The timing could not have been better for the 72nd Times-Dispatch Public Square. Just hours after the afternoon conversation about the Korean crisis, North Korea launched another missile into the Pacific. The Square, moderated by RTD Publisher Tom Silvestri, didn’t produce any solutions to the tension on the peninsula, but it did deliver better insight into Korea and the challenges it faces, thanks to comments from leaders in the local Korean-American community, veterans of the Korean War, and an expert on international affairs. The event was held on Sept. 14 at the RTD building in downtown Richmond. Below, we present highlights from the panel members and a highly engaged audience.

***

Tom Silvestri, RTD publisher: This is a little bit unusual, we’ve taken a world topic and we’re trying to understand it through our own perspectives here in Richmond, Virginia. We’ve watched the news, and we’ve reported on the news as North Koreans are rapidly expanding their nuclear weapons program, which threatens world peace and poses enormous policy and military challenges for the United States. But if we know anything about our community, there are a lot of informed citizens here, and so we’ve invited a group to start the conversation who are either Korean-American, who have served in Korea, have lived in Korea, or who study Korea to help us understand these important issues. ...

***

John Kim, president of the Korean-American Society of Greater Richmond: I emigrated to the States with my parents in 1973 when I was 10, and I have lived in the United States for 45 years. I lived my first 10 years in Korea, but I’ve lived here for 45 years, so I feel more American than Korean. But I have been to Korea many times, and I talk to my friends and relatives who are still living in Korea. ...

I think to some degree a lot of people understand who Kim Jong-Un is — a third world despot who is trying to hold on to his place in the world. And my concern ... is more with Donald Trump. To be honest with you, I feel like the administration is just an unmitigated dumpster fire. ... He’s acting like an African monarch, you know? Be presidential. ... Show some class, please. You’re the leader of the most powerful country in the world, start acting like it. ...

Kim Jong-Un would rather have his people eat grass than give up military weapons. That’s a fact. It’s never going to end. But I feel like if the United States pulled out of Afghanistan, Afghanistan would just collapse. But Korea right now is not Korea 65 years ago. ... My perspective is — it is shared by some Koreans, maybe not all, is that as South Koreans we are saying, “Let us handle this now, OK?” It’s time for the American troops to pull out. Let us move forward, and let us self-determine our outcome and our future. You’ve done enough. Because ideas are a powerful thing. The idea that you defended democracy is firmly entrenched in Korea. So that is a lasting legacy and the gift that the American people and the soldiers have given us. Let us handle it now. There are 40,000 American troops stationed in Korea. You add dependents, that’s 100,000 U.S. citizens. Whatever military outcome happens, those lives are at risk. So I feel like as an American, as a Korean: OK, Korea is ready to stand on their own. Give them military assistance, other assistance if necessary, but pull back and take a step back. Let us take it from here on. ...

I really don’t see a long-term solution. Life is messy. Sometimes you have to accept what it is. I think the best we can hope for is just a stalemate without escalation, just uneasy ceasefire.

***

Clay Mountcastle, director of the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond: .... The reason I’m probably sitting here is because as a U.S. Army officer I spent a year stationed in Korea not too long ago, from 2008-2009. ... I was the executive officer for a Patriot Missile Battalion that was guarding Osan Air Base in South Korea. ... My perspective on being there in Korea during the years 2008 and 2009 was in a lot of ways shaped by my experience growing up in Germany, as a kid growing up in Germany during the Cold War, and then also being stationed in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rejoining of both West and Eastern Germany.

So when I went to Korea for that year, for some reason I probably assumed that the dynamic would have been similar to a Cold War Europe. And I quickly learned to find out that Korea is not Europe, and the situation — the military and political situation on the Korean Peninsula was not what it was in my experience in Germany. I remember when I was a lieutenant in Germany we emphasized combat readiness but in the back of our minds we were like, get ready to fight against who? The Soviet Union has dissolved, and, hey, we’re flying high, this was the mid-nineties. This was pre-9/11. ... When I showed up in Korea as part of this missile defense mission, and that was to guard specifically against what everybody assumes would be war on the Korean Peninsula, and that’s through the air. There is always a ground threat, a conventional threat, which is a very scary prospect, and one that people train readily for. But we were mostly focused on the threat through TCBMs, ICBMS, missile threats from North Korea.

There was no need to convince people of the need to be combat-ready, because ever since the conclusion of the Korean War, for many the peninsula is still at war. It is a ceasefire only. And that depends on who you speak with. I met a number of Korean military officials that expressed to me their concern when they would hear their American counterparts talk in the past tense about the Korean War. And they would express the urgency that, hey, the reason that you’re here is so that you can be ready to go at a moment’s notice. And we believed it. When you stand up there in the demilitarized zone, the Cold War still exists in one spot in the world, none more other than the demilitarized zone in Korea. It is still very much communism versus everybody else, and it’s palpable in that area. So my experience in Korea was that the sense of urgency is certainly there, everything is hinging on one little spot. And the potential for it to tip into a disastrous conflict has been there for decades now.

And it depends on who you talk to in my experience. The younger soldiers, both Korean and American were much more optimistic about, oh we’re going to get reunification of the peninsula, the politics will work out, and it’s going to be a good thing. And the more senior folks I talked to were more wary. Those with longer memories were more wary about the potential for reunification of the peninsula, and the prospects about if there actually could be another war. And the real distrust of the North Korean regime was very strong with the folks I talked to that had been there longer. ...

Back in 1951 the Korean War began and it was a bit of a disaster for the people of South Korea, the UN, the U.S., the way that war began, it was caught by surprise. ... And then the UN and the U.S. and the people of South Korea rebounded and were able to draw the war to a stalemate, the way it did. That would not happen again. Whether it’s North Korea who throws the first punch, the U.S. to throw the first punch — the people of South Korea, the military of South Korea, and the Americans that are there would not get steamrolled, OK? The big question is, is the regime to the north of the DMZ willing to start World War III? Because everybody inherently believes that there is no such thing as a proxy war anymore when it comes to the Korean Peninsula. And I think we’re hearing a lot about that today.

The strong belief is that any military action on the Korean Peninsula is going to draw many different players into it, whether we think politically we can withstand or not. We are able to survive proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, during the Cold War, at least — and maybe we’re wrong, but from the military perspective when I was there, most people I spoke with thought that any type of military exchange would simply be not only catastrophic for the peninsula but for the rest of the world.

And so it’s extremely sobering — if people don’t take this situation seriously, they absolutely should, and I think people are kidding themselves if they think that any type of military exchange on the Korean Peninsula could be contained specifically between back and forth conventional fighting across the DMZ across South Korea and North Korea, and the Americans brought in between. ...

***

Ok Pil Kim, past president of the Korean-American Society of Greater Richmond: ... My concern is, we have to address humanitarian issues, and everything we can stop, we have to focus on basic-line fundamental human needs rather than all of this political, all of the greed. So I don’t know how we can get — I think there is a way, if we send out the voice. Just like Korea just got a new government. I mean, new elections, through the people, because they want a democratic country. ... They want to be treated as equal. ... Can you imagine, your parents are there, you’re here, you’re brokenhearted. We have to focus on humanitarian issues. That’s what we can do. And all others, government leaders, we send a voice. You focus on humanitarian things. Save a life. ... I’m so proud of living here, seeing things like our response to the (hurricanes), people helping each other. That’s a beautiful part of all of this disaster. Disaster is not disaster when we are together. ...

Right now there’s a crisis. Crisis means it can happen any minute. We are not ready, and I think if this war is not going to be only a Korean war, it will be maybe lead to a a third world war. I think we should not allow another war on this Earth anymore. We have experienced, we have seen — there is no benefit, nothing. I think we have to get serious, otherwise the end of this Earth is coming. Because this is serious. Right now we have to put all knowledge, power, technology together. Negotiate with North Korea, be down to Earth. What would happen? Hey guys, you’re not going to win, the world is going to be very disastrous. So I hope we can be serious. This cannot happen anymore. ... We cannot push a button to war. We are not ready, Korea is not ready, and the world is not ready. ...

***

Lance Song, a Korean working here in the private sector: ... I was born in Korea, I grew up in Korea, educated in Korea. I just came to go to grad school in D.C. — George Washington University. Then I just got a job. So my English might be broken, but so my view is from Korea. So my understanding of the Korean state is, we as Korean citizens, we have felt left out. We feel left out because we are not part of the discussion, the six countries. China, North Korea, and Russia, America, and Japan. But North Korea doesn’t want to talk with us, and then America is somehow representing my country.

South Korea doesn’t have any wartime control. So U.S. has the wartime control over the Korean Peninsula. So when there is a war, the U.S. will represent Korea. But this time I think it is serious, very serious, more than the past to be honest. And there is a series of missile tests in the past. We didn’t really feel threatened because they always lie, and they say something, they’re going to do it, but they didn’t do it. So I feel like, oh this is another lie, North Korea. But the recent six missile tests that were successful were arguably (testing) a hydrogen bomb, which is five times bigger, larger magnitude wise, and the distance. So we felt threatened then.

But we don’t have — we don’t represent ourselves. We have to rely on the U.S. government. So me, as a Korean citizen, we wanted to represent ourselves, and we want to raise our voice in the discussion in how we are going to handle North Korea. Of course we don’t have the proper means of dealing with North Korea because we don’t have any nuclear weapons. There is a lot of discussion now among our government, having the so called ... high altitude missile system, American systems, and bringing them over here to the Korean Peninsula so we can protect ourselves.

To me — this is my personal opinion — to me it is more relied on the American government than, “Let’s protect ourselves with ourselves.” ... But I think it’s important to — six countries all together, put all of the agendas on the table, and figure out what the North Koreans really want.

I mean, if you look at the North Korea situation, the only way they can negotiate is missile development, and that is the only leverage they have for dealing with the rest of the world. And in the past North Korea really heavily relied on the Soviet Union in terms of missile technologies. After that they relied on Iranian technology. And over time they send scientists to China, they are well educated, the physics, chemistry, or mechanics, they are all good, well educated PhD scientists, back to North Korea. They heavily work on their missile systems. This is very evident, the success with the hydrogen bomb. So if we push them, put them in the corner, the more we don’t know what’s going to happen. And the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un is very unpredictable unlike his prior tyrant. And also, the Trump administration is kind of — to me it’s like fanning the flame.

***

Monti Datta, professor of political science at the University of Richmond: I lived in South Korea from 1995-1997 when I had graduated from college in Berkley. I taught English in South Korea, and that was really my first exposure to looking at the world outside of the perspective of the United States. And I remember one afternoon I was with one of my Korean English co-teachers, and he pulled me aside. And he was a great guy, he looked at me square in the face, and directly in the eyes, and he said, “I like you, but I don’t like your country.” And that was sort of the first shock I got about this idea of others around the world maybe having a negative perspective on U.S. foreign policy around the world. ...

Over the years I’ve visited Korea back and forth many times. I was most recently there over the spring, and I followed with a lot of great interest the issue of North Korea. And the issue of the Korean Peninsula. I think Mr. Song touched on some important points about Korea’s self-determination. There’s an old proverb that Koreans would tell me. They would often say that Korea feels like a shrimp sandwiched between the two giant whales of China and Japan over the centuries. And now I suppose you could say there’s another giant whale of the United States.

So for quite a while I think there is a subtext, or a deeper issue, of the extent to which Korea should be sovereign and self-determining. Instead it’s rather complicated. We have a very broad cast of characters. The United States, Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and these six countries for various reasons are tied together now with regard to what some call the North Korean nuclear threat.

When I think about the issue from a political science perspective, I think perhaps to disagree somewhat with some of the remarks so far, I would argue that North Korea is a rational actor, and that the regime of North Korea has been very strategic over the decades in basically playing what you may call nuclear blackmail, or the nuclear card to use an analogy from poker. Whenever North Korea plays the nuclear card it invariably extracts economic concessions from the international community without fail.

After the Cold War, the United States was I think hoping that North Korea would collapse just like the Soviet Union, and through a combination of sanctions the intention was I think to starve and collapse the regime. That forced North Korea into a corner where from the 1990s and until today, it’s engaged in nuclear blackmail. And the stakes are getting higher, but I think it is a fair assumption to say that both Kim Jong Un, and even as rhetorically colorful as President Trump is, with regard to this issue, I think we can assume these are rational actors. There’s a lot of volatile rhetoric going on, and North Korea is playing that nuclear card because the regime is in dire straits again, as usual.

Another perspective I think we need to consider is that after 9/11 there was the war in Iraq, and there was a speech that President Bush gave about the Axis of Evil including Iraq and Iran and North Korea. Shortly thereafter Iraq’s regime was deposed, Iran was on the radar, and I think that logic has further pushed North Korea into the corner over the years.

As I understand North Korea’s thinking, I mean I have not been to North Korea, but I know North Korea prizes a philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination. ... And one element ... is the desire to be respected by others, even to be treated as an equal among peers. And one potential diplomatic solution I believe that would work is — and this is a bit extreme — but face-to-face, bilateral direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. I think that is something that North Korea has always wanted but has never gotten, that wouldn’t hurt, and that’s worth a try. ...

I think what we’ll see over the next few weeks or few months is more strong rhetoric, more saber rattling, President Trump going on Twitter storms about North Korea, Kim Jong Un saying bellicose things about eviscerating the United States. But thankfully cooler heads will prevail in, I think, President Trump’s National Security Council. And the regime of North Korea ... is going to continue this game of nuclear blackmail. And probably at the eleventh hour, because we don’t have diplomatic relations with North Korea we’ll have to use back channels. ... And some sort of agreement will be brokered that will just be a Band-Aid on a longer problem of, one, how can North Korea really be treated, especially as a regime that has always been on the brink of collapse, and what do you do about South Korea-North Korea relations that are at the heart of it.

***

Jim Chase, temporary commander of the local Korean Veterans Association, Army veteran: ... When we were in Korea, 65 or more years ago, it was a different Korea than we know today. North Korea was taken over by the communists, South Korea by American unilateral countries. The difference, you can see that they are still in poverty in North Korea. South Korea is a wonderful place. To know that they have rebuilt and become a wonderful country, they are wonderful people to be around. ...

My feelings on what is going on in Korea is you have a dictator who really doesn’t realize what he’s doing. I think we need to educate him, however — whatever it takes, to the realities of what would happen with this nuclear bomb. It could be the end of the world as we know it. I feel that war is horrible. We went through — ’51 and ’52 I was in Korea. You can’t imagine the ravages of that country. Seoul, Korea, was burning, holes in all of the buildings. Just a terrible, terrible situation that these people endured. The weather over there was horrible. Very warm in the summer. Monsoon seasons as you would not believe. Winters that were 19, 20 below zero. The first wave of American soldiers that were in Korea didn’t have proper uniforms, proper shoes to endure the weather. A lot of frostbite, had a lot of problems other than war problems. Just to survive Korea as a soldier ... was a real trek. So my feelings are that we need to teach the North Koreans what would happen if they did start a war with this hydrogen bomb. I just can’t imagine this going on. President Trump has tried very hard to bring this thing to a head, and cool this guy down. He is aggressive. ... We’ve had eight years of Obama, who did nothing. Spent a lot of money in Asia, and did nothing as far as the North Koreans. ... Someone needs to take a hold and let them know where they stand.

***

Graham Nelms, World War II and Korean War Navy veteran: I’m 91 years old. ... After World War II I came home, I joined the Naval Reserves, and then in June of 1950, when the North Koreans come across the 38th Parallel and the United Nations got involved, I was activated in July of 1950. And I found myself assigned to a ship that was already in the orient, the USS Shelter, a Destroyer, DD790. .. I’m not sure whether South Korea had an air force or air force bases, but by the time I got there we were already pushing to Pusan perimeter. And they were about to push us off into the Pacific Ocean. It was in September when (Douglas) MacArthur went back into Inchon and then cut the supply lines to the troops that were in South Korea, and started pushing north. By Christmas of 1950 ... the real war started. Because the Chinese and the Russians had now come across the Yalu River in the Chosin Reservoir area, and it pushed Chester Puller and his 2nd Marine Division, and the 7th Army Division out of that area. ...

My perspective today is the fact that North Korea is, what, 60 years old, or 65 years old? They’re being pushed, and they’re being financed. I’m not saying that the North Korean people aren’t smart people, but I’m saying that the Russians and the Chinese are pushing this thing, and ... they’ve got him on a string, and they’re pulling the strings. They’re financing him. .. They know what’s going on, they can stop this thing in a heartbeat if they wanted. But they don’t want to — the communists want to take over the world I believe. Of course the democracies aren’t going to let that happen without some show of force. ... The Korean people, I know, are smart people. South Korea is now the fifth greatest economy in the world. North Korea, as I saw it when I was there was just a rural country, most of North Korea. ...

***

John Clatterbaugh, Korean War Army veteran: ... In 1950... I joined the Army, and I took advanced airborne training, and advanced infantry training, and found myself in February of 1951 in Korea. Served until June of 1951 with that unit of airborne combat regimental team, and in June rotated back to Japan and was assigned to the 160th Regimental Combat Team of the California National Guard. ... In January of 1952 we were back in Korea. ... I was saying to myself and everyone else in our outfit, why in the heck are we here taking all of this fighting and risking our lives for this? This is the question that went throughout, that we found a lot of the people that were coming back, the men who were coming back from the frontlines, who had basic training and did not know why we were there. ...

We lost a million and a half of civilians, innocent civilians in Korea, Korean civilians. And I am concerned about — we have the rattling of the sabers by the two heads of — the United States and North Korea. I’m greatly concerned about another hot war. It’s questionable what we do. I’m not a politician, I don’t know if anybody has any solutions to this. But I don’t think we can afford another war, whether it’s conventional or nuclear, we cannot afford that war. So we have to look at it in all possible ways to avoid that, by negotiations. And it’s very difficult. ...

***

Silvestri: Well that’s’ the panel. We’ve gotten some depth and some perspectives which I really appreciate, well done. Let’s go to the audience. ...

David Fisher, Richmond: My father served in Korea. ... At some near point in the past Donald Trump did acknowledge the fact that once Kim did take power, that it was a bit of a rush for him. He seems to be like a deer caught in the headlines to a certain extent. He seems to be somewhat confused, because whatever his agenda was initially, if he ever had one, Trump has kind of exacerbated that to a point where Kim doesn’t really know what to do. And again, China and Russia may have a great influence over him, but in the long term it seems like dialogue is going to have to be necessary in order for this guy to kind of get some perspective on what really needs to happen. Because he’s a young guy, he’s not had as many days as a lot of people have in the decision-making process. So I think someone is going to have to pull him under their coattails, and kind of let him know that, look this is not the best idea, let’s look at history, and let’s try to move on.

John Shinholser, Mechanicsville: I’ve been to Korea three times as a Marine. ... I’m really a student of the conflict. America must maintain superior technology. We have to own space, the sky, missile technology, how to shoot them down. Anything leaving that peninsula needs to be shot down. It shouldn’t be allowed to fly over our allies that we have treaties with, that we will defend them should a missile fly over. Also, we should get out of Korea. We’ve got no business defending a country that ought to defend themselves. ...

Erick Simpson, Henrico: I am a U.S. Army veteran. I served in the Iraq War. What I see going on between us is a bunch of idle threats. I mean, UN Security Council with the whole sanctions going on against North Korea, I think it’s just poking and prodding a regime that’s going to keep causing idle threats and no resolution to it. With everything going on between Trump and Kim Jung Un, I know America cannot afford another war right now. I mean, we’re still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, we’ve got troops deployed in ... South Korea. I have a few buddies that are actually stationed in South Korea. And the tensions are so high there, and everybody’s on standby — we can’t afford this. ...

I mean, it’s not going to be a conventional war as he said, it’s going to destroy the world, and I don’t think the world is ready for that. And I mean, him threatening after these sanctions come that the U.S. is going to see suffering. Who knows what’s going to happen, and I don’t think the world is ready for what is going to happen.

Bob Mahoney, Glenn Allen: I’m a former military officer, a long time ago, both in Germany and a short time in Korea. I think there’s a tendency to overestimate the ability of the military solution. Look at the map. Seoul is within artillery distance of North Korea. There are a couple thousand artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, and ... Set aside nuclear weapons, the conventional threat would be millions of people in Seoul dying on the first day of the war. ... They’ve got us. The diplomacy with, and the intervention of, the Chinese is really the only thing that can defuse this from where it is right now.

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.