50 Years After Korea: Not Much Has Changed





Mr. Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for the History News Service.

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Renewed concerns about North Korea's nuclear weapons program are reviving memories of "the forgotten war," the war in Korea. But the real key to U.S. policy is the forgotten peace that began at the war's end, 50 years ago.

The armistice of July 27, 1953, ushered in a new kind of peacetime: not a time of cooperation and harmony, not a time to change for the better, but only a time to contain threats and prevent changes that might make the world worse.

This conservative spirit is the tragic legacy of the Korean armistice. Still caught in its grip, we can scarcely think about how we might improve things for ourselves, the Koreans or the rest of the world.

When the Korean fighting began, most Americans assumed that peace meant defeating our opponents unconditionally, whether their sign was a swastika, a rising sun or a hammer and sickle. American troops were sent to Korea in the spirit of a crusade to vanquish an enemy. But they came home in 1953 with only a tie.

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The armistice did bring total victory on the policy front, in a battle fought here at home. The advocates of containing communism clearly defeated those led by General Douglas MacArthur who demanded unconditional surrender, even if securing it meant using nuclear weapons.

President Eisenhower, announcing the armistice to the nation, insisted that the United States had won in Korea, simply because it had stopped the enemy from winning. In the newly ascendant policy of containment, victory did not mean eliminating threats, but merely preventing those threats from eliminating us. The United States accepted the 38th parallel as a line dividing safety from danger in the Korean peninsula and, by extension, the world.

As long as the sources of danger stayed on their own side of the global dividing line, the "free world" would consider itself at peace. U.S. foreign policy, in Korea and around the world, got stuck at that point.

It remains there today, as the events of recent months have shown. Just as the war in Iraq seemed to be reviving the crusading language of World War II, North Korea announced its nuclear capability. It was another in North Korea's long line of transparent bids for American respect.

The reaction of policy-makers in the United States hardly admits the possibility of a constructive "win-win" resolution to this new crisis. Instead, we have the same old options: contain, or crusade and conquer. Thus far, the advocates of containment seem to have the upper hand. North Korea's rude boasts remind us that even a very minor power can force us to cancel the crusade if it plays its nuclear card adroitly.

Of course, U.S. leaders still proclaim their dedication to purifying the earth by defeating all evil, just as Eisenhower did in 1953. For all practical purposes, though, the lesson of the Korea armistice still prevails. We must share the world with forces we label as global perils, because we have no choice.

Unfortunately, the only kind of sharing most Americans can imagine is still endless containment. Many voices, in Korea and around the world, are urging U.S. leaders to move beyond the narrow confines of "contain or conquer" to explore possibilities for real cooperation. Yet the framework of our policy debate remains where it was fixed 50 years ago.

It is not surprising that we remain stuck in the past. When the Korean armistice enshrined containment, it made stability -- preventing fundamental change -- the preeminent goal of U.S. foreign policy. The alternative of cooperative effort toward fresh solutions was declared "unrealistic." Peril was accepted as a permanent fact of life.

Perhaps that is why both the Korean war, which caused millions of casualties and decimated a whole nation, and the altered meaning of peace were so soon forgotten.

The fear of change still combines with fear of recurring threats to make the United States a conservative society. It prevents us from even considering new alternatives. We cannot see any options beyond military crusade and stalemate.

When war is too dangerous, our only goal is to preserve the stability of the status quo. We mobilize our forces to prevent change. We forget how to think about constructive initiatives that might yield solutions that could make everyone more secure.

Change need not require war. A society that chooses stalemate because war is the only alternative it can imagine is an impoverished society. It has no way to pursue, or even consider, new possibilities for cooperation and progress. Genuine security eludes it. Much has changed in the world these past 50 years, but not the inadequacy of meeting global threats solely with the two options of containment or conquest.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.


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Jonathan Dresner - 8/2/2003

"I would posit that the nuclear issue is more about the Kim Jong Il regime itself feeling under threat, not a knee-jerk reaction to the country's pitiful economic condition and need for food. Fine: send in aid teams and airdrop radios. It's already being done. But don't give the North Koreans nukes. The people there will still starve."

Suetonius,

The problem is that they are already starving. And drugs and weapons are the only profitable exports North Korea still has; they have given every indication that they want to export fissile material for hard cash. Yes, it is a military tool entirely suited to their strategic position (weak military standing off powerful one), but it is also an economic venture. As I've argued before, we need to tackle the problem on both fronts, reassuring them militarily and supporting them with food and fuel aid.

I don't see the current containment strategy helping the North Korean people all that much, either. Current aid levels are grossly inadequate.


Suetonius - 7/31/2003

"As long as Kim Jong Il is still this side of a raving lunatic, the odds that he will sell or use nuclear weapons goes down if his people are not in dire peril of mass starvation."

but that presupposes that Kim Jong Il actually cares whether his people starve or not. Evidently he does not care all that much, or else whatever disastrous economic and agricultural programs responsible for this condition would have been changed. Like Hussein in Iraq, Kim Jong Il views the country as his own personal fiefdom upon which to live luxuriously, not as his flock of sheep to be safeguarded and kept in good health.

I would posit that the nuclear issue is more about the Kim Jong Il regime itself feeling under threat, not a knee-jerk reaction to the country's pitiful economic condition and need for food. Fine: send in aid teams and airdrop radios. It's already being done. But don't give the North Koreans nukes. The people there will still starve.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2003

You ask "how can those of us who live and thrive in a world framed around personal liberty, republican government, and at least enough to eat honestly say with a straight face 'It's okay for the North Koreans to continue to live in such horror.'"

It's not OK. But in a world framed by law and national self-interest, our options for changing the situation for North Koreans are limited.

And I don't care if Kim Jong Il is rational or not: the only way to counter the effects of his propoganda, short of toppling his regime, is by creating contacts with North Koreans through aid programs (and other channels like the occasional secret radio distribution). Whether or not Kim Jong Il is rational, the likelihood that North Koreans will autonomously reject his rule increases if they are not desperately dependent on his favor for food and fuel. As long as Kim Jong Il is still this side of a raving lunatic, the odds that he will sell or use nuclear weapons goes down if his people are not in dire peril of mass starvation.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2003

Mr. Perkins,

Well, I took my best stab at a solution already, but I'm always open to new suggestions. Personally, I think it is important to realize that the "pressure" we are applying is depriving North Korea of the income it needs to feed its people. Not that I'm in favor of a drug trade, but we really need to think about who we hurt when we take action against a "regime."

I do take issue with your blanket dismissal of the possibility of reaching and sticking to an agreement with the North Korean government on third grounds. First, the North Korean government has (mostly) adhered to the Armistice agreement for a half century. Second, the North Korean nuclear program is not, technically, in violation of the "Agreed Framework" agreement; and we didn't uphold our end of that, either. Finally, if there is no hope for a peaceful agreement, then the only way to achieve anything is regime change which, as you pointed out, isn't an option.

The "Agreed Framework" failed because we didn't actually engage with North Korea after making the agreement: any "solution" we reach now will also have to be a long-term policy, not a quick deal.


Suetonius - 7/30/2003

"North Korea does exist, and we have tolerated its existence for over half a century, in spite of having a pretty good idea just how miserable the North Korean people have been. Is there a compelling *new* reason to change that policy?"

Yes, the end of the Cold War, which signified an end to the overarching communist/non-communist dichotomy. Since then, China has transformed into a proto-capitalist country (in all but name only) and has little interest in seeing "communism" succeed in North Korea. Subsequent to this, the development by the North of a nuke program and its continuing efforts to sell missiles and heroin to the world.

The 'liberal west' is at best an aggregate term, I'll admit, but you're ducking the question: how can those of us who live and thrive in a world framed around personal liberty, republican government, and at least enough to eat honestly say with a straight face "It's okay for the North Koreans to continue to live in such horror."

Your premise that constructive engagement is the solution presupposes that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il will actually behave in a rational manner. An abundance of evidence, all separate from the nuclear issue, suggests that this is not the case. They tell their people that the West is jealous that North Korea owns the sun, for goodness sake.


Garry Perkins - 7/30/2003

I agree with your article. The North Korean people should not starve over any dispute. That said, I still have yet to see any alternative to US non-proliferation strategy in Korea. US objectives should not, and do not, include regime change, but some form of containment. By containment, I mean the process of restricting North Korean exports of weaponry. The DPRK has proven that they do not honor treaties with the US and South Korea, so that is not an option. Using pressure from Japan and China is. Restricting DPRK revenues from drug smuggling (Japan and Australia are only two countries on the recieving end. I know that the Taiwanese government has intercepted DPRK ships with Ecstasy and heroin as well) and other illicit activities helps add pressure to the regime. This accompanied with generous food aid looks like the only option. THe DPRK cannot refuse to negotiate with its neighbors forever. The US should not negotiate without South Koreans and Japanese at their side.

If there is another, win-win paradigm to settle this, please let the world know. More aid cannot do it alone. Criticism without any useful recommendations does not help at all.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/30/2003

Yes, no, no.

North Korea does exist, and we have tolerated its existence for over half a century, in spite of having a pretty good idea just how miserable the North Korean people have been. Is there a compelling *new* reason to change that policy?

There is no such thing as a "liberal west" with unified interests, policies or ideals. At best you could argue that it would be a good thing if the DPRK government suddenly collapsed, but there are actually quite a few South Koreans who think that would be a bad thing. Gradual, negotiated reunification is conceivable, sudden responsibility for an extra 15 million people would bring South Korean society and economy to a grinding halt. That's the theory, anyway.

And though I might agree with you that the DPRK is a blight on humanity, I assure you that the US government couldn't care less how it treats its people. Our government's problem with North Korea is purely a security matter, and if we end up liberating North Koreans it will be a fortuitous (and very messy) side effect, just as it was in Iraq. That's assuming we don't get millions of North and South Koreans and Japanese killed in the process.

If your concern is really for the North Korean people, then constructive engagement really is the most plausible route. Improving their living conditions and creating contacts with the outside world is more likely to result in real pressure for change than our half-witted embargoes of their only viable exports (drugs and weapons systems, neither of which really bothered us until now) pushing them into a corner from which they *must* come out fighting.


Suetonius - 7/30/2003

But isn't such a "win-win" platform, as you suggest, which permits the government to remain in place a de facto acceptance and tolerance of the continuation of the horror of the regime of the DPRK? Isn't that at odds with the fundamental interests of the liberal west? I seems to me that condemning the poor people of North Korea to a continued existence under such a government is hardly defensible by anyone, regardless of their political persuasions.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/29/2003

Prof. Chernus is arguing, for a "constructive "win-win"" approach which allows for our coexistence (and even working) with regimes that take very different approaches to the world.

An example of concrete policy might be my own commentary (like this one, an HNS article posted on HNN: http://hnn.us/articles/1443.html) supporting delinking humanitarian aid and disarmament, so as to weaken the perception that North Korea needs WMD to get food aid.


Garry Perkins - 7/29/2003

I keep re-reading this article trying to determine why Professor Chernus wrote it. Why is US policy conservative? What alternatives are available that the US fails to see? I see no alternatives. If Professor Chernus knows of any, why does he refuse to enlighten us? East Asia is a frightening place. The DPRK, PRC, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and other countries are governed by authoritarian regimes that appear to enjoy torturing their citizens. The DPRK is especially dangerous because its leadership does not follow any known international relations theories. What is their national interest? What are their goals? It is difficult to work with such a nation. If alternative policies exist, I have never seen them in print. So what is Prof. Chernus writing about?