The ending of the Forgotten War, 60 years later

By J Brooks Spector 29 July 2013

Even now, sixty years after a ceasefire finally brought the Korean conflict to an end after three years of fighting on 27 July 1953 almost at the geographical point where it had begun, this is a war most people have chosen to forget – unless they happen to live on the Korean Peninsula, of course. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The wider impact of this war’s stalemated conclusion re-emerges for the whole world each time North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s military test-fires a missile or a nuclear device, attempts to launch a satellite, or organises a march-past for tens of thousands of troops, or even one of those unnerving, mass hand-held sign demonstrations in the national stadium. But despite its inconclusive ending, the Korean War became the event that truly signalled the beginning of four decades of Cold War and the ensuing nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union.

For Korea, the Second World War ended with US and Soviet forces in positions along the 38th parallel of latitude. This followed a supposedly temporary, arbitrary division of the peninsula so that Soviet and American military forces could receive the Japanese army’s surrender at the end of World War II and thus maintain civil order on the peninsula after the Japanese were disarmed. Korea’s post-war circumstances were barely discussed in the planning for a post-war world, or even in the negotiations for Russia’s entry into the Pacific Ocean theatre of war in August 1945, a move that took place only a week before the war ended after the two atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Following this liberation of north Korea from the Japanese, the Soviets provided support to communist guerrilla fighter Kim Il-Sung and his forces, thereby backing the establishment of a Stalinist-style command economy and a increasingly large military. Meanwhile, in the southern half of the country, the Americans went along with the nationalist, increasingly anti-communist rhetoric of Syngman Rhee, who had been elected president. However, in conformity with the preeminent view of demilitarising that region, the Americans only supported a small, lightly equipped militia.

In fact, Korea featured in American strategic thinking about Asia so little when its policy makers contemplated the impending Communist victory in China, that when Secretary of State Dean Acheson described the American defensive perimeter in East Asia to his audience at the National Press Club on 12 January 1950, he described a line running through Japan, the Ryukyus, and the Philippines, thereby implicitly denying guarantees of US military protection for either South Korea or the Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, by 1950 limited to the island of Taiwan. Historian James Matray explains, “Less than six months later, North Korea launched a military offensive across the 38th parallel that nearly succeeded in imposing Communist rule over the entire peninsula. Critics immediately pointed to Acheson’s National Press Club speech as giving Pyongyang the ‘green light’ to pursue forcible reunification, based on the premise that the United States had ruled out military intervention to defend South Korea. More than fifty years after the start of the Korean War, countless South Koreans still hold Acheson responsible for igniting this fratricidal conflict….”

Matray adds, “Release of Soviet documents during recent years has removed any doubt that North Korea planned and initiated the Korean War with the reluctant endorsement of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung had begun to press the Soviet Union to support an invasion shortly after creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in September 1948. But Stalin withheld approval until April 1950 mainly because he feared that the United States would intervene militarily, thereby risking escalation into a major war involving the Soviet Union.”

Watch: The Korean War in colour

The cruel irony for Korea is that after those three years of bitter, destructive warfare, the opposing sides ended up confronting each other along a Demilitarised Zone, straddling the peninsula roughly where things had started. In the centre of the DMZ, there is the so-called peace village where routine negotiations take place between the North Korean military and the notional UN Command – now virtually synonymous with US and South Korean forces.

Sixty years on, those once-temporary buildings constructed for the peace negotiations are still there. The building that was the venue for the armistice talks is now the “peace pagoda”. It still shows a copy of the original armistice agreement and a UN flag is also displayed. Other buildings include rooms where the two sides still meet occasionally. The buildings have the evocative names of T1, T2 and T3: with “T” meaning temporary in the usual military-speak.

Helping guard against another North Korean attack along side a well-trained South Korean army, the US still maintains a 28,000-plus military establishment on the peninsula – a force the North Koreans calls an occupation force instead. In fact, North Koreans continue to insist any future negotiations for a more permanent peace must take place between Washington and North Korea. As North Korean Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho told the AP, for example, “The division of the Korean Peninsula is less an issue between the North and South and more of an issue between North Korea and the US. Last time, we negotiated an armistice agreement. But next time, we will bring the US to its knees to sign a letter of surrender.”

Zigzagging across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, the DMZ has, ironically, become a kind of unintended wildlife refuge on the peninsula – providing sanctuary for a wide variety of birdlife and animal species otherwise endangered on the rest of the peninsula. And underneath that DMZ, the South Koreans and Americans have occasionally discovered tunnels – sometimes wide enough for a column of North Korean tanks to roll through to an exit beyond the DMZ – dug secretly by the North Korean army.

These latter discoveries, together with the routine threats can be unsettling for the South since a major share of South Korea’s economic muscle – and its population – is located in and around the capital, Seoul – and all within range of long-range artillery or short-range rockets. With North Korea making its occasional, periodic threats to – alternatively – liberate the South or turn it into a sea of fire, South Koreans remain thoroughly attuned to the idea the DMZ represents both geopolitical unfinished business on their peninsula and an unsettling complication in their sense of Korean-ness.

Although the DMZ divides the two sides, incidents continue in various ways. Along the west coast’s maritime border that remains in dispute, a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean patrol boat in 2010 (although the North denies it had anything to do with it). More recently, North Korean artillery has attacked an isolated island held by South Korea, killing several people.

For Americans, at least, the ambivalence of the Korean War has come through in the films and television shows created about it. “The Bridges of Toko-Ri”, “Pork Chop Hill”, the original version of “The Manchurian Candidate”, and “MASH” all spoke in some ways to a national disillusionment – or worse – about the war and its aftermath. If “Toko-Ri”, “MASH” and “Pork Chop Hill” spoke to the futility of sacrifice and fighting a limited war, “The Manchurian Candidate” ended up describing a still darker fear – that secret, subversive forces spinning out of Korea – and China – were using devious means to undermine America. “MASH”, of course, at least in its TV incarnation, also became a stalking horse symbol for the still worse futility of a second major land war in Asia for Americans – Vietnam.

Now, sixty years after the Korean War, to commemorate the date, North Korea staged a massive celebration over the weekend, calling Saturday “Victory Day”. The events included vast military parades and fireworks – totalling one of the biggest extravaganzas that have taken place in Pyongyang since Kim Jong-un took over power in 2011.

The Washington Post also reported that there was “a solemn gathering led by leader Kim Jong-un at a newly opened war museum that features prominently the USS Pueblo spy ship captured in 1968 and a fireworks display that filled the night sky and drew huge crowds who watched from along the Pothong river. This year’s parade, which also included floats and thousands of civilians waving colourful fake flowers, appeared to offer more flash and pageant than new revelations of the secretive North’s military capabilities, though one unit prominently carried kits marked with the bright yellow nuclear symbol, a reminder of the North’s claims that it is preparing itself against a nuclear attack by the United States and is developing a nuclear arsenal of its own.”

As for China’s view on all this, Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, has explained, “The fact that China’s vice president was standing next to Kim Jong Un could have a symbolic meaning. That North Korea joining hands with China against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. reminds of the Cold War era. North Korea probably wanted to show off that its relationship with China is improving. It is like telling the U.S. that even if you don’t want to talk to us, you’ll end up having dialogue with us” as North Korea attempts to warm up its relationship with China.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Kim Jong-un had made his nation’s pursuit of nuclear weapons an explicit national goal, arguing it was an essential defense measure against that American threat to his nation. In recent months, pushing and shoving has reached cyberspace as both Koreas have been accusing their opposites of engaging in hacker attacks that have brought down government websites in the North and paralyzed online commerce on the other side of the DMZ.

These disagreements reach all the way back to the origins of the fighting in 1950. While almost everyone else agrees North Korean troops launched their attack southwards on 25 June, just before sunrise, a North Korean museum brandishes a photo of American soldiers rushing past the 28th parallel with their weapons at the ready to explain the opposite view. More usually, historians point to an invasion from the North that surged southward until there was only a small wedge of territory centred on Taegu and Pusan in the southeast, that is, until troops under the command of US general, Douglas MacArthur (simultaneously also “pro-consul” of the US occupation of Japan), carried out an audacious counterattack at Inchon, a port to the east of Seoul, that rolled back the North Koreans.

MacArthur’s forces were officially under the UN flag, in the international body’s first invocation of the doctrine of collective security to repel the North. Such a decision had only voted for because the Soviet Union was then boycotting UN Security Council meetings as a result of that body’s refusal to seat the People’s Republic of China government in Beijing in place of the defeated Nationalist government that had fled the mainland in 1949 for Taiwan.

But, buoyed by their success after Inchon, UN forces moved rapidly northward, virtually reaching Korea’s border with China along the Yalu River. Warning against any further progress by UN forces, the Chinese then moved into the battle in force, where they helped push UN troops back beyond Seoul again until the front finally stabilised roughly where the DMZ is now. While the Soviet Union did not send combat infantry into the conflict, they did offer supplies and arms and Russian pilots flew combat missions in their new MiG-15 jets, briefly gaining virtual command of the peninsula’s airspace until US F-86 jets were hurriedly shipped to the front to stabilise the air war and tip the balance the other way.

By the time the guns finally fell silent in July 1953, more than 500,000 North Korean troops had perished, along with over 180,000 Chinese who had fought alongside them. Meanwhile, some 138,000 South Korean troops had died in the fighting, together with 40,670 from among the twenty-one nations that participated to the UN-flagged force, including 36,900 Americans. About 1.7 million Americans ultimately fought in Korea over the course of the war and some 8,000 Americans who fought there are still missing. Beyond these military casualties, around 374,000 civilians died in the South, while unknown thousands perished north of the 38th parallel. Estimates are that – in total – Korean casualties may have reached around two million souls.

A South African air detachment of more than 200 officers and men of the 2 Squadron of the SA Air Force participated in the conflict as part of the UN forces as well. These South Africans first flew propeller-driven P-51 Mustangs, but then shifted over to the new F-86 jets as the craft became available. In their air missions, military historians say the South African pilots contributed significantly to combined ground air support missions, including attacks on truck convoys and troop movements on behalf of the UN forces.

While in 2013 North Korea has treated the anniversary as a day to parade its military prowess, in the South, meanwhile, the day is one marked by remembrance of the way UN members rallied to the nascent nation’s defense. There is also the national angst over the loss of so many people and the question of just how brutally the war split families – as some were left in the North and remain unreachable, or are simply unaccounted for as a result of the fighting.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Barack Obama declared 27 July National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, noting in his official proclamation how US Korean War veterans had “defend[ed] a country they never knew and a people they never met.” At his speech on Saturday at the Korean War Memorial, he said, “among many Americans tired of war, there was, it seemed, a desire to forget.” Before his audience of some 5,000 people – including a large contingent of Korean conflict vets – Obama went on to say, “You, our veterans of Korea, deserve better. Because here in America, no war should ever be forgotten and no veteran should ever be overlooked.”

Obama praised the war’s veterans, using their return to an apathetic America decades ago – where they received no welcome home parades – as rationale to promise to take better care of the current military generation now returning from Afghan and Iraqi battlefields. Obama also took this moment to promise that the country would not follow the mistake he said had taken place following World War II, when a fiscally stressed nation scaled back the military too quickly. This time around, Obama told his audience the United States would remain the world’s strongest military power, even as his administration moves to end more than a decade of wars that begun after the attacks of 9/11.

But in what may be an actual positive moment coming out of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, it seems possible the remains of hundreds of Chinese soldiers killed during the way may finally return home. During her visit to China a week earlier, South Korean President Park Geun-hye extended an offer to repatriate the remains of some 360 Chinese solders now buried in a cemetery just south of the DMZ. This is apparently meant as a gesture to underscore warming ties between the South Korea and China.

Perhaps taken unawares, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, replied warily that while she did not know where her government stood on the offer, nevertheless, such an issue should be “resolved on the basis of humanitarianism.” That, at least, sounds promising, even if Kim Jong-un has, in the meantime, been parading his missiles and men through the summer heat in Pyongyang in front of a Chinese leader, and threatening recently to end the cease-fire agreement that keeps the two sides at bay on the peninsula. DM

Read more:

  • Korean divide lives on 60 years after end of war at the AP;
  • South Korea: Offer to Return Remains of Chinese Troops Killed in Korean War at the New York Times;
  • Obama speaks at ceremony marking 60th anniversary of cessation of Korean War at the Washington Post;
  • North Korea rolls out tanks, missiles, fireworks for 60th anniversary of Korean War armistice in the Washington Post (via the AP);
  • On Korean War anniversary, Obama says in US no war should be forgotten or veteran overlooked at the Washington Post;
  • North Korea heralds 60th anniversary of war ‘victory’ with massive parade at Reuters;
  • 60th anniversary of Korean War marked amid ‘uncertain peace’ at the Hindu;
  • The South African Air Force in Korea: An Assessment at the SA Military History Journal;
  • Dean Acheson’s Press Club Speech Reexamined at the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Photo: A military parade is held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013 in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 28, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA


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