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North Korea standoff hits close to the heart

Two North Korean soldiers look at the south side as a South Korean soldier, center, stand guard while U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the border village of Panmunjom which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, South Korea, Monday, April 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
Two North Korean soldiers look at the south side as a South Korean soldier, center, stand guard while U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the border village of Panmunjom which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, South Korea, Monday, April 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man) Associated Press

As part of my job, I track President Donald Trump’s tweets and statements. In recent days, it has become intensely personal.

Any minute, it’s possible that his staredown with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program could lead to death and destruction in South Korea, where I was born, lived until I was 4 and still have relatives.

It’s scary when Trump keeps sending threatening tweets, and unnerving when at the White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday, he made an offhand remark that North Korea has “gotta behave.”

Vice President Mike Pence, whose father fought in the Korean War in 1953, toured the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and later declared that the patience of the U.S. “has run out” and that “all options” are on the table.

Gone is the ultra-cool Barack Obama with his “strategic patience” plan of diplomacy and sanctions. Now we have Trump facing off against another very unpredictable leader with weird hair, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

It was a nervous time over the weekend. North Korea displayed new missiles in a massive military parade to mark the birthday of its founder, and tried to follow up with a missile test, but it blew up almost immediately after launch.

The next crisis could happen around North Korea’s next nuclear test. If the U.S. strikes, North Korea could retaliate against South Korea’s military and civilian population, as well as 28,500 American troops in the country.

While my closest cousins, aunts and uncles live in Southern California and New York, I also have relatives in Korea. Most live in Seoul, South Korea’s crowded capital of 10 million people that is only 35 miles from North Korean artillery batteries.

Imagine artillery dug in at Visalia firing shells and rockets at downtown Fresno. It’s that close.

Watching the news coverage the last few days brought back memories. I spent seventh grade at Seoul Foreign School with kids of diplomats and missionaries – our archrival was the American military school – and still remember the air raid drills that seemed awfully real.

When I returned for 1988 Summer Olympics, I visited the DMZ. My tour guide sternly told me not to provoke the North Korean guards on the other side of the conference table. As part of the tour, I crawled through one of the makeshift tunnels under the DMZ supposedly used by North Korean spies.

There are more than 500,000 Korean-Americans in California, and about 1.7 million total in the U.S. I suspect many of them are having similar fears.

North Korea’s nuclear program has long been a flashpoint for brinksmanship. But it appears to be getting closer to the technology to fit a warhead on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the West Coast.

While Trump is president, North Korea might get so close to that red line that he might believe a pre-emptive strike would be the best choice. He already has shown the willingness to use the U.S. military. On Monday, Pence referenced the 59 Tomahawk missiles that hit a Syrian air base this month and the dropping last week of the “mother of all bombs” against the Islamic State in Afghanistan and warned: “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve.”

I really hope it doesn’t. I dread waking up one morning to find out that Seoul, as North Korea repeatedly threatens, is “a sea of flames.”

Foon Rhee writes for The Sacramento Bee. Connect with him at (916) 321-1913, or on Twitter, @foonrhee.

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