[Column] Argument for a Korean War archive

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[Column] Argument for a Korean War archive

Nam Jeong-ho

The author is a columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Next year, 2023, will mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. The brutal war ended, but the Korean Peninsula is still bisected. South and North Korea are technically still at war. But the problem is a completely different interpretation of the 1950-53 Korean War depending on ideological spectrum. Some even claim the war began from the South’s aggression against the North.

Under such precarious circumstances, politicians and academics in South Korea are pushing hard to set up a global archive to correctly catalogue the substance of the forgotten war by collecting all related data scattered around the world. The following is a lead-up to the call for the global archive project being pushed ahead of the 70th anniversary of the armistice agreement to help people not repeat such tragedies.

A noteworthy debate took place at the National Assembly on September 13 even amid a heated battle between the People Power Party (PPP) and the Democratic Party (DP) over the indictment of DP Chair Lee Jae-myung on charges of election law violation. The debate was focused on devising strategies to successfully establish a global archive on the Korean War in South Korea. In the discussion, over 10 lawmakers from both parties took part, including five-term lawmaker Sul Hoon of the DP and PPP chief policymaker Sung Il-jong, together with senior historians to gather wisdom for a successful establishment of the archive.

They aim to discover and collect all Korean War-related documents and possessions of veterans scattered in 35 countries — including South and North Korea and the 16 countries that sent troops to help South Korea — to accurately record the history of the war. Political heavyweights and other figures joined the move because it goes beyond partisan interest. The participants decided to set up an excavation committee for global records on the war inside the legislature with Reps. Sul and Sung and former National Institute of Korean History president Cho Kwang serving as co-chair of the committee.

Members of the committee also include other DP lawmakers, such as Rep. Ahn Gyu-back and Jung Tae-ho, and PPP lawmakers, including Chung Woon-chun, as well as independent lawmaker Yang Jung-suk, all serving as vice chairs of the committee. The project was initiated by Rep. Sul, who first recognized the importance of creating the archive, and gained traction after Rep. Sung joined the crusade.

Rep. Sung pointed out that the Korean Peninsula became “a hotbed for a global power contest after the liberation” and noted the “divergent historical evaluation of the war” even after seven decades. He expressed hope that the global archive can teach lessons about the war to future generations so that they can appreciate the history without any bias.
The Korean War is still full of mysteries. One is why the Soviet Union did not participate in a UN Security Council meeting in July 1950 — which led to the establishment of the United Nations Command — despite its veto power. Some claim that Joseph Stalin, the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, wanted to weaken the power of America and China by drawing the U.S. into the war. But the truth has yet to be found. Another mystery is why Hungary, a member of the Soviet bloc, provided logistics support to South Korea together with allied forces. Hungary may have helped South Korea on humanitarian grounds without knowing that the Soviet Union was behind the invasion. But no one knows exactly about the strange support from Hungary.
North Korea’s domestic situation before and after the aggression on June 25, 1950 also needs to be clarified, including how the Soviets trained the North Korean military and what strategies they drew up to attack South Korea. A report sent by the three-star head of the Soviet military advisory group in Pyongyang to Moscow could offer a key clue to the mystery. The report could still be sleeping in Russia’s government archives of foreign policy records, including the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. The chief advisor orchestrated the North’s methodical preparations for the invasion. He is known to have drawn up attack operations and backed the North Korean Army behind the scenes.
Despite all the mysteries surrounding the war, historical documents and other materials are critically lacking. It was a genuine international war involving the two Koreas, UN troops from 16 countries, the Chinese Army and the Soviet forces. Also, it was a war that had significant impact on the world order amid the Cold War. To correctly comprehend the significance of the war, diverse materials hidden in institutions at home and abroad must be collected and looked into.

But reality points to a different direction. Scholars in South Korea have mostly relied on historical documents in the country and North Korea. They have been able to access the vast data at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) since the 1970s, but could not overcome the limits from American angle. European countries, like the UK and France, conducted their own research on the Korean War, but most of the results of their study were not introduced to South Korea. After the normalization of relations with the Soviet Union in 1990, Soviet internal documents on the Korean War could be delivered to South Korea to discover untold stories of the forgotten war. But many documents are still not disclosed yet.
If a global archive is set up in South Korea, it could help overcome the limits of U.S.-centered data for a solid understanding of the war. In “The Origins of the Korean War,” Prof. Bruce Cummings of the University of Chicago raised the possibility that the United States encouraged North Korea to invade South Korea. But his argument proved wrong after an old Soviet document pointed to the other direction. The case clearly necessitated comprehensive research on the war.

The committee plans to collect data from 35 countries in total, including 21 which sent combat troops and medical supplies, China, Russia and members of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, not to mention Taiwan and Japan. The data to be gathered are not confined to government documents as the committee wants to include a number of news reports, photos and videos produced by the private sector and create a digital data base.
Foreign countries have archives dedicated to certain wars. In Texas, the Vietnam Center and Archive with a huge collection of related data was built in 1989 with the cooperation of Vietnam War veterans to teach lessons to future generations about the war. Independence, a city in the state of Missouri, also a research section on the Korean War in the Harry Truman Presidential Library.

Demand to open a global archive in South Korea is growing thanks to its geopolitical advantages. First of all, the country maintains good relations with a number of related countries. Though its ties with China and Russia suffered a temporary setback over the Thaad deployment and the Ukraine war, South Korea’s relatively friendly relations with China and Russia will certainly help the country to secure related documents from them.

Second, South Korea also has advantage in language. Thorough research on the Korean War calls for an ability to understand the Korean language. But foreign experts capable of using Korean proficiently are quite limited in number, while there are many Koreans who can use English, French and Russian fluently. Another strength comes from the fact that Koreans can learn Chinese and Japanese languages more easily than their Western counterparts. If South Korea installs a global archive after working hard to collect foreign language-based data, we can let foreign scholars or journalists visit the country to study the Korean War. It will also help raise our global stature.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)