Yesterday’s action by North Korea reminds us that a conflict which took place 60 years ago, never ended. The United States still has 80,000 troops in the region to protect South Korea. Actions by the North are either a cry for help, or a cry for attention. Either way, the conflict could reignite.
The story all begins at the end of World War II. For 35 years, Japan had controlled the Korean Peninsula. When World War II ended, Japan had been thrust out. In a series of bizarre divisions, the peninsula was divided into two countries; a communist north, and a free south. Along the 38th parallel, a people were divided without consulting the Koreans. North Korea wanted to unite the nation under the Communist flag, while South Korea wanted the same but under democracy.
On June 2, 1950, North Korea stormed across the border and met little resistance. That summer, the Communist North drove South Korea almost into submission. In an area known as the Pusan Perimeter, the South barely held on. President Truman used the United Nations to try to stop the aggression. The U.S. never declared war. Instead, Truman referred to this as a “Police Action”. Truman chose Douglas MacArthur to lead U.S. and U.N. troops onto the peninsula. In a daring landing at Inchon, MacArthur drove the Koreans from the South.
MacArthur, though, got too big for his britches. MacArthur drove into North Korea and was poised to push the North into China. It was at this point, a conflict in war aims arose. Truman, not wanting to spread the conflict, ordered MacArthur to stop his advance. MacArthur commented if the Chinese came in the conflict, that the U.S. should use nuclear weapons. Regardless, in October of 1950, a million man Chinese army stormed across the border to aid their Korean neighbor. Slowly, the US began to slowly retreat back to the 38th parallel. Truman, seizing the opportunity to rid himself of an insubordinate general, fired MacArthur and placed Matthew Ridgway in command. Truman said of MacArthur:
“I fired MacArthur because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”
Over the next three years, the front lines ebbed and flowed. Fighting took place in often deplorable conditions; winter battles being the worst. There were stories of atrocities, horrors for prisoners of war, brainwashing, and a conflict nearly forgotten in the U.S. One reason was there was no clear goal other than containment. The same effect would haunt the US in Vietnam. To fight a limited war with limited political aims would end with limited results. In the US, the Korean War has become known as the Forgotten War. With over 50,000 US dead and 5000 still missing, it still remains a footnote in most U.S. History textbooks.
In 1953, an armistice was signed temporarily ending the fighting. A demilitarized zone was established and for 57 years now, both sides stand waiting for the war to start back up again. Kim Il Song has been replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il. Now, with sabers rattling, will a new Korean conflict arise? The days ahead will only reveal how South Korea and the world reacts to the aggressive actions of the North. This time, things are a little different. Unlike in 1950, the Chinese are now perturbed with North Korea rather than seeing them as their Communist brethren. China has more in common, culturally and economically, with the capitalist South than with North.Will the U.N. be the pulpit for South Korea or will they take matters into their own hands?
For several years now, Kim Jong Il and North Korea have been fighting a propaganda war. Stories of hunger, malnutrition, starvation, droughts, and nuclear weapons seep out of the country. What happens inside the borders of North Korea is a mystery to most. Recent images of nuclear facilities, Kim Jong Il’s son, missile tests, and cartoons are not easing tensions any time soon. Historically, Kim Jong Il may be batty. He may have weapons. He may be stupid enough to try to use them. Whether anything will be effective will be another matter.
How President Obama will react is another story altogether…if the U.S. even does anything.
Here is an excellent video on the first conflict.
Here is the Dogfight series…Also very good!
National Geographic Special