Toward a demilitarized peace

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Toward a demilitarized peace

In the dog days of summer, the demilitarized zone came into my mind — the grand scenery I witnessed when I did my military service. When I visited the frontline as a commissioned officer, the valley dividing South and North Korea was foggy in the rain. There was a rumor that a female commander of the People’s Army appeared on a white horse at the top of a mountain, just visible through the fog. A soldier said he had seen a North Korean fighter landing on the mountain.

After the cease-fire over six decades ago, the demilitarized zone lost its people and traveled back to a primitive time. Wild animals and wild flowers flourished and died. The fog hanging on the shoulders of a newly commissioned officer was solace for the ruin produced by mankind’s hostility, ideology and limitless capacity to go to war.

The unit commander who had an IV every night must be growing old somewhere. The young rifleman would have sent his own sons to the front by now. The father’s memories of serving on the frontline may have faded, but his son was just earning his, defending the nation by the barbed-wire fence.

Do they ruminate on the valuable lessons for humanity of the demilitarized zone? Installed in July 1953 in accordance with the truce agreement, the demilitarized zone was a fresh idea at the time: Move 2 kilometers back from the current battle, and the buffer would reduce the possibility of war. While Cyprus and Berlin had walls, Korea was given a much wider demilitarized area. South and North Korea were to sit back and wait for peace.

In the days of ground warfare, when tanks, rifles and hand-to-hand combat determined the outcome of a battle, a demilitarized zone was the best strategy to prevent war. But the military strategists who facilitated the truce agreement couldn’t imagine the advent of the era of cyber warfare decades later. The historical significance of the demilitarized zone was tipped into the garbage.

Considering our bond with the United States — a blood brother — it is hard to change the decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system to the Korean Peninsula. While it is unknown what kind of secret diplomatic deals have been made, the commander in chief — who is also the chair of the National Security Council — made the decision, and there is no turning back. As the National Assembly is perplexed, suspicions and discontent is spreading fast among the general public.

Why did the government make such a rash announcement? Why did they make the decision so suddenly after hiding the discussion for two years? Let’s ask how it took only eight days to pick Seongju as the site for the Thaad battery and how the decision was made. Does getting involved in the discussion of Thaad, which is related to the fate of the peninsula, make one an awakened citizen or a rebel? Are the concerned citizens external forces?

Perhaps bothered by negative public sentiment, the president whiningly asked for “better options if you have any.” She should have asked that beforehand. A newspaper criticized the lack of diplomacy. But there must have been behind-the-scene negotiations. The Thaad deployment must be a conclusion reached after a diplomatic struggle. What did the two countries really talk about?

Security and diplomacy are identical twins, especially inseparable in a divided nation. The president should clarify the principles behind the decision to sacrifice an historical alliance with China to save the military alliance with the United States. While the president argues that Korea has an edge in negotiating with China when we have Thaad at hand, the dilemma over North Korea’s nuclear weapons could become more complicated if China turns away from Seoul.

Did she have any other theory? Granted that the cutting-edge missile system overwrites the anti-war philosophy of a denuclearized zone, didn’t we have any logic of our own to tone down the madness of an arms race?

It may sound naïve, as Kim Jong-un is obviously playing his nuclear card. But if more advanced weapons are introduced on the Korean Peninsula, it may lead to the ultimate in blowback: war. Introduction of the Thaad battery is an outcome of the application of 20th century battleground logic to the 21st century and its very different landscape of cyberwarfare.

The emergency interpellation at the National Assembly shows the surprising fact that a majority of our lawmakers are not sure about the nuclear deterrence capacity of the Thaad battery. The public is even more skeptical. It is clear that the multiple layers of defense — Patriot missiles and Thaad — cannot block the march of nuclear armaments and cyber warfare, even though they can shoot down Dong Feng missiles deployed in Manchuria and China’s coastal areas and North Korea’s Taepodong and Rodong missiles.

Is America’s strategy of including South Korea in the missile defense system surrounding China, turning the region into the most heavily armed area in the world, good for Korea or not? There is no agreement. While being on the side of the United States provides psychological comfort, it does not prevent a war or guarantee permanent peace.

When a cease-fire comes to the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula will be next. There is no demilitarized zone in the Middle East, unlike Korea. Even when high-tech weapons invalidate the humanitarian significance of the demilitarized zone, it will persistently demand the wisdom of peaceful coexistence. If armed peace is a road to war, there would be no better philosophy to save humanity than a demilitarized peace. Daydreaming is not always in vain.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 26, Page 31

*The author is a sociology professor at Seoul National University.

Song Ho-keun
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