and as a country that beneath it all wishes to defend its independence and resist foreign influence, it finds the lack of options all the more frustrating.
This travelogue from the North Korean border was written by a Stratfor analyst traveling in South Korea.