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Fact Not Fiction: The Unending Korean War


South Korean soldiers stand guard facing North Korea at the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, June 25, 2014. (Photo: Woohae Cho / The New York Times)

By Christine Ahn and Suzy Kim | December 24, 2014 Copyright, Reprinted with permission

The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace treaty has given the North Korean government justification to invest heavily in the country’s militarization. Another 50 years failed policy that needs to change?

On Christmas Day, most Americans will not have the opportunity to see the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as portrayed in the Hollywood film, The Interview. Americans may have left theaters laughing at Kim and feeling morally justified that the overthrow of the dictator is just what the North Korean people want and need. What they may not have reflected on is that US-led efforts to topple regimes have not brought democracy to the world.

Washington’s most recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan make clear that US intervention, either through covert or overt military action, does not produce the peace that politicians promise us as they beat the drum for war. The Bush administration may have succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein, but it has left Iraq in a sectarian bloodbath under the reign of warlords. Peace and democracy are similarly distant concepts for the majority of the people in Afghanistan, especially women and girls.

Whether the filmmakers understood the consequences of their film on US-North Korea relations or not, the situation has rapidly escalated. Despite President Obama’s efforts to scale back accusations against Pyongyang – with no clear evidence – for committing “cyberwar” to “cybervandalism,” the pundits are at work calling for a “proportional response” against North Korea.

The idea of a US military intervention, whether real or imaginary, to liberate North Koreans is dangerous in a country whose regime now possesses one or more nuclear weapons. Although it is difficult to fully know how North Koreans feel about the regime, what we do know is that the entire state is built upon their experience and memories of surviving US bombings during the Korean War.

More bombs were dropped on Korea from 1950 to 1953 than on all of Asia and the Pacific islands during World War II, with the near possibility of the deployment of an atomic bomb. One year into the Korean War, US Major General Emmett O’Donnell Jr. testified before the Senate, “I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name . . . There [are] no more targets in Korea.”

Nearly 4 million people were killed in the three-year Korean War, which has come to be known by historians as the “forgotten war.” In 1953, North Korea, China and the United States, representing the United Nations Command, signed a temporary cease-fire agreement with a promise to sign a peace treaty. That promise was never upheld. Sixty years later, millions of Korean families are still separated by the world’s most militarized border – the two-mile wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) – and are still living in a state of war.

The fact that the Korean War ended with a temporary cease-fire rather than a permanent peace treaty gives the North Korean government justification – whether we like it or not – to invest heavily in the country’s militarization. Pyongyang even acknowledged last year how the unended war has forced it “to divert large human and material resources to bolstering up the armed forces though they should have been directed to the economic development and improvement of people’s living standards.”

North Korea’s response to the film can be understood, in part, as a response to aggressive US intervention abroad that has toppled governments that impeded US national interests. In his book on US Cold War architects John Foster and Allen Dulles, Stephen Kinzer discusses the case of democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz who was overthrown by a CIA coup in 1954. Kinzer explains that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro concluded that if they were to succeed in taking over Cuba, they would have to establish a closed, dictatorial society to prevent a similar US intervention.

It was Barack Obama’s realization of Washington’s failed past Cuban policy that led to the historic announcement last week that it would normalize relations with Cuba, ironically on the same day that his administration accused North Korea for the Sony hacking. Like Cubans, North Koreans would greatly benefit from normalized relations with the United States. Although the North Korean regime has survived the political isolation of being the most heavily sanctioned country in the world, ordinary North Koreans have suffered the most from US-led embargoes: one in four currently face extreme hunger.

When Obama says of Cuba that “if you’ve done the same thing for 50 years and nothing has changed, you should try something different,” the same logic should be applied to North Korea. For two countries still formally in a state of war, further belligerence and military posturing will not create the conditions for peace. Engagement and a long-awaited peace treaty will.

Christine Ahn is international coordinator of Women De-Militarize the Zone, and a Korea Policy Institute Advisory Board member.  Suzy Kim is assistant professor of Korean history at Rutgers University and a former Korea Policy Institute Fellow.


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