[Viewpoint] Unfinished war, unwritten historyIt is said that history is not merely connected to the past but to the present, and that saying feels more genuine than ever.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. The Korean War is a historical event, and we can revisit the war through photographs and relics at the War Memorial.
However, as well all know, the war is not over. Just recently, Xi Jinping, China’s vice president, justified China’s intervention in the Korean War by calling it “a just war to defend peace against aggression.” The Korean government refuted Xi by saying that North Korea’s invasion of the South is an officially recognized historical fact. But Beijing once again confirmed that Vice President Xi’s comment is the official position of the Chinese government.
The Korean War is not mummified in any museum. It is very much alive and a factor in many aspects of the geopolitical situation in northeast Asia. This is no mere diplomatic spat between Korea and China but a clue to the future of the Korean Peninsula. Let’s look at what Xi said about the Korean War in his speech.
On the cause of the Korean War, Xi said that the Truman Administration of the United States decided to send armed forces arbitrarily after a civil war broke out in Joseon, which started a full-scale war. He considers the Korean War as a civil war between leftists and rightists, and the United States was an imperialistic aggressor.
The Chinese vice president is distorting history. Although progressive scholars made attempts to find the origin of the Korean War in the confrontation between the right and the left after liberation from Japanese rule, historical documents have already proved that North Korea started an all-out war, and the invader was North Korean forces sponsored by China and the Soviet Union.
The Korean War was not a war of aggression by the imperialistic United States but a result of the expansion policy of the communist Soviet Union. The combat capacities of the two sides in the early days of the war proves who had made preparations for war. South Korea’s army was armed with small arms and trench mortars, while the North Korean forces advanced in Soviet tanks.
Xi also said that China intervened in the Korean War because South Korean and United Nations Forces ignored Beijing’s repeated warnings and crossed the 38th Parallel, moving up the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. The remark has significance in regards to any unification of Korea as it can be interpreted to mean that China would not have participated in the war had the UN Forces not crossed the 38th Parallel.
It also suggests that a divided Korean Peninsula corresponds to China’s national interests. Xi said, “The Korean Peninsula and China are connected” and “the Chinese and North Korean forces stabilized the war front near the 38th Parallel.” So China’s objective was to maintain the 38th Parallel to keep the Korean Peninsula divided.
Will China adhere to such a position if North Korea collapses in the future? If so, even if the North Korean regime crumbles, the unification of the Korean Peninsula will not be realized easily as China will never want to share a border with Korea and desires to maintain a pro-Chinese regime in the North.
The prime reason is the presence of the U.S. forces in the South. Will China assent to a unified Korea without the USFK? In the current Northeast Asian structure, a unified Korea without U.S. Forces would exist as a virtual vassal state of China.
General Douglas MacArthur successfully pulled off the Incheon landing operation but was reluctant to move on when the front reached the 38th Parallel. Because the purpose of the UN intervention was to drive back the invading forces, there was a fierce debate over the justification of moving above the 38th Parallel.
President Syngman Rhee insisted on breaking through. Was he wrong in this? Should he have ended the war, leaving the peninsula divided once again when the chance for reunification was so close? Who would take responsibility for all the losses and casualties then? The war could not end there.
Vice President Xi praised China’s leaders at the time, such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, who made the decision to enter the war. He said, “The leaders resolutely decided to resist the United States and aid Joseon with insight and vision and bravely responded to the historical calling to defend the nation.” He added: “We have not forgotten the immortal accomplishment of history.”
Xi had reason to justify China’s decision as he was speaking in front of war veterans. What about Korea? The U.S. wanted a truce, but President Rhee said Korea would attain reunification with bare fists alone. The U.S. wished to leave Korea after the exhausting battles, but Korea asked it to help protect the country under the Korea-U.S. Defense Treaty. Have we ever expressed our gratitude? Has any president praised President Rhee’s patriotism? Before criticizing China for distorting the Korean War, we have to first ask ourselves if we are giving due respect to our own history.
We say history belongs to the winners. Losers are vanquished while winners go on to write the history of a conflict. Let’s assume that the Korean War ended in victory for North Korea and China. The war would have been written along the lines of China’s recent claims. Scholars would have criticized imperialism and praised the leftist victory in a civil war. And that would be the official history of the Korean War.
Korea and China have conflicting arguments about the war because the winner has yet to be decided. How do we wish history to be written? The truth has to be recorded as it is. However, history is not just an academic field. In order to protect the truth, realistic power has to be used to back up the argument.
The Korean War is over, but the war of its history is still raging. Fortunately, Vice President Xi said that Beijing’s position is to ultimately solve the Korean issue by establishing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and resolving discord through negotiations. I hope China adheres to this principle - and persuades Pyongyang of its wisdom.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk