A peninsula lingers without peace
60 years later, tensions continue for the Koreas
SEOUL — Distant thunder rattled the windows as Hong Il-sik, a 14-year-old schoolboy, awoke that Sunday. It was the sound of artillery fire, the morning of June 25, 1950, the dawn of a war that never ended.
Looking back, “I couldn’t even have imagined that — 60 years,’’ says the gray-haired former university president.
General Paik Sun-yup is unsurprised by the endurance of Korea’s endless standoff.
Knowing the enemy, North Korea’s communists, “we sensed back in the 1950s it could be a very long conflict,’’ the Paik, 90, a legendary Korean War commander, told a visitor to his office above Seoul’s War Memorial.
The war without end began that Sunday when North Korea invaded the south to try to reunify the nation, a liberated Japanese colony sliced in two in 1945 by the United States and Soviet victors of World War II.
At first, the invaders almost drove a weak South Korean-US force off the peninsula, but US reinforcements poured in, rolled back the northerners and drove deep into North Korea.
Then, in late 1950, communist China stepped in, its massed divisions throwing the Americans and South Koreans back to the peninsula’s midsection, where the two sides waged a costly seesaw war over bits of ground for two years, ending with a stalemate, a July 1953 armistice — not a peace, but a war on hold.
The Pusan Perimeter and “Stand or Die.’’ The Bowling Alley and the Punchbowl. Unsan-ni and Heartbreak Ridge. Pork Chop Hill and Kunu-ri.
The headline names and places of a lifetime ago fade from memory. But this “forgotten’’ chapter of 20th-century history still casts a long shadow over today’s world, as the root of unending crises on the peninsula and beyond, and as the war that turned America permanently into a global military power.
The US defense budget quadrupled almost overnight as Washington decided to confront communism militarily. American armed forces ballooned to 3 million men, and US bases spread worldwide. Three months after that June morning in 1950, President Truman signed National Security Council paper number 68, saying the nation must, “at whatever cost and sacrifice,’’ defend democracy “at home or abroad.’’ Within a few years, the US-Vietnam debacle began to unfold.
It wasn’t only America’s place on the world stage that changed with Korea 1950-53.
“The Korean War thrust China onto the Cold War’s front line,’’ said Shen Zhihua, a leading Chinese scholar of the war.
The Koreas, meanwhile, rebuilt industrial economies from the war’s devastation, the north as an authoritarian one-party state obsessed with self-reliance, the south as a capitalist powerhouse under repressive military rule and, for the past two decades, a civilian democracy.
Across the heavily mined armistice line, a 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized strip stretching 135 miles across the peninsula, almost 2 million troops face each other on alert for resumed war, some 27,000 of them US military.
War scares have flared regularly, from the 1968 North Korean seizure of the US Navy spy ship Pueblo, to the long-running duel over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, to this year’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, allegedly by North Korea.
Why has this state of no war, no peace dragged on for 60 years?
South Korean scholar Hong believes four powers — the US and Japan on one side, China and Russia on the other — like it this way. A unified Korea would align with one power or the other, upsetting the regional balance, said the former Korea University president.
North Korea’s own views on the standoff emerge only in uncomplicated official statements, such as a recent one blaming a “background of hostile actions by South Korea and the USA.’’