By Ramsay Liem | July 25, 2020
For many Americans July 27th is another passing day. Like the Korean War, itself, the armistice signing is largely forgotten or was never really known. But for others, Koreans who survived the war and now reside in the United States, forgetting is more complicated.
July 27, 2020 marks the 67th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, a temporary halt in combat that left the warring parties in a state of limbo subject at any moment to renewed fighting. It defines the current state of relations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) key parties to the un-ended Korean War. Absent a peace agreement the armistice maintains a tenuous hold on mutual U.S. – North Korean hostilities that erupt periodically as in the current U.S. alarm over the North’s nuclear program and North Korean anger over comprehensive U.S. sanctions and threats of renewed U.S.-South Korean war games.
But for many Americans July 27th is another passing day. Like the Korean War, itself, the armistice signing is largely forgotten or was never really known. But for others, Koreans who survived the war and now reside in the United States, forgetting is more complicated. Years ago, I began one of the first projects to interview these elders about their personal and family histories and collaborated with scholars, artists, and filmmakers to create public memory spaces for healing, public education, and reconciliation. Some of the most paradoxical memories that people shared were about the original armistice day, July 27, 1953.
H. Kim: “I did hear news – of course I heard. But I heard it carelessly. Because it was hard to live, very very hard, I didn’t remember everything.” (italics added)
A. R. Menzie: “The signing of armistice, we didn’t even know the war ended…
These non-remembrances were extremely perplexing. I expected great relief and joy over the end of horrific fighting that caused massive civilian casualties – like the sentiments people expressed when recalling an earlier date, August 15, 1945 when Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II.
H. Kim: “I was so happy, um.. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy when Independence Day came and you know, I didn’t eat for days and…I was out in the streets, rejoicing.”
T. Kim: “1945, August 15 [liberation from Japanese colonization], so that was big, big event, but armistice signed in 1953. I—I don’t think that was big event because nobody really knew.”
But the first Korean War armistice day was just another twenty-four hours of an endless purgatory of capricious death, ruined livelihoods and futures, and unfulfilled hopes for post-colonial nation building upon liberation from Japanese colonialism.
M. Lee: “There is no conception [that] the war is over, cease-war or not, there is no such conception at all. Just everything is broken…”
For others, the truce negotiations and Armistice Day were perpetrators of family separation. J. Chun was a teenager living in Kaesong in southern Korea when war broke out. One day he begged his mother to let him find his father who had gone to a nearby town looking for more secure shelter. Unknown to him his father was returning to Kaesong just as he set out and they missed each other. A short time later the armistice talks began in Kaesong and a cordon was drawn blocking civilian movement into and out of the city.
“That’s the end of it…I cannot see my father and my family anymore. He couldn’t get out, I couldn’t get in.”
Mr. Chun survived on his own only to suffer a second blow from the armistice negotiations. As part of the agreement, the border between North and South Korea was redrawn. His hometown of Kaesong, originally in the South, suddenly became part of the North making it permanently inaccessible to him. It was the nail in his coffin. Yet, twice victimized by the war, he, like others, could barely recall armistice day, just another moment of enduring hardship.
“Wow, I don’t…I don’t…’53…I don’t remember right now. I’m not sure where I heard about that.”
This story and others like it open a window into a forgotten war and its painful truths: scorched earth warfare by U.S.-led United Nations Forces that nearly erased life and property in northern Korea, destroyed irrigation dams threatening the starvation of millions of North Koreans and constituting a war crime, and an outright confession that “over a period of three years or so… killed off — what — 20 percent of the population.” (Air Force General Curtis Lemay). This unrestrained violence occurred a mere 5 years after the U.S.-led partitioning of Korea at the close of WWII. A matter of convenience for the allied forces, the United States installed an occupying military government in the south ruling the ‘liberated’ Korean people for three years. The partition exacerbated right wing – left wing animosities among Koreans and heightened the likelihood of all-out civil conflict. Eighteen months of North – South border clashes erupted in all-out war on June 25, 1950 abetted in the south by U.S. led UN forces and in the north by China and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union.
After the armistice signing the United States introduced tactical nuclear weapons into the South in 1958 in direct violation of Article II, A, 13, d. of the agreement, marshalled decades of steadily hardening sanctions against the North, and established a permanent troop presence in the South and until recently, conducted the largest annual war games in the Asian theater. The United States currently holds wartime control of U.S. and South Korean troops under a Combined Forces Command.
Collective loss of this tortured history has consequences. Forgetting lends truth to the popular narrative of North Korea as a failed, paranoid state ruled by a bizarre, ruthless family dynasty with irrational hatred toward the United States and her allies. In its most recent iteration North Korea has been cast as finally acquiring the nuclear capability to decimate the U.S. mainland. This prospect is Indeed alarming but nowhere in this scenario is there any recognition of nearly seven decades of mutual U.S.-North Korean hostility.
The U.S. administration’s ultimate response in spite of the unprecedented Trump – Kim summits has essentially been “take it or leave it” – full disclosure and dismantling of WMD systems before sanctions relief. But insisting on capitulation in an un-ended war of bitter mutual hostilities amounts to demanding surrender. After sixty-seven years of abject failure in this approach to North Korea, the futility of this stance should be abundantly clear. Policy makers and the public at large need to take note of July 27th, be reminded of the tortured history it signifies, and rediscover the Korean War Armistice Agreement and its call for negotiations forthwithto replace the truce with a peace settlement. It is the only option for ending America’s longest war.
Ramsay Liem is a Korea Policy Associate, and Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Visiting Scholar, Center for Human Rights and Social Justice, Boston College. He is the executive producer of the award winning documentary film, Memory of Forgotten War co-directed with Deann Borshay Liem. He serves as the president of the Channing and Popai Liem Education Foundation, which promotes awareness of U.S./Korea relations in support of peaceful reunification. He works with the Present Collective, a group of artists, scholars, and activists.