Korean War lessons valid 59 years later
June 25, 2009
In 1950, under the direction of its powerful leader and boastful of its military might, North Korea prepared a major offensive that would lead to years of war involving the world’s superpowers.
Kim Il Sung planned to unleash an attack on South Korea with every expectation of a swift and overwhelming military victory.
With Thursday’s 59th anniversary of the start of the war, and with North Korea once again acting and talking tough, some might ask: Is history repeating itself?
There are 28,500 reasons to believe the answer is no, according to Korea-based experts on the war and current relations between the North and South. That is the number of American troops now stationed in South Korea, not to mention what that represents in the U.S. commitment to protect its ally from any attack from the North.
"Any dreams that the North Koreans have of having another go have basically been thwarted by the U.S. [military] presence here," said Michael Breen, longtime journalist and author of "The Koreans" and "Kim Jong-Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader."
In 1950, the U.S. had withdrawn all but a military advisory group from Korea, and Washington’s role in Seoul’s defense was unclear.
"Today, with boots on the ground, and a clear mandate for action, the alliance is tooled up and ready to ruck," said Andrew Salmon, author of "To The Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea, 1951."
While an all-out offensive from the North or a "major" war are remote possibilities, experts interviewed suggested a more localized or smaller-scale conflict is possible, perhaps even likely.
"Limited war and clashes are highly likely given North Korea’s recent ultra-hard-line provocations and actions," said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the inter-Korean relations program at the Sejong Institute. "We should understand that we are in [a] serious situation."
There are some parallels to be drawn between what’s happening today and the events that led to the North Korean army’s crossing of the 38th Parallel into South Korea on June 25, 1950.
David Garretson, a South Korea-based professor of international relations at the University of Maryland University College, said "one of the interpretations" for why the North attacked the South was "an internal power struggle" within the North’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party, and that Kim Il Sung wanted to use the offensive to fend off rivals within the party.
In recent weeks, political observers have suggested North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing, along with its rhetoric, follows a similar logic. They say it can be attributed to an effort by ailing leader Kim Jong Il to eventually pass control of the country onto his son, Kim Jong Un, in the face of internal opposition.
Garretson said North Korea was likely emboldened to attack in 1950 by the fact that a year earlier, its ally, the Soviet Union, had successfully tested an atomic bomb, thus neutralizing any nuclear support South Korea might get from the United States.
Further, the U.S. decision to pull its combat troops out of South Korea after World War II was also key to the North’s decision to attack, the experts agreed.
"In an infamous gaffe in January 1950, [U.S. Secretary of State] Dean Acheson famously stated that South Korea lay beyond America’s Asian defense perimeter," Salmon pointed out.
When the North did attack, South Korea was woefully ill-equipped to respond to superior firepower that China and the Soviet Union supplied North Korea. "South Korea was caught off-guard in complete defenselessness," Cheong said
The subsequent entry of a United Nations force led by the U.S. on behalf of South Korea, countered by massive ground forces China sent to aid the North, would lead to a stalemate and the end of hostilities on July 27, 1953. The armistice signed that day essentially restored the original boundaries of the two Koreas.
Today, experts agree South Korea flexes the most military might, not to mention its alliance with the United States.
Park Tae-woo, a visiting professor teaching international politics at Taiwan National University, said the lesson South Korea and the United States learned from the Korean War is that "peace is not the thing that you can get from begging. Peace can be only built with strong power, will, military capability ... and readiness."
Ryu Gil-jae, a professor at the University of North Korea Study, said, "Given North Korea’s recent talks, threats and actions, the role of the U.S. and U.S. forces’ presence here are the most critical and important to us."