Monday, April 30, 2018

Korea- The Forgotten War

       When North Korean forces invaded their neighbor South Korea on June 25, 1950, tensions had already been simmering for decades. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 following years of rivalry between China and Russia, both countries competing for control of the nation. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in his book The Korean War notes that the Allied Powers during World War II had agreed to allow Korea to be free and independent with the United States overseeing operations in the South and Russia doing the same in the North, areas roughly demarcated by what became famous as "the 38th parallel". By 1948, after years of deliberation by members of the United Nations, the Republic of Korea came into existence with its government controlling the southern territory. The People's Republic of Korea came into being with the support of the Russians later that same year, controlling the northern area. That North Korean troops- supported by Russia and China- subsequently invaded the South came as little surprise to experienced politicians in the U.S. President Harry Truman would not tolerate this  and ordered American military forces there two days after the aggression.

Troops near the 38th parallel in Korea

       In 1950, many Americans knew little about Korea. Some couldn't locate it on a map. Over the next two years, they would learn not only how brutal the conflict had become, but also that the U.S. had entered a war that appeared at the time to be un-winnable. The first Winter of the war in 1950- 1951 took its toll on the American forces. In This Kind of War, author T.R. Fehrenbach stated "The cold would destroy as many men as enemy bullets." U.S. Marines took 22 1/2 hours to march just 9 1/2 miles near the area known as the Chosin Reservoir. Names like Inchon, Panmunjom and Heartbreak Ridge entered the news reports, as did word of mass killings of South Korean civilians by the Communists at Taejon. Although Americans had experienced reports of military setbacks and war atrocities less than a decade before during World War II, these new announcements, along with mixed results and setbacks for U.S. troops left many with the sense that this war was different. A world away from home- fought in a country with no direct ties to the U.S.- it was hard for many to rationalize the sacrifice of American lives.

       The Korean War influenced the political future of two of its main protagonists- General Douglas MacArthur- who'd been sharply critical of Truman's lack of aggressiveness- was relieved of command. He later gave a speech before the United States Congress in which he spoke the now famous phrase: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away..." President Truman was widely criticized for replacing MacArthur and for lack of success in the war effort; partly due to this, he decided not to run for reelection in 1952. His "police action" was really an undeclared war- something many Americans were uncomfortable with. Citizens were also skeptical about the "domino theory"- the thinking that if one country falls to the Communists, others will follow. It was hard for people to rationalize how countries thousands of miles away and their government- far different from ours- could impact their own way of life and freedom. Added to this was the impression that- for the first time- the U.S. was faced with truly losing a war, a notion that didn't sit well with many who were war weary from the previous decade.

General Douglas MacArthur

       The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953, roughly three years after it had begun when an armistice was signed. Technically this was merely a truce- not a genuine peace agreement ending all hostilities. President Dwight Eisenhower had accomplished what Truman could not- making good on his promise to end American involvement. Eisenhower had also very wisely avoided the use of nuclear weapons, which some advisers had recommended. Total American deaths in the war were initially reported at over 50,000, but a later analysis revised that number to around 36,000- enough to cause millions of Americans to scratch their heads and ask "Why did we get involved?" Many just wanted to put this unpleasant episode out of their minds- and over the years, it was considered by some historians as "the forgotten war."

American troops fighting in Korea

       Over the more than six decades since the armistice, the North Korean Communist regimes led by a family of rulers beginning with Kim Il Sung have waged an ongoing war of propaganda and military threats directed at South Korea, the U.S. and its allies. American troops have been in South Korea since the armistice, positioned along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a region which has witnessed numerous clashes and killings over the years. In the last twenty years, North Korea has aggressively pursued a nuclear weapons program, despite warnings from the U.S. and other nations that such moves were unacceptable. Various U.S. Presidents have tried- with very little success- to entice North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and become a productive, peace-loving member of the world community. Nonetheless, North Korea has, up until recently, largely disregarded the threat of sanctions and outside military force as it pursued its nuclear strategy.

       After seeing many years of failed efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear program, President Donald Trump used more aggressive tactics. He not only ramped up severe sanctions against the country, backed in part by China- he also threatened "fire and fury" if North Korea were to attack the U.S. or any of out allies. The announcement in late April 2018 that North and South Korea had agreed to end hostilities caused political observers around the world to take note. Was this really a definitive change toward peace and de-nuclearization by North Korea, or just another bluff in its long-standing efforts to thwart the western powers? Would their aggressive moves- including numerous missile launches toward Japan and other countries- truly end? It is difficult to fully analyze at this point in time, but President Trump deserves at least some credit for ushering in this new atmosphere of peace. Skeptics might argue that North Korea is playing its hand wisely, as their nation and its millions of people are on the brink of starvation, possibly in severe financial trouble- so their move toward reconciliation is merely a method of gaining western assistance to avoid collapse. Time will tell. With President Trump scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks, an unprecedented move for a U.S. President- perhaps we will see the skies clearing, sunshine bathing the region in warmth... and a much overdue peace. 

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