Amid rising tensions, South Korea offers rare glimpse inside military bases
South Korean fighter pilots are 'ready to scramble' as North Korea prepares a missile launch.
SEOSAN AIR BASE, South Korea
A computer screen inside the lobby of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the Korean Air Force tracks every aircraft in the air over the Korean peninsula. Two yellow images flash over North Korea. Twenty or so green images show South Korean aircraft in flight, and another dozen blue images glimmer where American warplanes are flying.
South Korean pilots, averaging six or seven hours a week in the air, say their North Korean counterparts, flying older model MiGs, are lucky to fly once or twice a month.
"I scramble a lot," says Cpt. Yang Jung Hwan, showing off his F16, perched in front of one of more than 100 revetements for aircraft here. "The North Koreans don't fly a lot, but if they come close, we have to scramble."
Captain Yang says he makes sure not to get too near the North Korean border, about 100 miles from here, and he's never actually seen a North Korean plane. He's supremely confident, though, of South Korea's ability to discourage any designs the North might have of risking another shooting war.
As North Korean technicians load a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket onto the launching pad this week – in keeping with their plans to fire it between April 4 and April 8 – South Korean forces are putting on an extraordinary display of bravado.
The decision to provide a detailed tour of this normally closed, super-sensitive air base – and a separate look at South Korea's largest naval base at the port of Pyongtaek, 30 miles up the coast – testifies to the South's defiant response to a torrent of recent rhetoric.
In Mexico City Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that launching the missile would be "a provocative act" – one that the US would raise in the UN Security Council. US, South Korean, and Japanese officials scoff at North Korean claims that the aim is to put a satellite into orbit, charging it's a test of a projectile capable of carrying a warhead as far as the US west coast.
North Korea, also on Thursday, called the South Korean government a "traitor" for supporting UN sanctions against the launch. North Korea has warned of bringing the Korean peninsula "to the brink of war," and says any attempt to shoot down the missile will mean the end of six-party talks on its nuclear program.
South Korea has no intention of blocking the launch, but commanders are primed after two weeks of war games with US forces. On Friday, Japan ordered its military to prepare to destroy the missile or missile debris if it endangers Japanese territory.
Two Japanese destroyers with anti-missile capabilities are now being deployed to the waters between North Korea and Japan. Patriot anti-missile batteries are also being sent to the Japan's north coast in anticipation of the launch. Meanwhile, the lone South Korean destroyer equipped with the Aegis-class system capable of firing a missile at a North Korean missile in flight has moved to the same area, joining a pair of American Aegis-class destroyers now tracking whatever happens.
South Korea's recent show of toughness reflects the conservative outlook of President Lee Myung Bak, who has spurned the so-called Sunshine policy of greater openness initiated by Kim Dae Jung during his presidency beginning in 1998.
"You know the policy," says Yoon Dae Jyu, vice president of Kyungnam University. "This is quite consistent with every branch of this government. They want to show the difference" between Mr. Lee's hard-line stance and the conciliatory position of the previous two presidents.
At the naval base, Lt. Cmdr. Kim Tae-ho says "the rules of engagement" have changed since North Koreans attacked South Korean vessels in the West, or Yellow, Sea in June 1999 and again in June 2002.
"We could not fire first at that time," says Commander Kim. "Now we can fire a warning shot."
On a slope at the naval base, looking over the West Sea, is a monument to the six sailors killed in the 2002 engagement.
Beneath the slope is the patrol boat that North Koreans fired on, the bullet holes circled in red to show the damage. Displaying the ship like a wounded hero, South Koreans say their forces sank a North Korean vessel, killing approximately 30 of the enemy, during the 25-minute battle.
South Korean forces are constantly braced for North Korean missile attacks – not by the Taepodong-2 but by short-range Scud missiles. "It's difficult to know where they will practice missile attacks," says Rear Adm. Chae Hong-pil, vice commander of South Korea's Second Fleet, "but we will follow rules of engagement and take measures."
The pilots at this air base, the largest in South Korea, don't worry about the Taepodong-2 missile, poised to fly east over Japan, but are on increased alert for a repetition of the 1999 and 2002 attacks.
The alert level "is now at a higher class" than in 2002, says Air Force Brig. Gen. Jung Jae-bu, commander of the 20th Fighter Wing. The base, he says, is "one of the most advanced," and six planes are on special-alert status 24 hours a day should North Korean planes move too close to their side of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
The commander of Captain Yang's squadron says North Korea has so many surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that "it's hard to penetrate," but he's sure the 80 or so F16s at this base on South Korea's west coast can penetrate the North's defenses.
"It's no problem destroying those SAMs," says the squadron commander, looking at graphics on the wall behind him. "We have intelligence about all the stationery SAM sites and high-speed missiles. They track radiation from the SAMs so we know where they are before they fire at us."
At a large depot at the base, a South Korean Air Force officer stands beside a row of weaponry for every purpose from knocking out tanks to hitting enemy aircraft from many miles away.
The officer talks about what the weapons can do, not why he's showing them off, but the squadron commander says the answer is obvious. "Every pilot is ready for contingency operations," he says. "We maintain 24-hour alert."