Sixty Years and Counting

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David Douglas Duncan / Photography Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Bound for endless war U.S. marines on Hungnam Beach, 1950. Sixty years later, the U.S. still maintains a huge troop presence in South Korea

South Korean Suh Se Jun has seen her two younger siblings just once in the past 60 years. On the day the Chinese stormed across the Yalu River on Oct. 19, 1950, the Suh children and their father fled their village south of the Chinese border. Amid the panic of what Suh calls "a mass retreat," the family members were separated. When the armistice came three years later, Suh, now 76, and her brothers found themselves on opposite sides of the North-South divide. None of them saw their father again.

Commemorations of the conflicts that have shaped our world often involve attempts at reconciliation. They bring together former allies and former enemies to pay their joint respects. Germans travel to Normandy each June to mark the invasion that changed the course of World War II in Europe. When the doves are released each Aug. 6 in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, Americans are always present. The past is remembered, but such occasions also signal that the world has changed for the better.

There will be none of that on the Korean peninsula this summer. June 25 will be the 60th anniversary of the day that elite North Korean troops, fresh from fighting on the side of the communists in China's civil war, crossed the 38th parallel and began the Korean War. In Seoul, representatives of the 21 nations whose troops fought under the U.N. banner will mark the occasion somberly. But for many South Koreans, the tensions that have erupted over the North's recent torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan, with the loss of 46 sailors, are a bitter reminder that the war never really ended.

In the U.S., where then President Harry Truman preposterously called the bitter three-year conflict "a police action," veterans groups are planning quiet ceremonies, but Korea has come to be regarded as a forgotten conflict — tucked in between World War II, which united a nation in a just cause, and Vietnam, which tore the same nation asunder. In China, which lost, according to some estimates, over 1 million soldiers during the war, there is barely a nod of remembrance. But right now, along the southern side of the DMZ, South Korean troops are assembling loudspeakers and large video screens, tools they again intend to use to wage psychological warfare against the soldiers on the other side. The South will remind them just how awful their government is and just how good life on the southern side is.

On June 11, in response to those plans, North Korea threatened "an all-out military strike to destroy the loudspeakers if they are used," turning Seoul into a "sea of flame." On June 15, North Korea's U.N. envoy said that Pyongyang would respond with "military forces" if the U.N. condemned his country's role in the Cheonan's destruction. In many parts of the world, such bellicosity has given North Korea an image of almost comic craziness. Even in Seoul — hip, prosperous, technologically savvy — it's easy to laugh off the North's incessant raving. But the fact is, the last time the "sea of flame" rhetoric was used the Clinton Administration was closer than most realize to launching a pre-emptive strike to take out the North's nuclear facilities.

Perhaps loudspeakers aren't really such a good idea. The DMZ is not the Berlin Wall, where, despite the shooting of East Germans trying to escape to the West, a stone-cold peace endured until the wall's demolition. In 1968, 31 North Korean special-forces troops attacked the Blue House in Seoul, trying to assassinate President Park Chung Hee. In 1983, North Korean terrorists killed 17 members of a high-ranking South Korean government delegation visiting Rangoon, Burma. And over the years the disputed maritime border in what the Koreans call the West Sea has repeatedly been the site of fighting. In fact, it's likely the Cheonan's sinking was a response to a naval firefight in 2002, when the South heavily damaged at least one North Korean vessel and killed several of its crew.

The price of such war without end is steep, and frequently borne by ordinary people. There are no good statistics on how many family members were separated from 1950 to 1953, but South Korean academics have conservatively estimated about 1 million. During the years of South Korea's conciliatory "sunshine policy," in place from 1998 to 2007, the governments permitted reunions of separated families. Even last year, the three Suh children were able to gather at a reunion center set up at North Korea's Mount Kumgang. They spoke of their father. They spoke a bit about their lives on the two sides of the DMZ. Then they parted again, after a meeting that, for Se Jun, had been more painful than joyous. "It made me miss them even more," she says quietly.

Those reunions, because of the Cheonan attack, are now over. The only way the situation can improve is with the demise of the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang. And the only conceivable way that can happen, barring a coup, uprising or cataclysmic scaling up of what the U.S. military calls "kinetic contact," is if the North's lone patron, China, decides it's had enough.

There are various explanations offered for China's unbending support for Pyongyang. Beijing fears unrest. It fears hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees pouring into its northeast. It fears the U.S. and South Korea taking over the North. And perhaps, having sacrificed a million of its citizens in Pyongyang's defense, it has simply decided that it has too much history with Pyongyang to pull out now. China's leaders still treat Kim Jong Il with respect when he goes to Beijing, as he did in early May, even if those demonstrations of loyalty have become the object of derision not only abroad but also at home. (Chinese Netizens heaped particular scorn on the recent visit, coming as it did so soon after the Cheonan attack.)

Ultimately, though, the standard rationales for Beijing's backing of a deeply unpalatable regime are unsatisfactory. China was unquestionably spooked by the North Korean famine of the 1990s, and the resulting spike in refugees. But it could secure its border well enough with troops, cameras and motion sensors if it had to. Besides, a massive destabilizing influx of refugees is not the inevitable consequence of Kim's downfall. Beijing could simply use its clout to insist that the Kim dynasty or its successors make the kind of economic reforms every other country in East Asia started making decades ago, and North Koreans would have every incentive to stay put.

The geopolitical rationale for the status quo — that Beijing needs a buffer state (however decrepit) along its border — is also dubious. The end of the Kim regime would mean the end of any compelling need for a major U.S. troop presence in the South. Given that Beijing is already Seoul's largest trade partner, it would then be much easier for China to draw the whole of Korea into its orbit.

When they think of Korea, most Chinese already instinctively call to mind a go-ahead, capitalist version. My 6-year-old daughter goes to a private Chinese school in suburban Shanghai, where we live. About a year ago, it held a mini World's Fair, in which each class put together a presentation about a different country. The school gymnasium was full of papier-mâché Eiffel Towers and Sydney Opera Houses, but the display that caught my eye was the one for Korea. It showed skyscrapers in Seoul, a Samsung cell phone and photos of a K-pop band. These kids and their young teachers didn't even give the faintest nod to China's dear socialist ally.

In Beijing, however, the party conservatives and PLA hawks prefer the status quo to the uncertainty a real end to the Korean conflict would bring. Their deep-seated fear of the future could be the only conceivable explanation why, after 60 years, the likes of Suh Se Jun remain separated from their families, the war without end grinds on and support is given to a regime that even 6-year-olds know enough to shy away from.

with reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul