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The Korean Armistice: Sixty Years of “War By Other Means”

by Scott A. Snyder
July 25, 2013

A South Korean soldier stands guard as he faces the North Korea side at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. (Wally Santana/courtesy Reuters) A South Korean soldier stands guard as he faces the North Korea side at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. (Wally Santana/courtesy Reuters)

This weekend President Obama will commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the war fight on the Korean peninsula. But in so doing, he will have no choice to acknowledge that the war has not ended despite dramatic changes in both the international context and local conditions on the Korean peninsula. In my own thinking about the significance of an enduring armistice alongside dramatic changes surrounding the Korean peninsula, I found Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s new book Brothers at War particularly useful.

My own thoughts in reflecting on the armistice and the unfinished Korean War are that there are four major changes in the international context that no one would have anticipated when the treaty was signed:

  • The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953 was a product of American mistrust of Rhee Syngman and an instrument that restrained Rhee from breaking the armistice while committing a U.S. military presence to keep the peace. Now the defense treaty is the foundation of a strong military alliance that is only one component of a comprehensive partnership between countries with shared values and purposes.
  • The normalization of China-ROK relations marked a dramatic turning point in 1992, yet despite enormous growth in Sino-South Korean relations, Seoul has still not gained Beijing’s strategic backing in its pursuit of a South Korean-led Korean reunification.
  • Stalin was the puppetmaster and major influence behind the scenes of the Korean War, and his death was a primary factor enabling the armistice to finally be signed, but today Russian influence on the Korean peninsula has drastically waned.
  • The normalization of the Sino-U.S. relationship ended fighting between two main protagonists of the Korean War but ultimately did not end the inter-Korean contest for legitimacy. This shift changed the Korean division from a source of direct confrontation between China and the United States to a situation where a divided peninsula with a U.S. military presence came to be seen as a source of regional stability.

Unfortunately, continuities exist that remain obstacles to ending the Korean War. China remains geo-strategically concerned about U.S. influence on the Korean peninsula. Beijing still prefers sustaining a North Korean buffer state and divided Korea over the prospect of a reunified democratic Korea allied with the United States.

On the peninsula the competition for legitimacy remains despite dramatic changes in context and circumstances. The ruling Kim family cannot afford to allow the Korean War to end without risking its own survival. North Korea perpetuates its competition for legitimacy against the South despite having clearly lost the economic competition long ago. By pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is fighting against the world and the United States. North Korea’s nuclear weapons have become a source of domestic legitimization for Kim family rule. More importantly, the arsenal is a tool with which the regime extends conflict, which it perceives as necessary to perpetuate its rule. Despite North Korea’s calls on the United States to end a “hostile U.S. policy,” it is North Korea’s need for conflict that perpetuates the war, and it is this need that is now the greatest obstacle that blocks efforts to finally bring the Korean War to an end.

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