SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - This vast, pulsating city of ten million seems to have doubled in size since my last visit ten years ago. In spite of its gigantic scale and increasingly modernistic image, Seoul remains far calmer and better ordered than most of Asia's frenetic cities.
Dynamic, optimistic, high-tech South Korea is flying at Mach 9: it reminds me of Japan 25 years ago. Over 85% of Koreans are online. Textbooks are becoming ancient relics in Korean schools. The term "offline" denotes being behind the times, even backwards.
Meanwhile, the other 24 million Koreans in the northern part of this divided nation are in deepening trouble. Many go hungry or subsist on the verge of starvation, victims of the whims of their bizarre Communist monarchy.
In 1950, North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and, later, China, invaded US-occupied South Korea. The shameful rout of the US 8th Army in the winter of 1950 by Chinese troops has been erased from America's collective memory. Without air dominance, the US and its allies would have been run off the Korean Peninsula.
Three years of bitter, seesaw fighting, in which over 2.5 million Korean civilians died, resulted in a stalemate.
An armistice stopped the fighting on the 38th parallel, but the two Koreas and Americans remain on hair trigger alert.
A Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) bisects the peninsula: on either side, 750,000 North Korean soldiers face 500,000 South Korean, backed by 37,000 US troops and the 7th US Air Force, with the US Navy just over the horizon.
Tension on the DMZ is electric. North and South Korea troops glare at one another from fortified positions and observation posts. The world's thickest minefields and high anti-tank walls extend from coast to coast. On my last visit, I explored 2km-long tunnels under the DMZ secretly dug by the North Koreans.
I was warned that even pointing at the North Koreans could trigger a firefight that might lead to full-scale war. The much more reserved Japanese claim Koreans are overly excitable due to their high consumption of garlic and red peppers.
Adding a new dimension of danger, North Korea is estimated to have three plutonium nuclear devices and is developing more bombs using enriched uranium.
It is uncertain if North Korea has managed to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that can be carried on a medium or short-ranged missile. US and South Korean human intelligence about North Korea is amazingly poor. The main source of information on North Korea seems to be diplomatic gossip.
A quarter of all South Koreans live in Seoul. Large parts of the city north of the Han River lie within range of North Korea's 170mm guns and 240mm rocket batteries dug into the DMZ's granite hillsides, which are honeycombed by a veritable ant's nest of North Korean tunnels, command posts, supply depots and gun positions.
North Korea keeps threatening to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire," and has hinted it might even use nuclear weapons against US bases in Japan and Okinawa if attacked by America.
Is North Korea really the dire threat that Washington claims it is? According to South Korea's right, which is dominated by militant Christian evangelicals linked to their US co-religionists and neocons, the answer is definitely yes. US neocons are particularly concerned that North Korea may supply nuclear weapons, technology or missiles to Israel's Mideast foes -- hence their bitter antagonism to North Korea and attempts to block any peace deals between Washington and Pyongyang.
However, many moderate Koreans take a less alarmist view of the North. They tend to see the North rattling its cage to get food and fuel from the US, South Korea and Japan. Extortion is North Korea's principal source of hard currency. Blood-curdling threats and invective against the US and its Asian allies is North Korea's favorite sport.
A good example: "death to the filthy South Korean lackey-puppet-running dogs of the US imperialists!" Old Cold Warriors like myself tingle when we hear such sorely-missed, florid Communist invective.
In spite of US warnings about North Korea's nuclear weapons, many South Korean analysts believe these arms are entirely defensive, designed only to deter any possible US nuclear attack. This strategy is working: the US has refrained from military action against North Korea. The fact that Iraq and Libya did not have nuclear weapons has not been lost on the North Koreans.
If the North fired any nuclear weapons at its neighbors, the waiting US Navy and 7th Air Force would vaporize North Korea (and much of northern South Korea as well). The North's fun-loving leaders are not suicidal. In fact, their imports of prime cognac, Bordeaux wines and cigars are up a reported 24% this year -- in spite of an ungentlemanly American embargo on luxury goods for the North.
North Korea's Kim dynasty just wants to be left alone.
It appears to by now have mostly consolidate the future succession of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un by securing backing from the military and Communist Party -- all of whose members enjoy the good life while the rest of North Koreans get skinnier and actually shrink in size.
China, always considered North Korea's "elder brother" in the Confucian system, is happy to keep the North as a buffer zone for its strategic Manchurian border, and free of US bases. Japan is uneager to see a competitive united Korea. Russia seems indifferent to affairs in its Pacific Far East.
South Koreans worry that having to feed and build a liberated North Korea will bankrupt them. President Lee Myung-bak recently proposed a sensible national reunification tax to begin accruing funds to rebuild the North.
However, reunification is not necessarily inevitable. Some North Koreans might initially prefer to retain a separate state under Communist Party and/or military rule, minus the quirky Kims.
Neither side in this six-decade old standoff has any interest in starting a new war. Recent clashes between North and South have been tactical political gestures, not a prelude to war -- though such skirmishes do risk getting out of hand.
Last week, North Korea agreed to reopen nuclear talks with the US and its neighbors. As an old Korea-watcher, my gut tells me that North Korea is most unlikely to ever agree to scrap its nuclear life insurance policy, at least until the US signs a non-aggression pact with Pyongyang. So far, Washington has refused this basic North Korean demand.
That's the rational view. But one never really knows what the red-pepper hot Koreans may do next.
Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2011