July 27th marks the 56th anniversary of the United States’ temporary armistice with North Korea. On this day, people in five cities across the U.S.—Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, and Washington, DC—held candlelight vigils to commemorate the signing of the armistice.
In 1953, the armistice provided a stopgap measure to halt the fighting. Although it was only temporary, it was significant. For, within three years, two million soldiers, including 37,000 U.S. troops, had been killed. Three million Korean civilians – or 1 out of 10 – had died, and the entire Korean peninsula had been decimated. Yet, without an official peace treaty or permanent resolution, the Korean War is not over. Nor has it been relegated quietly to the dustbins of history. Although the Korean War is currently overshadowed by more high profile conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, the fact that it lacks formal resolution has had no small bearing on the ongoing tenuous state of U.S.-Korean relations.
This spring, a broad coalition of multiple generations of Korean-Americans, American veterans of the Korean War, and peace, justice and human rights groups came together to form the National Campaign to End the Korean War. This coalition organized these events not only to honor those nameless spirits who died 56 years ago, but also to wake us from our dangerous dream that all is well. As Professor Hazel Smith recently warned, the U.S. government is once more, “sleepwalking to war” with North Korea.
Earlier this year, in a matter of weeks, North Korea launched several missiles, conducted its second nuclear test and declared that the armistice was no longer in effect and that it would consider sanctions by the United Nations to be an act of war. In response, the UN Security Council passed a new round of sanctions against North Korea. These sanctions also authorized other nations to stop and search North Korean seafaring vessels for nuclear weapons material—a decision North Korea claimed was tantamount to a declaration of war. And for days, the U.S. military deployed the U.S.S John McCain on high seas chase of North Korea’s Kang Nam ship that headed towards Singapore.
Meanwhile, after President Obama met with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak in June 2009, he issued these threats: “There’s been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves in a belligerent fashion, and if it waits long enough is then rewarded with foodstuffs and fuel and concessionary loans and a whole range of benefits. And I think that’s the pattern that they’ve come to expect. The message we’re sending — and when I say “we,” not simply the United States and the Republic of Korea, but I think the international community — is we are going to break that pattern.” In other words, North Korea is the problem here and needs to be restrained by punishing its people who are already struggling with the basics of food, medicine and electricity.
For many watching tensions escalate between the U.S. and North Korea brought to mind the last time we were close to a full-scale war with North Korea. In 1993, the Clinton administration stood ready to bomb North Korea for maintaining its alleged nuclear program. Fortunately, this plan was subverted by Jimmy Carter’s swift diplomacy (and the backchannel organizing of Korean-American elders), when he flew into North Korea with a CNN crew and subsequently struck a deal with Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, a process which later yielded the Agreed Framework. What is less known is that then South Korea President Kim Young Sam, when informed by Clinton of U.S. plans to strike, declared that he would not allow a war on the Korean peninsula during his tenure.
Today, South Korea is ruled by President Lee Myung Bak, a neoconservative who not only joined the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism Proliferation Security Initiative but who also managed to reverse the significant progress made towards reconciliation and reunification over the past decade.
North Koreans are weary and wary of U.S. denuclearization deals, having waded patiently through lengthy negotiations first with Bill Clinton and then with George W. Bush, only to have promising outcomes scuttled by hawkish neoconservatives within each administration. Most American policymakers and media pundits loyally insist that it is the North Koreans who haven’t upheld their part of the bargain, but many Korea experts, including Selig Harrison and Mike Chinoy, have documented play by play how it has been the United States that first reneges on its end of the deal which naturally causes North Korea to follow suit. The general consensus in the United States is that North Korea cannot be trusted, but as Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares Fund recently pointed out, “In September 2005 when North Korea agreed to the de-nuclearization process, the next day another part of the [U.S.] government was slapping sanctions on their bank accounts. The North Koreans were understandably upset, outraged and they pulled out of the deal. We stopped our fuel shipments; the whole thing spiraled out of control.” Furthermore, just where are the two light water reactors promised to North Korea in 1994? False promises by previous U.S. administrations have eroded the North Korean public’s trust in those North Korean officials who do support continued diplomatic engagement with the U.S. Furthermore, an increasing loss of confidence in the political process only further emboldens their hardline counterparts, who argue that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are its best defense. If we look at Iraq, in many ways, perhaps they have been right.
During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to sit down and talk with Kim Jong Il. He inaugurated his presidency with an offer to “extend a hand” so long as those “on the wrong side of history” would “unclench [their] fist.” Yet, thus far, the Obama policy on North Korea has punitively continued to emphasize sanctions and repeat many exhausted tropes about North Korea, many of which are blatantly untrue. Unfortunately, President Obama seems reluctant to learn from the lessons that Clinton and Bush learned the hard way—that refusing to engage North Korea produces negative consequences, such as a nuclear North Korea. Add to this scenario an ailing Kim Jong Il, coupled with distorted intelligence from pro-war forces in South Korea, Japan and the United States—and a very dangerous situation is indeed afoot on the peninsula.
In 1949, on the cusp of the Korean War, veteran American journalist Anna Louise Strong wrote, “In days to come, Korea will continue to supply headlines. Yet there is little public knowledge about the country and most of the headlines distort rather than reveal the facts.” Strong couldn’t have been more prescient, and thankfully the one to document the distortion was none other than the scrupulous journalist I.F. Stone. I just finished reading “The Hidden History of the Korean War,” which he was finally able to publish in 1952 through the Monthly Review, as no mainstream publisher in the U.S. or the UK was willing to risk disseminating his views during the height of the McCarthy era.
In 1952, the publishers of the book explained, “This book, by the distinguished journalist, I.F. Stone, paints a very different picture of the Korean War—one, in fact, which is at variance with the official version at almost every point. The reader will, regardless of his inclinations or intentions, find over and over again that he is forced to compare what he has been so often told about the Korean War with the facts and interpretations presented by Stone. More than that, he will find that he is forced to choose, to accept one version and discard the other, for the two are contradictory and irreconcilable.”
Fifty-seven years later, current U.S. intelligence on North Korea remains hopelessly dated. The major media outlets continue to perpetuate the same narratives upheld by the Truman administration, and the true underlying motivations that drive the ongoing, sixty-plus-year U.S. occupation of Korea remain obscure and grossly distorted.
Most Americans who consider themselves somewhat knowledgeable about the Korean War believe that the U.S. first landed in Korea in 1950 to “liberate” South Korea from a North Korean invasion and that Korea was divided along the 38th parallel after the fighting ceased. Yet it was the U.S. government that actually authored the division of Korea along the 38th parallel, years before war had officially been declared. Then War Department officer Dean Rusk drew a line across the 38th parallel, thus keeping Seoul under the control of the United States and the north under the Soviets. As Korea historian Bruce Cumings has noted, the Soviets consented tacitly, but Stalin never signed or made an official verbal agreement; his acceptance was just de facto. And the U.S. didn’t consult anyone in this decision, certainly not the Korean people.
Following Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, the U.S. landed in Incheon and for the next three years installed a military government and put into power an elite cadre of Korean administrators who had gained their political and military experience during the Japanese colonial period. Imagine the millions of Koreans who had organized peoples’ committees and fought for their independence—only to be “liberated” by the United States, which immediately replaced their Japanese oppressors with Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese!
But the tragedy continued. The Korean War, known in the United States as the “Forgotten War,” was characterized by military experts for its “scorched-earth” policy, essentially a three-year fire-bombing campaign. In Pyongyang, a city of 400,000 people in 1950, approximately 420,000 U.S. bombs were dropped—more than one per resident. Not only were more bombs dropped on Korea than on Europe during World War II, but more napalm was used there than during the Vietnam War. At one point, President Truman even seriously considered dropping an atomic bomb on North Korea.
There are numerous important passages in I.F. Stone’s The Hidden History, but here are two that are relevant to capturing the mindset of that period, especially from the West.
“On June 25, 1951, Major General Emmett O’Donnell Jr., commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command, testified to the Senate: ‘I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name… There were no more targets in Korea.'”
“Were UN and U.S. forces more appreciative of the plight of their South Korean charges, those whom they were ostensibly fighting to liberate? In its 1951 edition, Brassey’s Annual: The Armed Forces Yearbook, the authoritative British military publication, has this to say: ‘The war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. As a consequence, fighting was quite ruthless, and it is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country. Its towns have been destroyed, much of its means of livelihood eradicated, and its few people reduced to a sullen mass dependent upon charity… Few attempts were made to explain to the American soldier why he was fighting… The national hatred and fear of Communism was sufficient in most cases to inflame him with a rather indiscriminate belligerence… It failed however to bring about any kind of sympathy for South Koreans, except, of course, in the thousand and one little kindnesses troops offer to children and lost dogs… The South Korean, unfortunately, was regarded as a ‘gook,’ like his cousins north of the 38th parallel.'”
I.F. Stone’s Hidden History well-documents the fabrication of lies by Macarthur and Truman, the media’s wholesale collusion in perpetrating these lies, the fact that peace was thwarted at every turn by rabid anti-Communist hawks, and the blatant disregard for Korean lives by the American government. Now it is easier to understand why the Korean War is known as the Forgotten War. The U.S. legacy on the Korean peninsula is a shameful one, and as more and more contravening testimony emerges, it is the clear that the U.S. government prefers to keep the truth under wraps.
Fifty-six years have now passed since the signing of the Korean War armistice. For 60 years, the U.S. has had some 30,000 troops on the Korean peninsula. And over the past twenty years, South Korea has become a more democratic society, fostering an outpouring of new research, which gives us a much deeper understanding of the role of the U.S. in Korea. Yet, in 2009, discerning American citizens are still expected to uncritically accept the “official,” fabricated narrative of Korea’s liberation.
There are some days when I question why I continue to work for the peaceful reunification of Korea, and I imagine countless Koreans feel the same way. Reading the mainstream media’s interpretation of Korean affairs can easily lead us to feel quite depressed about any prospects for truth or reconciliation. Working to disavow the “official” U.S. government history in favor of the peoples’ history often feels like wrestling with an 8,000-pound gorilla.
But, for most of my adult life, I have committed to work for some semblance of social justice, in the U.S. as well as beyond its borders. And no social movement I have participated in has inspired me more than the Korean people’s desire for peace, for justice, for healing and for the right to determine their own destinies. I think about the villagers of Pyongtaek—halmonis and haddabugees, simple farmers who used their bodies to defend their homes and land from being demolished to accommodate the expansion of a U.S. military base. I think of the elderly repatriated political prisoners I met in North Korea who spent up to 40 years in South Korean prisons, tortured daily and exiled by their families, who held onto their convictions about Korea’s right to sovereignty. I think about the movement in South Korea, millions who struggled onwards for democracy under the heavy repression of decades of dictatorship with the backing of the United States. I think of the families from Nogunri, Cheju-do and countless other massacre sites before and during the Korean War—who, despite all the pressures to remain silent—have courageously spoken out about South Korean and U.S. military involvement in the massacres. And despite the sadness I often feel at how marginalized the Korean people’s history has become here in the United States, I also realize how incredible it is that, despite all the propaganda, the Cold War mentality that my family carried with them when they left South Korea during the Park Chung-hee era, and the daily dose of misinformation we get from U.S. media, I have learned the people’s history of Korea.
I am keenly aware that the process of uncovering, hearing, absorbing and speaking truth to power requires tremendous work. It requires conscious dedication to studying, learning and asking hard questions while keeping an open mind and heart. It requires tremendous courage in the face of being intimidated, red-baited, attacked, and perhaps isolated from our families. It takes even more courage to be willing to write and speak publicly about this truth. But as many can attest, once we know the truth, we cannot turn our back on it. We have been endowed with the responsibility to do all we can to contribute to the healing. And each one of us who understands this true peoples’ history of the U.S. occupation of Korea bears a responsibility to take immediate action.
Over 10 million families still remain divided, and millions of elders will soon pass away without ever uniting with their siblings. All three governments (U.S., South and North Korea) are wasting billions of dollars on further militarizing the de-militarized zone, a pristine area now saturated with 1.2 million landmines. Millions of North Koreans live without electricity and struggle daily to obtain basic food and medical care. Thousands of North Korean migrants—predominantly women—are incredibly vulnerable to the exploitation awaiting them in their journey in search of food and work. Today, South Korean movements for the rights of workers, farmers and reunification are being severely repressed under the authoritarian reign of Lee Myung Bak. One South Korean scholar recently said, “With the exception of torture, it is like the period under Park Chung Hee.”
The Korean War must end once and for all, and the U.S. holds the key.
This past December, James Laney, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea said: “One of the things that have bedeviled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War. A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist. Absent such a peace treaty, every dispute presents afresh the question of the other side’s legitimacy.”
We must end the Korean War by replacing the temporary armistice with a permanent peace treaty. If any president can achieve it, it is Obama. And if any generation can make it happen, it is ours.
Christine Ahn is a Fellow with the Korea Policy Institute and also a member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War. The Candlelight Vigils to end the Korean War, on the occasion of the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice, were organized by the National Campaign to End the Korean War with local grassroots community-based organizations.