For many of us, this year’s July 27th marks no historical event of any special significance. As the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement, however, it is vitally important although the reasons why may not be self-evident. Few Americans barely recall the "forgotten" Korean War so why would we remember the truce that ended the fighting on July 27th, 1953? In fact many Koreans who lived through the war, themselves, have only vague memories of armistice day.
When I interviewed older Korean Americans about their memories and legacies of the Korean War in an oral history project, no one remembered July 27, 1953 as a special day – no cheering, no public displays. How strange, I thought, given the horrific devastation of the three years of fighting – nearly two million military dead, nearly 37,000 of whom were U.S. soldiers, 3 million civilian casualties, one tenth of the population, utter decimation of much of the Korean peninsula, and permanent division of a country with several millennia of shared history, culture, and language.
When I asked how people learned the war had ended, most said they were told they could return to their homes, they noticed a reduced military presence in the streets, they heard rumors. Mostly, the weariness of the war simply flowed into the weariness of rebuilding and recovery. Furthermore, the Cold War ideological division that engulfed Korea and stoked the flames of civil conflict intensified during the post-war years contributing to the feeling that nothing had ended.
For Americans, the Korean armistice also drew little attention. It represented stalemate rather than total victory and the return home of thousands of troops often to an indifferent and at times, cold reception. I often meet U.S. Korean War veterans who tell me that they, like many Korean American war survivors, have never talked about their experiences during the war nor received full affirmation for their sacrifices. Many rank and file soldiers were in their teens when they enlisted having few options for improving their lives. Suddenly, they found themselves in a country they had never heard of, fighting a war for reasons that were never made clear to them.
So why does remembering July 27, 1953 today matter? First, it matters as a reminder of the ravages of a brutal war that cost civilians and combatants dearly and left legacies of unhealed wounds that persist today. Remembering honors the sacrifices of the Korean War living and dead and reminds us that the human costs of war far outlive the period of actual fighting. This is a vital lesson of history for today when war conjures false images of surgical strikes, minimal ‘collateral damage’, pilot-less drones, and time-limited warfare.
Remembering the Korean War armistice also matters in light of the current escalating conflict with North Korea. As signatories to the truce, the U.S. and North Korea are still in a state of war that has never been concluded with a peace treaty. The mutual hostility born in that hot war remains unabated today. Although the Cold War era has morphed into the international war on terror driving U.S. suspicions about North Korean nuclear proliferation, the inability of successive U.S. administrations to resolve the nuclear crisis with the DPRK can be traced in part to the un-ended Korean War.
The unremitting Cold War hostility between the U.S. and North Korea plagues all current negotiations regarding the North’s nuclear program, which on their own terms present exceedingly difficult challenges of confidence building, verification, and reciprocity. Committing to end the Korean War with a peace agreement will not by itself resolve the current stand-off in U.S.-North Korea relations. It will, however, remove a major obstacle to restarting talks that can bring us back from the brink of military confrontation. The task of negotiating U.S. and North Korean security interests must be liberated from a state of war from a by-gone era.
For the sake of those who still suffer the sacrifices made during the Korean War and to pave the way for more productive U.S.-North Korea dialogue, July 27, 2009 should be the day we call for an urgent end to the Korean War.