It would be too unfair to entitle this post, “Obama restarts Korean War,” even in jest, but on the other hand, we may now safely abandon all hope that his election would pleasure the world with a gentle warming sensation, release our tensions, and leave us in a state of affectionate post-coital afterglow. The world does not work that way. I knew we were in for something like this as soon as Obama threw Kim Jong Il below the fold of Page One by picking a Supreme Court justice:
North Korea announced Wednesday that it is no longer bound by the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War, the latest and most profound diplomatic aftershock from the country’s latest nuclear test two days earlier. [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]
And because terrorism requires the object’s undivided attention, the North also made a veiled threat to attack ships off its western coastline, warned that any search of its ships by the South Korean Navy pursuant to the Proliferation Security Initiative will mean war, and restarted a plutonium reprocessing plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. I was not able to confirm rumors of a third nuclear test, mentioned on Fox this morning. Say it with me: thank God Christopher Hill disarmed these people in time!
By itself, North Korea’s unilateral nullification of the 1953 Korean War Armistice means very little, and by the end of the trading day, South Korean share prices will prove me right.
There are two reasons for this; first, the Korean War didn’t begin with North Korea’s invasion. Begin with the continuum of Korean politics and nationhood since 1945, functionally the Year Zero of modern Korea, and a year that I’ve sometimes compared to Spain in 1936. Both nations were about to be transformed from feudal to industrial societies. Both nations were politically immature and emotional, with dozens of vehement and mutually opposed factions shooting each other’s leaders. In both cases, Communist groups proved better organized than their rivals and formed armed militias. The comparison ends with the Spanish Republic’s inclusion of those Communist militias in their armed forces; in South Korea, Communists launched a guerrilla campaign against the government. The guerrilla war was marked by widespread atrocities on both sides, and didn’t end completely until 1953.
Nor did the Korean War end with the 1953 Armistice. The Armistice marked the end of the Soviet and Chinese commitments to conventional mechanized warfare, but as any American who served in Korea in 1968 can tell you, it certainly wasn’t the end of firefights along the DMZ or North Korean attacks. That year, North Korea shot down an American surveillance plane, seized the U.S.S. Pueblo, and sent a team of commandos to kill South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee. The commandos never got close to Park, but dozens of civilians were killed in their last stand, in a busy intersection in downtown Seoul.
North Korea is still believed to hold about 500 surviving prisoners or war it failed to repatriate after 1953, plus hundreds (or tens of thousans) of South Korean civilians, depending on when you start counting and whose figures you believe. Periodically, those prisoners still manage to escape from the North. This is to say nothing of North Korea’s infiltration of the South with an active Fifth Column of South Koreans who are loyal to its ideology.
This announcement almost certainly does not signal the beginning of large-scale hostilities. North Korea’s conventional forces could do terrible damage to South Korea with artillery, missiles, and infiltrated special forces, but its air force is decrepit, and without air superiority, an invasion force would be slaughtered.
It may, however, mean that North Korea returns to the maintenance of a higher level of tension through the provocation of incidents along the DMZ, or along South Korea’s coasts.