The continuing tragedy of a divided country

To the generation of Filipinos who went through the horrors of World War II, the Korean War (1950-1953) signaled the advent of another global war that had to be stopped before it could spread any further. On this understanding, the Philippines sent 7,500 of its soldiers to fight in the Korean civil war on the side of South Korea. Known as the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (Peftok), our troops were the fourth largest foreign contingent, and among the earliest to sign up, in the United Nations Command. Though multinational in character, the intervention in Korea was primarily an initiative of the United States.

Echoes of those tense war years are again being heard today. They don’t mean much to a generation that had only known peace in the last six decades. Indeed it is difficult for today’s young Filipinos to imagine that the same country that has given the world Hyundai, Samsung, Korean telenovelas, and Psy was nearly bombed to extinction in the 1950s. No other Asian country in the modern era, except maybe Vietnam, has gone through more turmoil, destruction, suffering, and humiliation than Korea. But Vietnam is whole again, whereas Korea remains fragmented.

Koreans may not find it as easy as we do to ignore the sound of war drums emanating from both sides of their divided country—no matter how pathetically incapable North Korea might be to win a modern war. The terrible memories of war cling to their national soul. A line known as the 38th Parallel, running east to west, bisects their hapless country, separating families and kin from one another. Koreans had nothing to do with this division. It was imposed on them in 1945 by the victors of WWII—the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Korean War was a desperate attempt by the Koreans themselves to erase this division, when efforts at a peaceful unification through elections repeatedly failed. Still, after so many deaths and untold suffering on both sides, the war produced nothing conclusive. If the United States had not intervened, Korea would have been reunified under Kim Il Sung, who commanded the better-equipped army.

The entry of UN forces decisively turned the tide in favor of the South, pushing back the invading North Korean army to where it came from, perilously close to the Chinese border.  Feeling threatened, Communist China joined the war, sending its own volunteer forces to assist North Korea.  The Soviet Union did not send troops but it provided military support. At that point, the war would easily have escalated into a confrontation between nuclear powers.  But a war-weary world had no sympathy for great-power arrogance.

An armistice treaty, signed on July 27, 1953, by representatives of the North Korean Army and its Chinese allies, on one side, and the UN Command led by the United States, on the other, put an end to all hostilities. But it did not end the war.

WWII could have paved the way for Korean liberation from colonialism, the way it did for many countries in Asia. Japan’s brutal 40-year rule over Korea, which had sought to obliterate all traces of Korean culture and identity, brought out a robust Korean patriotic resistance. It had two leaders—Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee—who, while they differed in ideology, agreed that a unified Korea should be emancipated from foreign rule.

It was not the Korean people’s will, however, that was to prevail in the aftermath of WWII, but rather the geostrategic calculations of the victorious world powers. On one hand, the Allies recognized the Soviet Union’s need to keep North Korea as a buffer zone, and indeed this was a condition for the Soviet entry into the Pacific theater of the war in 1945. On the other hand, the Americans saw how the spread of communism had become more pronounced when China’s communists won against the nationalists in 1949. In this unfolding scenario, they figured how important it was to turn a completely subdued but industrialized Japan into an ally against communism. Korea’s full independence from Japan was thus compromised when both countries became valuable pawns in the ensuing Cold War. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, that is pretty much where things have stood in the last 63 years.

We may scoff at the bizarre antics of the eccentric heirs of Kim Il Sung, but there must be a reason why the Kims continue to be revered in North Korea. The elder Kim fought to free his people from foreign rule. He gave them pride even if this meant going hungry and being left behind by a more prosperous South that, to this day, is secured by American troops.

If they were free to do so, most North Koreans today might move to the South where food and work abound. It is not easy to live under a dictatorship, and in isolation from the rest of the world, which is where they have been consigned by US-led economic sanctions. What makes this situation particularly tragic is that the impulse to reunify the country remains strong on both sides. The Koreans are, after all, one nation. But there are forces that benefit from keeping the country divided, and it is these that sadly fill the air with their voices when there is talk of war.

Kim Jong Un is a poor shadow of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. No one takes his threats seriously. But we must take the yearnings of the Korean people seriously, and we can only do so if we are prepared to review the past. Paul Johnson once wrote: “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance.  It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions… have been tested before… and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”