Not far from the uneasy border between North and South Korea, the sound of gunfire echoes through the hills. Troops in combat gear shout, heavy equipment rumbles.
Today, this field is a training ground. But every U.S. soldier here knows that someday soon, it could be a battleground. A new front in a Korean war that was paused with an armistice 70 years ago, but never formally ended.
“We’re in an environment where things can get super tense,” said U.S. army Staff Sgt. Justin Wilson. “Things already are tense, and they could escalate even more.”
In Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed last month to expand his growing nuclear missile arsenal to make it more “offensive,” and state media threatened to use it in response to “frantic” military exercises in South Korea.
At the U.S. training base near Pocheon, soldiers practise loading and firing machine guns in seconds flat, aiming mortars and throwing hand grenades. Others learn to treat the injured while under fire.
Invoking his squad’s battle cry, Wilson said the 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea are ready to “fight tonight” — or any time — against the North.
If it comes to that, Canada could also be in the thick of it, say Canadian Forces officers based in Korea — a continuation of the country’s original commitment in this conflict.
“That’s very clear,” said Col. Martin Corriveau, the highest-ranking Canadian here. “If something occurs that disrupts or destroys that peace and security here, Canada has signed on to support and help.”
In the early 1950s, Canada joined a U.S.-led coalition fighting under the umbrella of the United Nations to repel a North Korean attack against the South. The North was backed by China and the Soviet Union.
Canada’s contribution to the UN force was one of the largest, with 26,000 soldiers serving. Over three years of fighting, 516 died.
Canadians on patrol
The UN Command (UNC) is still based in South Korea and still patrols the demilitarized zone that straddles the border with the North. Nine Canadian soldiers are assigned to it.
On a sunny afternoon recently at U.S. army base Camp Humphreys, they visited the memorial to those who died fighting with the UNC — a stone map of the Korean peninsula with two soldiers rising from it.
“We fought for this and we’re staying,” one Canadian soldier said to another.
But any Korean war today would be very different from the original one, possibly involving nuclear weapons from North Korea: smaller tactical devices directed at South Korea or intercontinental ballistic missiles that Kim may be able to fit with nuclear warheads and aim at North America.
Since the start of 2022, Pyongyang has fired more than 100 test missiles into the seas around the peninsula, and even into Japanese waters.
“In South Korea, we are now nuclear hostages,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former secretary for security strategy to the South Korean president.
‘An entirely new situation’
He argues South Korea must now consider having nuclear weapons on its own soil to counter those across the border — either domestically developed or American systems permanently based in the South.
A recent public opinion survey has shown that a majority of South Koreans support that approach, especially since Seoul is within easy reach of the North’s conventional and nuclear weapons. Less than 200 kilometres from Pyongyang’s main launch centre, some of Seoul’s tallest office buildings have air defence batteries on their roofs.
“This is an entirely new situation and we have to develop a new strategy,” Cheon said, with a message for foreign forces helping defend South Korea.
“You are a conventional organization. Now, unfortunately, Korea enters the nuclear age. You have to adapt yourself to become a nuclear-oriented organization. Are you ready?”
The world community has tried to convince and coerce Kim to abandon his nuclear buildup, with recent warnings of retribution from the White House that “there is no scenario in which the Kim regime could employ nuclear weapons and survive.”
Former U.S. president Donald Trump threatened the North Korean leader with “fire and fury” if he ever used nuclear weapons, but also met and exchanged what he called “love letters.” None of that worked – not the threats, platitudes or negotiations – and neither have years of harsh economic sanctions from the UN.
Pressure on the U.S.
Now the U.S. is faced with pressure from South Korea to go ahead with its own nuclear arsenal, something U.S. President Joe Biden wants to avoid for fear of starting an arms race in the region.
At a summit in Washington two weeks ago, Biden promised to send nuclear-armed submarines on visits to South Korea and “ironclad” mutual defence. In return, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said Seoul would put the idea of developing its own capabilities on hold.
Together, Yoon said, the two countries would respond “swiftly, overwhelmingly and decisively, using the full force of the alliance, including the United States’ nuclear weapons” in the event of an attack.
But with each test launch in the North — and certainly if Kim goes ahead with an expected underground nuclear test, his seventh since 2006 — pressure on Yoon for more powerful weapons in the South will grow.
That’s unlikely to dissuade North Korea from its nuclear program, says Nam Sung-wook, a former adviser with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and regional expert at Korea University.
“Without nuclear weapons, the Kim Jong-un dynasty will not survive.”
Nam said Kim has so much invested in this national preoccupation and too much fear that giving up nuclear weapons will make North Korea vulnerable to attack the way Ukraine became a Russian target after giving up its nuclear weapons that he cannot back down.
A deal to suspend sanctions may slow the program, Nam said, but it won’t end.
Others argue that a whole new approach is needed.
“Sanctions and military pressure have failed. Isolating North Korea has been a disaster,” said Kim Nyeong-uk, a defector from the North 20 years ago. He now runs the North Korea Development Institute, a Seoul think-tank.
“We need to accept them as part of the world community and open real dialogue.”
Otherwise, both North and South will continue to arm themselves, he said, risking a deadlier Asian conflict.