We’re at war – old news, you say? Well you don’t know how old – because I’m not talking about our eternal "war on terrorism," but the Korean war. Yes, in case you didn’t know, it’s still on, at least in the formal sense: a truce was signed, on July 27, 1953, but the war never officially ended, in spite of several offers by the North Koreans to resolve the matter. The latest of these offers was contemptuously rejected by Washington, as my colleague Jason Ditz recently pointed out. "We’re not going to pay the North Koreans to come back to the six-party talks," sneered one US official.
This same peremptory tone was routinely given voice by the Bush administration when it came to the Korean question, and an identical level of vituperation is being maintained by Team Obama.
With the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean war approaching, the failure to conclude a formal peace treaty is a major entry in the Encyclopedia of Ridiculous Facts. All these years later we find ourselves upholding, memorializing, and mimicking the crazed behavior of Syngman Rhee, the South Korean dictator who did his best to torpedo the signing of an armistice. As the prospects for a ceasefire brightened, Rhee repeatedly defied the US, and the UN, threatening to withdraw his troops from UN command and go on fighting. Massive bribery and a mutual defense pact that ensures South Korea’s status as a US protectorate-in-perpetuity succeeded in changing his mind, but not before several thousands more had been killed in a war that ground up four million human lives.
On account of Rhee’s stubbornness, and then on account of our own, the Korean peninsula has been enveloped in a time warp: the cold war ended in 1989, but in the land known as the Hermit Kingdom time has stood still. Rhee’s intransigent spirit still dominates the discourse in South Korea. Yang Moo-jin, of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, echoed the official view in his response to the North Korean proposal: "We can see [Pyongyang’s] concealed intention to soften discussion of its denuclearization."
The Chinese, too, are hostile to the idea of a peace treaty: While China may pay very occasional lip service to the idea of concluding a treaty, their response to the raising of this issue by Pyongyang displays ill-concealed hostility:
Although the Chinese fought alongside their Communist comrades in the North against the Americans, the UN, and Rhee, tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang are at an all-time high. As the line of succession in this Marxist monarchy falters, and the military grows in importance, the future of North Korea is increasingly problematic – as is the situation on the contentious Sino-Korean border.
Relations between the two ostensibly Communist governments have been frosty since the late 1950s, when the pro-Chinese "Yanan" faction of the ruling Korean Workers Party was purged by dynastic founder Kim Il Sung. With control slipping from the hands of Kim’s successors – the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, is apparently quite ill – the Chinese are bound to take advantage of disarray among the North Korean leadership, and reassert their influence. For them, the possibility of a unified – and fiercely nationalistic – Korea can only be troubling.
Japan, too, views such a development with suspicion and alarm. Relations between the two countries have always been difficult, at best, and the prospect of a unified Korea untethered from US control would be no more reassuring to the Japanese than the status quo, and in many ways less so.
Inside South Korea, the issue seems to be fought out along generational and regional lines, with younger more cosmopolitan Koreans in favor of rapprochement with the North, and the oldsters and the countryside opposed. For a while, it looked like the "sunshine policy" of South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was going to succeed in liberating the North and preventing a catastrophic economic and political collapse of the Communist regime, a flood of refugees, or even the outbreak of war. The US, however, put the kibosh on that.
Over US opposition, Dae-jung’s heir pursued the sunshine policy with even more vigor, traveling to North Korea and personally stepping over the physical border in a symbolic act, but the skies soon darkened. The end of the liberal ascendancy in South Korean politics was signaled, in 2008, by the election of President Lee Myung Bak, whose first act was to abolish the government department set up to facilitate national unification.
The main actor in this extended historical drama, the United States, is the chief obstacle to ending history’s longest war. We have taken the place of the dictator Rhee as the embodiment of irrational intransigence, refusing to let go of the last relic of the cold war – and leaving tens of thousands of US troops hostage in South Korea, where they could be attacked and decimated by the nuclear-armed North Koreans at any moment. Is it really worth the risk of all those lives – and for what? To placate the vindictive spirit of a long-dead dictator?
As I put it last year:
"To the North Koreans, who are especially prickly and sensitive when it comes to matters of ‘face,’ this is a living issue, one that has a definite effect on their behavior in the present. Any U.S. president who entertains the idea of resolving the ongoing series of crises that erupt on the Korean peninsula with clock-like regularity has to be prepared to revisit this entire issue of the war that never officially ended."
The response of the Obama White House has been reminiscent of the bad old days of the Bush administration, when Pyongyang’s every proposal was dismissed out of hand. In this truculent tradition, Obama’s chief spokesman Robert Gibbs averred:
"The North Koreans are well aware of what they need to do… to come back to six-party talks in dealing with this issue… that is, give up the idea of a nuclear state on the peninsula. If they’re willing to live up to those obligations, then we will make progress in those talks."
As long as an official state of war exists on the Korean peninsula, expecting the North to surrender the biggest weapon in its arsenal is a pipe dream. This is elementary common sense, and obvious to anyone with the faintest inkling of Korea’s history and national character. Extreme suspicion of all things foreign, born of a long record of successive military occupations, is a current that runs very strong in Korea, both North and South. As desperate as the North is to come to some kind of agreement in order to ensure its own physical survival, faced with the choice of placing themselves at the mercy of foreigners, or starving, a great many are likely to opt for the latter.
The United States can break the deadlock by declaring its willingness to conclude a peace treaty, and agreeing to make this subject the initial focus of restarted six-party talks. It would seem elementary, in an administration supposedly dedicated to "change," that this curious and dangerous atavism of the cold war would finally be put to rest. That, however, is apparently too much to expect from our tiresomely "pragmatic" and decidedly unimaginative policymakers over at the Korea desk.
It’s certainly too much to ask of Hillary’s State Department. If Hil was smart she’d send her husband back over there: he’d return with a signed peace treaty (and perhaps a kidnapped Japanese film director or two). But of course she could never allow her husband to overshadow her – and wouldn’t it be just like Bill to arrange to take his current mistress (and don’t tell me he doesn’t have a new one) with him to Pyongyang! Sad to say, the national interest is often held hostage to the vanity and personal peccadilloes of our elites.
Yet more than that separates our policy from common sense. To any ordinary person, of course, the idea that we should continue to refuse to officially end the Korean war is utterly absurd.
Not to our policymakers, however, who are using this bit of unfinished business to perpetuate our Korean protectorate, which serves no useful purpose aside from being costly. Our present policy also helps perpetuate the North Korean regime, one of the most murderous and tyrannical in the world, and certainly the nuttiest. Pyongyang needs this state of war as much as we do: how else would they justify to their own starving and brutalized citizens the widespread privation and total dictatorship that rules their lives? As long as an official state of war exists, the ruling caste of North Korean party men and military types will retain the loyalty of their base. The day this wartime mentality is relaxed is the day the regime starts to come apart.
End the war – the Korean war – now. And bring our troops, all of them, home. Sixty years is long enough.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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