04 February 2006

Tanks for the Memories...

With the New Year festivities winding down, it is time to restart the diplomatic agenda. North Korea and Japan meet in Beijing this weekend, South Korea and North Korea are preparing for a renewed round of general-level military talks, and Indonesia is sending an envoy to Pyongyang and Seoul to facilitate ministerial level defense talks. Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is working toward a train-ride to Pyongyang, and U.S. President George W. Bush refrained from any major condemnation of North Korea in his State of the Union Address the other night, making officials in Seoul smile.

Happy New Year.

There are other sign of spring - the tank barriers are coming down along the invasion corridors of South Korea. These massive concrete beams resting on pillars over major (and not so major) north-south roads were erected to avoid the little mishap of June 1950, when North Korean armor rolled unchallenged down the roads to Seoul. (That is not to say that there weren't noble acts and creative solutions - like martyr soldiers running into the armor to place satchel charges, or sticking explosives wrapped in a tar-covered sock to the sides of tanks.)

Over the years, North Korea's tank force appears more embedded in concrete as part of a defensive wall than any sort of tip to an offensive spear. And South Korea is better armed than it was before. Gone are the days when southern forces are left with minimal firepower, no anti-tank mines and only a few small and ineffectual bazookas.

With the current IMINT capabilities, gone too are the days when an armored column could simply sneak across the border. The barricades - wired to explode and send the several ton concrete blocks slamming onto the road below, making it theoretically impassable - are mere remnants of an older era of warfare. Vaguely reassuring shadows of an outdated strategy established to atone for a failing defense that was ill equipped and ill prepared to face the Northern invasion.

In the North, the tank barriers are different - less imposing perhaps, more decorative. The southern barricades appear as some sort of oversize child's building blocks, stacked as a bulky gate over the road. The Northern counterparts are instead series of pillars with slightly narrower bases, wired to explode and send the monolith (and its three or five counterparts) falling over onto the road. They are decorative at times, with bas relief flowers or revolutionary slogans. They do not hang over the road, but stand on either side, a column of silent sentinels awaiting their orders to lie down.

But while there is an active effort to remove the barriers south of the DMZ, time, nature and neglect are taking care of the Northern counterparts. In some cases, the rebar can be seen protruding from the crumbling concrete. In others there appear to be holes, and parts of the concrete pillars hollow. These are not in the middle of cities like in the South, but out in the countryside, along the main highway from the border to Pyongyang.

There are no people to complain about the eyesore nature of the defensive blocks, nor are they really as much as an eyesore in the image-conscious North as they are in the more form-follows-function South (at least as of the time they were built). But they are crumbling. And so is the sense of impending war.

North Korea, once the hottest spot for triggering another global war, is losing its image of formidability. Like an aging prize fighter up against the ropes, there are still clear signs of former greatness; there is still an air of the indomitable spirit and the unflinching confidence. But it is tinged more with the musty smell of nostalgia than with the pungent odor of fresh sweat.

The unanswered question, the wildcard that keeps the bookies in business, is whether North Korea has one more trick, one last feint, whether Pyongyang is really tired out, or whether it is simply playing rope-a-dope with the rest of the world. All signs point to a true fading of spirit, a real decline in capabilities and even a dissipation of desire. But the most dangerous moment in any fight is when one grows complacent with ones opponent. And while things appear to be nearing the end, never let down your guard until the bell rings and you are safely out of the ring.

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