On what took so long, what changed, and what lingers.
There are a lot of things that are distinct about the Korean War from most other 20th century military conflicts (at least those that involved the United States), including the fact that it wasn’t officially a war at all: after North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 the United Nations (led by the U.S.) launched a “police action” in response, and that’s what it remained throughout. The respective sides also spent significantly longer trying to negotiate an end to the conflict than they did simply fighting it: negotiations toward a possible peace treaty began as early as June 1951, just over a year into the conflict, but were not concluded until two years later (as this week’s 70th anniversary series reflects). Although that two-year period has come to be known as the stalemate, brutal fighting certainly continued throughout, and indeed exacerbated the central problem with the negotiations: the question of whether and how POWs from both sides would be repatriated (many captured North Korean soldiers apparently did not want to return, for example).
Evolutions of and eventual solutions in those negotiations undoubtedly played a role in how and when the armistice was eventually signed. But so too did regime change, in two distinct but somewhat parallel ways. In March 1953, Joseph Stalin died of a stroke, and in the aftermath of that world-changing event the Soviet Union’s power players were far more interested in internal politics and entirely uninterested in continuing to support China and North Korea in a distant conflict. In the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower won the 1952 presidential election, meaning not only that a Republican would be in office for the first time since 1933 but also that one of the chief supporters of the Korean conflict (President Harry Truman, on whom more tomorrow) was replaced by someone much more skeptical of whether and how it should continue. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that a democratic election and a peaceful transfer of power are at all comparable to the death of a dictatorial leader and the ensuing power struggle. But both of these changes do reflect how much individual leaders can contribute to both a nation’s path and the course of international conflicts.
In any case, after those years of negotiations the respective sides finally agreed upon and signed the Korean Armistice Agreement in July 1953. Even then, however, this conflict was distinct from others—one of the key players, South Korean President Syngman Rhee, refused to sign the armistice; another, the North Korean government, claimed at the time and has continued to claim ever since that it won the war; and there was never an actual peace treaty, meaning that the conflict remains officially suspended rather than definitively concluded. While the first two details might be seen as semantics or political posturing, the third is embodied in a very real way by the most overt result of the armistice: the fraught, contested, laden with landmines Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which separates the two nations. To my mind, the DMZ is very much like the Berlin Wall, not simply in its separation of two halves of a potentially unified nation and people, but also in its existence as an uneasy state of constant potential violence and conflict. The fact that it isn’t emphasized in the U.S. anywhere near as much as the Berlin Wall was throughout its existence reflects, I would argue, anti-Asian prejudice far more than any particular distinction.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?