Sixty years ago on July 27, the United Nations Command, North Korea and China signed the armistice agreement that marked the end of the Korean War. For North Korea, Armistice Day is a day of celebration, marked by fireworks and parades that underscore the role the military played in Korean history and reinforce its continuing domination of national politics to this day.
South of the 38th parallel, the artificial line hastily drawn by two U.S. Army colonels to divide the peninsula, the anniversary is more somber, a day of reflection on the lives lost and ruined, and the national division that endures.
That three-year conflict resulted in 1.2 million deaths and a division — of a peninsula and nation — that endures to this day. Six decades later, the border between the two Koreans remains one of the most heavily fortified and armed on the planet, the ill will between the two Koreas as sharp and the animosity as deep.
For most of the world, the Cold War is long over, ending with either the breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Asia, however, that conflict lingers, evident in the division of the Korean Peninsula and the existence of two Chinese governments, one in Beijing and the other in Taipei.
While the government in Beijing has shed many of its ideological trappings, it remains communist in name, providing a deep and abiding tie to its ally in Pyongyang. That tie has been essential in propping up the North Korean state, offering diplomatic cover and economic sustenance.
That affinity was instrumental in assuring Pyongyang’s survival, for it was the intervention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” in October 1950 that repulsed the advance into North Korea by U.S.-led allied forces operating under the United Nations Command and produced the bloody stalemate that yielded an armistice agreement nearly three years later.
If North and South Koreas celebrate the Armistice Day differently, it is because they remember the war differently. In North Korea (and China), the Korean War began on Oct. 1, 1950, when allied forces crossed the border separating the two states.
That history ignores the original North Korean sneak attack on the South on June 25, 1950 when the Korean People’s Army stormed across the 38th parallel to forcibly re-unite the peninsula. North Korean forces moved steadily south until they surrounded the U.N. forces comprising troops from 21 nations in Busan. A daring counterpunch behind the North Korea lines, in Incheon, cut off the overextended North Korean forces and turned the tide.
The U.N. drive was stopped by the Chinese intervention, and the former dividing line, the 38th parallel, was quickly re-established. Nevertheless, both sides fought on till exhausted in 1953, then they acknowledged the stalemate and signed the armistice agreement.
The armistice is not a peace agreement; it is only a cessation of hostilities. Throughout its 60 years, Pyongyang has tried to dismantle the armistice agreement, announcing that it will no longer abide by the armistice at least six times: in 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Earlier this year, North Korea said that it was ending its nonaggression agreements with South Korea, a move that, amid rising tensions on the peninsula, was feared would lead to conflict. Nothing happened, but that is no reason for complacency. North Korea sees the armistice agreement as a card to play when it is in Pyongyang’s strategic interest to do so.
Today, North Korea is ruled by Mr. Kim Jong Un, the third member of a dynasty whose roots are deep but whose individual capabilities are increasingly subject to question. Mr. Kim wants to end his country’s isolation, establish relations with the United States and find the wherewithal to support North Korea’s struggling economy.
But he apparently believes that threats, brinkmanship and continued defiance of the international community are the best means to that end. He must be disabused of the notion that blackmail is a legitimate tool of statecraft.
The July 27 commemorations should serve as a reminder of the horrific costs of war. The Korean War was a strategic blunder, whose death toll was magnified by a series of miscalculations and mistakes by all sides. While the world has been transformed in the 63 years since the Korean War began, the senseless confrontation across the 38th parallel continues in many of its original forms. Pyongyang still holds Seoul and its millions of citizens hostage, but its weapons have become even more destructive and capable of threatening nations farther away.
There is little Japan can do to influence the situation on the Korean Peninsula. But what it can do is refrain from acting in a manner that increases tensions and inflames sentiments. North Korea is an easy target, but the defense of Japanese interests does not require gratuitous attacks on a paranoid regime. Japan should instead strive to oppose North Korean irresponsibility and demand that Pyongyang respect international rules and norms.
Most importantly, Japan should stand with its partner South Korea, a country with which it shares interests and values, and back the Seoul government as it tries to forge a relationship with Pyongyang that will be the cornerstone of any enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula. Such a peace will be the best way to truly remember the Korean War.