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From the Global Affairs Desk in North Beach
Postcard from Seoul
By Matt McFetridge

I spoke with a correspondent on background in the South Korean capital of Seoul on what’s called in the trade, “war watch.” On March 26, the South Korean naval ship Cheonan was sunk, killing 46 sailors. The international (United States, Britain, Australia, Sweden, and South Korea) investigative team released their results on May 20: a torpedo from a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan.
Chest-thumping rhetoric is flying between North and South Korea and both countries’ military forces are on alert. In fact, the South Korean navy has been conducting exercises near the disputed western sea border. The North Korean communist regime responds with bellicose statements like this: “Now that the puppet group challenged the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) formally and blatantly, the DPRK will react to confrontation with confrontation and to a war with an all-out war.”

The problem is that when the Korean War ended in 1953, it was in an armistice, not an official peace treaty. Dividing the Koreas’ land has never been at issue; North and South Korea were separated at the 38th parallel. But the two Koreas have disputed the sea borders since 1953.

I caught up with my man in Seoul via e-mail during his workday. Remember, this interview is on background and not politically correct. Pretend you’re listening to two hacks dissect the Korean situation over beers at a bar.

How iron clad is it that North Korea sank the South Korean ship (killing 46 sailors) in March?
Absolutely iron clad, lock it in the bank, take it home … the question you have to ask is how did a crappy North Korean submarine get so close to the high-tech, better-equipped South Korean ship, the Cheonan? [The Cheonan] is a patrol boat, which is meant to specialize in anti-submarine hunting … that didn’t work out so well.

What is the Seoul street like? Are people stressed? Are there air-raid shelters?
They seem chilled – been there before. It’s like having a crazy uncle over for Thanksgiving – you know every now and then he’ll have a meltdown at the dinner table and then vomit on the turkey. Having said that, it’s a little different this time: nuclear tests and missile launches are not seen as being directed at the south, more at the U.S. So it is a bit more personal. No air shelters though …

What about all the saber rattling and threats? North Korea usually does this to get attention and get concessions ... what’s different now? (North Korea cannot feed itself and has had famines in the past, and there are also fuel shortages.)
Normally at this point of the North Korea temper-tantrum cycle, we’d be at the point of [them] pulling back a little and maybe signaling opening up for talks to get food, energy and other aid. But that hasn’t happened, which raises the question of what’s going on inside the Pyongyang fun house . . . maybe the hard-line generals have stepped up, knowing the Dear Leader [North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Il] may not be in the best shape – his brain is scrambled after the stroke – trying to get Junior [27-year-old son Kim Jong-un] to take over the family business.

Can North Korea’s million-man army flatten Seoul with artillery alone? Are the North Korean forces formidable?
North Korea has a million-something people in uniform, but they’re basically bullet stoppers. Seoul would take a pounding … but Kim Jong Crazy would have his ass kicked, which would defeat the purpose of starting the war in the first place. The best North Korea could do is dig in for some kind of insurgency. They have no ability to project power far from their borders, they can’t establish a forward line, [and] they can’t secure supplies, which means Kim will put his
[expletive] away.

The South Korean factories in North Korea haven’t been closed. If they are closed does that mean war is closer?(As part of the South Korean Sunshine Policy, South Korean factories have been operating in North Korea since 2004.)
Naaaa, just means they want to find new ways to p--- each other off.

You’re not shaking in your boots ... why?
These guys talk like John Wayne and act like Pee-Wee Herman.

Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail:

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