July 27 marks the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice. Though known as the “Forgotten War” in the United States, this misnomer belies the true legacy of this conflict that is anything but forgotten. The ramifications of the war and subsequent frozen conflict continue to present one of the most vexing foreign policy challenges for the United States.
The difficulties North Korea poses for the United States are not likely to become any less acute in the near future. With challenges to regional alliances, United States-China relations seemingly at a nadir, and North Korea’s recently expressed frustrations with diplomatic overtures, there is no shortage of obstacles that stand in the way of progress on U.S.-North Korea relations. The legacy of the Korean War can help us understand how the United States got to this position and also prove instructive as policymakers attempt to craft new strategies moving forward.
The “Forgotten War” moniker unfortunately is representative of the vast disconnect between the United States and North Korea. While the war may not figure prominently in the collective consciousness of vast numbers of Americans, it was and is still a lived reality for millions of North Koreans.
During the war over one million North Koreans lost their lives and United States Air Force General Curtis LeMay stated “we… eventually burned down every town in North Korea.” Dean Rusk, later U.S. Secretary of State and one of the two Americans who selected the 38th parallel as the dividing point between both Koreas, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” Indeed, the United States dropped more bombs and napalm on the peninsula during the Korean War than during the entire Pacific campaign of World War II.
Is it then any surprise that North Korea, a country of just over 25 million people, is a veritable garrison state, spending nearly one-fourth of its gross domestic product on its military, the fourth largest in the world, while maintaining an arsenal of nuclear and conventional weapons? And as the country’s government rebuilt after the Korean War, it did so by adding significant underground infrastructure and creating propaganda and memorials that ensure the lessons of the Korean War are not forgotten by its citizens.
With this legacy, minimal direct contact between most Americans and North Koreans in recent years due to travel restrictions, and the president’s relatively recent threats of “fire and fury,” North Koreans may have concerns about American intentions. President Trump vowed at the United Nations to “totally destroy North Korea” should it attack the United States. And just weeks before becoming Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton penned an op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First,” not to mention his later comments in support of the “Libya model” regarding nuclear disarmament in North Korea.
Brookings’ Jung Pak observes that “North Korea requires a hostile outside world to legitimize the Kim dynasty, justify the military programs, and emphasize the belief in the populace that North Korea under Kim offers the only safe place, given the malevolent forces lurking outside.”
Looking inward at the rhetoric and actions of our leaders can be an initial step in examining our North Korea policy. Tuning back some of the vitriol is by no means a panacea, but it is a step forward in engendering trust and respect. And if North Koreans stop hearing about this hostile outside world because our leaders refuse to create the illusion or the reality that it exists, then North Koreans too may be forced look inward and focus even more on issues such as the economic well-being of their people and not this seemingly perpetual conflict.
Understanding this complicated legacy also helps to explain why the United States’ strategy centered around denuclearizing North Korea is proving to be unsuccessful. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun criticized both North Korean diplomat Choe Sun Hui and John Bolton as “locked in an old way of thinking, focused on only the negatives and what is impossible, rather than thinking creatively about what is possible.” Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously stated “Our mission is the same: it’s to deliver on that agreement that Chairman Kim made with President Trump back in Singapore. And that’s the fully denuclearized, verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
As the world looks back at what transpired on the Korean peninsula in the 67 years since July 27, 1953, the lessons of the “Forgotten War” need to be better remembered by Americans. To break out of the stasis and ensure lasting peace and prosperity in northeast Asia, it is imperative that the war’s lasting legacy remains fresh on our minds as we find new and creative approaches to North Korea. We should not underestimate the threat that North Korea’s nuclear weapons play to the United States and the world today, but we also must strive for a more complete understanding of how that threat came to exist and why it continues to persist.