By Donald Kirk
One of the great cliches of the past 58 years and six months or so since the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War in July 1953 is that the combatants are still ``technically at war.”
That’s because an ``armistice” is not quite the same as a ``peace treaty,” and scholars and journalists think the two Koreas, and the Chinese and Americans, are ``technically” at war with one another until they sign a ``treaty.”
As any tourist to Panmunjeom and three or four other standard lookout points south of the demilitarized zone can attest, however, there’s no danger of getting shot at from the North Korean side. There is no war, technically or otherwise.
The first Korean War is over. Another cliché of the Korean War is that it was an ``undeclared” war. I’m not sure who’s got to say, ``We’re at war,” to declare a war, but everyone knows the war began when North Korean forces poured across the 38th parallel in June 1950. You didn’t need the American president, Harry Truman, to ``declare” war even though he called it a ``police action.” I think people got the idea of the need for someone officially to ``declare war” when Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued such a ``declaration” after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The debate over the ``peace treaty” goes on, however, if only because it’s one of the top items on North Korea’s list of demands. On the way to becoming a “strong and prosperous country,” North Korea would like to hold out the bait of six-party talks on its nukes as a ruse to get hundreds of thousands of tons of food and other good stuff as well as negotiations for a ``treaty.”
One central point of such a document would be withdrawal of ``all foreign troops,” meaning the last remaining U.S. forces. In the meantime, the term ``technically at war” reminds everyone of the absence of a treaty. Besides looking for a treaty, North Korea would also love a ``non-aggression” pact.
The real problem with negotiations for a treaty _ or a ``non-aggression pact” _ is they would do nothing to guarantee lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Rather, they would give a restive North Korean military establishment, champing at the bit with an inexperienced leader at their beck and call, the opportunity to step up hostilities against the South. A central reason for negotiating a ``peace treaty” is to be able to exclude South Korea from the process as a ``puppet” state controlled by the Americans.
The North Korean case for excluding the South also rests on the fact that the South did not assent to the truce in 1953. Syngman Rhee, the South Korean president from the time of the founding of the Republic of Korea in August 1948 to his ouster in the student revolution of April 1960, wanted no part of a deal that he believed would sanctify the permanent division of the peninsula.
The North Korean strategy if anything is more relevant now than when Kim Jong-il was alive. The new ``supreme commander” has to show he’s a tough guy regardless of his lack of military experience. Kim Jong-un may, or may not, have studied military science at Kim Il-sung University, as claimed, and has no credentials to go along with the rank of general bequeathed by his father.
While Kim Jong-il was tutoring the third son in the ways and wiles of leadership over the past two years, the kid gained enough weight to make him North Korea’s fattest man, certainly the fattest one visible on state TV. One way for Kim Jong-un to prove himself militarily would be to go beyond the hard line of rhetoric and risk more ``incidents.”
We may never know if he personally endorsed or urged the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea the following November, but we do know the North Koreans would like people to think so. That’s all part of the new mystique for the new ``supreme.”
Fears of a second Korean War, though, are less than universal. Circumstances are very different from those in 1950 when the U.S. viewed newly ``Communist” China and the Soviet Union as enemies bound by the Sino-Soviet pact. In a sense the first Korean War was an extension of World War II and the victory of Mao Zedong’s forces in 1949. Now China earns hundreds of billions of dollars annually from trade with the U.S. and South Korea and has no desire to risk losing it all in defense of self-deluded North Koreans.
The reason for uncertainty, though, is no one can be sure what Kim Jong-un and whoever’s yanking his chain will want to do to prove their power. And no one knows whether mysterious forces in their military establishment, officers beneath the level of old-timers lined up for the kid’s coronation or inauguration, or whatever you call it, will see a chance for asserting themselves.
In this atmosphere, a ``technical” state of war, perpetuated by an armistice, may not be all that bad. Peace treaties and non-aggression pacts are made to be broken.
Columnist Donald Kirk, email@example.com, is author of “Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae-jung and Sunshine.” Visit his website at www.donaldkirk.com.