Viewpoint: Robert Beck – Lessons from Korea

  • Robert Beck COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 8/15/2023 11:38:42 AM

On July 27, the 70th anniversary of the armistice that “ended” the Korean War was remembered by an ever-diminishing number of Americans. Sadly, it seems to have been totally missed by the majority of our fellow citizens, despite the fact that it was, on yearly average of casualties, the bloodiest conflict fought by American forces since the end of World War II, with 36,516 deaths in the three years of combat (1950 to 1953).

While it is critical that we, as a nation, remember the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers in all wars, the Korean War offers additional lessons that still resonate today.  

Lesson No. 1:  Beware of a ground war in Asia. The Korean War highlighted the difficulties of carrying out large-scale ground operations almost 6,000 miles from the contiguous United States. That point was tragically reinforced by our experiences in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. This issue is particularly salient today, as many of our presidential candidates are blustering dangerously about the need to militarily counter the growing Chinese threat. Make no mistake, China will be our primary near-peer competitor for the foreseeable future and we need to meet that challenge, but recent history has shown the folly of major U.S. ground operations in East Asia.

Lesson No. 2: Communism has failed. The Korean peninsula offers an ongoing lesson in the contrast between communism and liberal democracy in providing for the well being of a country’s citizenry. Although the July 1953 armistice that froze the conflict represented a military stalemate, the economic, political and social developments in the two halves of Korea since then couldn’t be more different. South Korea, a key Asian ally of the United States, is a vibrant, healthy democracy with, according to the CIA Factbook, a 2021 per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of over $44,000. For 2015, the last year figures are available from Pyongyang, North Korean per-capita GDP was $1700. 

Economic disparities aside, North Korea represents the worst of repressive autocracy, with the country starving its population in an effort to develop the military means to threaten its neighbors. 

Lesson No. 3: Foreign policy requires a long-term strategy. It is highly unlikely that the Eisenhower administration believed in 1953 that the United States would still have nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea 70 years hence. However, administrations of both parties for the past seven decades have stayed the course and maintained a significant U.S. deterrent on the peninsula to ensure the peace and secure the aforementioned development of our ally in Seoul. Washington’s enduring commitment to South Korea has made the sacrifices of the Korean War more meaningful, manifested in the political freedoms and economic wealth enjoyed by the 50 million Koreans who live south of the demilitarized zone.

Lesson No. 4: A model for the future? The armistice that ended the fighting in July of 1953 was not a peace treaty but merely a temporary cessation of hostilities. That truce has, by and large, succeeded for 70 years in keeping the guns silent. While the differences are stark between that conflict and the current Russia/Ukraine war, it is worth broaching the subject of a Korean-like agreement to stop the fighting in Ukraine. 

Understanding that most of us in America are still hoping for a grand Ukrainian victory, the reality on the ground points to some form of stalemate for the foreseeable future. The devil is always in the details, but both sides in the current conflagration will, at some point, likely tire of the bloodshed and be more amenable to some form of compromise to end hostilities. From Kiev’s perspective, a non-negotiable prerequisite for any compromise with Moscow that leaves Russia in control of any Ukrainian territory would be an unyielding commitment from the West (read Washington) to guarantee the territorial sovereignty of the rest of Ukraine from future Russian aggression. It remains to be seen if the United States, like it has done in Korea for the past 70 years, would be willing to do the same in Ukraine. 

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.

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