The Warnings from Korean History

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The Warnings from Korean History
An anniversary provides a stark reminder of what keeps North and South apart
The 50th anniversary of the North Korean invasion of the South arrives like Act II of the most dramatic fortnight in recent Korean history. First we were treated to the astonishing sight of the leaders of the two Koreas clasping hands at the historic summit in Pyongyang. Then, from the more distant past, came a sobering reminder: these two halves of a divided peninsula fought one of the bloodiest wars in Asian history--and they still haven't signed a peace treaty. Moreover, their armies remain locked in a face-off, nearly where they were when an overwhelming North Korean force roared across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, en route to the capture of Seoul four days later.

The juxtaposition of these two seminal events raises a pair of questions: Could the Koreas go to war again? And did the first confrontation accomplish anything? South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung, basking in the summit's warm afterglow, has repeatedly promised no more war on the peninsula. So eager was Kim to administer the mood-altering drug of peace in our time, he canceled a parade of veterans in downtown Seoul highlighting the 50th-anniversary observances. The old soldiers, including more than 1,000 veterans from the United States and 21 allied countries, were disappointed. Surely they were entitled to make the 1.8-km march from Seoul's South Gate to the entrance of the Kyongbuk Palace, the seat of Korean kings, in front of the latter-day Korean leader's Blue House. If Kim wanted to downplay the occasion, he could have skipped the tanks, the flypasts, maybe the reenacted scenes of Korean War battles. But did he have to deny the veterans their moment of glory?
Kim was not the only one bending backward to please Pyongyang. President Bill Clinton last week eased most U.S. sanctions on trade and investment with the North, arguing that the summit showed the regime is no longer as bad as it had once been. The alacrity with which Kim Dae Jung vetoed the parade and Washington moved to appease the North is evidence of how little people respect the great struggle that set the course of modern Korean history. The Korean War has always been The Forgotten War--forgotten not only by Americans but, to the consternation of their elders, by young Koreans too. Americans followed it only fitfully, and many could barely recall the confrontation a few years after it ended in 1953. Most Americans, like South Koreans, don't want to think about it now. The war was marked by two of the greatest disasters in U.S. military history. First, there was the pell-mell retreat in July 1950 before the lines formed and hardened at the Pusan perimeter, more than 200 km southeast of Seoul. Then there was General Douglas MacArthur's tragically erroneous conviction, as his troops raced up North Korea to the Yalu River, that the Chinese would never enter the war.

The frightening question now is whether the Americans and South Koreans are making another miscalculation. While the North last week promised a moratorium on missile-testing, how much can anyone trust Kim Jong Il to cease producing weapons for export, to pull back his forces and to stop menacing the U.S. and the South? No sooner had President Clinton eased sanctions than the North Korean media returned to excoriating Washington for threatening a new war by keeping its 37,000 troops in the South.

There are grim ironies in the numbers. About 37,000 U.S. troops were killed in the Korean War. Then there is another, even more tragic statistic. While the U.S. has been sparring diplomatically with the North for the past few years, an estimated 2 million North Koreans have died of starvation. That about equals the war's total death toll. Can there be any rationalization for all these deaths? The answer is a resounding No. There was no reason for the Americans to have agreed to the division of the peninsula between North and South, between American and Soviet spheres of influence, after World War II. There was no reason for China and the Soviet Union to have encouraged North Korea's Great Leader Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il, to invade the South. There was no reason for Kim Jong Il to let his people starve.

There was, however, every reason for the U.S.-led United Nations troops to stave off the armies from the North--first the North Koreans, then the Chinese. South Korea could not have reached its present heights of wealth and freedom without that struggle. An aide to Kim Dae Jung concedes that during the summit the President neglected to ask Kim Jong Il about starvation, refugees and political prisoners, regarding these unpleasant topics as inappropriate. It was to combat such dreadful oppression, however, that the United States, South Korea and their allies entered the fight 50 years ago. The history of this tragedy is doomed to repeat itself if the lessons of the forgotten war are ignored.

Don Kirk is an author and journalist living in Seoul