In 2005, with the help of the United Service Organizations, I became one of a lucky handful of Americans to pass through the Korean Demilitarized Zone and set foot on North Korean soil. While I only made it to North Korea's doorstep, I could tell something was bubbling to a head.
Only a few days before I attended a military briefing at Camp Bonifas, and signed a contract promising not to sue if I became a war casualty, South Korean officials sent out reports of North Korean propaganda being blasted on loud speakers across the heavily fortified border. While the mood of our U.S. Army tour guide was light, everybody was on pins and needles once we entered the Joint Security Area, a precarious row of buildings guarded jointly by North Korean and South Korean soldiers.
Staring into the face of North Korean soldiers, it was very easy to tell that even the slightest provocation could set off an international incident. It was there that I realized that the Korean War never really ended, and the tensions and dangers associated with it exist to this day.
In my trip, I learned things about North Korea that only added to my concern:
· Most North Koreans are extremely isolated from any outside thought, as massive scrambling towers situated on the country's borders block out any radio and television signals that are not state approved.
· While two years of military service is a common requirement for adult males in many countries, North Korea requires that its men spend a mandatory seven years in the military from the age of 18.
· North Korea's population, which is about 22 million (men, women, and children) has more than 1 million enlisted soldiers. Its standing military is the largest in the world, per capita, and 10 times larger than the global average.
· While many of its people face abject poverty and starvation, the country spent about 40 percent of its gross domestic product on the military in 2004.
This weekend, North Korea launched a long-range missile, demonstrating to the world that it is willing, and able, to launch a destructive payload as far as Hawaii, or Alaska, with some degree of accuracy. Given North Korea's history of passive and impassive aggression towards its neighbors, it's a very troubling situation.
Unless North Korea is just the most paranoid country on the planet, it would seem likely that it is preparing for something militaristic. It's not a great sign because just as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has destabilized the Middle East, acts of aggression on the part North Korea may do the same in Asia.
With more than a billion of the world's people, China poses a significant military risk if it becomes agitated, and chooses to flex its military muscles. Even countries like Japan, which abandoned its military programs after World War II, may seek once again to have powerful standing armies.
In addition, North Korea's missile test may serve as a commercial for countries with clearly aggressive motives, such as Iran. With North Korea's economy struggling, it isn't hard to imagine its leaders selling a missile, here and there, to pay the bills.
The countries of East Asia spend a good amount of their time worrying about what North Korea is going to do next. This weekend's missile test is a clear sign that the rest of the world needs to start paying closer attention.
Joel Hall covers government and politics for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.