Freedom's Forgotten Front

SEOUL, South Korea — Shortly before we arrived here, the Republic of Korea launched its first Aegis-class destroyer, the King Sejong. A few hours after we landed in this booming metropolis, the North Korean People’s Army “test-fired” several Silkworm anti-shipping missiles into the East Sea between North Korea and Japan. Neither event is related to our FOX News “War Stories” team being here to shoot a Korean War documentary, but surely both “launches” are connected.

“In this part of the world, little happens by coincidence. We should have no doubt that the ROK Aegis launch and the North Korean missile ‘tests’ are directly related,” a senior American military officer assigned to U.S. Forces Korea told me. His view is substantiated by press reports here attributed to South Korean and Japanese intelligence sources. According to the media, Pyongyang’s missile “tests” were designed to “send a message to the government in Seoul that their expensive new destroyer is vulnerable to attack.” But that’s not how official Washington is putting it.

The King Sejong, a 7,600-ton KDX-III destroyer, is South Korea’s first vessel to be equipped with the vaunted Aegis Combat System — capable of bringing down ballistic missiles. Until now, the United States has licensed this technology to only a handful of nations — the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain and Norway. According to unclassified Pentagon data, Aegis-equipped warships are able to track about 1,000 targets and attack 20 of them simultaneously. The Bush administration regards the U.S. and allied Aegis systems to be essential parts of a worldwide anti-missile defense network. The Japanese and South Koreans are both building additional Aegis-equipped vessels at a cost of more than $1 billion per copy.

Given the technological and financial commitments being made by Tokyo and Seoul, the tepid U.S. response to the North Korean threat is inexplicable.

“The short-range missile launches are believed to be part of a routine exercise that North Korea has conducted annually on the east and the west coasts in the past,” said a Pentagon statement. And the State Department was even more conciliatory to Pyongyang. “It’s something that they have done on several occasions,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, during an Association of South East Asian Nations meeting in Manila, Philippines.

 Hill, it must be noted, is the chief U.S. negotiator in the so-called six-party talks with the North Koreans about their nuclear weapons program. In February, four months after the communist regime tested a nuclear weapon, Hill proudly announced that the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China had all agreed that the despotic regime in Pyongyang would stop building nuclear bombs and that we would all just get along.

Unfortunately, the scheme came off the tracks almost immediately — and little has been done to implement the deal. Experts we interviewed for a “War Stories” documentary on nuclear weapons estimate that North Korea already has reprocessed enough plutonium to build 10 to 12 bombs. Neither this lethal material — nor any of North Korea’s nuclear sites — has been open to international inspection.

The State Department’s infatuation with talk for the sake of talking is evident in Hill’s assessment of the consequence of the North Korean missile test: “I know that it will not affect the six-party talks.” Meanwhile, here in South Korea, more than 34,000 U.S. military personnel are serving as guardians on freedom’s forgotten front. Many are veterans of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most are serving a 12-month tour far from home, family and friends.

While the diplomats ponder what a North Korean missile test may or may not mean, these young Americans and their Republic of Korea counterparts have to face reality across the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Within 60 miles of the DMZ, Pyongyang has stationed more than 1.2 million active-duty military personnel, 1,600 aircraft and 700 ships, including the world’s largest submarine force.

According to the Strategic Digest posted by U.S. Forces Korea, “more than 250 long-range artillery systems are within range of Seoul from their current locations.” Add to that at least 600 SCUD ballistic missiles capable of delivering chemical or biological warheads anywhere on the peninsula and it’s easy to see why the South Koreans decided to build Aegis-equipped warships.

Is it too much to hope that our State Department would take the threat just as seriously?