|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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|South Korean school children huddled as a part of the regular war preparation drill, c. 2016|
How did the Korean War become a forever war? While one can give many different and nuanced answers to that question, the ultimate reason is simple: the Korean War never ended because every participant of the war needed the war to not end. The two Koreas needed the war, because the war became the premise for the two countries’ existence. To South Korea, North Korea is a group of rebels illegally occupying the northern half of the Korean Peninsula; the reverse is likewise true for North Korea. For each Korea, ending the war meant recognizing that the other Korea had a right to exist in the Korean Peninsula—and if “their” Korea had a right to exist, “our” Korea did not have the same right. The dictators that ruled each Korea also needed the war to continue, as they could constantly point to the war to justify their oppression. The United States and China needed the war to continue because they needed their client states to continue existing, and to that end, they needed to continue supporting “their bastards.”
In many ways, the Korean War is the perfect forever war, the Platonic ideal of a forever war, a war that does not seek to carry out an objective but exists for its own sake. The war’s ordinary objective of military victory is all but impossible to achieve for either Korea, as they are in the perfect position for mutually assured destruction. South Korea cannot attack North Korea: even before North Korea developed nuclear weapons, it could level Seoul and kill millions with just the artillery lined along the demilitarized zone. But North Korea cannot attack South Korea either, because the counterattack by the superior South Korean military, aided by the United States, will annihilate North Korea. As any attempt to break the cease-fire by either party meant Gotterdammerung in the Peninsula, there was little actual fighting between the two Koreas—just a few sporadic skirmishes that acted like an annoying but deadly alarm clock that killed a dozen soldiers each time it reminded the world that the two Koreas were still technically at war.
With the cease-fire entrenched, the physical reality of the war began to fade into background. Of course, the toll of the war was and is real: the DMZ is the most heavily militarized area in the world, and both Koreas spend an inordinate proportion of their economy toward building and maintaining their massive military. (By one measure, South Korea is the seventh greatest military power in the world, and North Korea is the 18th.) But in a day-to-day life, the ongoing war is rarely at the forefront of the Koreans’ consciousness. Many outside observers are bewildered that South Koreans seem absurdly calm about the prospect of the second Korean War, which is all but certain to be a nuclear war. That’s what happens if your country has never not been at war with its closest country. Just as much as Americans adjusted to living with ubiquitous gun ownership and random mass shootings, Koreans adjusted to living with a forever war. The threat of war was so constant, and its effect so far beyond one’s control, that there was no point dwelling on the war.
Truly, this is the most pernicious effect of a forever war—that the constant possibility of mass death is normalized to a point that it dissipates into becoming the air we breathe. When the war lasts forever, it is no longer the opposite of peace, no longer a historical event with a beginning and an end. Instead, the war becomes the ontological premise for the whole society. Social edifices are built on top of the assumption that the war will last forever, which in turn make the society ensure that the war does indeed last forever. Even as they traded barbs and rattled sabers, the murderous dictatorships that emerged in both Koreas needed the war to justify their existence. (The interdependence between the two governments got to a point that South Korea’s conservatives, heirs to the dictatorship, paid money to Kim Jong Il to shoot up the DMZ in the hopes of preventing the liberal Kim Dae-jung from winning the 1997 South Korean presidential election.) The old Chinese generals needed the war to maintain their stature. The American defense contractors needed the war to sell their weapons, and the Washington thinktanks needed the war to receive funding and give something for the ex-CIA agents to do.
If a free man is shackled, every moment spent with the chain grates the man. But if he were born with a chain around his neck, he is never bothered with the chain. What is more, to the extent he loves himself, he often falls in love with the chain, as the chain is a part of himself. Any attempt to remove the chain will provoke resistance, for to a man born with a chain around his neck, a life without the chain is no longer the desiderata. When the chain becomes the foundation of his existence, he will fight with all his strength to keep the chain around his neck.
The way to remove the chain, then, begins not with the chain, but with the man so chained—by alerting him to the possibility of a life without the chain, by convincing him that it is in fact the better life, the freer life without artificial imposition, the way a man was intended to live. So, too, is the way to end a forever war: it begins by imagining the possibility of the world at peace, and by tearing down the edifices that depend on the war.
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|Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump at the first ever US-DPRK summit meeting, c. 2018|
This moment is the closest we have been to the end of the Korean War, as Donald Trump is floating the possibility of issuing an end of war declaration following his second summit meeting with Kim Jong Un. In a recent talk given at Stanford University, Stephen Biegun, US Special Representative for North Korea, stated strongly: “President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done.” But as discussed earlier, ending the forever war is not merely about the formal cessation of hostilities.
If the Korean War does end, the beginning of that end would be traceable to 1987, when South Korea overthrew the last rendition of its military dictatorship. Finally freed from the need to justify its existence in relation to North Korea and the Korean War, the newly democratized South Korea began chipping away at the edifices built on top of the forever war. South Korea normalized diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1990, and with China in 1992. The two Koreas simultaneously joined the United Nations in 1991 as two separate states, effectively ending the ideological battle in which both governments claimed the sole legitimacy over the Korean Peninsula. Under the leadership of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung and his Sunshine Policy, the two Koreas began regular exchanges of people and economic cooperation—until South Korea’s conservatives, spurred by North Korea’s nuclear program, put an end to the engagement.
It is apt that this round of improvement in the inter-Korean relations is being driven by South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, who became the president after the impeachment of conservative Park Geun-hye. Park represented the last gasping breath of South Korean conservatives who primarily drew their political strength from relentless red scare. Thirty years after South Korea democratized, South Korean conservatives—another edifice that depended on the forever war—finally collapsed under its own weight, as it was unable to hold together the hypocrisy that South Korea must allow the conservatives to be corrupt and authoritarian to fend off the North Korean threat. Once Park’s bizarre corruption scandal came to light, South Koreans voted the conservatives into political irrelevance. In 2017, Moon won his presidency with the largest margin of victory in South Korea’s democratic history. In the 2018 Local Elections, the conservative Liberty Korea Party was utterly destroyed, scraping only two governor seats out of 17 available.
Thus, South Korea became the first participant of the Korean War that cast off the need for the forever war. Having freed its mind from the false idea that it needed the chain around its neck, South Korea began the quest to actually shed the chain by ending the forever war. Luckily, just as much as Rusk and Bonesteel arbitrarily divided the Korean Peninsula, the United States was going through another arbitrary episode. Because fewer than 80,000 Americans in three Midwestern states felt economic and racial grievances stoked by the Russian spy agency, the buffoonish Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Despite being an incompetent and odious figure in just about every area of domestic and international politics, Trump landed ass-backwards on a path toward an improved relationship with North Korea, with Moon Jae-in gently guiding the landing of his derriere. South Korean history buffs quietly joke that Trump might be the reincarnation of Emperor Wanli, the Ming Dynasty emperor who bankrupted his own empire while assisting Korea’s Joseon Dynasty against the Japanese invasion in the 16th century.
When Trump started floating the possibility of an end of war declaration with North Korea, a chorus of Washington DC’s foreign policy thinktanks warned direly that ending the Korean War would be a mistake. They argued that the end of the Korean War would weaken the US-South Korea alliance because, for example, North Korea might demand that the United States withdraw its military from South Korea. There is an absurd quality to these arguments: North Korea can make all the demands in the world, but the US does not have to listen. (For what it’s worth, North Korea communicated directly to Trump that they will not make an issue out of US military presence in South Korea.) Even more absurdly, some US analysts even argued that the end of Korean War might embolden Trump to withdraw the US troops out of South Korea—in other words, the United States must maintain the Korean War, just in case the US president might be tempted to reduce military presence in the Korean Peninsula. One might think that the issue is not the end of Korean War, but the Americans’ undermining the alliance with South Korea.
But these absurd arguments begin to make sense when you understand that, to these people, the US-South Korea alliance is premised solely on the Korean War. To the majority in the DC foreign policy circles, America’s alliance with South Korea does not rest on the fact that South Korea is the sixth largest trading partner with the United States, or that there has been a history of exchanging people, culture and ideas between US and South Korea that spans over a century. No—to them, when the war ends, so too will the relationship between the two countries, because nothing in the Korean Peninsula exists outside of the forever war. They have become so inured to the forever war that they are unable to entertain the simple proposition that two countries may form a friendship in the state of peace.
This is why the Korean War must end, today, now. Not only for the sake of Koreans, but also for the sake of Americans. Americans need to end their longest ongoing war, so that they can begin to see the possibility that their country can function without a war, and proceed to end other ongoing forever wars. Before we fall further in love with the chain that digs deeper into our necks every day, we must open our eyes to the radical possibility that we were never intended for this chain.
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A skeptic might ask: where is North Korea in all this? What about North Korea’s nuclear weapons that threaten the world? What about Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian dictatorship and its appalling human rights records? How do all these highfalutin’ words make the world safer and make the lives of ordinary North Koreans better? Isn’t this just a heap of hippie naivete, some flower power bullshit that relaxes the grip of sanctions and embargoes that North Korean regime so richly deserves?
But to a careful reader, the answers to these questions should be obvious. The Korean War is not an ontological premise only for the former South Korean dictators or the former CIA agents working in DC thinktanks—it is the founding premise for North Korea’s Kim dynasty as well. Even more so than the South Korean dictators who justified their oppression by pointing northward, the Kim regime justified their oppression by pointing to the “American imperialists” and their “South Korean puppets.” What would happen to North Korea if their founding premise disappeared?
Whatever happens, this much is clear: North Korea will change. In fact, the end of Korean War will change North Korea a lot more than it will South Korea and the United states—because North Korea depends a lot more on the Korean War, and its society lacks the freedom to respond flexibly as the ground shifts from underneath. Of course, Kim Jong Un will do everything he can to hold onto power even if North Korea normalized relations with South Korea and the United States. But without the forever war, his oppression will no longer have even a veneer of legitimacy. By seeing their free and prosperous brethren from the South, ordinary North Koreans will also begin to see the possibility of a world in which they, too, may live without the chain around their neck.
People who depend on the edifice of a forever war—South Korea’s conservatives, Washington’s foreign policy heads—have long slandered those who favored engagement with North Korea as amoral cowards kowtowing to a murderous dictator. In fact, the hawks are the ones who depend on the standoff to continue forever, relying on the murderous dictator to justify their existence. Meanwhile, those who favor engagement with North Korea are the ones envisioning the truly radical destruction of North Korea: by eliminating the foundation for the Kim regime’s existence, and the reason for there to be two Koreas at all.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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