Ending the Korean War

Conference organizers and speakers.* (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Ending the Korean War

A recent Center for Korean Studies conference brought together a wide range of speakers to reconsider how to end a war that never technically ended.


The UCLA Center for Korean Studies hosted a conference entitled “Ending the Korean War” on May 9, 2013. The meeting brought together a wide range of speakers — historians, sociologists, former missionaries, peace activists, Korean War survivors, and people currently engaged in humanitarian projects in North Korea — to reconsider how to end a war that never technically ended. Instead of a peace agreement, the United States and North Korea signed an armistice agreement in 1953 on behalf of their allies on each side.

Sixty years later, the Korean Peninsula remains heavily militarized, the United States has still not recognized North Korea, and acute tensions between the two states earlier in 2013 threatened to lead to military conflict.
Historian Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, where he is Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the history department, served as keynote speaker. In his view, U.S. policy toward North Korea over the past 60 years, which has consisted mostly of nuclear threats, has been a complete failure. Not only does North Korea now have nuclear weapons, as well as long- and medium-range missiles, the two nations are no nearer to a peace agreement than they were in 1953.

“We haven’t taken the bull by the horns and figured out a way to make a deal with North Korea that would both allow it to exist and survive and — hopefully — thrive, and allow us to get out of what is really. . . a ridiculous position of threatening a tiny country with nuclear weapons and dealing with hair-trigger situations.”

Pattern of periodic crises

“Of course, the North Koreans are infuriating,” said Cumings. “At best, they are impudent, wild — perhaps they are insane. This is partly the image they seek to project. . .  It's also Game Theory 101: when both sides have weapons that can't really be used, you have to create fear in the mind of your enemy that you will use them for the sake of deterrence. One of the best ways to do that is to act like you're nuts.”

Cumings noted that North Korea had been particularly irresponsible in threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on South Korea earlier this year. He observed that this was an extreme case of the regime’s typical behavior when the U.S. conducts war games with South Korea.

He pointed out that during the recent war games in April 2013, the U.S. had flown B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth bombers that dropped “dummy” nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Pentagon publicly noted that the bombers were nuclear capable. The ensuing war scare, said Cumings, simply repeated the cycle of U.S. policy to date: intimidating threats and periodic crises, such as those of 1975–76 and 1994.

Sadly, Cumings thought it unlikely that North Korea would agree to denuclearize at this point, despite the achievement of the Clinton Administration in securing its agreement to freeze its plutonium facility and access to plutonium from 1994 to 2002. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and events in Libya and Syria have convinced North Korea that the United States might attempt to overthrow the regime, he remarked, particularly as both regimes had abandoned weapons of mass destruction.

History of war not well known

Although the facts of U.S. policy in the Korean War have been known for 30 years, Cumings remarked that most people are unaware of the great violence with which America pursued the war, the details of which were never seriously reported in the U.S. media at the time.

The United States, he said, dropped more ordnance on Korea (including South Korea when the Chinese pushed U.S. forces almost to the end of the peninsula) than in the entire Pacific theater during World War II: 635,000 tons versus 503,000 tons of bombs. It also freely used napalm in its military campaigns there.

American bombing of civilian installations in North Korea — including industrial cities, dams, and reservoirs — completely wiped out numerous cities and devastated the country. Pursuant to the 1949 Geneva Convention, said Cumings, these acts are war crimes. From the North Korean standpoint, he said, the war was the equivalent of the all-out destruction suffered by the Soviet Union in World War II.

U.S. “nuclear diplomacy” included General MacArthur requesting 20 to 30 (later, 38) nuclear bombs to quickly finish the war and create a “belt of radioactive cobalt across the neck of Manchuria” after China entered the war; preparation of several secret scenarios for nuclear attack against North Korea and China by the National Security Council under Eisenhower; conducting atomic tests in Nevada to intimidate the enemy; a U.S. military operation in September–October 1951 in which “dummy” atomic and heavy TNT bombs were dropped; and the visit of the father of the nuclear bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, to South Korea to investigate the feasibility of tactical nuclear weapons.

According to Dr. Moon Jae Pak, the Korean War was a failed war of unification. More accurately, it was a premeditated proxy war between the Soviet Union and China, on one side, and the United States, on the other, with most of the destruction taking place in Korea. He identified its worst consequence as the creation of division and hatred among Koreans. Pak is a survivor of the war and clinical professor of health science at the William Beaumont School of Medicine of Oakland University in Michigan and chair of the U.S.-North Korea Medical Science Exchange Committee.

Looking forward

In view of the continuing stalemate with North Korea, Pak urged the two Koreas to pursue “coalescence and reconciliation” rather than concentrate directly on reunification. Specifically, he advocated continual communications between them, economic unification, a non-aggression pact, permanent neutrality of the peninsula, and joint control of nuclear power.

Christine Hong pointed out that even the U.S. War College has issued a paper (“Understanding the North Korea Problem,” 2011) that calls on the United States to abandon its confrontational policy with North Korea and engage with the country on multiple levels: economic, cultural, and political. Hong is assistant professor of literature at UC Santa Cruz, coordinating committee member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War, and steering committee member of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea.

Dorothy Ogle, who served as a missionary in South Korea with her husband George Ogle from 1954 through 1974, concurred with Cumings that U.S. policy was a failure. In fact, she noted that a consortium of churches had made virtually the same recommendations as those of Dr. Park to the U.S. government a quarter of a century ago — to no avail. Ogle argued that Americans no longer had the option to continue to spend trillion of dollars on a militarized policy. “It is time for the United States to build new relations with Koreans — North and South,” she concluded.

For a fuller summary of conference and related events, see the attached document.

* Podium and first row, left to right: Paul Liem, Korea Policy Institute; Dorothy Ogle, former Methodist missionary to South Korea; Pilju Kim Joo, Agglobe Services International; Indong Oh, M.D.; Jeong Young-Hee, farmer and peace activist from Gangjeong, Jeju Island; Christine Ahn (back turned), Global Fund for Women and Oakland Institute, and daughter. Top row, left to right: Moon Jae Pak, M.D., U.S.-North Korea Medical Science Exchange Committee; historian Bruce Cumings, University of Chicago; Erich Weingartener, CanKor; Rev. Syngman Rhee; James Chun, One Korea Movement; Hosu Kim, City University of New York.

Cosponsors of the conference and related events included the Korea Policy Institute, the UCLA Center for Korean Studies, United Methodist Women (UMW) and the National Network of Korean UMW (CA-Pacific Conference), the National Campaign to End the Korean War, the Channing and Popai Liem Educational Fund, Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, and the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea.

Published: Friday, May 17, 2013