Sean Themar was born in Seoul, grew up as a military brat and has family in South Korea.
So, the ever-evolving diplomatic situation between the United States and North and South Korea keeps the possibility of conflict on Themar’s mind.
“We do worry about it,” said Themar, a software developer working in Seattle.
Themar’s mother is Korean and his father was an American soldier whose last duty station was Ft. Lewis near Tacoma. He has family on both sides of the Pacific, with many relatives living within range of North Korean artillery. His younger sister is currently living in South Korea working as an English teacher.
This year has proven to be a particularly unpredictable one for diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. America is at times seemingly a Tweet away from war with North Korea. But in many ways peace is closer than ever before.
On June 12 President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a historic face-to-face summit Singapore. The day after the summit Trump tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” During Trump’s visit to the United Nations this week he suggested that that there would soon be another summit with Kim.
But Trump’s most recent friendly overtures follows a series of developments that have put the state of negotiations in doubt.
Last month North Korean state media accused the United States of “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” to invade the country after Trump canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo citing a lack of progress on denuclearization.
The decision to cancel Pompeo’s trip was abrupt, coming just a day after Pompeo himself announced that he was making the trip.
Top level conflict, local consequences
The consequences of every political decision are felt in Puget Sound. While the spotlight is on Trump and Kim, key military planning and discussions continue — as they have for decades — at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma. Korean and American diplomats have held high level meetings at the base and troops have been training for contingencies.
Since full-scale conflict in Korea ended with the signing of an armistice in 1953 that gave way to an uneasy peace, troops deploying from the Pacific Northwest have continued to play a key role in U.S. military strategy on the Korean Peninsula.
The 2nd Infantry Division has continuously deployed troops to Korea since 1965, with most of its troops stationed at JBLM assigned to the U.S. Army’s I Corp. Troops at JBLM train for operations across the Pacific and East Asia, but Korea has always been an emphasis. Last year I Corps set up a training course at JBLM specifically to teach soldiers the nuances of driving military vehicles on Korean roads.
Members of the elite 1st Special Forces Group also deploy to Korea from JBLM on regular rotations where they work closely with Korean Special Forces troops.
The 2nd Infantry Division was one of the first American units to arrive in Korea and took heavy losses during the Korean War. Today the unit officially called the 2nd Infantry Division-ROK/U.S. Combined Division. The division has long had Korean troops in its rank called KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army).
In a unique arrangement, KATUSAs frequently wear American uniforms, use American equipment and live and work with American units. The program began as an informal agreement during the Korean War and continues today.
The legacy of the U.S. military’s long involvement in Korea is evident in the communities around JBLM. For generations now, it hasn’t been unusual for American troops to come home with Korean spouses — sometimes with other relatives in tow.
Large concentrations of Korean immigrant-owned businesses along South Tacoma Way have prompted some South Sound residents to bestow it with the nickname “South Korea Way.”
In South Puget Sound, American servicemembers were arriving with women they married in South Korea. As the families returned to Ft. Lewis and McChord Air Base, they began creating communities for themselves.
In the early 1970s, Kim Nam Hui, the Korean wife of an American G.I. founded the Korean Women’s Association to provide support for immigrant communities. The group cooked Korean dishes for the poor and began providing services to domestic violence survivors. Since then the Korean American community has continued to grow and thrive for the past five decades.
Among those families were Themar’s family. Like a lot of military brats, Themar moved around a lot as kid when his father was reassigned to duty back in the United States and brought his Korean wife with him. When it came time to end his military career, his father decided request Ft. Lewis as his last duty station.
The easy access to Korean supermarkets and restaurants owned by immigrants has allowed Themar to maintain a connection with his Korean roots. “I feel connected to both cultures,” Themar said. “But at the same time, and I think this is true for a lot of half-asians, I also sometimes feel a bit of alienation.”
Themar was a baby when the family left Korea. He visited Korea once as a child with his mother to visit her family. He said of his Korean relatives he has the closest relationship with his uncle, who lived with Themar’s family in Washington for a time as he pursued his education. He said that while he’d like to maintain a closer relationship, flying to and from Korea is incredibly costly.
Last year, South Koreans elected President Moon Jae-in — a Korean special forces soldier turned human rights attorney. Moon was involved in an infamous clash in the DMZ in 1976, but ran in 2017 on a platform favoring a peaceful reunification between the two Koreas.
Moon was both praised and condemned for commenting that if elected his first visit abroad as president would be to North Korea, breaking with a practice of South Korean presidents first visiting the United States reaffirm the strong alliance.
In his autobiography Moon wrote, “I’m pro-U.S., but now South Korea should adopt diplomacy in which it can discuss a U.S. request and say no to the Americans.”
Moon isn’t the only one to question the current state of the alliance. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump frequently questioned the value of the American military presence in South Korea and Japan, suggesting that the U.S. should consider withdrawing all its troops or start demanding money from its Asian allies.
Not long after meeting with Kim in Singapore, the Trump White House announced that U.S. military forces would honor a North Korean request to indefinitely cease all joint-military exercises between American and South Korean troops on the peninsula. The announcement evidently took both the Pentagon and South Korean military officials by surprise.
In August, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that the Pentagon had no plans to suspend more drills with South Korean troops and that small scale training would resume amid reports that Pyongyang was making no effort to hold up its end of denuclearization commitments.
However, the next day Trump contradicted Mattis, tweeting out that because of his “warm” relationship with Kim the White House saw “no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games.”
While the two militaries aren’t doing joint training on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean Navy did participate in the biannual U.S. Navy hosted RIMPAC exercise off the coast of Hawaii, which wrapped up in August.
“If we don’t work with the South Koreans it’s going to be really bad for them and really bad for us, ” said former Army officer Geoff Oakley. He was involved in planning joint operations with Korean troops during his time in Korea in 2009 and 2010.
Oakley argued that maintaining a close relationship between the two militaries is critical. He explained that while the South Korean and American militaries are both highly capable forces, they can only operate effectively respond to a crisis on the Peninsula if they train and communicate regularly.
“We’re only good if we’re marching to the same drum beat,” Oakley told The Seattle Globalist. He added that he thinks it was a massive mistake for Trump to agree to North Korea’s request to suspend joint training. “I think he’s getting fucking played,” he remarked.
John Sylvan, a U.S. Army veteran who served along the border, is similarly skeptical. He was on patrol in Nov. 2, 1966 when North Korean forces ambushed two other patrols, killing eight U.S. soldiers and one South Korean soldier.
He doubts the overtures by the North Korean regime.
“You couldn’t trust them then and you can’t trust them now,” he said.
But another Army veteran, Bob Haynes, whose comrades were among those killed in the Nov. 2 attack, is more optimistic about Trump’s diplomatic efforts and was particularly impressed with his face-to-face meeting with Kim.
“It’s not something I ever thought I could see or would see,” he said. “But it was something I’d hoped for. It’s been over 60 years since the armistice was signed and this is the first president since then that’s ever gotten this close to talking with them … and we’ve had a lot of presidents since then.”
“My Commander in Chief is my Commander in Chief, and I applaud him for getting this far and I hope it continues … No one before him has ever gotten this close to doing it” Haynes added. “People can say what they want to about him, but he gets things done. Someone should take his Twitter away though.”
Today, @StateDeptPM finishes Round #5 of US-ROK Special Measures Agreement Consultations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. WA. Round highlights the newly proposed Operational Support category by showcasing #JBLM units supporting @USForcesKorea @USEmbassySeoul @USAsiaPacific pic.twitter.com/K811itunFs
— Political-Military Affairs, US Dept of State (@StateDeptPM) July 19, 2018
As the situation gets more unpredictable, many South Koreans are fundamentally rethinking how to go about defending their home. Despite electing the dovish Moon, a 2017 Gallup poll found that the majority of South Koreans are open to the idea of redeploying U.S. nukes to the Peninsula as a check against the North’s program.
In July, American and Korean diplomats flew into Western Washington and met at JBLM for a round of cost sharing talks, which have been contentious according to South Korean media. The two countries are working to renew a five year agreement that expires at the end of the year, but are deeply divided over proposed changes.
The United States is seeking to add a new category of cost sharing called “operational support.” South Korean officials have called this a bid to increase Seoul’s share of financial costs, adding to the funds the country already spends for logistical support.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told The Seattle Globalist that when it comes to the price sharing talks “negotiations are ongoing and while as such it is premature to discuss the ultimate outcome, the United States is committed to the alliance with the Republic of Korea that has brought peace and stability to the Peninsula and the region for more than 65 years.”
The sixth round of defense sharing costs were held in Seoul last month with an agreement yet to be reached.
A spokesperson for I Corps told The Seattle Globalist that while Seoul and Washington were “working through political issues” and that their respective militaries will abide by the orders of their elected civilian leaders, “the relationship between the U.S. and South Korean militaries remains strong and is one our closest.”
For Themar’s family, a product of this long alliance, there’s an acknowledgement that uncertainty is sometimes inescapable. “I mean there’s always something happening,” he said, pointing out that North Korea frequently promises war without anything actually happening. “At a certain point you just learn to live with it.”
From a second conflict to “Operation Paul Bunyan”
By Kevin Knodell
If a new conflict were to break out in the Korean Peninsula, JBLM units such as the Stryker Brigades assigned to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division would likely play a key role in the U.S. military response.
The unit has had a long history in the area, with several periods of escalated conflict, including an infamous incident involving a tree supposedly planted by the grandfather of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Not long after to taking over duties along the border in 1965, the 2nd Infantry Division became embroiled in the Korean DMZ Conflict, a series of deadly incidents that lasted between 1966-69 sometimes referred to as the “Second Korean Conflict.”
On the night of Nov. 2, 1966, North Korean troops ambushed American troops patrolling south of the DMZ, killing six U.S. troops, one KATUSA and wounding one other American soldier. Another group of North Korean troops ambushed a South Korean army patrol, killing two.
That night, Army veteran Bob Haynes and a buddy were sleeping in a guard shack. They were new arrivals to the DMZ who didn’t yet have room assignments. Haynes, a fresh recruit, had turned 18 just two months before shipping off to Korea. The two soldiers woke up to commotion and superiors barking orders at them. A sergeant sent Haynes to the building where soldiers had taken the casualties.
“My first job there was to help unload them,” Haynes recalled. “The bodies were all wrapped up in ponchos, and there were a lot of body parts and blood and anything else you can imagine because the North Koreans butchered them after they killed them.”
One of the soldiers the North Koreans killed that night, Pvt. Ernest Reynolds, posthumously received a Silver Star for his actions during the ambush. “He was able to return fire and ran his weapon empty until they killed him,” Haynes said. “And there were blood trails and bandages leading away so he managed to hit some of them.”
North Korean soldiers who had crossed the border were waging a low-intensity guerilla war against the South Korean government and American troops with a series of bombings, assassinations and hit-and-run attacks on positions across the border and well beyond it.
Meanwhile American Green Berets were closely with South Korean forces as they hunted North Korean agents as part of an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign.
“It was a very strange place,” recalled John Sylvan, another U.S. Army veteran. “We were constantly told nothing was going on and we knew damn well that wasn’t true.”
Sylvan was on the army patrol that discovered some of the ambushed troops on Nov. 2.
The DMZ was dangerous even without intermittent gun skirmishes. Filled with landmines and rough terrain, it can be perilous to navigate. “I’ve been to North Korea more than once. Not officially of course, you weren’t supposed to.” said Sylvan. “But sometimes depending on where you were on the DMZ you almost had to.”
Rain and wind could turn the ground to mud and make it shift, sometimes causing entire minefields to move around. Occasionally North Korean infiltrators would also move signs and fences to disorient American and South Korean troops.
Sylvan recalled going on a patrol with South Korean troops that ran into North Korean soldiers. The two groups had a quick firefight and then the South Koreans chased the North Koreans until they went into a minefield. “Understandably the [South Korean] commander didn’t want to follow them in there,” said Sylvan. “The North Koreans knew exactly where they were going. We often had no idea where we were going.”
Sometimes during the day the Americans would see the North Koreans on the other side of the lines. At times they’d wave at reach others. Other times, the North Koreans would shout insults across the lines, particularly at the KATUSAs.
“The KATUSAs never told us what they were saying exactly,” said Sylvan. “But we all understood it was something nasty.”
The border conflict killed 299 South Koreans, 397 North Koreans and 43 American troops before ending in December 1969. Another 111 Americans were wounded. But it went mostly unnoticed by an American public more concerned with the much bloodier war in Vietnam.
In 1970, the Nixon administration withdrew 26,000 American troops from South Korea in 1970. Worried about a waning American commitment, the South Korean government secretly began a nuclear weapons program of its own in collaboration with the French government.
American officials concerned about further proliferation of nukes put pressure on the French officials not to deliver the materials, effectively killing the program by 1975. Nevertheless South Korean President Park Chung-Hee maintained a clandestine program that ended only after his assassination in 1979.
But incidents of deadly violence have remained a reality along the volatile border between the Koreas, perhaps most infamously with the “Axe Murder Incident.” On Aug. 18, 1976 North Korean troops killed 2nd Infantry Division soldiers Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett with axes during a brawl in the DMZ’s Joint Security Area.
The incident began when the Americans tried to trim branches on a tree that partially blocked the view of United Nations observers. North Korean troops claimed the tree’s branches could not be trimmed because Kim Il Sung had supposedly planted and nourished the tree himself.
Three days after the killings, a joint force of U.S. and South Korean troops launched “Operation Paul Bunyan.” They cut down Kim’s tree in view of North Korean troops.
Among the South Korean soldiers who participated in Operation Paul Bunyan was current South Korean president Moon Jae-in — who today is seeking a peace with the grandson of the man who planted tree he helped cut down.