Nowadays, when people think of the Korean War, they’re most likely to think of the eleven season run of the TV show MASH, complete with attractive, wise-cracking anti-war doctors. In fact, the Korean War was, short, costly, and very painful. In just three years, almost 34,000 Americans are known to have died, while over 8,000 are still officially listed as MIA. Although Korean deaths on both the north and south ends of the Korean Peninsula are hard to come by, it appears that more than one million of them (troops and civilians) died too.
But that’s history, right? Wrong. North Korea announced yesterday that it intends to cancel the 1953 ceasefire that stopped the war without ever ending it.
Of course, North Korea claims that it was the United States that violated the ceasefire terms by using North Korea’s February 12 nuclear missile test to justify a push for strong UN sanctions. North Korea is also offended by ongoing U.S.-South Korean joint military drills.
What makes the UN sanctions especially painful this time around is that China, which provided the money and forces that made the Korean War possible and that has long helped prop up the North Korean dictatorship, has joined with the US to help draft the sanctions proposal. Apparently with the latest nuclear test, North Korea become too hot even for Beijing to handle.
Technically speaking, North Korea and the United Nations forces that fought in the Korean War (consisting primarily of South Korean and American troops) have been in a sixty-year standoff. When combat ended in 1953, that was merely a ceasefire, rather than a surrender by one side or another, or a war-ending negotiated peace.
North Korea has long justified its nuclear program on the ground that, because it is technically a nation war, it has the right to develop weapons of defense. The UN’s latest attempt to stop that weapons build-up, says North Korea, and the joint US-South Korean military exercises that begin on March 1, violate the ceasefire, giving North Korea the right and the duty to resume active hostilities.
Although North Korea has frequently threatened some variation of hostilities in order to force Western governments to help it feed its starving people, this is an unusually explicit threat. And despite the fact that North Korea is one of the poorest countries on earth, with a population weakened by chronic starvation, it keeps its military in a constant state of readiness. It is also know to have one of the world’s largest arsenals of conventional weapons aimed directly at Seoul — South Korea’s capital and home to ten million people.