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Korea: Armistice Offers Important Lessons, 50 Years Later

  • Don Hill

The first "hot" war of the Cold War -- known variously as the Korean War, the Korean conflict, and a UN "police action" -- ended 50 years ago today in the Korean border hamlet of Panmunjom, leaving embers that still smolder. The armistice signed there on 27 June 1953 left South Korean and North Korean forces glowering at each other across the 38th parallel, where they remain, along with 37,000 U.S. troops. A Cambridge University historian and a South Korean economist tell RFE/RL about what has been learned on the peninsula in the past 50 years.

Prague, 27 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- North Korea unleashed an invasion of South Korea across the 38th parallel in June 1950, and a U.S.-led coalition, backed by the UN Security Council, went to war in South Korea's defense.

Three million lives and three years and one month later, what then U.S. President Harry Truman called the UN "police action" in Korea ended in a stalemate with the two Koreas divided at the 38th parallel on 27 June 1953 -- 50 years ago today.

University of Cambridge historian and Korea specialist Philip Towle says the Korean War had meaning and impact far beyond its time and place. The war tested the Truman Doctrine that the United States would go to the defense of any free people "resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," a reference to communism.

It also established the principle of nuclear restraint. Towle says, "at that stage, nobody knew when a war broke out whether a nuclear weapons state would use all the weapons that it had available. So it really became very important because it set that precedent for nuclear restraint."

The armistice signed in 1953 never led to a formal peace treaty. And now the question of nuclear restraint is roiling the Korean peninsula again. The Democratic Republic of North Korea says it is strengthening what it calls its "nuclear deterrent force" in the face of U.S. "imperialistic threats."

Negotiations that led to the 1953 armistice were tedious and complicated. They bogged down repeatedly over details such as the forced repatriation of North Korean prisoners and whether South Korea would sit at the bargaining table. Towle says there are lessons from those negotiations that can be instructive still.

"We learn, I think, from those negotiations a good deal about North Korean negotiating tactics, the importance of thinking about face (the need for dignity and prestige), the way that they will spin out negotiations for as long as possible and then possibly make concessions at the end of that process," Towle says.

The United States and the South Korean government of President Syngman Rhee disagreed bitterly in 1953. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had succeeded Harry Truman and was driving for a diplomatic way out of a seemingly endless Asian war. Rhee wanted to escalate the combat, defeat the communist foe and unite the Koreas.

That division contrasts with the situation today. The South Korean government seeks dialogue with the North, minimizes the nuclear issue and believes the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is exaggerating the threat.

Korean scholar Towle says U.S. awkwardness in Korea has fed anti-American reaction in the South, as well as the North. He says there is "the feeling amongst South Koreans that this particular administration in Washington is not concerned enough with the whole problem of 'face.' And there's the feeling in Seoul that they know how to deal better with North Koreans. They're Koreans themselves."

The current U.S. commander in the Pacific, Admiral Thomas Fargo, told a congressional committee yesterday that the White House seeks a diplomatic solution in the present confrontation and that a new war is unlikely. But Towle says, in effect, that earlier Bush rhetoric labeling North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" was tantamount to tapping a hornet's nest with a stick.

He says this tactic "epitomizes what the South Koreans are worried about in the state of mind in Washington. They feel that the Americans, this administration, is not sensitive to the North Korean position and also exaggerates the threat."

Kim Byong-Yeon is a Western-educated South Korean economist teaching now at Britain's University of Essex. He identifies two main lessons in the 50 years of Korean history since the armistice.

"A good lesson we can learn from this experience is the importance of a market economy and democracy," he says. "Obviously, the North Korean [socialist] economy has failed and is desperate for survival, while the South Korean economy has been going very well."

Kim says a second lesson is "that peace can only be maintained when one is prepared for the worst. So the presence of American troops played an important role in the South Korean peacemaking process. Also, the South Korean government built military power to repel any possible North Korean invasion."

Kim says South Korean democracy has been strengthened by a growing sense of security in his country.

"From the late 1970s, the South Korea government began to have dialogue with North Korea and the fear of war between the two Koreas began to [subside] from the late 1970s. Nowadays, the South Koreans live without much fear from a North Korean invasion."

Nevertheless, he says, anti-Americanism appears to be growing. He says South Korea "is regarded as one of the countries in which the tide of anti-Americanism is fairly high, [in] particular after George [W.] Bush became president of the United States."

It is more complicated, however, than simple anti-Washington sentiment, Kim says. He says a healthy nationalism in South Korea is protesting to the United States not that "We are against you," but instead, "We are for us."

"South Korea has become more mature, experienced, and a bit rich, grown up," he says. "And so Korean nationalism is not anti-Americanism, I would say, but it is asking [for] the recognition of South Korea."

Kim says he speaks as a typical Korean, and that his countrymen resent the failure of the United States to treat South Korea as a strong, sovereign nation, rather than as a mere client state.