KOYANG, South Korea — Soldiers in South Korea put down their guns Tuesday and picked up buckets and water hoses to fight a new enemy: drought.
Facing its worst dry spell in 90 years--and a threat to its staple food, rice--South Korea mobilized a fifth of its total military force to help farms. The 130,000 troops were dispatched to 90 hard-hit regions, armed with drilling machines, trucks, excavators and pumping motors to dig wells or draw water from reservoirs.
"It's like pouring water into a bottomless pot," said Warrant Officer Oh Kwang Jae, supervising 60 soldiers watering a parched rice paddy. "But we will make this land wet again and fit to raise the rice."
For two days, Oh's 9th Infantry Division soldiers, who usually guard part of the tense border with Communist North Korea, used trucks to carry 62,400 gallons of water from a reservoir to rice paddies near Koyang, 16 miles north of Seoul, the capital.
"We are here to serve the country," Cpl. Chung Jae Myung said. "I think this work is as meaningful as defending the nation with guns."
In Koyang and other drought-stricken areas in the northern part of South Korea, fire engines and military and construction trucks rolled along dusty paths to fetch water. Soldiers in green T-shirts and camouflage pants used plastic buckets to water the cracked paddies.
"I can't say how happy I am. They came here to save my life," said Lee Ki Sun, a 70-year-old farmer.
South Korea maintains a 650,000-member military to guard against North Korea. The two nations technically remain at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, and all eligible South Korean men must serve 26 months in the military.
Since March, South Korea has had a nationwide average of only 3.7 inches of rain, less than a third of the usual 11.4 inches for the period.
The drought hit during the crucial rice-transplanting season that began in May and usually ends in June. A rice paddy must be submerged in at least an inch of water to support young rice.
North Korea also is suffering from a protracted dry spell that has decimated the fall harvest.
Nearly 90% of the potato, wheat, barley and maize seed sown in North Korea this year has dried up, the Agriculture Ministry said, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
On Tuesday, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung issued a nationally televised statement urging the public to join the fight against drought. He also promised tax cuts and low-interest loans for struggling farmers.