Can’t separate the Olympics from global politics

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on February 19, 2018. It can also be found online here.

I love the Olympics, in part because they seem to defy reality as a place where dreams really do come true.

But geopolitics doesn’t stop while the Olympics are on – countries always use the Games to jostle for power, position, and prestige. Hitler’s 1936 Games come to mind, or the U.S. decision not to attend the 1980 Games in Moscow, and the subsequent Soviet decision to skip the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

The geopolitical maneuvering continues at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang – not surprising considering they’re so close to the DMZ that separates the North from South Korea. Tensions are high, as the North’s missile and nuclear tests have grown in number, range, and quality, poised to threaten not just Seoul and Tokyo, but the U.S. homeland as well. Continue reading “Can’t separate the Olympics from global politics”

On Talks with North Korea: The Parable of the Mountain Rabbit

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

I think a lot about the Korean peninsula. When news emerges from there, I take note. Like recently, when both the commandant of the Marine Corps and the secretary of defense made ominous statements that signal the serious likelihood of another Korean war—these made me a little uncomfortable.

Or, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un decided, as he did last week, to make a public address opening the door to diplomacy, words that have been accepted and furthered by the South Korean prime minister. Today’s talks in Panmunjom (the village that straddles the DMZ between the two countries) are the first between the countries in two years and have a long-shot potential to forestall war. Continue reading “On Talks with North Korea: The Parable of the Mountain Rabbit”

Ten Takeaways from the Korean Theater of Operations and A Warfighter’s Way Forward

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

You know there’s a national security problem brewing when in the space of seven weeks, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs opines on the widespread challenges North Korea presents, followed closely by visits to South Korea from the secretaries of defense and state.

In a similar effort to come to grips with some of the larger strategic issues at play, I recently concluded an intense, week-long visit to the Korean theater of operations, including the combined warfighting command there (Combined Forces Command/United Nations Command/US Forces Korea; CFC/UNC/USFK). What follows is a list of experience-based takeaways that may be of practical interest and potential use by those well beyond the confines of the Korean Peninsula—things to consider as we slide closer to conflict. Continue reading “Ten Takeaways from the Korean Theater of Operations and A Warfighter’s Way Forward”

The Five Fatal Challenges of Warfighting in Korea

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

North Korea’s aggressively destabilizing behavior has hit the headlines again, this time several unannounced, unsanctioned missile tests—part of a national double-time march to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead capable of striking the United States by 2020. North Korea’s drive toward a deep-strike weapon of mass destruction raises an important question: what would the United States do to forestall such a weapon’s use? Airstrikes can’t guarantee getting all the bad stuff, and cyber tools appear to have failed as a “left of launch” option. Deploying ground forces is, of course, an unlikely scenario. But if such an action became necessary, what would ground combat in North Korea look like? Continue reading “The Five Fatal Challenges of Warfighting in Korea”

In Search of Seamless Interoperability in Korea: The First Year of the ROK-US Combined Division

*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on June 24, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

“You had better get back to Korea,” the messenger whispered in U.S. Army Colonel W.H.S. Wright’s ear.

Wright sat on a Tokyo church pew on Sunday, June 25, 1950, about to put his family on a U.S.-bound plane, when the North Koreans attacked the Republic of Korea. Wright immediately flew back to Seoul’s smoky confusion to command the Korean Military Advisory Group’s (KMAG) 472 American soldiers assigned to build the new ROK Army. Without warning, the next day the entire ROK Army headquarters moved south. Then Wright received a dispatch from Washington promising military reinforcement and the ROK Army headquarters returned to Seoul. The two organizations were reunited.

It did not last long. After dark that night, Wright learned all South Korean Army units (including the headquarters for a second time) were withdrawing south through Seoul. Before Wright could react, a “tremendous explosion” knocked him to the ground.  The R.O.K. Army destroyed the only bridge over Seoul’s Han River, which stranded KMAG on the wrong (north) side. Wright ordered KMAG to withdrawal south, yet, with no way to cross the river, the US soldiers struggled until, at the last moment, South Korean Army Colonel Lee Chi Up led them to a large raft and to relative safety from North Korean forces.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

 

Soju Soldiers: KATUSAs, GIs, and the Search for the Bottom of the Bottle

Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on March 29, 2016. It can also be found online here (or PDF). 

Bringing death to 11 percent of the known world (and terrifying the other 89 percent) is apparently thirsty work, so the Mongols brought booze. Top shelf, at that, all the way from Persia to Korea circa 1300. It was called arak then, and the distilleries cranking out the hard stuff were first established near modern-day Kaesong, the little village that separates the two Koreas, and home to a much haggled-over industrial complex. The drink’s modern descendent is still called arakju around that border town, but countrywide it’s more commonly known as soju (or “burn liquor”). It’s grain- or sweet potato-based, typically about 20 percent ABV, and was the world’s best-selling spirit in 2014. Yes, soju. It’s as ubiquitous in Korea as Wheaties are in the states, except they use soju instead of milk and nobody ever touches the cereal.

Ever since the Khan’s horsebacked hordes rode into Korea 700 years ago, soju has had a distinctly military flavor (although strawberry’s not bad either). The most popular way to drink it in South Korea is to drop a shot glass into beer, a practice known as poktanju, which translates to “bomb drink,” and may or may not be a dig at the North Korean nuclear program. Speaking of which, Kim Jong Un supposedly prefers whiskey and cognac over soju, a fact that makes me start to question his fitness to lead the Korean people. Perhaps to make up for this cultural slight, the North Korean navy features a Soju-class of guided missile patrol boats.

Read the rest at War on the Rocks.

Taking American Soldiers Hostage: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Mark my words, it won’t be long until an American soldier is taken hostage on a battlefield.

There are a lot of places this might happen, but let’s see how it might play out with one major threat: North Korea. There are at least three reasons the North Koreans are likely to snatch American soldiers during combat operations: significant tunnel infrastructure which enables surprise, past North Korean orientation towards kidnapping as an accepted practice in international relations, and the likely prospect that conventional military engagement will not bring success to the North Koreans. Continue reading “Taking American Soldiers Hostage: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You”