Should a war break out, planes from the North taking off from forward airfields would arrive in less than four minutes. And according to a scenario by the South Korean military, the five North Korean naval squadrons stationed in coves on the opposite shore would send out 360 war vessels, including 13 submarines, all of them swarming toward the island.
For its part, South Korea’s 6th Marine Brigade, the Black Dragons, would bring tanks and shore guns out of bunkers here and open a barrage. Then 4,000 South Korean marines hunkered down in the hills would charge out.
Baengnyeong, which sits nearly astride the 38th parallel, is 173 kilometers, or 107 miles, from the South Korean mainland. Its location near the southwestern tip of North Korea brings the South’s sea border close to the North Korean coast — and also makes the island an early warning and counterattack base in case of war with the North.
“We will strike the enemy’s side like a dagger,” Lieutenant Chung Kyong Min, a marine detachment commander, said on a rare visit to his hilltop observation post.
When Christopher Hill, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, crosses the inter-Korean border on Wednesday to try to persuade North Korea to stop reactivating its nuclear weapons complex, he will face a half-century of mistrust and an unrelenting hostility that keeps Baengnyeong the most heavily fortified island in Korea.
The divide also poses an obstacle to an ambitious deal, announced on Monday, to import $90 billion worth of Russian natural gas into South Korea.
President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea, and his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, sealed that deal in Moscow, hoping that 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas in Siberia would flow to South Korea over 30 years, starting in 2015. But they still have to persuade North Korea to let a pipeline pass through its territory (and earning the North $100 million a year).
Otherwise, they will have to opt for a more costly delivery route, such as an undersea pipeline detouring around the North.
Hill’s trip to Pyongyang on the invitation of the North Koreans is seen as the last-ditch effort of the administration of President George W. Bush in its waning months to salvage an agreement on nuclear disarmament for aid.
That deal began crumbling in the recent weeks as the United States demanded intrusive inspections to check whether North Korea is hiding any secret nuclear activities, other than the declared complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. Without a North Korean agreement to allow such inspections, Washington refused to give the North the reward it had sought: removing it from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Calling that demand a slight to its sovereignty, North Korea has lashed out. It has removed United Nations seals on its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and threatened to restart, as early as this week, a plant there that can turn spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
A task for Hill is whether he can work out with the North Koreans a compromise verification mechanism that satisfies both the election-year Congress in Washington and the North Koreans, who have turned more hard-line than ever amid reports that its leader, Kim Jong Il, is ill.
Hill is the first senior Western official to visit Pyongyang since reports emerged in early September that Kim has suffered a stroke, triggering speculation over who was in charge in the world’s most secretive regime, now armed with long-range missiles and nuclear arms.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “believes it’s important for Chris to go out to the region, particularly to go to Pyongyang, to get a sense on the ground as to what’s going on,” said her deputy spokesman, Robert Wood.
North Korea has bristled at the United States’ demand to have full access, including random visits and the taking of samples, in all its suspected nuclear sites, including some undeclared military sites.
The United States suspects that besides its plutonium program based in Yongbyon, North Korea has been pursuing uranium enrichment and exporting nuclear technology to countries like Syria. The North says it never has — a denial Washington wants to verify through comprehensive inspections.
Over the weekend, as Hill’s trip to Pyongyang was first reported, a senior South Korean government official close to nuclear negotiations, indicated that Washington was working on a compromise, less strident inspection regime.
“You have to be intrusive at the end of the day,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But you cannot achieve everything all at once. We can do this in an incremental way. We can move from the easy parts to the difficult.”
Hill had earlier sent North Korea a new, toned-down verification mechanism. But the North did not respond and instead began reassembling its Yongbyon complex, part of which had been disabled under a nuclear disarmament deal struck in February last year.
Hill said he would consult with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sook, in Seoul on Tuesday before crossing into North Korea through a border checkpoint north of the South Korean capital.
“There is concern that Rice and Hill have lost momentum to work out an efficient compromise with North Korea, given Washington’s preoccupation with the financial crisis and presidential election,” said Ryoo Kihl Jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies and a member of the board of North Korea policy advisers for Lee.
To Washington, whether North Korea accepts intrusive inspections is a key test of its intentions. But in the North’s perspective, such access would mean giving up too much too soon. It must play its nuclear card to the fullest benefit, holding on to it until the power elite in Pyongyang is sure it can survive without nuclear weapons, experts in Seoul said.
Hill’s strategy so far has been to nudge North Korea toward nuclear disarmament through a sequence of rewards designed to build trust. But he faced pressure from hard-liners in Washington who insisted on placing a rigorous verification mechanism on the North, which has cheated before and never convinced Washington that it will ever give up its nuclear weapons.
How mistrust and enmity drive politics on the divided Korea is evident along the inter-Korean border, especially in this frontier island of 51 square kilometers, or 20 square miles.
Baengnyeong is the only place in South Korea where high school students and homemakers still join regular military drills with live ammunition.
North Korea has never accepted the sea border around this island. The two navies clashed in bloody naval skirmishes in waters not far from here, in 1999 and 2002.
Last year alone, said Chung, the South Korean Marine Corps lieutenant, North Korean gunboats violated the sea border 20 times.
Also, he said, planes from the North screamed to within 40 kilometers of the border before turning around “in an intentional provocation to raise military tension.”
But Major Han No Soo, a spokesman with the 6th Marine Brigade, said there has been no unusual movement on either side since news emerged about Kim Jong Il’s ill health.
In this garrison-like island, every strip of beach where enemy troops might be able to land is guarded by mines, steel columns and concrete walls. But its 4,500 civilian residents go about their business, catching crabs and catering to tourists — oblivious to the outside world’s uneasiness over the north’s nuclear weapons.
“We hear the marines fire up their guns in exercise so often and so long,” said Kim Eung Gyun, 47, a Baengnyeong resident, “that we won’t know if there is a war until an enemy artillery shell drops right at our feet.”