Pohang, South Korea — Villagers near the southeastern town of Pohang had hardly downed their breakfast bowls of seaweed soup and kimchi (pickled, garlic cabbage) the other day, when their usually tranquil beach was stormed by nearly 22,000 United States and South Korean mari nes.
Drivers on the main north-south, Seoul-to-Pusan expressway were no sooner diverted to a side road than US and Korean fighter and cargo aircraft screamed out of the blue sky and landed with precision on the recently vacated highway.
Almost anywhere else in the world, such spectacular military maneuvers might have created confusion, alarm, or at least surprise. But not here. For the Republic of Korea lives in daily readiness for war, fearing a renewal of hostilities from enemy No. 1, communist North Korea.
Almost every adult male has his military uniform ready; the sonic booms that rattle every window, often several times a day, startle only visitors; and everyone knows that sections of the highway double up as emergency runways.
Even a schoolchild could tell you that the recent outburst of activity here is part of the combined US-Korean Team Spirit exercise. An annual event since 1976, it is designed to demonstrate the coordination and readiness of 39,000 US troops in Korea and their Korean counterparts, plus the US augmenting forces.
Team Spirit '81 will last almost two months and US forces have been deployed to Korea from Okinawa and mainland Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and the US mainland. The deployment, now entering its final stage with troops returning to home base, is in itself part of the exercise. The exercises range from setting up field kitchens and emergency medical centers to participating in athletic contests and war games, crossing rivers, and simulating full-scale war.
The amphibious assault near Pohang was the most complex operation and perhaps the most dramatic. From more than a dozen US ships anchord off the coast, more than 10,000 US marines as well as their South Korean counterparts were carried swiftly to the beach by landing craft and helicopters, backed by simulated naval gunfire and air support.
It took just 15 minutes to complete the six-wave amphibious landing. Within an hour, the "shock troops" had plowed through the paddy fields to establish a beachhead several miles inland.
"The best landing I've seen in 18 years," one marine major said enthusiastically, even though bad weather had caused a 24-hour delay.
The enthusiasm and excitement was later dampened by news of an accident during a rifer crossing exercise in which one Us soldier was killed and three others declared missing. It was a reminder that the "game" is war -- and deadly.
In all, nearly 157,000 US and Korean troops participated in Team Spirit '81, and over 30,000 US troops were brought in from outside Korea. General Wickham described the exercise as "highly visible demonstration of the US commitment to the Republic of Korea."
President Carter, early in his administration, had proposed major withdrawals of US troops from Korea, and then backtracked in the wake of strong negative reaction. Under Reagan, the question has not even come up.
With North Korean remaining steadfastly hostile, the South depends heavily on that commitment. Last year, talks between the two Koreas were broken off unilaterally by the North. A proposal made in January this year by President Chun Doo Hwan that he and the North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung, exchange visits, was rejected by the North. And the Seoul government claims that the North continues armistice violations and has stepped up anti-South propaganda.
US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that North Korea had a cruel and insatiable regime will still willing to cross the demarcation line between the two Koreas. He said he would recommend strengthening US-South Korean ties.
The South Koreans were naturally delighted when President Reagan, right after his inauguration, invited his South Korean counterpart, Chun Doo Hwan, to Washington.
The success of those talks was seen here as a sign that President Reagan wants to erase the Carter legacy of strained US-Korean relations.
As an apparently tangible proof of that determination, the Reagan administration swiftly agreed to a request from the South Koreas -- in the pipeline for several years -- to sell them 36 F-16 fighter planes, to assign to the Republic in March 1982, and to increase Korea's credits for arms purchases from $160 to $168 million.
US-South Korean relations have improved visibly under Reagan. In the small town of Pohang this month, banners stretch across the streets proclaiming "We Love US Marines." As one marine officer commented wryly, "You don't see that in many parts of the world these days."