Today we and our allies around the world mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended three years of brutal open warfare on the Korean Peninsula. Thirty-three thousand U.S. servicemen died in that conflict. Though the battle lines stabilized near the 38th Parallel in the summer of 1951 after a devastating intervention by the Chinese army drove United Nations forces out of the territory of North Korea, it took two bloody years of stalemate to negotiate the truce that took effect formally on July 27, 1953, and guaranteed the survival of the Republic of South Korea.
North Korea, which invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, agreed to the cease-fire and armistice, but has refused to sign a final peace agreement. It periodically denounces the armistice and occasionally launches attacks on South Korean targets. Curiously, though, the Stalinist North Korean government has been holding elaborate celebrations of the armistice anniversary this week, claiming that it marks “victory in the Fatherland Liberation War.”
In the United States, though, the Korean War became known as “The Forgotten War.” It was understandably obscured by World War II, and many war-weary Americans simply looked the other way.
But that war saw some of the nastiest fighting in U.S. military history, compounded by difficult terrain, scorching summers and bitter early cold winters. A low point came in November 1950, just weeks after China entered the war, when the U.S. Tenth Corps was surrounded in North Korea at the Chosin Reservoir, afterward known to the troops as “Frozen Chosin.”
The U.S. breakout was led by the First Marine Division under Maj. Gen. Oliver P. Smith, who was credited by The New York Times with responding to a reporter’s question about retreat by saying, “Retreat, hell. We are not retreating. We are just advancing in a different direction.”
The origins and conduct of the Korean Conflict remain controversial among historians of diplomacy and military operations, but two major outcomes are certain: the emergence of South Korea as a thriving democracy, economic powerhouse and major ally, and the maturing of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, built in part on the role of Japan as the sustaining base of U.S. operations in Korea.
U.S. military personnel, some of whom had already fought in World War II, made profound sacrifices in Korea. Americans across the nation will rightly pause to honor our surviving veterans of that brutal conflict today. Those ceremonies will include a 4 p.m. event at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston, where veterans and family members of deceased veterans will receive a Congressional Certificate of Appreciation and a commemorative pin from Sen. Tim Scott.
But as we look back on our troops’ indispensable service in that distant realm, we also must look forward from the unfinished — and ominous — story of North Korea.
When satellites fly over the Korean peninsula at night, six decades after the armistice, the images they send show the southern half brilliantly lit and the northern half bathed in darkness. While Asia as a whole has prospered in the wake of the Korean and Vietnamese wars by adopting capitalist production methods and joining the world market, North Korea has stubbornly clung to its rigidly communist and dynastic path, seeing enemies on all sides.
Though deeply impoverished, the regime has developed a nuclear arsenal while starving its own people. Despite the international community’s repeated warnings, North Korea now persists in trying to develop long-range missiles to threaten its neighbors — and the U.S.
The rash actions of 30-year-old North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, the founder’s grandson who took over in late 2011, have dashed initial hopes that he would turn away from the reckless path of perpetual belligerence. Thus, in a harrowing sense, the Korean War continues.
And so should Americans’ respect, and gratitude, for our troops who fought for our country — and freedom — in Korea.