On July 27, 25,000 people rally in Seoul for a peace treaty with North Korea and against abuses by South Korean intelligence services. (Credit: Tim Shorrock)
Seoul, Korea—On July 27, I visited the Korean DMZ with a group of peace activists from Japan, China and South Korea. We were there to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War and participate in a conference seeking a permanent peace agreement between the warring parties. The events were organized by the Unified Progressive Party, a coalition of labor and civil liberties activists that holds six seats in South Korea’s National Assembly.
To many Koreans, a peace agreement is the only solution to the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the massive US-South Korean military exercises that have sparked the last two crises on the divided peninsula. “We are on the brink of war at any time,” warned Kyoung-Soon Park, the vice president of the UPP’s Progressive Policy Institute. “We are ashamed that the armistice, which just means the end of hostilities, has dragged on for sixty years.”
The atmosphere in Washington that day couldn’t have been more different. Twelve hours after the gathering on the DMZ, President Obama became the first US president to attend the official armistice commemorations at the Korean War Memorial. Addressing a phalanx of US and South Korean generals and hundreds of veterans, he delivered one of the most militaristic speeches of his presidency. “Here, today, we can say with confidence that this war was no tie,” he declared. “Korea was a victory.”
Obama ended on a note of hubris, pledging that “the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always. That is what we do.” Not once did he mention the fact that, for both North and South Korea, national unification has been a cherished—albeit distant—goal since 1972, when the Kim Il Sung and Park Chung Hee governments first laid out the principles for unification.
Obama’s embrace of the term “victory” marks a sharp and disturbing turn in US policy towards Korea. The Korean War, which has its roots in the tragic division imposed by the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, was one of the most brutal conflicts of the twentieth century. It ended where it began in 1950, with the two sides bitterly divided. It also left the country a shattered ruin; North Korea was literally bombed into cinders by the US Air Force. In the end, 38,000 Americans, 180,000 Chinese and 3 million Koreans died.
For decades, US officials and historians described the war not as a victory but a frustrating, inconclusive “police action.” And because China’s entry into the war stopped President Truman’s foolish attempt to “roll back” communism in the North, many conservatives portrayed the conflict as a disastrous reversal of US power and prestige. But as the cold war drew to a close, right-wing historians began lauding the Korean War as a “victory,” arguing—as Obama did on Saturday—that South Korea’s rise as a capitalist powerhouse and, eventually, as a democracy, were huge wins for the United States.
One of the earliest proponents of that view was David Frum, the conservative intellectual who served as a key adviser to President George W. Bush. Speaking on PBS in 1991, he declared that the “victory in Korea” opened “a new epic in the history of civilization” in which “the Pacific Rim joined the developed world.” That brought a withering response from Bruce Cumings, the foremost American historian on the war. Not only did North Korea and China “not surrender,” he said, “they gave the United States the most punishing defeat that it suffered in the post war period.” The war, he concluded, “was clearly a stalemate.” Few people knowledgeable about the country would disagree.
Therein lies the essential divide between current US policy and South Korea’s peace and justice movement. Obama and the Pentagon hold that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea is the greatest threat to peace in Asia and insists that the only deterrence is the joint exercises they conduct every year. But many in Seoul argue that the war games—which recently included the deployment of nuclear-ready stealth B-2 and F-22 bombers to the peninsula—are driving the North into a dangerous offensive posture that could easily end in another catastrophe. They describe the US posture towards the North not as peace-keeping but as part of a global strategy to expand US military influence and control.
“Although the United States stationed its military forces in Korea as a counter-measure against the invasion of North Korea, its role has changed into a swift expeditionary strike force targeting East Asia as well as the Middle East,” declared feminist lawyer Jung-Hee Lee, the UPP’s chairperson and one of two candidates to challenge South Korean President Park Geun-hye— the daughter of the former president—in the 2012 national elections. “Our challenge is to create a stable peace system now.”
Lee’s party and many activists here want to return to the years of reconciliation with Pyongyang that marked the “Sunshine” diplomacy promoted by the liberal governments of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. Both men were champions of the Korean democracy movement and, during their twelve years in office, reached significant agreements with the North. They included extensive diplomatic and cultural exchanges, the construction of a North-South railway line and development of a joint industrial zone that North Korea shut down during the recent crisis in April.
But the Obama administration has flatly rejected the idea of negotiating with the North without a prior commitment to denuclearization and expressed no interest in a peace agreement. And in August, US and South Korean forces will commence another round of war games. Rather than get the United States embroiled in another war, Obama should consider canceling, or scaling down, those exercises and talking peace for a change. The South Korean democracy movement endured nearly forty years of a military dictatorship backed and supported by the United States. Supporting the campaign for reconciliation is the least we can do for a country that has seen enough of the horrors of war.
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