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U.S. Troops On North-South Korea Border Gear Up Amid War Threat


North Korea said this week the United States would face an unimaginable strike in the foreseeable future. Almost any strike would mean war. There are tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. That includes the men and women of the Republic of Korea U.S. Combined Division. They're located at Camp Casey, just 12 miles from the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Colonel John Mountford is the artillery commander of the ROK-U.S. He joins us from Camp Casey.

Colonel, thank you very much for being with us.

JOHN MOUNTFORD: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Has there been an increase in preparedness over the past few months?

MOUNTFORD: Well, sir, the Army's always ready. And what I can say is that we continue to train for that readiness. We have conducted our normal series of exercises and training throughout the year.

SIMON: May I ask you, Colonel, what about families?

MOUNTFORD: Well, sir, my family lives here in Korea with me. A majority of my soldiers in the brigade come here unaccompanied. So they come for a one-year assignment without their families. We do talk to our families about this. What I would say is, life is normal here. And it's normal not only for the South Koreans but it's normal for the United States Army.

SIMON: Well, forgive me if this is too personal. But have you had to say to your family, look this is what we do if something happened?

MOUNTFORD: Yes, sir. So we do talk about what would happen in the event that some sort of contingency would arise. It is an interesting conversation to have with my wife and children when you draw a protective mask for them. I wouldn't call it normal, but it's something our families are prepared to do. And we really don't dwell on it.

SIMON: When you say protective masks, those are what some of us would call gas masks.

MOUNTFORD: Yes, sir.

SIMON: Colonel Mountford, you can look at your enemy in the face in the DMZ. Can't you?

MOUNTFORD: Sir, we do have soldiers that serve up on the DMZ. And of course, we are in close proximity.

SIMON: That must make it more real for you.

MOUNTFORD: What it does for us here is it allows us to provide a focus. And it's one of the benefits, I would say, of serving here in that, when you serve and train in a United States base, you are training against a threat that is theoretical, I would say. Well, here, we have a little bit more of a focus that we know the enemy that we would face and we understand the challenges that that would bring. So we can train very specifically for that threat.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, Colonel, there's still debate as to whether or not President Trump will or should visit the DMZ as part of his 12-day tour of Asia next month. A lot of presidents have done that. Vice President Pence has done that. There are some people who are worried even in the U.S. State Department that that could send some kind of signal to North Korea that wouldn't be wise now. Do you have any feelings?

MOUNTFORD: Well, sir, I think it's important that the commander in chief is visible to his soldiers and his armed forces. So I think that it'll be a good trip for us here in terms of understanding and knowing that our commander in chief supports us.

SIMON: Colonel John Mountford of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Division. Thanks very much for being with us, Colonel.

MOUNTFORD: Yes, sir. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "FALSE DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.