Watching the unfolding twitter storm, insult trading and intercontinental missile launches it is easy to forget that the UK was the second largest military contribution to the Korean War in 1950. Most of the personnel were National Service Conscripts and more were killed and wounded than in both the recent Iraq and Afghan wars.
The UK, a Permanent Member of the National Security Council sent personnel as part of a UN force led by the US. We remain committed to the defence of South Korea to this day. The UK has always send forces to the Invincible Warrior exercises held by South Korean and US forces. Not large numbers but we remain committed to the protection of South Korea as a standing commitment to the UN. Here in Wales, Operation Vambrace Warrior, brought Special Forces from the UK, US and Japan to take part in a week long exercise to repel an attack from North Korea.
As a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly I was invited to attend meetings in South Korea to discuss and review the current tensions and planning there. There was a vote in the Commons on the second reading of the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ but whips agreed it was important I attended the meetings. I was ‘paired’ with a Conservative who would also miss the vote so the outcome would not change.
Before leaving for these visits there are briefing documents to read and meetings to attend so you arrive understanding the UK perspective. Looking back reading about North Korea sending people to work in China, Russia and even to Poland to earn foreign currency came as a surprise. Conditions in the labour camps especially in Russia were harsh yet despite the North Korean state taking 80% of the wages earned there did not appear to be a lack of volunteers to take on the tasks. The new leader Kim Jong-un came to power promising two areas of growth, economic and the development of nuclear weapons capability. He has kept both promises.
The contrasting wealth, technological innovation and economic success of South Korea is stark. From the devastating poverty and infrastructure devastation following the Korean War the country has built a highly successful economy. Samsung televisions, computers, mobile phones, Daewoo Buses, Hyundai and Kia cars, ship building, minerals and plastics all drive a thriving technologically advanced economy. There is massive investment in education and in research and development. Korean beauty products and music are the must haves of many of the younger generations.
This is a dangerous part of the world. Historic tensions have been put to one side, but not forgotten, to allow trade to develop between South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. Japan and South Korea are close allies of the US. Japanese brutal occupation of South Korea is etched deeply into memories. China and Russia have been long term supporters of North Korea and are opposed to greater US involvement in the South. When US THAD (Terminal High Altitude Defence) missiles were deployed into South Korea after the firing of missiles from the north, China retaliated. 87 South Korean department stores in China were closed for fire safety infringements and Chines tourism into the South declined by 75%.
A visit to the DMZ (de-militarised zone) the border between the North and South is an earie experience that exemplifies the tension. There is an air unreality as you gaze across mine fields, see the three tunnels built by the North Koreans to bring military forces into the South and see the memorials to soldiers killed by invading forces during the armistice; there is no peace agreement ending the war in 1953. When you enter the South Korean zone, soldiers leave the North Korean side of the border to photograph your every move. The tension is palpable.
This visit to South Korea is one I will never forget. I met Civil, Military and Government leaders. Talked to Ambassadors and visited key sites, then collapsed with a Korean strain of double pneumonia and was admitted to hospital. My NATO colleagues left, most of the medical and nursing staff had little English and I was very ill. The care was superb, and it’s amazing what you can do with sign language, single words and google translate. I was in the hospital for five days and back in a hotel room for a further five days negotiating between an insurance company and an airline to convince everyone I was fit to fly.
Those days were awful but incredibly useful. Talking about why I was in the country, how Korean’s felt about the missile threats and the growing tension and ways forward were illuminating. The resilience of the South Koreans living with the daily tension and threat from the north was amazing. The kindness and eagerness to explain despite the language barrier inspiring.
Now I am back in Porthcawl breathing good Welsh air and trying to rebuild my strength. So what next? Sanctions have to be the way forward; there is much that can be achieved there. There is an opportunity for old enemies to face the need to work together and find a common solution. In Panmunjom there is a telephone line between the North and South Korean governments. The line is rung four times a day. It was last picked up by the North Koreans in 2013. Dialogue is ultimately the only way forward, so we must hope one day soon, the phone is answered.