The Korean War at 60 Part One: Origins and Outbreak

By Carter, David | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Korean War at 60 Part One: Origins and Outbreak


Carter, David, Contemporary Review


TO write of 'The Korean war at 60' is to imply that it is still alive and going strong. This is unfortunately the case. It is alive, and if not exactly kicking, and not as strong as it was prior to the armistice of 1953, it nevertheless remains an unresolved conflict, which flares up occasionally, causing anxiety around the globe, as can be seen in the current dangerous dispute over whether the North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean warship with considerable loss of life. For the Korean War never really ended: there was a ceasefire, an armistice agreed after protracted negotiations in the so-called 'peace village' of Panmunjom, but no peace treaty has ever been signed. The war has continued till the present day as a war of words and skirmishes. It is therefore only possible to commemorate its outbreak and not its conclusion. One can only lament the continuing unsettled, and unsettling, instability in the relationship between the two Koreas.

The present South Korean government has organised extensive commemorative ceremonies and other events on the occasion of the 60th anniversary this year of the outbreak of the war on June 25th, 1950. They have invited the remaining veterans and various dignitaries from all the countries involved in the UN offensive. It is timely therefore to reflect on the continuing significance of the war, not only for the people of Korea but also in recent world history. The present writer is not an historian nor a political theorist, but a scholar who has lived and worked in South Korea for over 18 years, with many Korean friends and acquaintances, for whom the division of their country is an ever-present reality. This first article provides some reflections on the origins and outbreak of the war; the second article outlines the general course of the war and includes especially an account of the British involvement; and the third article considers the implications of the armistice, the aftermath and the present state of relations between North and South Korea.

The Korean War has a unique status in the history of warfare and world politics in the latter part of the twentieth century. It became very quickly replaced however in the consciousness of peoples the world over by concerns and anxieties relating to other conflicts which disrupted world peace: those in Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, and Afghanistan; the seemingly everlasting one between Arabs and Israelis; and the universal so-called 'war on terror'. But the Korean War was more than just a precursor to these events, to the Vietnam War in particular. The tragedy is that many of the participants at the time and some of the subsequent historians failed to perceive its full significance.

In his documentary film, The Korean War in Colour, Christopher Cassell has said of the Korean war: 'It is remembered for being forgotten'. David Rees entitled his history of the conflict Korea - The Limited War. In what senses can a war be 'limited', and would such a perception of the Korean War contribute to its being 'forgotten'? It is intended to show in the course of this series of articles to what extent attitudes to the war at the time have contributed to its remaining an unfinished war. In the Introduction to his book David Rees argued that it was the deliberate policy of President Harry S Truman's administration to wage a limited war in Korea. Once the Chinese intervened in the war in November, 1950, Truman decided that any attempts to unite the whole of the Korean peninsular would be at the cost of a large-scale war with Communist China, It was therefore decided to limit the American commitment to no more than a defensive strategy in South Korea. This would enable the North Atlantic powers more time to build up their forces and negotiate eventually with the Communist countries from a position of strength, avoiding also thereby a third world war. The war was also to be limited in the sense of aiming only to restore the state of affairs before war broke out. …

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