Early in the summer of 2000, newly advanced to his terminal rank and just graduated from the Naval War College, the Colonel arrived in Seoul, Republic of Korea (ROK) to assume duties as Chief of the Current Operations Branch, J-3, United States Forces Korea (USFK).
It was not his first time in Korea.
The Colonel had participated in port visits and exercises in South Korea in the early '80s, and then, in the late '90s, had deployed with his battalion (First Battalion, Third Marines -- the best battalion in the Marine Corps) from Okinawa to a training camp outside of Pohang for a month of combined exercises with a ROK Marine Corps battalion.
He had been to South Korea one other time. Early in his battalion's 7-month rotation from homebase at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii to Okinawa, Japan, the Colonel and his senior battalion staff flew to Seoul for a reconnaissance and mission planning session. The battalion's mission for which it was ordered to "be prepared" was participation in any ordered Noncombatant Evacuation from Seoul coincident with the imminent outbreak of war on the peninsula.
It was a sobering week.
USFK's Current Operations Branch, which the Colonel would lead a couple of years later, gave the battalion's senior staff an initial "threat" brief and a cursory outline of planned Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO). The threat brief was, to put it mildly, eye-opening.
It's one thing to study enemy order of battle in a schoolhouse. Getting a brief of the enemy's capabilities and current operations in a command post within artillery range is something else, again. The numbers are classified, but just know that the North Koreans have enough artillery and ballistic missile batteries positioned in range of Seoul to cause catastrophic casualties to a significant percentage of the residents of the metropolitan area.
The population of metropolitan Seoul numbers north of 15 million.
You do the math.
The battalion's "be prepared" mission was to fly into Seoul in the case of an "ordered" NEO, secure collection and evacuation sites, and facilitate the orderly evacuation of nearly a quarter million U.S. and friendly nation citizens.
The mission was daunting, to say the least.
Impossible, to be realistic.
But, Marines don't believe in the concept of impossibility. Impossible missions are just assigned a little more time for accomplishment.
The Colonel and his staff conducted reconnaissance of the projected NEO collection and evacuation sites (travelling all over metropolitan Seoul on the city's world class subway system) and returned to Okinawa. A trip report was prepared and submitted to higher headquarters detailing findings, concerns, and supplies necessary if the mission were ever to be conducted.
And, frankly, the mission was never discussed again. It was assessed to be unrealistic, and, just too hard to think about. Besides, the First Battalion, Third Marines was a combat battalion (the best one in the world at the time) and there was no way all that battlefield potential was going to be wasted herding civilians. The expectation was that the battalion would participate in a recreation of MacArthur's Inchon end run, or a close facsimile thereof, and all training was focused on that potentiality.
So, when the Colonel took over the Current Ops Branch at USFK, he thought he had a pretty good handle on Korea. He was greatly mistaken.
His first assignment from the Army two-star who was his immediate superior was to read a half dozen books that formed a crash course in Korean culture and the history of conflict on the peninsula. The history part was mostly refresher -- the Colonel fancies himself a fairly well-read military historian -- but, the culture piece was new and very instructional. Turns out you can't understand the Kim regime north of the 38th Parallel without a decent foundation in Korean culture.
Long story short, Kim Il Sung, the first leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) gained and maintained unchallenged military, economic, and political power by turning Korean society upside down and ruthlessly leveraging the dominant Korean cultural concept of "saving face." By displacing the former top societal movers and shakers and putting the formerly disadvantaged in their place, Kim Il Sung gained the undying loyalty of his subordinates. By instituting mandatory daily criticism circles for all of his subjects, Kim kept the first few generations of the DPRK in such a state of psychological discombobulation that those who might have resisted his authoritarian rule were too unsettled and mistrustful of anyone but their supreme leader to even begin to plan a revolt.
Add to this societal witch's brew, strict isolation from the outside world, idolization of Kim as a demi-god, and Kim's concept of complete national self-sufficiency (Juche), and there is no wonder that the DPRK can maintain itself as one of the world's greatest armed camps while facing periodic famine and starvation. The Colonel always enjoyed driving home the point of the North's starvation to visiting VIPs by stopping a film of the DPRK Army on parade and pointing out that the skinny soldiers were the best fed in the malnourished country.
But the Kims, and their immediate subordinates (drawn from the former bottom of society, remember), lived sumptuously. The implication was that if something happened to the Kims, the gravy train went away for all the generals and high political apparatchiks and it was back to the coal mines for them.
And, as much as the Colonel thought he knew about the extent of the North Korean threat, he found out quickly in the summer of 2000 that he didn't know the half of it. Daily intel briefings focused not only on major DPRK military movements, but also on the constant attempts by the norks to infiltrate small units into the South.
As Chief of Current Ops, the Colonel ran the combined USFK/UNC (United Nations Command) Command Center into which constant notifications of both friendly and enemy dispositions flowed. Whenever a major friendly unit's disposition changed or major enemy unit moved (which happened hourly on average), the secure phone on the Colonel's desk (or the one on his bedstand) would ring and a watch officer would relay the information. The Colonel would ask a few pertinent questions about the information before hanging up and deciding whether it was important enough to start waking up the generals.
The Colonel doesn't know who has the job running Current Ops right now, but he knows that colonel ain't getting much sleep.