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North Korea and the Killer Deluge

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The "Peace Dam" is seen in Hwacheon, South Korea. The dam was built 35 km downstream from North Korea's Imnam Dam, which is seen as a threat that could kill thousands of people in South Korea if the water held back by the dam was suddenly released by accident or as a deliberate attack by the North Koreans. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. South Korea, 2013.

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A side view of the "Peace Dam" in Hwacheon, South Korea, which was built in case of a flood attack from the North. Image by Tomas van Houtryve. South Korea, 2013.

The shrill threat of "thermonuclear war" from Pyongyang is only the latest in a long line of doomsday scenarios against which South Korea has braced itself. Over the years, numerous layers of defensive infrastructure have been added to prepare for possible attacks, ranging from bunkers to early-warning radar. Perhaps the most unexpected of these defenses is the "Peace Dam," a $429 million reservoir built to prevent a killer deluge unleashed by the North from engulfing Seoul.

The dam was started in 1987 in response to the North Korean construction of the Imnam Dam just across the DMZ. Military strategists worried that it could be used as a weapon with the power to devastate Seoul like an atomic bomb.

Looking back on military history, we can find other examples of water being used effectively against an enemy. During WWI the Belgian Army opened canal locks and flooded the Yser region of Flanders, halting the German advance.

But in South Korea, second thoughts about the likelihood of the flood attack eventually surfaced, and construction of the dam was stopped before completion. Then, in 2002, satellite photos of the Imnam Dam showed signs of cracks. Even if a deadly flood was not to be unleashed by malevolence, the thinking went, it might happen as a result of the North's shoddy engineering. Construction of the Peace Dam was restarted, and it was finally completed in 2005.

When I visited the dam last winter, the reservoir still stood empty in order to retain a sudden flood. A small visitors center with a gallery of Nobel Peace laureates had been built adjacent to the dam. The exhibition's lofty rhetoric and aspirations for peace clashed awkwardly with the true motivation behind the dam's construction. Just out of sight from the visitors center, down a dirt road leading to the water's edge was a checkpoint manned by armed soldiers. Beyond them was the DMZ with its barbed wire fences, trenches, and mine fields.

The latest round of threats from the North has prompted South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. military to heavily beef up on expensive missile defense capabilities. Once the Patriot batteries and Aegis-equipped ships are in place, is there any doubt that North Korea will start scheming and fabricating a new threat which would be equally terrifying and expensive to defend against?