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Introduction: A Limited Peace

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 177-182 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0016

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On March 7, 2013, North Korea announced to the world its intention to “completely nullify” the Korean War Armistice, in place for the previous sixty years. According to the Korean Workers’ Party newspaper Nodong Sinmun, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army—that is, Kim Jong Un (Kim Chŏngŭn)—declared the Armistice would be nullified on March 11, the day when the United States–Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” went into effect. North Korean media, which have long condemned the annual US-ROK military drills as preparation for an invasion of the North, declared the military to be on full alert and warned that war could break out at any moment. The United States, in turn, announced that it would send nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers to Korea and would drop dummy munitions on an island off the Korean coast. North Korea responded with an unprecedented call for missile strikes against Guam, Hawaii, and the US mainland in the case of an American attack. At the end of March, North Korea declared that the two Koreas had entered a “state of war” and that renewed hostilities on the peninsula would “not be limited to a local war but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.”

North Korea’s unilateral abrogation of the Korean War Armistice, although questionable from a legal standpoint, raised still further the tensions on the Korean peninsula that had been rapidly rising since North Korea detonated a nuclear device on February 12, 2013. The nuclear test, North Korea’s third since 2006, was met with international opprobrium and United Nations Security Council sanctions. North Korea condemned the UN sanctions resolution as an act of aggression and claimed its nuclear weapons were necessary to defend itself against a hostile United States. Escalating rhetoric and military posturing seemed in danger of crossing the line to all-out war between North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK]) on one side, and the United States and South Korea on the other. The Korean War Armistice looked extremely fragile.

The confrontation of 2013 was not the first time the Armistice appeared close to collapse and hostilities on the Korean peninsula ready to break out once again. Bellicose and provocative rhetoric and displays of military strength on both sides, which occupied the world media for weeks in the spring of 2013, have been a recurrent theme in inter-Korean and US-DPRK relations over the past six decades. The Armistice often has been honored more in the breach than in its compliance; although all-out war has not returned to the peninsula since July 1953, military confrontation has never ceased. The 1953 Armistice did not end the Korean War. Rather, thanks to the Armistice, the war has been frozen in place for sixty years.

If the Armistice has been intended to “keep the peace” since 1953, it is a dangerously unstable and provisional peace, as the events of 2013 have dramatically shown. The Korean War has been called a “limited war,” meaning that the conflict was contained to the Korean peninsula and was not fought as a World War II–like “total war” between the major Cold War antagonists—the United States and the Soviet Union—mobilizing the full resources of their respective populations (although it was in this sense a “total war” for Koreans). Similarly, we can call the Armistice a limited peace. The cease-fire line of July 1953 has evolved into a demarcation between two armed camps, including over two million troops and—since the United States introduced them in 1958—nuclear weapons. To be sure, hostilities have not broken out between North and South Korea since the Armistice went into effect, but incidents have been frequent. Boundary incursions, kidnapping, and occasionally bold ventures into the other side such as the failed North Korean commando raid on the South Korean presidential palace in 1968 and the shelling of Yŏnp’yŏng Island in 2010, have been recurrent; any one of these could have been taken as a breach of the Armistice by the other side and a justification for attack.

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