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Face to Face: Was the Korean Armistice Agreement a success?

David J. Bercuson says yes

The Korean War grew out of the failure of the Soviet Union and the U.S. to unify Korea after defeating Japan in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. The Japanese annexed the peninsula in 1910 and the empire’s WW II loss raised the question of Korea’s future.  

The United Nations was supposed to administer an election for the whole peninsula, but one was held only in the south, where the American-backed Syngman Rhee, a noted anti-Communist, was elected president. The Soviets, who ruled in the north, installed Kim Il Sung, a well-known Communist, to govern. Then Kim received Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s permission to invade the south to unify the peninsula.  

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops, backed and supplied by the Soviets, crossed a temporary demarcation line on the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Kim aimed to bring the Koreas together by force with Soviet tanks, Soviet “instructors” and, eventually, Soviet fighter jets (MiG-15s).

When U.S. President Harry S. Truman learned of the invasion, he ordered American troops in Japan to go to Korea to help Rhee. Truman also sent U.S. air force and naval units to strike North Korean columns.  

He then appealed to the UN for help. The UN, without a Soviet representative on hand because the country was boycotting the organization until Communist China was allowed to seat an ambassador, voted to seek military help for Rhee from its members.

When the chance came to stop the war, it was a merciful, and necessary, end to a three-year slaughter.

The war lasted until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, by UN representatives, China and North Korea (Rhee refused to sign). The ceasefire line established then remains today and no political solution to the Korean War has ever been worked out.

Was the armistice a success? A brief look at the 70 years since indicates that although South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea) underwent more than 40 years of dictatorship following the war, it eventually evolved into a democratic country in the mid-1990s and remains a bastion of liberal ideas, with a free press, civil liberties and free elections.  

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) remains an autocracy, with nuclear capabilities and a starving population—a testament to its many failures since the armistice.

U.S. and UN intervention defeated Kim and the Chinese who rushed to support him. By autumn 1951, the war had become a stalemate. In the end, some three million people died, most of them civilians. American and UN forces lost some 150,000 troops. Chinese and North Korean losses are still unknown.

When the chance came to stop the war, it was a merciful, and necessary, end to a three-year slaughter. While the peace has been tenuous, it has largely endured. It has undoubtedly saved countless lives and helped South Korea become a thriving economic democracy. While it may not have been perfect, the armistice has prevented more war on the Korean peninsula for going on seven decades. 

Stephen J. Thorne says no

The Korean War, coming as it did just five years after the Second World War, was not at the time, and for a long while afterward, considered a war by almost anyone except those who fought it.

Despite some three million military and civilian deaths and the devastation of industry and infrastructure, politicians and diplomats seeking to assuage fears of another conflagration dubbed the three years of fighting on the Korean peninsula a “police action.” And in the following decades during the Cold War, it was referred to as the Korean “conflict.”

So, when it came to ending it, no peace treaty was reached, only an acrimonious armistice that South Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose borders and citizenry had been violated, refused to sign.

The talks, rife with Communist intimidation tactics and stalling, took two years and 17 days—some 400 hours of parley in 158 meetings. It was the longest ceasefire negotiation in modern history. And while the diplomats sparred, the real fighting continued, with UN forces suffering thousands of casualties. 

But what of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and beyond? In the 70 years since the armistice was reached, they have proved elusive.

Technically, a state of war has existed in the region ever since Soviet-backed North Korean troops, later reinforced by China, crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950. The subsequent ceasefire has been punctuated by periodic flare-ups, border violations and missile tests.

The ceasefire has been punctuated by periodic flare-ups, border violations and missile tests.

In other words, the Korean armistice stopped the fighting of the day, and possibly avoided a wider war, but it did not resolve the divide between North and South. Instead, it left in its wake a demilitarized zone and heavily fortified borders separating a Communist country on one side and a capitalist one on the other.

The deal did not address what may be the greatest tragedy of postwar Korea—the separation of 10 million families—and it left a legacy of instability that continues to reverberate around the world.

It set the table for long and costly failures in Vietnam and, arguably, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, by creating a precedent in the West that not following through on commitments and coming up short of expectations in war are somehow acceptable.

The North has become a hermit kingdom under cult-like rule by a series of hereditary madmen bent on aggression and the development of nuclear weapons aimed at annihilating a West whose sanctions continue to impose unending misery on the people of North Korea.

So, while South Korea thrived and became a technological giant, North Koreans have languished in poverty, corruption and stigmatization under a harsh and dangerous regime.

 “The real problem of course is that despite the claims on each side about victory, the armistice in 1953 was not a victory for anybody,” historian James Hoare wrote in 2004. “At best, three years of war had done nothing more than confirm the division of the peninsula. In reality, both sides lost.” 


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