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The Korean conflict, 61 years on

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In Brief

Today marks the 61st anniversary of the first salvoes of the Korean War. As such, it is a fitting occasion for a candid assessment of the American position on the Korean Peninsula, and the ways in which the legacy of this conflict has shaped the current foreign policy landscape in Northeast Asia and beyond.


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Despite considerable diplomatic efforts to engage with the regime in North Korea using most, if not all, of the tools in the diplomatic toolbox, the Korean peninsula persists as one of the most intractable and pernicious foreign policy problems in a region that is undergoing considerable and destabilising geopolitical shifts.

One need look no further than last year to find evidence of the conflict’s explosive potential. The sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan in March 2010, an incident which took the lives of 46 Korean seamen, and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November of the same year, should serve as potent reminders of the heat that sits at the core of this conflict. Nuclear brinkmanship, uncertainty surrounding the succession of Kim Jong-un (Kim-Jong Il’s youngest son) and the prevailing wisdom in Beijing — all of these factors and others loom large as confounding variables in a decidedly volatile geo-political environment.

And yet despite the obvious implications of Korean security for American foreign policy (to say nothing of regional security or world peace), seldom do Americans meaningfully probe the import and origins of their position on the peninsula — a position carved out over sixty years of investment in and engagement with Korean affairs.

Even more rarely do we pause to consider how exactly the US established this position, and where the present day status quo — which involves 28,000 American troops spread around over 25 bases in the South — sits in relation to the historical roots from which it stems.

This is in no small part because the history of the Korean War — America’s ‘Forgotten War’ — is a history of forgetting. Although historians continue to debate the reasons behind the marginal position of the Korean War within American historical consciousness, it is widely accepted that there is little room in triumphalist narratives of the Cold War for nuanced treatment of the Korean conflict, to say nothing of the American government’s support of authoritarian regimes in subsequent decades. Instead, the experience of the Korean War continues to be projected through the prism of 1989 — that game-changing, epoch-ending moment — the shadow of which continues to obscure the way of the world prior to American hegemony.

If we are to have a meaningful discussion of the Korean War we must begin by re-assessing (as Heonik Kwon has masterfully done) what it means to be situated in the ‘post-Cold War order’, a term widely embraced by academic and policy circles, but still yet to be thoroughly scrutinised.

How does an arrangement as complex, protracted, and all-encompassing as the Cold War suddenly disappear? If 1989 marked a watershed, what are we to make of (and where are we to locate) the vestiges of this world order? Though there is of course no simple answer to this question, the Korean peninsula provides much food for thought.

One’s answer to this question depends greatly on where one stands. Simply setting foot on Korean soil exposes the ways in which the Cold War continues to colour the present: young men in military fatigues, serving their nation’s compulsory military service; gas-masks in the subways of Seoul; newspapers teeming with reports on the human health and environmental burdens of housing US military bases; personal stories of families divided. The residues of the Cold War suddenly become all too real.

This, of course, is precisely the reality of the conflict obscured by the sensationalistic media coverage of the Korean conflict. By seizing myopically on the belligerent, seemingly irrational behavior of Kim Jung-Il and his cabal, the myriad ways in which the conflict is a lived reality for millions of Koreans goes largely unaddressed.

The same can be said for history writing. Most histories of the Korean War are impressive in their laser-like focus on world powers, international (and bipolar) politics and military strategy. The great men of this conflict loom larger than life, as the great powers labour seemingly unhampered by local realities and their inhabitants. Nowhere to be found are the millions of Koreans who experienced this conflict.

And yet here in Seoul this conflict lives on — in stories, memories and the day-to-day lives of Koreans across the peninsula. Today, at least in Seoul, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University and Former EAF Young Scholar. He is presently living in Seoul, where he studies Korean language at Sogang University.

One response to “The Korean conflict, 61 years on”

  1. Post-Soviet Russia has been looking to modernize and be increasingly more friendly to both US as well as their neighbor China. This may prove to be a point of agreement for both Koreas that can be utilized to help balance the regional instability caused by the extreme polarities of essence of the Cold War, lingering so heavily between NK/CHina + SK/US.

    There is a possibily to continue working towards a more integrated economy while establishing other arrangements to ensure that the newly earned NK profit from the venture is not used for new nuclear technology but rather to create a more normal infrastructure for the N Korean people and region. Rather than use this crucial time to push for denuclearization, a softer approach of pausing new acquisition of arms and more transparency may be an option. Beijing continues to support inter-Korean talks. More private conversations between the two Koreas, without the US, continuing and increasing in frequency is also a favorable path.

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