Reflections on the Legacy of the Korean War

June 26, 2020

By Keith Luse

On March 31, 1953 at a Special Meeting of the National Security Council, President Eisenhower discussed using atomic weapons in the Korean War. “Admittedly, he said, there were not many good tactical targets, but he felt it would be worth the cost if through the use of atomic weapons, we could (1) achieve a substantial victory over the Communist forces and (2) get to a line at the waist of Korea”.

Three years earlier, just before dawn on June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army began bombarding the Ongjin Peninsula, an isolated outpost of the South Korean territory at the western end of the 38th Parallel dividing the country. The attack was soon followed by a North Korean invasion across the entirety of that dividing line, and – within a few days – a U.S. decision to intervene in the conflict. China joined the fray, and after three years of bloody fighting and a military stalemate, hostilities ended with the signing of an armistice. This agreement was intended as a temporary measure to halt active fighting until a more permanent Korean peace arrangement could be found, but seven decades later, such an arrangement still appears far out of reach.

Fast forward to today. A North Korean ICBM armed with a nuclear weapon can reportedly hit an American target. While some insist a first strike from North Korea is out of the question given the “fire and fury” response it would elicit from the U.S., that analysis unravels in a situation where North Korean officials conclude that an incoming attack is imminent. Seventy years following the beginning of the Korean War and President Eisenhower’s pondering the use of atomic weapons, the prospect of the nuclear annihilation of millions of people in the United States and on the Peninsula is genuine.

While the North has built a robust nuclear arsenal, the winds are shifting south of the 38thParallel. The fraying alliance between the United States and South Korea and the South’s foreboding sense that the U.S. may no longer be a reliable defense partner reinforces the call from some within the ROK that South Korea should develop its capabilities into a nuclear weapons program.

As the hourglass empties on the remaining days of the Moon Jae-In Administration, the pressure is building. Kim Jong Un is awaiting overtures from the South that might have been either unlikely or unthinkable during a season of a stronger US-ROK alliance. Perhaps denuclearization of the North will subside as an ROK priority. After all, in the minds of some, an eventual reunification scenario allowing North Korea to retain its nuclear weapons program is plausible, presenting a win-win scenario for both sides.

During the last seven decades, the United States and the international community often displayed a casual, and inconsistent approach toward dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program – until missiles flew and nuclear tests were conducted. Such actions were usually followed by more sanctions and finger wagging by high-ranking U.S. officials under Democrat and Republican administrations, insistent that North Korea would never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program.

Until North Korea developed the reported capability of an ICBM reaching the United States, there was erratic pressure at best, for American Presidents to address North Korea’s nuclear program. And, it’s fair to point out that while North Korea’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow, North Korean provocations create opportunities for U.S. companies to sell missile defense systems, increasing the value of stock portfolios and employing thousands of Americans.

After North Korea fired a missile across the Japanese island of Hokkaido in 2017, the value of defense stocks rose, with one analyst quoted in the August 29 “Investor’s Business Daily”, “obviously, this creates opportunity for defense contractors, especially those with some kind of missile defense”.

During his farewell speech to the nation, President Eisenhower warned, “in the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”.

The trauma of the 1950 to 1953 conflict was significant and continues to upend the lives of many families. Approximately 36,000 Americans were killed. 600,000 Chinese “volunteer force” members and over 2 million Korean military personnel and civilians also lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands of South Korea residents and Korean Americans remain separated from family members in the North. More than 7600 Americans who fought in Korea remain “unaccounted for” – their remains never returned to their families, and in many cases, their fate remains unknown.

Once again, war on the Korean Peninsula is a real possibility, and after decades of denial by US officials that it would ever occur, North Korea has the capability of striking US targets. If he were alive today, Ike would not be pleased.

While perhaps the drama of President Donald Trump and Leader Kim Jong Un meeting in Singapore and Hanoi reflected good intentions, the process derailed due to missteps on both sides. It would be helpful for hardliners surrounding Leader Kim Jong Un to pause, and support serious, back-channel engagement with the United States. Preventing a nuclear disaster from miscalculation by either side cannot wait until election day.