|Young Korean girl with her brother on her back during the Korean War, c. 1951|
North Korea and South Korea were never not at war, practically speaking. Less than two years after two governments were officially established in the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas began the internecine Korean War in 1950. The war technically never ended, as the armed conflict only ended in a cease-fire in 1953 rather than a peace treaty. A Korean born in 1950 is 69 years old today. That means most Koreans—51 million in South Korea, 25 million in North, and 7.5 million scattered around the world—have never spent a moment of their lives not at war.
Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, two young colonels in the US military—Dean Rusk (the future Secretary of State) and Charles Bonesteel—grabbed a National Geographic map lying around them, and simply drew a line through the 38th Parallel. The Soviets would occupy north of the line, Americans the south. Rusk later would recall that the line “made no sense economically or geographically.” By late 1948, what appeared to be an informal and temporary division of the Peninsula became official and indefinite. North Korea’s Kim Il Sung invaded the South in 1950, and three years of hellish war ensued, killing millions. The United States came to the aid of South Korea; China did the same for North Korea. After the fighting ended, the Peninsula remained divided along the Armistice Line, which roughly tracked the 38th Parallel—the arbitrary line of division that never made any sense.
Out of the ashes of the war, two mirror images arose. Nominally, North Korea was a communist country in the Soviet and Chinese sphere of influence, while South Korea was a capitalist country in the US sphere of influence. For about 30 years after the war, however, the two Koreas looked rather similar at the ground level. In both Koreas, dictators took power, purged political opponents and massacred civilians suspected of being too friendly to the other Korea. Both Koreas operated gulags that imprisoned political dissidents. Both Koreas turned themselves into a permanent garrison state, staffed by conscripted men. Both Koreas pursued rapid industrialization to support the garrison state, aided by their respective global hegemon—US and USSR/China. It was only in the late 1980s that the two Koreas truly began to diverge, as South Korea democratized and North Korea was left in the wilderness as the Soviet Union fell.
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The term “forever war” came to be in common usage as it became evident that the US-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq had no realistic end in sight. Ordinarily, a war ends by defeating the opponent, who evidences its surrender through a document of some sort—as Imperial Japan did with the Treaty of San Francisco following World War II, for example. In contrast, the post-9/11 War on Terror was not declared against a country, per se. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress on September 14, 2001, authorized the US president to “use all necessary and appropriate force . . . in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States”. Some have argued that this authorization has led to the longest war in US history, nearly 18 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Koreans, however, would scoff at the idea that 18 years is “forever.” As of 2019, the United States has been at war in the Korean Peninsula for 69 years. The US has over 28,000 soldiers spread across 15 bases in South Korea, as well as the war time operational control authority over the South Korean military. The US presence has driven North Korea to paranoia, as it vividly remembers the fact that the US military dropped more bombs across North Korea than it did during World War II, killing more than the Germans and the Japanese who died during the Great War. To ensure its survival after the fall of Soviet Union, North Korea began developing nuclear weapons to fend off any temptation of an attack. And until very recently, there was no indication that the Korean War would end any time soon.
(More after the jump.)
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