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Reflections on the Korean War and Its Armistice

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 403-406 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0019

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The preface to Robert S. McNamara’s memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, quotes from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,”

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The problem with US policy in Korea (as indeed with McNamara himself) is that policymakers never do know the place; they simply arrive where they started. The Korean War ended not in a peace treaty but a cease-fire agreement signed by the representatives of the UN Command, North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. South Korea did not sign it and still has not.

Unhappy with the outcome of the war and determined to constrain Chinese influence in Asia—North, East, and Southeast—and project its own, the United States set about establishing and reinforcing military bases in the area. The Americans took over the French effort in Indochina, branded China an aggressor, and blocked its entrance into the United Nations. US forces trained ROK military forces, enabled Chinese Nationalist sabotage efforts on the mainland, blocked any rapprochement between Japan and China, and encouraged the creation of a Japanese self-defense force. In short, the United States pursued a militarized policy in the region in the name of anticommunism, stability, and order. Now, sixty years later, the United States is back in the same place. Well, not quite, since North Korea declared the Armistice, the subject of this special issue of The Journal of Korean Studies, nullified on March 11, 2013.

Now, instead of marking in a memorial way the sixtieth anniversary of the event, these articles reflect on the Armistice in history, literature, and film and enable the reader to better understand the fragility of the Armistice and to wonder how it has lasted this long. Indeed, that is the point of Steven Lee’s magisterial history of the Armistice from 1953 to 1976: over time the Armistice Agreement “became more an obstacle to peace than a means of preserving it.”

Steven Lee’s article, like others in this issue, corrects the received wisdom of most Americans (and American historians), whose focus is on the combative rhetoric and actions of the North Korean regime. From the moment when the United States deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea in 1958 to the 1976 nearwar crisis in the Joint Security Area, peace on the peninsula has been hostage to America’s larger political and strategic needs. Avram Agov’s article tells a different story: the way in which North Korea, maneuvering between the PRC and the Soviet Union, was able to maintain its independence and receive essential aid. During the Korean War itself, however, the North Koreans were also subject to the policy goals of its supporters, who prolonged the war despite Kim Il Sung’s (Kim Ilsŏng) desire to negotiate its end. “This war spills American blood,” Stalin told Zhou Enlai, not so much indifferent to the spilt Korean blood as clear about his priorities. By contrast, as Robert Barnes makes clear, Nehru’s persistent efforts to use the UN to end the war met with some modest success.

The role of the war, the Armistice, and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is its geographic embodiment, has a prominent place in the South Korean imagination and collective memory, explored in the articles of Susie Jie Young Kim, Youngmin Choe, and Jung Joon Lee. For North Korea as well, the war and the American enemy remain a constant presence, as Martin Petersen shows in his article. Insofar as the Korean War is remembered in the United States (it is repeatedly remembered as forgotten), the Armistice and the DMZ play no role in America’s imagination or collective memory. Most Americans think of the Armistice not as a cease-fire but as a peace treaty and, as Steven Lee emphasizes, US policymakers, who know better, insist that the Armistice contributes to the peace and stability of the peninsula and that anyhow it is a matter for the two Koreas to resolve.

In March 2013, as has been the case since 1976, the United States and...

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