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The Korean War at 60-now 70: No Exit

By Bruce Cumings | June 25, 2020


This op-ed column, originally submitted for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War start, was killed at the last minute by a prominent newspaper on June 24, 2010, despite having been commissioned by that newspaper. KPI runs it now, in 2020, on the seventieth anniversary of the start of the Korean War, as it is controversially periodized. While the incidents specified in the op-ed are now a decade old, the stalemate it laments is unfortunately current. Despite the 2018-19 burst of summits between the United States, North Korea, and South Korea that led to joint declarations of impending peace and rapprochement and despite an upsurge in citizen activism such as the 2015 visit to North Korea organized by Women Cross DMZ, peace on the Korean peninsula remains maddeningly elusive.


The Korean War at 60: No Exit


In July 1987 I arrived in London to work on a documentary film. When I went through customs the officer asked me what the film was about: “the Korean War,” I said. “The old one, or the new one?” he asked, since tens of thousands of protesters had just clogged the streets of Seoul. He might ask the same question today, given the crisis over the Cheonan, the South Korean warship that was blown out of the water in March (2010). Or at one of any number of points in the past 65 years: Korea is the best example in the modern world of how easy it is to get into a war, and how desperately hard it is to get out. 25,000 American soldiers landed on this peninsula in September 1945, shortly after Dean Rusk drew a line no one had ever noticed before at 38 degrees north latitude. Today 28,000 remain, and the war has never ended. Those troops arrived, ostensibly, to hold off guerrillas under the command of Kim Il Sung; today our troops hold off his son—and his grandson. No exit might be the best epitaph for Korea, “the forgotten war.”


Today (in 2010) is the 60th anniversary of the conventional start of this war, and in August (2010) will come the centennial of Japan’s colonization of Korea. Both events are inextricably related; the Kim regime traces its legitimacy back to guerrilla struggles that began when Japan established its third major colony in 1932, the puppet state of Manchukuo. Surviving guerrillas and their offspring formed the core leadership of North Korea in 1948, and ever since. Meanwhile 80,000 U.S. troops in Japan and Korea stand in for the strong Japanese military that existed before 1945, so even today we don’t know what an independent Japan would look like, and our occupation of Okinawa still rankles enough to have brought down the Hatoyama government earlier this month (June 2010).


The North inhabits its own time machine, beating against a strong tide they call American imperialism. Its generals prepare not just to fight the last war, but structure their entire society as a fighting machine determined, sooner or later, to win a victory that was palpable for a moment in 1950 but has exceeded their grasp ever since. The result is a garrison state, perhaps the most amazing one the world has ever seen, with well over one million in the military and another six or seven million in the reserves—in a population of 23 million. They drape a totalized shroud over their people to keep them from being tainted by their American nemesis, yet in so doing they endow their eternal enemy with an enormous weight.


American diplomacy has its own recalcitrant timelessness, its own default positions that last decades and get nowhere: those nasty, incorrigible North Koreans really have to be punished for—seizing the spy ship Pueblo in 1968, trimming a poplar tree in the DMZ in 1976, blowing up the South Korean cabinet in 1983, dumping 8000 plutonium rods out of their reactor in 1994, launching a long-range missile in 1998, another one in 2006 (on our Independence Day), a first atomic bomb in 2006 and a second one in 2009 (on our Memorial Day), and finally the Cheonan. But the punishment doesn’t bite or just further isolates a regime inured to seclusion. North Korean provocation is intrinsic to and perfectly situated within the unchanging logic of conflict since the armistice in 1953: they create an incident to get our attention; we can only respond haltingly and ineffectively, because to aggravate or escalate the problem might lead to a new war, and that invokes another default position: there is no military solution in Korea, a truth we learned the hard way in 1953, and still valid today.


Another default principle in Washington: North Korea stands for nothing, has no support from its people, and will soon collapse. Since the Berlin Wall fell a bipartisan consensus has adhered to the axiom that North Korea will soon “explode or implode,” the current expression being Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mantra that a power struggle is going on in Pyongyang since Kim Jong Il’s alleged stroke in 2008; this has now led to the absurd proposition that the Marine Expeditionary Force in Okinawa must ready itself to swoop into the North and corral any and all “loose nukes” if the regime collapses. Monarchical succession is one of the few things Pyongyang does well, because Koreans have been doing it for centuries; when Kim Il Sung died in 1994 there was barely a perturbation in the top leadership. (Loose nukes, though, might be rattling around any one of the 15,000+ underground facilities in the North—and good luck to the Marines).


A third Beltway default says the U.S. is always better off with the conservatives in power in Seoul. These days American diplomats applaud the revival of a close alliance with the current administration of Lee Myong Bak, after years of estrangement under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyon. But those two presidents were the products of Korea’s democratic revolution, whereas Lee harks back to his halcyon days as a favored businessman under dictator Park Chung Hee. Along came the June 2nd elections, on the heels of the Cheonan tragedy, and voters broadly repudiated Lee’s ruling party. Presidents Kim and Roh planted the seeds of reconciliation with the North, and they have taken deep root regardless of what we may think.


The party of long memory in Pyongyang has braced itself against the pressures of past, present and future since 1945, up against the greatest military power in world history. Americans think they know this story, of a vain, feckless, profligate, cruel and dangerous leadership, symbolized by Kim Jong Il, soon to be history. But American leaders know neither the nature of this war nor the resilient qualities of their enemy (give the North another decade, and the regime will have been in power as long as the Soviet Union). This blindness is not a matter of forgetting; it is a never-knowing, a species of unwilled ignorance and willed incuriosity, which causes us time and again to underestimate the adversary—and thereby confer priceless advantage upon him. Finally, there is the evil, grinning specter of the war itself, reaper of millions of lives and all for naught, because it grinds on, it endures, it never ends. It returns in myriad forms—memory, repression, trauma, ghosts, the deaths of 46 more Koreans on the Cheonan—to taunt the living, as the odds-on survivor of Korea’s tragedies since the thoughtless division of this ancient country.


Bruce Cumings, a Korea Policy Institute Associate, is Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor of History and the College at the University of Chicago and the author of The Korean War: A History (Random House, June 2010).


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