Troops on the DMZ by John B. Ritch III a 1970 article from the Atlantic Monthly

The following article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1970. It was written by John B. Ritch III, an acquaintance of mine I met while assigned at AFKN (American Forces Korea Network). I do not remember the month that it appeared, as I cannot find the copy of the magazine I carried around for years. I transcribed the following facsimile from a galley proof of the article that John shared with me prior to its publication. I think you will find it interesting, informative, and as always a catalyst for reviving old memories of Korea and the politics of the time. Obviously, the world is a much different place today than it was it 1970. But in many ways, while I was putting this together, I couldn't help thinking that the old saying "the more things change, the more things stay the same," applies here.

I hope you enjoy the article.

Don Lopez

By John B. Ritch III

"You have acquired, through sexual intercourse, an infection caused by bacteria which recently entered your penis. This infection is easily cured, provided you follow closely the directions given you? In addition to taking prescribed medicine as directed, it is very important that you drink absolutely no alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, whiskey, etc., no coffee, and no tea or carbonated beverages such as coke, 7-up, etc., while your present symptoms continue and for at least two weeks following the disappearance of those symptoms. You should also avoid sexual intercourse for that period of time? If you are willing to follow these instructions, and any additional instructions which may be given to you specifically, you will find that the infection you have contracted will be cured quite simply and with a minimum of inconvenience."

In Korea the Army medics keep a supply of those printed notices close at hand --- in mimeographed stacks. The VD statistics ebb and flow from time to time as various commanders push prevention campaigns in whatever ways they can, but the basic situation --- rich Army amongst poor people --- remains the same, and the VD stays around. Eight out of every ten G.I..'s will have it at least once during a 13-month tour, an eon which most count off, day by day, waiting to get back to "the world." Learning the ways of advertising, the little tailor shops that surround the American compounds offer count-the-days calendars featuring a hand-drawn "round-eye" nude apportioned into 300 fill-in-the-number anatomical bits. With 300 days to go, you may begin. Get down to three, then two days, and you're entitled to the nipples. With one day to go, you fill in the triangle and pack your bags. So long slickie boys, business girls; so long gooks. A majority of the more than 50,000 American troops in Korea are positioned in the relatively small area north of Seoul and near the western coast, scattered on small bases or lined in defense along the southern edge of the DMZ. G.I.'s man only 18 miles along the narrow 151-mile strip which severs the peninsula, but theirs is the crucial sector: any effective invasion would almost surely, as in 1950, roll down the "bowling alley" toward Seoul and come straight through the US force. Even with an alternate tactic Seoul could never fall without .the US becoming thoroughly involved. This the Americans know, and so do the North Koreans: it is central to the strategy of deterrence. And it is upon that strategy --- which posits the deterrent and stabilizing influence of a specifically American force --- that any case for continuing the US military role in Korea must be built.


The case for phase-out is cogent. Certainly, in numbers, Republic of Korea forces are already more than adequate to provide a sound defense for ROK territory. Exclusive of the 50.000 Korean troops currently in Vietnam, the ROK Army today numbers roughly 600,000 ? drawn from a population of 30 million. In the North, with a population of 14 million, Kim Il Sung's DPRK army comprises about 350,000; and while previously cool relations between Kim and the Chinese Communists may be thawing, as evidenced by Chou En-Lai's recent visit to Pyongyang, it is highly doubtful that Kim could ever expect Chinese support in initiating hostilities with the South. The now emphasized ROK Homeland Reserve, which trains regularly, brings the total of men in the South able to bear arms at short notice to something over 2 ? million --- impressive numbers for the defense of part-peninsula smaller than Indiana. And empty numbers: both the ROK Army and the Reserve, fortified by veterans of two wars, have demonstrated real military proficiency. In Vietnam, American military men have had nothing but high praise for the aggressive ROK performance (which carried into the PX, has been the only source of American complaint). At home, the Reserve and the field police have joined in a quick, and even alacritous response in bringing the activities of North Korean infiltrators to a terminal conclusion. The conventional military strength added by the American forces is thus principally subjective: a possible deterrent in the minds of leaders in the North and a source of confidence to leaders in the South.


  The costs concomitant to the American presence are considerable, both for the US and Korea. On the American side --- in addition to occasional violent death on the DMZ, the drug use problems of G.I.'s dolorously far from home and in areas of easy access, and the hundreds of foredoomed Korean-American marriages (over 90% fail) which annually occur --- the expenditure involved in maintaining the US force in Korea, at a state of somewhere between combat readiness and stagnancy, is quite evidently huge. A drippy faucet perhaps in comparison to the gush in Vietnam but in absolute terms a steady and prodigious financial flow. On the Korean side the costs are social. In the American sector north of Seoul and around the US compounds which dot the landscape as far south as Pusan, the jerrybuilt camp-villages provide whatever the G.I.;s will pay for and the resulting scene is one, which might easily rouse the D.A.R. to violent action. Conventional Korean society, embarrassed by the manifest existence of so many "camp followers," has come to regard them as unpersons, pushing them lower by social ostracism.


  The positive community activities of the US forces are relatively minor in effect. There are G.I. sponsored orphanages (generally inefficient, sometimes corrupt, remnants of the immediate post-war period financed now mainly by guilt-money extracted in the pay-line). there is some medical assistance (often for VD), and on occasion engineer aid is provided for Korean construction projects or disaster relief. The results sit light in the balance, and "Korean-American friendship" operates predominantly at the executive level. At the grass-roots level no love is lost, and anti-American sentiment remains latent probably only because the Americans seem the lesser of evils. Surrounded by a build-in insulation of slickie boys business girls, and their own ignorance of things Korean, the large majority of G.I.'s return to the states each year embittered, thinking the Koreans unscrupulous, and disliking Korea.


During hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Fulbright, who would win no popularity contest in Seoul, mentioned recently that "of course, South Korea doesn't want us to leave --- they don't want to give up the enormous amount of money we spend there, although it is not considered nice to say so." This is true, yet it would be wrong to impute purely a monetary motive. Clearly there is unease among Koreans at the idea of a US withdrawal which derives quite as much from thoughts of national security as from unwillingness to be cut off from American largesse. (Economic aid could, of course quite properly continue even after a troop phase-out.) The Korean economy has already "taken off" (the annual growth rate is now well over 10%), and particularly through the last half of the sixties the Koreans have developed a genuine confidence that their future economic prosperity is assured, if only their national security can be maintained. The degree to which they feel dependent upon the Americans for that security is perhaps irrationally large, a now conditioned habit of thought, but it is real, not feigned. Discernible at all levels of Korean society, the sentiment can at least in part be traced to the anti-Communist ideological campaign waged by the Park government to unify the national consciousness and solidify support for the present regime. The sense of protracted conflict is perpetual and the suggestion of U.S. withdrawal, implying the loss of an ally, automatically appears dire, regardless of the military realities of the situation.


The military realities are, of course, hard to pinpoint. North Korean is a hermit, showing herself principally in audacious incidents, in the frequent exchange of diatribe, which continues at Panmunjom, and in persistent attempts to infiltrate agents along the ROK coast and border (visitations which, it is fairly clear, are reciprocated by the South). There have been occasions of late when small groups of agents have successfully penetrated South Korean territory but, badly misled into believing they would find themselves as fish in revolutionary waters, have instead been quickly exposed by the South Korean citizenry, who are either apathetic or --- more often --- antipathetic and who are more than happy to have the large rewards delivered by the Park government. In the North itself, military activity centers on the southern border --- the DMZ. The posture, as well as can ascertained, is defensive. On the border with China, there is little activity and no preparation for defense. It is known that there has been an elaborate effort to train agents for infiltration to the South; but the only indication of strategic intent has been Kim Il Sung's long-standing promise to reunify Korea by his sixtieth birthday, a threat that within a few months will either be fulfilled or, more probably, pass into the past as historical bluster.


In the South, though a smaller percentage of national income is directed toward defense, no pain is spared to build strength against the threat from the north. The imperative is rigid: with Seoul only twenty-five miles from the nearest North Koreans, there can be no time allowed for a war of thrust, counterthrust, and wavering battle lines. Preparation must be absolute and the response to aggression swift and sure. It is, with somewhat intensity, the sense of Israel. Were Seoul to fall, the work of two decades would vanish. It is from here that the ROK struggle into modernity has been launched and built. Seoul is Korea's cynosure, the center of everything, pullulating with a mass of four million, straining continuously to assimilate an arterial influx from the country, and moving ever farther out of its ancient walls and ways. In the city's heart the skyline changes in almost daily increments, and the rock of surrounding hills is spread thick with human habitation --- peasant hovel, cheap high-rises, small homes, jammed together like a demographer's nightmare, as if a giant bulldozer were at the constant work of compression, pushing the way clear for even more people in what is already one of the world's most densely-packed nations.


 The scene, in Seoul and elsewhere, teems with soldiers. Army-green fatigues are by now a national costume, familiar and conventional everywhere. But if Park's is a garrison state, it is not one in which the military is elite. Service is expected from everyone (though evaded or softened by some through bribery and connection), and ROK soldiers are neither arrogant nor privileged. While Park himself ascended by military coup, it is now through politics that he rules, a politics build heavily upon economic accomplishment and the national pride, which has swelled during the eight years of his presidency. Although domestic control of the ROK military is Park's, control under contingent situations of international conflict (namely, with the North) resides elsewhere --- in the U.N. (read US) Command headquartered in Seoul. The U.N. cachet is a relic of the Korean War, retained essentially for image. As apologists for the North have correctly stated, it is a veneer, and one that over the years has faded to no more than a thin transparency: the U.N. allies of the US and ROK forces today comprise, in total, one Thai company and honor guard contributions from the British and Turks. It is a U.N. force which answers to the Pentagon, for despite the overwhelmingly dominant ratio of ROK to American troops, the US retains suzerainty of command within the "U.N." structure. That it has done so without argument is a measure of the Korean aversion to American withdrawal. (The only grumbles of discontent about the Americans, heard in 1968, concerned with irony their competence, when it was discovered that the thirty agents nearly successful in an assassination attempt on Park had infiltrated through the American sector.)


 When withdrawal is mentioned in Washington the response in Seoul is immediate. Senator Tydings (D-Md.) recent proposal that the U.S. withdraw one of the two American divisions sent the Korean newspapers and National Assembly into howls of protest. When Defense Secretary Laird told a House subcommittee late last year that the U.S. would reduce its troop presence in South Korea "just as soon as possible," he set off a blast in Seoul (and some noise in Tokyo as well) and a controversy within the Administration that ended, not unexpectedly, with the whole issue being shelved. One by-product of the commotion was a public revelation of the presence in South Korea of both tactical and strategic nuclear U.S. weapons. To these, as far as the South Koreans care concerned, there is not objection; they are roused only by signs of American retrenchment. When Operation Focus Retina, the longest airlift in history, was conducted in early 1969, the exercise could have been construed as a warning to Kim. But to Park, the movement in less than a day of 7,000 American troops from Fort Bragg to Korea was less a sign of support than a first step toward withdrawal. And the South is calmly petrified over the imagined possible consequences of American pullout. On the US side, there is a strong argument that troop phase-out, coupled with periodic exercises of the Retina sort would be far less financially costly, constitute a more useful exercise in military preparedness, avoid the sad epiphenomenona of a prolonged military occupation, and provide an equally credible demonstration of American unwillingness to acquiesce in a "loss" of South Korea.


The issue of reunification, now twenty-five years old, lies quiet. Among Koreans in the South, no clear attitude has emerged. There has always been the feeling that what the superpowers alone did to Korea, the superpowers alone must undo. But mixed with this now is a widening awareness and confidence that while the division may have been imposed from without, it can, and probably must, somehow be resolved from within. Park's approach has been to push the issue into the future by promulgating a theme of "reunification through strength and prosperity." From the North, Kim's pronouncements are unambiguous: the Americans stand in the way, and no accommodation can be reached until the Westerners have withdrawn or been driven out. This may be true. Given the mentality of the North, it can be persuasively argued that he American presence serves only to encourage Kim's intransigence and seeming megalomania: the execrable "imperialists" action both as targets of his provocatory acts and, paradoxically, as guarantors that large-scale retaliation will not be undertaken. Were Park in control of the South's retaliatory capability, Kim knows that the fuse would be shorter. On several occasions, most notably during the Pueblo affair, Park has made clear his feeling that the U.S. response was insufficient and that the Communists must be dealt with severely. It is probable, however, that the diatribe form both North and South is exaggerated by the American presence, like the bombast of two fist-waving antagonists who know they be kept apart by intervention of a stronger third party. Park has shown himself to be a shrewd leader (after some constitutional finagling he appears headed for a third term), and without the Americans in physical presence, his words and steps would of necessity be more cautiously chosen. There is of course no guarantee that an issue of provocation and pride would not quickly mushroom; and although unannounced, one of the most powerful motivations behind the continuing American presence has been a U.S. reluctance to relinquish to Park the power to wage war without American consent, a capability which might at some future time place the U.S. in a "support or abandon" dilemma.


The same reluctance can be found in the U.S. laxity toward ROK Army and Air Force modernization. In the air, intelligence estimates give the North a superiority which is balanced in the South now only by the presence of US air power. On the ground, only the ROK forces in Vietnam have been supplied with the very latest equipment. These two divisions, equipped and transported to Vietnam by the US, are a source of considerable Korean pride. For the government, Vietnam has offered the opportunity to reciprocate past and present American favors, as well as to polish and display Korean military proficiency. It has been a national flexing of muscles. For the Korean soldier, the war has offered prestige and enormously augmented pay. And for both individual and government, with anti-Communism an article of faith, Vietnam has promised the chance to strike a blow against an international menace. It is the possibility that the ROK might one day try to strike that blow on their own peninsula that for the US makes the Korean problem far more than one of defense.


It is common to capsule Kim and the North as "irrational." The word applies, with at least as much justice, to the entire Korean stalemate, and to the plight of a peninsula and its historically single people --- chosen, by a malign quirk of their own recent history, to serve over the last quarter century as stage and players in a microcosmic parody of the world's ideological rift, military race, and political confrontation. The players have settled professionally into their parts, and the scenario has given the Northern cast no monopoly on irrationality. The South, scarred by the Korean War, is now the voice of a passionate anti- Communist ideology which, while helping to galvanize a half-nation, has added only another obstacle to making Korea whole. If the Koreans are ever to step off the proscenium and back into their own reality, there is need on that peninsula for measured words and accommodation, both of which the US, by its very military presence now precludes.