Obama calls Korean War a 'victory' despite no peace treaty

The Armistice has kept a fragile, often violated peace. Yet the DMZ remains an open, festering wound across the Korean peninsula. Photo: AP

NEW YORK, July 28 2013—As the first U.S. President to participate in a Korean Armistice commemoration, Barack Obama declared on Saturday the war was “no tie” but a “victory.” He contrasted South Korea’s “vibrant democracy” and dynamic economy “to the repression and poverty of the North.”

That undoubtedly is true. Yet peace remains elusive.

Sixty years ago, on July 27, 1953, representatives of the United Nations Command (UNC), the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army signed the Armistice Agreement to end the Korean War. No words were exchanged and no handshakes. South Korean representatives refused to sign or attend, and only grudgingly agreed to stop fighting.

The Armistice was not a peace treaty but a cease-fire. The conflict to that point had claimed the lives of 36,573 American soldiers and 137,899 South Korean military personnel. Western sources estimate the North Korean People’s army suffered 215,000 killed and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army 400,000. Recent scholarship puts the full death toll on all sides at just over 1.2 million.

The value of the Armistice in ending open warfare cannot be underestimated. But it did not end the war.

Nearly a million troops – North Korean, South Korean and American, are arrayed on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with advanced weaponry on multiple bases. And there have been wholesale violations of the Armistice from the beginning.

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Both sides, for example, ignored the recommendation that there should be a follow-up conference within three months to conclude a comprehensive peace treaty.

Neglecting issues left unresolved by the Armistice, chiefly the maritime boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow (West) Sea, led to further conflict. In August 1953, the United Nations Command unilaterally imposed the Northern Line Limit (NLL) three nautical miles off North Korea’s coastline. This led to numerous patrol and fishing boat clashes, occasional gun boat battles, and, in 2010, the shelling of Yeonpyeong, one of the islands granted to the South.

Paragraph 13(d) of the Armistice Agreement mandated that both sides should not introduce new weapons into Korea. Yet on June 21, 1957, the U.S. informed the North Korean representatives that the UNC no longer considered itself bound by paragraph 13(d). In January 1958, the U.S. deployed nuclear armed Honest John missiles and 280mm atomic cannons to South Korea. In 1959, the U.S. added nuclear armed Matadors  (one of the first cruise missiles) with the range to reach China and the Soviet Union.

North Korea responded militarily by digging massive underground fortifications resistant to nuclear attack, and forward deployment of its conventional forces so that the use of nuclear weapons against it would endanger South Korean and U.S. forces as well. The first North Korean tunnel under the DMZ into South Korea was discovered in 1974 with three additional tunnels found in 1975, 1978 and 1990.

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South Korea has accused the North of violating the armistice 221 times, including 26 military attacks. In January 1968, a 31-man detachment from the Korean People’s Army secretly crossed the DMZ on a mission to kill South Korean President Park Chung-hee. The “Blue House Raid” failed but resulted in the deaths of 28 would-be assassins, 68 South Koreans, and three Americans.

Less than a week later, North Korea seized the naval intelligence ship, USS Pueblo, which it claimed had violated its territorial waters and took its 83-member crew captive with the exception of one sailor killed in the initial attack. The North released them after 11 months but kept possession of the Pueblo. It remains an officially-commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy. The Pueblo is docked in Pyongyang and on display as a museum ship, the only vessel of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive.

North Korean soldiers attacked and killed two American servicemen who attempted to cut down a tree in the Joint Security Area of Demilitarized Zone near Panmunjom on August 16, 1976.

The U.S. responded to the so-called “Axe Murder Incident” with “Operation Paul Bunyan.” This included an unannounced force of 23 American and South Korean vehicles accompanied by two 30-man security platoons from the Joint Security Force and a 64-man South Korean Special Forces company. A U.S. infantry company in 20 utility helicopters and seven Cobra attack helicopters circled behind them. B-52 Stratofortresses escorted by U.S. F-4 Phantom IIs and South Korean F-5 Freedom Fighters were also visible flying across the sky at high altitude. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Midway task force moved just offshore and 12,000 additional troops were ordered to Korea. Two eight-man teams of military engineers equipped with chain-saws cut down the tree.

North Korea’s efforts to become a nuclear power over the past two decades have raised the stakes of ongoing conflict. This year tensions ratcheted up to unprecedented levels with North Korea’s ballistic missile launch in December 2012, third nuclear test in February, extreme rhetoric, and actions threatening imminent attacks on the South and the U.S.

The North claimed Spring joint military exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces, particularly as they included aircraft and vessels armed with nuclear weapons, invalidated the armistice and declared it to be a “dead letter.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon replied that the 60-year-old Armistice Agreement had been adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and neither North Korea nor South Korea could dissolve it unilaterally.

The Armistice has kept a fragile, often violated peace for 60 years. Yet the DMZ remains an open, festering wound across the Korean peninsula.

The only lasting solution would be to replace the current Armistice with a peace treaty. To this point, efforts have been largely fruitless. In 1992, North and South Korea issued a “Denuclearization Statement” following final removal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons the previous year (South Korea remains within the U.S. nuclear umbrella).

In 1994, the U.S. and North Korea negotiated the “Agreed Framework” which was based on the North agreeing to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for proliferation-resistant light-water reactors and fuel oil. Flaws in verification, delays in aid, and its being labeled as part of the “axis of evil” prompted North Korea to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and test its first nuclear device in 2006.

This led to the Six-Party Talks between the U.S. , North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia from 2003-2007. In a September 2005 agreement, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear facility in exchange for substantial aid. The United States agreed to begin discussions on normalization of relations and removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Talks discontinued when North Korea proceeded with a satellite launch in 2009. This was viewed as a covert test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Expanded UN sanctions followed. North Korea angrily said it would never take part again in the Six-Party Talks and detonated a second device nuclear months after Obama took office.

Last December’s satellite launch, a third underground nuclear test, and threats to attack U.S. bases in the Pacific and even the U.S. mainland in 2013 continued the tradition of North Korean brinkmanship.

The U.S. is understandably wary of recent signals from the North that it supports resumption of nuclear talks. The pattern of one step forward and two steps backward seems likely to persist for the foreseeable future.


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Michael Mickler

Dr. Michael Mickler is a journalist and church historian whose specializations are in the history of Christianity, the American religious experience, new religions, and interreligious peace-building. His interests extend to the remainder of the universe.


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