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Korean War: The problem of memory
By Yu Bin

When the guns finally fell silent across the Korean Peninsula on July 27, 1953, about 2 million people were dead, many more wounded, and countless dislocated and separated from their families. Ironically, all this occurred in a three-year "police action". Now, 50 years later, North Korea and the United States are "drifting toward war, perhaps as early as this year", as former US secretary of defense William Perry was quoted in the Washington Post on July 15.

Still forgotten, Hollywood-style
The looming of another war in Korea, however, contrasts sharply with the lack of memory of the war for the Americans in a brave new world of "preemption". Indeed, it is almost a cliche to say that the war has been forgotten, deliberately or not.

A cursory survey of some prominent online bookstores quickly turns up a dozen or so titles about the Korean War with the term "forgotten", including Blair Clay Jr, The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950-53 (2003); History Book Club, Remember the Forgotten War: Korea: 1950-1953 (2000); Philip West et al, Remembering the Forgotten War: The Korean War Through Literature and Art (2000); John Melady, Korea: Canada's Forgotten War (1988). The Military History Titles 2003 of Random House Inc lists a mere five book titles for the Korean War, as against 113 books for the Vietnam War.

Even Hollywood is uncharacteristically reluctant about getting movies on the Korean War out to viewers. In the past five decades, Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H (1968) and the more popular bittersweet television series of the same name (1969-83) were perhaps the only enduring, though distorted, memories of the war to make it to the screen. And even these Hollywood imprints were actually a disguised protest, in the format of black humor, against the ongoing Vietnam War.

Part of the reason for Hollywood's neglect relates to the outcome of the Korean War. For the United States, the war was the first in which it did not prevail. Compared with its total victory in World Wars I and II and clear failure in the Vietnam War, Korea falls in more ambiguous and inconvenient middle ground. It is something that defies the typical "all or nothing" mentality of Jacksonianism.

Named after president Andrew Jackson (served 1829-37), Jacksonianism represents a United States of small-town pioneers turning their back on Europe and is the philosophical root of America's isolationism when it was weak. In US diplomatic history, it has easily turned to crusading interventionism when it has been strong. In real policymaking, Jacksonianism purports that if a war is worth fighting, it has to be won and, if it is not won, it has to be abandoned (Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy: Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century, 2003). Anything in between is incomprehensible and therefore immoral. For Hollywood, which thrives on dramatizing and sensationalizing real life, ordinariness and scoreless endings seldom sell.

In real life, however, the Korean War is indeed forgotten, except by its veterans. The Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC, was not built until 1995, 13 years after the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in 1982 and 42 years after the ending of the Korean War in 1953.

This gross neglect and ignorance of the war and its consequences can hardly be justified given the high US death toll - 39,000 in three years, as compared with 59,000 in the 11-year Vietnam War (1964-75). Moreover, the Korean War was never officially declared "over". What all the belligerents did in 1953 was to sign a truce to end fighting, but not a peace agreement. A total of 37,000 US troops still remain in Korea to date. Their presence, however, seems increasingly controversial for both the locals and for themselves.

Bush's 'hostile neglect'
It remains to be debated to what extent the memory eclipse of the war relates to the current US policy on Korea, or lack of a policy according to William Perry. The policy of President George W Bush's team, however, seems to be best described as "hostile neglect", deliberate or not.

One characteristic of the Bush policy on Korea is its drifting nature. Although both Iraq and North Korea had been defined as members of the so-called "axis of evil", the Bush administration chose to leave the smoldering crisis in Korea largely unattended while preoccupying itself with Iraq. Thus, from the engagement policy of the last months of Bill Clinton's administration to Bush's refusal to support former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy", from listing North Korea as part of the axis of evil to putting it again on Pentagon's nuclear hit list, from the "Bush Doctrine" of preemption to a demonstrative Iraq war, the current US administration has yet to make any genuine diplomatic effort to defuse the ongoing crisis in Korea.

Such neglect, intentional or not, may eventually lead to an overreaction in the era of preemption. Paradoxically, the United States also neglected Korea before the outbreak of the Korean War by excluding Korea from its East Asian defense parameter. This may have given the impression of a less committed US in the Far East, leading to the full-scale attack on the South by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in June 1950. This time, however, US preemption may well be accompanied by "nuclear first use", as the Bush administration won in May congressional endorsement to begin research on a new generation of small-yield nuclear warheads (below five kilotons).

The Pentagon's latest war plan (No 5,030) disclosed on Monday by the US News and World Reports indicates a series of provocative tactics to destabilize, demoralize and disrupt North Korea's economic, political and military infrastructure. It becomes increasingly clear - and worrisome, according to Perry and other analysts - that the Bush team will not accept anything short of regime change in North Korea. In this respect, the Korean War is not forgotten. Its outcome in 1953 has never been accepted as final. Now it is time to score a real military touchdown (American football phrase for earning 6 points), plus an extra point for a regime-change kick.

Geopolitical realignment
Regardless of how much the conflict is remembered, the world was never the same after the war in Korea. The Cold War became a globalized system by extending it from Europe to Asia. Indeed, Korea became the "fault line" between East and West, communism and democracies, command economies and capitalist ones, and maritime and continental powers. For the United States, Asian communists - be they Chinese, Vietnamese or North Koreans - were perhaps the worst commies. They were both "colored" ("yellow" meaning worse than their European white comrades) and "colorless" (meaning they were not Asians but part of the international communist conspiracy). They needed to be contained, rolled back, and/or divided. The legacies of divided states of the Cold War remain in Asia today.

Despite the two hot "limited wars" the United States fought in Asia during the otherwise cold Cold War, it was in Asia that the Cold War's deep freeze finally started to melt. The two limited wars also exposed the limits of the US power. As a result, US policymakers began exploring strategic opportunities with persistence, subtlety, and pragmatic diplomacy, eventually undermining Soviet communism and extending the US free-market system to its allies as well as to former enemies such as China and Vietnam.

Geopolitical and geoeconomic changes, however, are never linear. Liked or not, wartime friends and foes during the Korean War continued to evolve into their opposites. On both sides of the war, alliance relations have encountered considerable shifts and constraints. For a long time, China tasted the limits of its friendly relationship with its Soviet and Korean allies (see Yu Bin, China's dilemma in the current Korean crisis , PacNet Newsletter, #08 February 20). Until the recent nuclear crisis, the United States was among the biggest donors of economic aid to North Korea, while China absorbed the largest export volume from South Korea. More recently, and for the first time since the end of the Korean War, both Beijing and Washington are being challenged by their respective Korean friends. America's drifting ties with Seoul and Beijing's strained relations with Pyongyang only add complexity to the danger of a mismanaged crisis.

Despite these geostrategic shifts in East Asia, perceptions of the right-wingers and neo-cons in the United States are largely frozen in the distant past. While major US media tend to describe North Korea as "China's child" (William Safire, "N Korea: China's child", New York Times, December 26, 2002), some key policymakers such as William Cohen and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain step up their effort to urge Japan to reverse its non-nuclear policy in order to "punish China" for not putting enough pressure on North Korea (see Ayako Doi, Unforeseen consequences: Japan's emerging nuclear debate , PacNet Newsletter, #12 March 13).

One wonders what would happen if the world's only constitutionally pacifist nation jumps to nuclear weapons and is eager, perhaps more than any other country, to taste its newfound freedom and muscle in dealing with its neighbors (Article 9 of the Japanese constitution reads: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized").

Japan stirs, with a selective memory
To be fair, the United States would have to let Japan take the championship in the contest of collective amnesia regarding the Korean issue. The most recent case was the near national hysteria in Japan regarding North Korea's "grand confession" of its abduction of 11 Japanese citizens. Not only did Japan fail to cash such an unusual confession into a historical turning point for normalizing relations with Pyongyang in the wake of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to North Korea last September, but it also chose not to relate this inhumane abduction of 11 Japanese to Japan's shameful "comfort women" policy during World War II. The forced prostitution of hundreds of thousands of Asian women, including many Koreans, has not been officially acknowledged by Japan nor adequately compensated for.

Both - the abductions and the comfort women - were immoral. But for Japan, a nation that chooses to remember Hiroshima but not Pearl Harbor, let alone the Rape of Nanjing, Korea was the root of the "Japan problem" for much of the 20th century. In the age of imperialism, Korea, along with Taiwan, was the first taste of blood for the Empire of the Sun before it released its full energy on Mother Russian (the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War) and Uncle Sam (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 1941). Although Western Marxism originated from Germany, it was Japan's humiliating defeat of the two continental powers of Russia and China that shook the foundation of their traditional systems, thus paving the way for the rise of radical socio-political forces such as communism. Toward the mid-20th century, it took the combined power of three continental states - China, the US and Russia, plus nuclear weapons - to pacify the much smaller island country of Japan.

Today, 100 years after Japan's annexation of Korea, the peninsula again becomes a convenient detour for Japan to rearm and nuclearize itself in the name of becoming a "normal state". Since April 2002, when some Japanese hawks started to break the sacred taboo of talking about nuclear weapons, the nation has quietly and effectively shaken off its constitutional constraints, thanks to the US "war against terrorism".

Now Japan's Self-Defense Forces are overseas. The nation is actively acquiring power projection (midair refueling and small, disguised aircraft carriers) and missile defense capabilities. With the launching of its own spy satellites, Japan made the first move toward building an independent intelligence-gathering capability, which by itself is crucial for an independent defense policy. At a time when US officials still publicly commit to a diplomatic solution of the Korean nuclear crisis, Koizumi's hawkish Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba is toying with the idea of preemption against North Korea (Howard French, "Japan grapples openly on military might", New York Times, July 22). If a nation worships perfection of almost anything - be it Chinese calligraphy and tea drinking, Kamikaze suicide tactics, or home electronics - preemption may well be the next obsession. And history is not without precedence (Pearl Harbor).

This worst scenario may not be impossible for a nation with highly selective memories of what it did to its neighbors, including Korea, in the past. It is both hypocritical and dangerous if a nation carefully preserves the memories of every war-related fatality of many centuries, while consistently minimizing and whitewashing its overseas atrocities in the past. Indeed, the unique one-party democracy in Japan today does not seem very different from the Taisho democracy of the 1920s before militarism crept into the mainstream politics in the wake of the Great Depression. At the onset of the 21st century and after 13 years of economic stagnation, it is the defenders of the "Peace Constitution" in Japan who are now on the defensive, while hawks and ultra-nationalists make the loudest noise for an audience that is largely ignorant of Japan's past.

Back to the past, for the future
History seldom mechanically repeats itself. Historical analogies, therefore, should be treated with caution. Nonetheless, history is also a stream that carries with it all the burdens and cheers, glory and shame, wisdom and stupidity, as well as unavoidable consequences for one's actions into the present and toward the future. In East Asia, Korea has been a place where major powers reciprocate their resolves, power, and prudence. Historical lessons serve as a reliable guild for the present and future, however, only for those who respect and are honest with it.

It is still possible to avert the current slide toward another war in Korea. For this, the Bush administration should realize that there are limits for any balancing act in the age of weapons of mass destruction. Being a US ally, friend, or enemies of the enemy is not a license to obtain maximum freedom of action. Twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein was America's de facto ally and now has had to be toppled by the same person (Donald Rumsfeld) who went to Baghdad in 1983 and shook hands with the dictator. If the United States genuinely intends to preserve Pax Americana, it should not merely care about its own security, credibility, and supremacy. As the world's sole superpower with vital interests in East Asia, Washington should exercise moral, political, and tactical constraints over Japan, whose Shinto religion simply does not have any moral content. It is not accidental that Japan exports almost everything except its religion. Ultimately, Washington has a moral responsibility to prevent nuclear mushrooms from going up again in the region. For this goal, a more distant memory needs to be recovered to shed light on the current US inability or unwillingness to move toward a diplomatic solution of the Korean nuclear crisis.

Almost 100 years ago, US president Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace settlement (the Treaty of Portsmouth) between Russia and Japan after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War over Korea. For this, Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize. By any contemporary standard, the accord was imperialistic for its acquiescence of Japan's conquest of Korea in exchange for Japan's tacit agreement on a US takeover of the Philippines, while the interests of the Koreans were completely ignored. It was, nonetheless, a diplomatic solution between major imperialist powers and an effort to avoid further conflict and suffering. Such a precedent, no matter how flawed, should be the minimum benchmark against which today's statesmen and policies are judged 50 years after the bloodiest limited war during the bloodiest century in human history.

Yu Bin, PhD, is associate professor of political science at Wittenberg University and senior research associate of Shanghai Institute of American Studies. He is a regular contributor to Comparative Connections of the Pacific Forum in Hawaii. His most recent books include Power of the Moment: America and the World After 9-11 (Beijing: New China Press, 2002) and Mao's Generals Remember Korea (University Press of Kansas, 2001).

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
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