Reflecting on the Korean WarThe war that began on June 25, 1950 and lasted for three years on this land was once a vivid event in our memories and our lives. Now it exists primarily in records and history books. The people and soldiers who had the fortune to survive the endless gunfire and bombings are now in their 80s and 90s. It is time for us to revisit the profound significance of the 1950-53 Korean War before it enters the realm of oblivion.
History is a product of conscious creativity to reproduce and make whole details stored in memory over the course of time. A book reflecting on contemporary Korea, “The Era We Live in Today,” written by Choe Chung-ho, professor emeritus of Ulsan University and released last spring, is an exemplary example of the creative reproduction of history. It is a meaningful extension of his 1980 dissertation on Korean modern history and war based on the perspective of a historian and journalist. It also argues that the sabotage or neglect of history can be justified by no means.
Choe is very persuasive in his argument that the Korean War should be the starting point of Korea’s modern history. The beginning chapter of modern history differs according to countries and the scholars that study them. The French point to the 1789 revolution as its threshold for modern times, the British the massive parliamentary reform act of 1832, the Germans the American involvement in World War I and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the Japanese the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Then why should Koreans refer to the Korean War as their turn to modern times instead of their loss of sovereignty to the Japanese in 1910 or liberation from colonial rule in 1945? Because the war drew the world onto this land and Koreans out into the world, according to Choe. The war goes beyond the Korean Peninsula because the people were forced to fight on behalf of a greater, global cause to defend a certain ideology and social system.
With the United States and China confronting each other in the fight of the two Koreas and 16 other nations allying themselves with the United Nations, the war raised awareness of the existence of the small Korean Peninsula on the edge of the Pacific and placed some pages on modern Korea into world history books. The integration of Korea and its people into the global community was also a by-product of their voluntary choice during the wave of independence movements in the early 20th century and the complex international relations that followed the end of World War II and at the beginning of the cold war. Independence movements to establish modern states were divided into two camps: The free democracies championed by the British and the Americans, and the Marxist and Leninist socialist model of the Soviet Union.
The Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel after the U.S.-led allies’ secret deals with the Soviets in 1945, which led to the U.S. occupying the South and the Soviets the North. Three years later, two states — based on different ideologies — were established on the peninsula. After another two years, the Korean War broke out. History panned out as if scripted. The 1949 victory of the Communist Party in China’s civil war must have instilled confidence in leaders like Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong of communist China and Kim Il Sung of North Korea that they could win a war to bring the rest of the peninsula under their ideological flag.
Unification was the goal of the war on both sides. But when a truce was established on July 27, 1953 to end the bloody war, the bisection of the peninsula became less of an ephemeral stopgap measure and more of a permanent solution. Six decades have passed. The cold war ended two decades ago. And yet the Korean Peninsula failed to be reunited and didn’t even get a peace treaty.
There have been golden opportunities. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in the so-called perestroika reforms and when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping pushed for opening and reforms that helped change the course of global geopolitics and the world economy, the two Koreas joined the historical trends and sought to establish peace, cooperation and unification. They agreed on the common goal of restoring a shared community through co-prosperity of two states by peacefully cooperating with one another in the Basic Agreement in late 1991. The two Koreas also announced denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to ensure the safety of the 70 million population on this land — a very timely choice for the two Koreas.
Two decades have passed since the landmark agreements and yet we still live with constant tensions and insecurities, raising doubts about the Korean people’s will and ability to reshape and take control of their fates.
The six decades since the war have also taught many a lesson on how foolish the North’s recalcitrant and isolated path really is, forever going against global and historical trends. We must return to the point 20 years ago when the two Koreas looked more similar and could actually agree on major issues, before North Korean founder Kim Il Sung died. Otherwise, we will be reciting the same vow — that there will be no war on this land, hopefully — whenever June 25 rolls around in years hence.