North Korea and South Korea Talk War: Three American Generations Mull It Over

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What were you doing in history class the day your teacher covered the Korean War and why should we care that North Korea told its military to prepare for war against South Korea this week? Do you need your coffee before you answer that question? You're not alone.

When I heard Lisa Ling's sister Laura with another journalist, Euna Lee, had been imprisoned in North Korea last year, I thought it was political showmanship with shades of paranoia keeping them there. I missed the recent Oprah show about their captivity and the sisters' new book (Lee has a book also), but I was happy they were released. What a harrowing tale!

Furthermore, news of North Korea rattling its nuclear sabers--talk of testing and its kicking out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors last year--concerns me. I grew up during the Cold War with movies of the week about nuclear war and winter. While I hear the U.S. and Russia want to disarm, I also hear smaller countries scream foul, not so fast. Little nations want nuclear bats too.

North Korea's nuclear weapons haven't been discussed much in the latest stories about potential war, but it was only last June that the communist nation, citing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea, declared things could go nuclear nasty, reports the U.K. Guardian.

Today the U.N., while not directly referencing the war threat, according to reports I've seen, said that North Korea exports nuclear missiles. The website Free Korea comments, "Axis, Schmaxis" at that news.

The sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, on March 26, which killed 46 sailors, set off our current potential nightmare in Asia. The U.N. investigation concludes that North Korea hit the ship. The small nation protests innocence and calls South Korean leaders "traitors." It further charges that the U.S. is behind the tension.

When North Korea is in the hot seat, eyes look toward China. That super power says it will not support the culprits and will stand by U.N. findings.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 25, the "international community has a duty to respond," and that the Chinese understand that the Cheonan incident is a serious matter. She also said that the U.S. looks forward to working with China.

And so, here we are. North Korea's saying saddle up and South Korea's nervously responding, "Bring it."

CNN reports, "North Korea warns it will meet war with 'all-out war'."

Educating a Young One About Korea

I must have been mumbling about history and this latest news of North Korea and South Korea talking war, and my son, 19, must have heard me. He said, "What? We were in a Korean war. Tell me about that."

I said, "Some people called it a conflict. Go ask your grandfather."

He resisted. My father, a World War II veteran, is 89, and sometimes hard to follow, but I insisted. "No, ask him. It'll make him feel good that you did."

About five minutes later, my son returned. "WOW!" he said. "Papa gives good information."

My dad placed America's entry into the Korean War in the context of his own life, telling my son that America entered Korea's "civil war," as he called it, around 1950, just after he'd started working for the U.S. Post Office. He also said he never thought it was a war, but a conflict.

"More of our meddling," he told his grandson. And then he started fussing about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and possible return of the draft.

But back to Korea. While some of us chuckled earlier this year learning that former Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin didn't know why there was a North Korea and South Korea, to be fair, Americans in general don't know what they should know about our history and global politics. We Americans tend to be insular, so say some Europeans and the people who hand out the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Also, some people didn't come of age in the 1970s as I did, watching the hit TV show M*A*S*H, starring Alan Alda. The show was set in the Korean War but ran longer than the war itself. I loved M*A*S*H, but it didn't teach me the reasons for our involvement with Korea in any detail. It was a comedy that focused on wise-cracking doctors and nurses. Still, it helped me remember that we did go to Korea and Americans and Koreans died, and it left a clear impression that war is neither fun nor funny, no matter how much we laughed at "Hawkeye" Pierce and "Hot Lips" Houlihan.

Possibly the most today's generation has seen of Korea on entertainment television is the love story of the married Korean couple, Kwon Jin-Soo and Sun-Hwa Kwon, on ABC's hit series Lost that ended this month. The pair represent a prosperous South Korea. Jin works for Sun's father, a ruthless industrialist. Others of today's generation, like my adult daughter, may be addicted to Korean melodramas online. None of it smells of war.

Did Korea Divide Itself into North and South? No.

When I try to remember the parts of history class through which I dozed, I seek timelines like this one for the Korean War. We learn right away that the Korean war was technically three years long, 1950 to 1953.

Despite some prominent political leaders being a little confused about world history and America's role in it, Korea is not one country loosely designated North and South like North Philly and South Philly. Superpower war games shaped the governments of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea.

Up until 1945, Korea was controlled by Japan after being annexed by that nation in 1910. With the defeat of Germany and the unconditional surrender of Japan at the end of World War II, the victorious allies of the war carved Korea into two occupation zones demarcated by the the 38th parallel, a geopolitical line at latitude 38° N.

The Soviet Union influenced North Korea, and the United States influenced South Korea. Hence the North was communist and the South was not. The division was supposed to be temporary, and the country was supposed to be returned unified to the people under trusteeship. Due to Cold War animosities building between the U.S.S.R. and the United States--communism vs. capitalism with nuclear arms casting a terrorizing shadows--Korea was treated like a child in a bitter divorce.

Korea split officially in 1948 into "two separate nations with diametrically opposed political, economic, and social systems," per Wikipedia and other sources. South Korea declared itself the Republic of Korea, a U.S. ally. Tensions continued to build.

On June 25, 1950, communist-controlled North Korea breached the 38th parallel and attacked South Korea. The United Nations Security Council only recognized the U.S. ally, Republic of Korea.

The following quote comes from the Truman Library, a 1971 statement given in an oral history interview by Ambassador to Korea John Muccio:

Sunday [June 25, 1950] was a very confused day and we were mainly spent in trying to find out what was really going on at the front. But by nightfall Sunday it had become evident that it was just a question of time [until Seoul fell to the invading North Korean army]. . . . [W]e got word Sunday morning that they had not only attacked along the whole 38th parallel, but they made two landings on the east coast and that certainly couldn't be dismissed.

President Harry S. Truman said that the aggression took him and the world by surprise. South Korea called for help. The U.S. and allies answered, and when the U.N. Security Council voted to help South Korea, the council's Soviet delegate was absent.

Three months later, fearing America had that lean and hungry look, China, North Korea's friend, openly entered the war. When he addressed the United Nations, China's foreign minster Zhou Enlai said:

Korea is China's neighbor ... The Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question

In his book, Rethinking the Korean War and speaking of the Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong, William Whitney Stueck writes that "Mao's ideology predisposed him to think the worst of the United States."

Having seen how America dropped atomic bombs on Japan and listening to Gen. Douglass MacArthur's war rhetoric probably did little to improve Mao's opinion of us. With China's entry, the Korean War quickly reached a stalemate, lots of battling but no ground gained by either side. After two years haggling over peace, the parties reached armistice in July 1953 and established the Korean Demilitarized Zone around the 38th parallel.

Millions of Koreans died in the war. Per Britannica Online, "The war resulted in the deaths of approximately 2,000,000 Koreans, 600,000 Chinese, 37,000 Americans, and 3,000 Turks, Britons, and other nationals in the UN forces."

But that happened before many of us were born. Why should we care?

In the last few years, rumblings in that part of Asia have grown louder, causing us to wonder what trouble is coming from these sibling nations. While Mao is dead, China's size, ambitions, economic power and influence concern foreign affairs scholars and observers as they note its cozy relationship with North Korea. Writing at Forbes Magazine last year, one author asserts despite China's public denunciation's of North Korea's nuclear weapons testing, the larger nation essentially props up the smaller. George G. Chang's article is entitled "We Have A Chinese Problem, Not A North Korean One."

Nevertheless, NPR reports May 28 that "Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao met with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak" and is on "a three-day visit to Seoul." The Chinese want stability, the story says.

Let's Hope All Want Peace

Did you see the 1988 movie The Bear? I love that film.


O.K. Work with me here. Very loosely, the bear cub growling in that scene, trying to protect itself from the cougar, the world, is like North Korea with its nuclear weapons program. China is the big, adult bear growling behind the little bear.

Yes, I know Russia is traditionally "the bear," but as I said, work with me.

Think--nuclear weapons in North Korea, China smiling and holding its little friend's hand while sitting on cash to back a massive Chinese army, plus a shaky global economy and the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan with dwindling troops--do we want to play war games? I want neither games nor drama, simply peace.

More:

  • Q&A at Reuters: Why a "state of war" still exists on Korean peninsula:
    WHY IS KIM JONG-IL (of North Korea) PICKING A FIGHT NOW?
    North Korea is angry at the government of President Lee, who stopped a decade of aid and this week shut down trade between the two Koreas that is worth close to $300 million in hard cash.

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer CE & you can find her other stuff through Her 411.

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