In the early 1990s, I did a tour in Korea; a year at Yongsan Garrison, working at HQ-AFKN, barely a stone’s throw from where my father had spent a couple of weeks at Camp Coiner in 1953. Camp Coiner was where new troops were processed for assignments in-country, and it was still a self-contained miniature garrison with a dining hall, movie theater, club, PX and chapel. Processing new arrivals takes only a day or two these days. When I was there, Camp Coiner housed soldiers assigned to Yongsan in a series of Quonset huts that had been covered in such a thick layer of foam insulation that they looked like nothing so much as a row of enormous Twinkies.

Camp Coiner to my father was a bunch of canvas tents in a field of mud, surrounded by deep rings of barbed wire and a deeper ring of hungry refugees, watching them intently. It quite took away one’s appetite, said my father, to have people watching you eat every bite of your C-rations; and it’s not as if C-rations were a gourmet treat to start with. The soldiers were forbidden to give away their food, but my father said a lot of them did anyway, tossing cans stealthily over the wire. Seoul was a wrecked place fifty years ago. While I was there at AKFN that year, I edited an interview which the late Col. David Hackworth had done for AFKN, where he described how he himself had first visited the place, retreating across the only bridge over the Han River. Nothing but rubble, and rats nibbling at corpses in the gutters, the only live people being his squad and the Chinese snipers shooting at them. What Colonel Hackworth and veterans like my father saw in the 1950ies and what they see when they visit Seoul now leaves them rubbing their eyes in astonishment.

I had the incredible good fortune to be put in the way of doing a lot of voice-over narration jobs while I was at Yongsan, as well as a regular part-time job copy-editing the English language simulcast of the regular Korea Broadcasting System evening TV newscast. Most evenings or Saturdays after I finished my day job, I was taking the subway or a bus to a production studio somewhere (a taxi if I was feeling extravagant), and reading an English-language script on practically anything that someone felt would go over really well if they did a version in English.Amonger other things, I did a script about the manufacture of soju (which put me off ever drinking the stuff), an assortment of company puff-pieces, some fiendishly complicated English lesson tapes, a kid’s storybook, unless they have re-done the whole thing since, I am the English-language version of the recorded information for Kimpo Airport. I was a skilled and experienced production technician, working with other skilled audio technicians, away from the post. I developed friendships with the people I worked with in the KBS newsroom, who laughed at me because I had never gone to any of the tourist things in Seoul. I had, I explained, gone close to them, or had seen them from the outside on my way to a job; just like a native does.

Modern Seoul is a sprawling city of high-rise buildings, eight-lane highways, a splendid subway system, a golden glass tower 63 stories tall close by one of the fifteen or twenty bridges spanning the Han, and the Namsan tower glittering like a Christmas tree topper on a green hilly island in the middle of the city. In the evening, coming back from KBS on the bus, I could smell the bakery smell of vanilla cake from a commercial bakery close by. Sometimes at KBS we talked about the North, wondering if the discipline of an invading army of North Koreans would last past the first big grocery store, or electronics shop. When the old Supreme Leader died, I sat in the newsroom and watched half an hour of newscast cobbled out of the same fifteen minutes of stock video of the North, plus new footage of the bereft Northerners mourning ostentatiously. It seemed to me the KBS technicians were horrified and embarrassed by the elaborate demonstration of grief; I and they could only wonder what sort of coercion could force such undignified displays from people.

I liked working in Seoul, I liked what Koreans have built in fifty years, these tough jolly people on the south side of the DMZ. Cosmopolitan and professional, possibly as a nation the sharpest-dressed people on the face of the earth, every salaryman or woman turned out fit to be on the cover of GQ; as different from their cousins and second cousins north of the DMZ and still be on the same planet.

OSer Don Rich poined out in a post yesterday that the North Koreans regularly perform what he called the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken – every six months to two years, there is some kind of saber-rattling game, a bit of public theater intended to remind everyone that they are there and bellicose. The old-time Korea hands that I knew over there, as well as my Korean friends were relatively blase about it all, for several reasons. One of them was that – well, mostly it was a bit of theater; it would die down in a week or so. Another being that for all the sprockets and medals hung on Nork generals – they really haven’t fought a serious war, balls-to-the-wall-and-all-guns-blazing war since 1953. There’s been a lot of evolution since then. But – lest the South Koreans get too over-confident about calling the North Korean bluff; the city of Seoul is well within range of Nork artillery, and quite a lot of it, too. Which is a very good reason to keep a cool head. And the other great argument for the status quo being maintained – is that if the DMZ magically evaporated and the Koreas were united once again, the South would be carrying the burden of the North … pitiful, starving, traumatised and hermetically isolated for sixty years, a country-sized concentration camp with all the brutality and horror that implies. The North has been in such bad shape for so long that teenage refugees from there are actually physically stunted, in comparison to their Southern cousins. So – while everyone gives lip service to reunification, in actuality, not so much.

But this week the Norks opened fire, shelling civilian areas on Yeonpyeong Island – an action which will be a little harder to brush off on the part of the South, Japan, and the United States. That ratchets up the Korean Motherland Unity Game of Repeated Chicken to a whole new level. So – who acts first? At this point, any guess is as good as any other.