At the world's last Cold War flashpoint, American soldiers in camouflage are, no kidding, pulling onions.
Even though South Korean unemployment is at a 15-year high and 1.5 million people are idle, farmers near the southern city of Yongchon couldn't find enough help last week for the onion harvest.The U.S. Army came to their rescue.
"I got picked for this, but I didn't object," said Sgt. Kevin Albrecht, a nuclear, biological and chemical weapons specialist from Grand Forks, N.D. "Sometimes it's good to get out of the office."
Kim Dong-eun, an official of the farm cooperative that sought the soldiers' help, said he has heard there are many jobless people in the big cities, but they haven't shown up in the countryside.
"I guess they aren't desperate enough or they're still too proud to work in farm fields," he said.
Well, not exactly.
The nation's economic crisis has made thousands of people desperate enough to work in what Koreans call "3-D" jobs - dirty, difficult and dangerous. Still, they are too few to erase chronic labor shortages.
Rapid development since the 1960s raised wages, education levels and expectations in this nation of 44 million. It created labor shortages in less desirable jobs in agriculture, fishing, textiles and other sectors.
The government in the early '90s began allowing foreigners in to do those jobs. But recent currency devaluations have reduced the wages of foreigners, forcing them out.
Some Koreans are filling the vacancies. Most, however, still reject such work, said Lee Byung-woo, head of business policy at the Federation of Korean Industries. "People are reluctant," Lee said.
Some of those working on farms today left the countryside for city jobs in the boom years. Now, they find themselves unemployed and wanting to go home, or just in need of temporary work to tide them over through the Asian economic crisis.
The Korean Federation of Farmers' Co-operatives links the jobless with farmers looking for laborers. It placed 25,000 in seasonal jobs during April and May, compared to 11,000 during the same period last year.
Many more want the work, said Choi Won-tai, who's in charge of the federation's "manpower bank," but low prices for agricultural products make it unprofitable for farmers to use paid labor.
Over the years, low prices have forced Korean soldiers and government officials in outlying towns to "volunteer" at harvest time.
Last week near Yongchon, the "volunteers" included about 40 of the 37,000 Americans stationed on the divided Korean peninsula to help keep peace between communist north and capitalist south.
They and 140 Korean soldiers assigned to the U.S. military came from the 8th Army's Sixth Support Center at Taegu.
Many of the Americans are city guys, green in the ways of farming but quickly catching on.
"The onions are a lot easier to pick than I thought," said personnel clerk Spc. Jack Heatherly of Washington, D.C. "I thought it was going to be one of those hoeing things."