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Amid rising tensions, South Korea offers rare glimpse inside military bases

South Korean fighter pilots are 'ready to scramble' as North Korea prepares a missile launch.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2009


A computer screen inside the lobby of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the Korean Air Force tracks every aircraft in the air over the Korean peninsula. Two yellow images flash over North Korea. Twenty or so green images show South Korean aircraft in flight, and another dozen blue images glimmer where American warplanes are flying.

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South Korean pilots, averaging six or seven hours a week in the air, say their North Korean counterparts, flying older model MiGs, are lucky to fly once or twice a month.

"I scramble a lot," says Cpt. Yang Jung Hwan, showing off his F16, perched in front of one of more than 100 revetements for aircraft here. "The North Koreans don't fly a lot, but if they come close, we have to scramble."

Captain Yang says he makes sure not to get too near the North Korean border, about 100 miles from here, and he's never actually seen a North Korean plane. He's supremely confident, though, of South Korea's ability to discourage any designs the North might have of risking another shooting war.

As North Korean technicians load a long-range Taepodong-2 rocket onto the launching pad this week – in keeping with their plans to fire it between April 4 and April 8 – South Korean forces are putting on an extraordinary display of bravado.

The decision to provide a detailed tour of this normally closed, super-sensitive air base – and a separate look at South Korea's largest naval base at the port of Pyongtaek, 30 miles up the coast – testifies to the South's defiant response to a torrent of recent rhetoric.

In Mexico City Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that launching the missile would be "a provocative act" – one that the US would raise in the UN Security Council. US, South Korean, and Japanese officials scoff at North Korean claims that the aim is to put a satellite into orbit, charging it's a test of a projectile capable of carrying a warhead as far as the US west coast.

North Korea, also on Thursday, called the South Korean government a "traitor" for supporting UN sanctions against the launch. North Korea has warned of bringing the Korean peninsula "to the brink of war," and says any attempt to shoot down the missile will mean the end of six-party talks on its nuclear program.

South Korea has no intention of blocking the launch, but commanders are primed after two weeks of war games with US forces. On Friday, Japan ordered its military to prepare to destroy the missile or missile debris if it endangers Japanese territory.

Two Japanese destroyers with anti-missile capabilities are now being deployed to the waters between North Korea and Japan. Patriot anti-missile batteries are also being sent to the Japan's north coast in anticipation of the launch. Meanwhile, the lone South Korean destroyer equipped with the Aegis-class system capable of firing a missile at a North Korean missile in flight has moved to the same area, joining a pair of American Aegis-class destroyers now tracking whatever happens.