Sixty Years After the Korean War, the Cold War’s Unending Conflict Continues

TIME talks with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, author of the new book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, on how a 20th century war continues to influence Korean geopolitics

  • Share
  • Read Later
David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean soldiers pay tribute to a statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung as they tour a newly constructed Korean War museum in Pyongyang, officially opened on July 27, 2013, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was agreed to bring an end to a bloody three-year war fought between a divided Korean peninsula and the American and communist forces backing either side. Decades later, no peace treaty has been signed. Tourists who visit the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, that separates North and South Korea bear witness to the last frozen battlefield of the Cold War, a conflict that to this day defines and shapes the societies living on either side of the 38th parallel. South Korea has emerged as an economic powerhouse, a global trendsetter whose companies and pop stars are celebrated across continents and whose population is perhaps the world’s most Internet savvy. North Korea, on the other hand, is the least-connected place on earth, a nation built entirely on the propaganda and brutality of its totalitarian, post-Stalinist regime. TIME spoke with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College in Ohio and author of the new book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, on how a 20th century war continues to influence 21st century geopolitics in one of the most strategic corners of the planet.

60 years later, what’s the enduring legacy of the Korean War?
For the Americans, the Korean War is really viewed as a forgotten war. It’s a war stuck between World War II and Vietnam. And the American memory of it is really confined to that of the American military experience in the three years when the war was fought. But that’s not the way the Koreans experience the conflict. For Koreans, it continues to be a living and breathing event. They’re confronted with it and the enduring effects of the division of the peninsula constantly. So in my book, I wanted to emphasize the unending aspect of the war and to show how it continues to affect the two Koreas and the region. I also wanted Americans to realize how seminal the Korean War was in the history of the 20th century — that because it never ended in a peace treaty, the war continued to influence events well beyond 1953.

(PHOTOS: An Era Defined by Exiles: Korean War Photos by Werner Bischof)

How dramatically have the two halves of Korean peninsula changed since its division?
The peninsula was divided in 1945 at the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1948, North and South Korea were established, and then of course, a war erupted in June 1950 when Kim Il Sung, with Stalin’s backing, launched an invasion of South Korea in an effort to unify the peninsula by force. Now, after the war, actually, North Korea was far ahead of the South economically. But because of the inefficiencies of the Stalinist economic system, the economy eventually began to retract. In some cases, North Korean factories were mass-producing products that were defective, but they continued to produce them anyway to fulfill abstract quotas. So by the late 1960s, the North was already falling behind, whereas the South, which set about instituting an export-oriented economy [under the authoritarian rule of President Park Chung-hee], was forging ahead.

And that’s when the divergence between North and South Korean systems starts to take place, and you begin to see a lot of provocations and incursions by the North: the attempted assassinations of Park Chung-hee and the Pueblo incident in 1968, for example. In fact, between 1967 and 1969, the DMZ was declared a combat zone because of increased military action there. These incursions were really a recognition by Kim Il Sung that the window of opportunity to reunify the country under his rule was closing. And then, of course, the North Korean economy goes into decline through the 1980s and then completely collapses at the end of the Cold War with the fall of the Soviet Union. This was because North Korea had relied extensively on Soviet aid and concessional pricing for trade. By contrast, South Korea is roaring ahead — it hosts the Olympics in 1988, garnering all the prestige that comes with it.

So, in essence, the South has won the argument?
Not initially. North and South Korea have always been locked in an ongoing legitimacy struggle. South Korea has defined itself very much against the North, and the North has defined itself in opposition to the South. North Korea imagines that it is the purer and more authentic Korea, in part because the South’s leaders were connected to the Japanese colonial regime. Park Chung-hee was once a Japanese military officer, after all. Plus, of course, in the South, you have the American military presence while in the North, no foreign troops are stationed on its soil. The North thus staked out the territory of true “Koreanness” based on these distinctions, despite their inability to compete economically. But since then, the South’s legitimacy has been bolstered by its economic prestige, as well as its successful turn toward democracy.

(MORE: North Korea Gets the World in a Panic, Even Without Trying)

And while South Korea is now a noisy democracy, North Korea is still hidebound by the rule of the Kims. Could the state exist without the dynasty?
I don’t think North Korea can exist without the Kim dynasty. The very fabric of its identity and sense of being is caught up in the Kim family. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but is still revered as the Eternal President. Kim Jong Un is where he is today because he is Kim Il Sung’s grandson. When Kim Jong Un was introduced to the public in 2010, he adopted a lot of Kim Il Sung’s persona — his gestures, his hairstyle. He’s styled as a living embodiment of his grandfather. I don’t see North Korea actually existing without the Kim dynasty because the Kim dynasty is North Korea.

So if the Kims were to go, what prospects would there be for a kind of reconciliation and later unification?
That depends on what North Korea would look like after the Kim dynasty, and no one can see that far into the future. As it stands now, however, I don’t see the prospect of unification as a reality. How can the North open up to the South without losing control over its own people? The more the North Korean people know about the South, the less likely they are to put up with the conditions of poverty and repression at home. So any reforms that would push North Korea down the same path as the South can’t be accepted because that would mean the end of the regime. North Korea is thus in a catch-22 situation. Pyongyang needs drastic reforms to improve the lots of the North Korean people, but any reforms that would open up the country would lead to the demise of the regime. The way I see the end of the Korean War happening is that China [the North’s sole remaining major ally, which doesn’t want the North to fall into the U.S.’s orbit of influence] would shield North Korea from internal collapse while promoting incremental reforms under its shield. But North Korea cannot open itself up — the more its own people know about the outside world, the more fragile the state becomes.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from North Korea’s Totalitarian Mass Games)

How does this all play out in the South? Is there much enthusiasm for unification?
If you look at internal polls, the interest in unification in the South has drastically waned. In the 1980s, the vast majority was in favor of it, but today, among the younger population, it’s something like 20%. So while the South talks about unification, the reality is that they think it’s going to be way too expensive. And among the younger generation, there’s a sense that they shouldn’t give up anything for the North.

This past spring, when you had all these provocations from the North — threatening to make Seoul a “sea of fire” and so on — what you had in the South was complete indifference. South Koreans were shopping and going about their daily lives, not really paying attention. It was really the Western media that got all hysterical about the North’s blustering. That indifference extends now even to the human-rights situation in the North. North Korean defectors complain that they feel like second-class citizens — they’re not integrated into nor embraced by South Koreans. They know that the legitimacy struggle has ended and the vast majority of South Koreans are not really interested any more. This stands in stark contrast to North Korea, which is constantly fearful of the South. You can be sent to jail for whistling a South Korean tune or listening to a South Korean broadcast. There’s an extreme hypersensitivity to anything about the South in the North.

Sixty years since the armistice, and now one of the Koreas is a nuclear power. How great a threat is the North’s suspected nuclear arsenal?
The nuclear program was created by Kim Il Sung as a way for survival in the face of the country’s collapsing economy. It uses its existence as a stick to get more aid from the international community. But that doesn’t mean it would use its weapons or start a new war — it knows a war would mean the end of the regime. And the North Korean leadership is not suicidal.

40 comments
mockavel213
mockavel213

I don't see how this is a 'new' book when it spews the same BS American empire rhetoric that's already been dominating Korean studies.

She mentions 'internet polls' saying interest in unification has waned? lol? does she even know about the nature of media control in Korea? and who controls that media? Why is this "Sheila Miyoshi Jager" who is likely a japanese woman married to a german/american guy, why is she speaking on behalf of ACTUAL KOREANS?

Would you give the grand narrative of the Holocaust to Germans? Like if you were to buy a book about the Holocaust, would you look for Holocaust survivors and Jewish people to tell their story? Or buy a book written by a German?

Also, her "research" is really shoddy.

I can assure you Ms. Miyoshi Jager, Koreans ARE still interested in unification AND are currently protesting for a PEACE TREATY to be signed. have you gone and interviewed and asked ACTUAL KOREANS?

American media is funny. Neo-colonialism and American imperialism sure  lives on.

And yes, America is an EMPIRE. It's not a secret, American academia calls itself that, it is their own label for themselves and it's a basic fact.

This book is ridiculous and the only people that read it are white Americans to furthur their bs myth. If you really want to know, you're going to have to dig a little deeper than that.



lies123
lies123

I forgot to mention that Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Egypt was fine until the US got involved, then everything became serious and all of a sudden people started killing each other. 

lies123
lies123

5000+ nuclear warheads. Thats how much the US owns, and yet it goes around preaching that  Iraq has WMDs, Iran can't research nuclear energy, North Korea will blow all of us into oblivion. North Americans are so brain washed into the bs thats been fed to them, they are the ones that don't know what is really going on in the world, and they are the ones shielded from the truth. 

JaeBeomKim
JaeBeomKim

Korean problem is not ideological difference.  Koreans think the same.  We have same thousands years old history.

ITS THESE US WAR CRIMINALS POLITICIANS AND SOME ZOMBIE PEOPLE IN US WHO IS HELPING THESE TRAITORS IN SOUTH KOREA WHO ARE ACTIVE  DIVIDING KOREA!!! THEY LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE, LIE, ALL THE TIME FOOLIING AND CONFUSING PEOPLE IN SOUTH KOREA!!!THATS WHATS GOING ON!!   US ARMY LEAVE FROM KOREA NOW !!!!

JaeBeomKim
JaeBeomKim

What US did is they made a false Washington news that North Koreans agreed on trusteeship while US want immediate independence of Korea, which raged South Koreans against Kim, IL Sung who were described as Soviet's dog against their own people.  US didnt release what trusteeship was all about which, if u read it, definitely was a good thing for Koreans.  Instead US made a false news as if it was something bad.  while all these brainwashing against Kim, IL Sung on North  was going on,in South, a prominent leader in South Korea, Kim, Gu  was invited by Kim, Il Sung, and Kim,Gu found out all these brainwashing in South region was false, agreed with Kim, Il Sung not to divide nation, but he was assassinated.  ( probably by US hired assassin).

JaeBeomKim
JaeBeomKim

Korean war is not started by Kim, Il Sung's North Korea.  It was started by US.  Before Korean war(1950), after Japanese surrendered (1945), US marched into South region and US backed south Korea traitors massacred people in Jeju island who rebeled, because they thought they became independent, but all these traitors were still ruling backed up by US.   South Korean army in Yuhsoo rebelled because they were ordered to oppress their own people. Those were also massacred. Korean people in general didnt even know what capitalism, communism is, but all these Korean independent gatherings and leaders were killed by US backed up traitors saying they are reds.  Seriously with these people getting killed everywhere in South, even if Kim, Il Sung started war, thats the justice, but the Korean war was not even started by North Korea. It was all puppet game played by US.

JaeBeomKim
JaeBeomKim

What people in America dont know is that US war criminals are still actively involved in dividing Korea and is still collaborating with these pro-Japanese traitors  in South Korea to continuously divide Korea.  because before the war and even now, Kim, Il Sung or his heir is going to win democratic election if Korea gets unified.  Korean unification means that people in South Korea realize that they have been fooled.

US war criminals and these Korean traitors say peaceful unification at front, but behind they use just about any dirty tricks including assassination of true unification leaders, media control and brainwashing by controlling the world media.  They are basically all over internet in these kind of comment section so PEOPLE CAN NOT HEAR THE TRUTH!!


lambda
lambda

slaughter of Ideology difference is pathetic in human history.

ekpensolar
ekpensolar

@AJStream there is nothing like cold war.Crooks like PUTIN,KARZAI,and arrogants like NETHANYANHU are manipulating the rest of us for profit

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

As a social studies/U.S. History teacher, I can promise Ishaan Tharoor and other readers that the Korean War is over.  Like World War II, the veterans of that war are dying off, and the memory of the event is quickly fading into 'the past' (as students of today give a quizzical 'huh?' at its mere mention).

The events happening today in the Koreas have absolutely no connection to the Cold War Era (1947-1993).  Those same events are dictated by the modern dynamics of a globalized economy, and not the older 'Capitalist v. Communist' one.

Marlon Edmumd
Marlon Edmumd

War is a forced issue to a people who not wants it because it has proven itself that it causes so pain and suffering and leaves people with a lasting memory.

Marlon Edmumd
Marlon Edmumd

A war or any other major event like the second world for example is an event which will never go away...the pain and the memory will always remain.

عسكر الكنانه(حملة منح جيش مصر جائزة نوبل للسلام على ضبط النفس)
عسكر الكنانه(حملة منح جيش مصر جائزة نوبل للسلام على ضبط النفس)

Please ... it's a Revolution Not a Coup I would like to correct this piece of information. The so called " protesters " we're trying to take over the quarters of the national guard. They had weapons, and the police and army fought back to secure the facility. However, just to make my point, the MB militants, were photographed holding bullets that were fired at them, however the seemed to forget, that the bullets they held were not fired. They are terrorists and the whole Egyptian population, except for them totally supports the army and is against this terrorist group!

Ahmed Mahran
Ahmed Mahran

Police kill peaceful demonstrators July 27

Amy Wright Peterson
Amy Wright Peterson

It is alive and well here in the US too, people just don't realize it. The loss of our "collective" institutional memory is a big clue.

Adrian Jawort
Adrian Jawort

What's the deal with this spam/virus link all over these days?

unyuuul
unyuuul

@aisyahsharf SYAH... THANKSSSSS! Linknya bagus banget! Tapi itu diskusinya kok kayak nanggung sih ujungnya huaaa msh mau baca T~T

Ian Avalis
Ian Avalis

I bet those certain people "forget" a lot of things.

fortuna178
fortuna178

@FlescheK 한국인 중에 미국을 싫어하고 일본을 좋아하는 애국심 없는 한국인을 가장한 외국인들이 많아, 영어를 읽을 줄 모릅니다.

clareoneill
clareoneill

War veterans thanked for their service and sacrifice by South Koreans. 60 years on, I wonder if our Afghan vets will experience the same.

pedros2012
pedros2012

@TIME Gen MacArtur was rigth, but the rotten democrats politician stopped him, same as in Cuba year latter

chinanavis
chinanavis

Chinese netizens comment “If the Korea War Broke Out Again, Would China Enter the War?” http://www.chinanavis.com/

if-the-korea-war-happened-again-would-china-enter-the-war-1511355

georgepavlakis37
georgepavlakis37

And the conflict will continued till the accupied US TROOPS  will go home.

We have no reason to be there. THE SAME WAY WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE IN GERMANY < JAPAN>< AND 170 OTHER NATIONS .

There is NO REASON to stay in Germany,.  Turkey,  Italy, Greece,.  There is NO WARS

mockavel213
mockavel213

@JaeBeomKim Omg, thank YOU, thank Goodness more Koreans are starting to talk about this! There's major McCarthyism in Korea too and mainstream media doesn't talk about it enough but

anyone that studies BASIC U.S.history in Cuba, Philippines, Hawaii and early American plans/agenda in the Pacific can see this isn't about North Korea, this is about American neo-colonialism and trade bullying.

Even if North and South have things to resolve, this is something for KOREANS to work on together! U.S. needs to get out of Korea and let Korea handle itself. Instead they block South Korea from having their own nuclear weapons and keep growing their U.S. military bases!

Korean people, Korean villagers are protesting RIGHT NOW against more U.S.military but American media never talks about it! Enough is enough! 60 years is enough! Koreans pay multi-millions and millions for U.S. military when they can just use that money to buy their own defense and organize ROK military to defend ITSELF! No more American military presence in Korea, they don't protect Korea they make the situation more VOLATILE and worse. Koreans need to work on this together.

Since 2007, CIA declassified documents revealed that many MASSACRES that used to be blamed on North Korea and communists were actually caused by U.S.military. They killled hundreds of thousands of Korean women and children, babies being held in their mothers arms. No gun Ri, Bodo League, Gwangju, Cheju massacre, many many more! They killed indiscriminately, they didnt care who it was.

Korean-americans, Koreans in Korea are starting to come together! The Truth will come out! No More!

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@mrbomb13

god, and you're teaching our kids? no wonder our schools are failing. 

a) the war is not over. the veterans may be dying off but, by definition, an armistice doesn't officially end a war. it puts an end to the fighting, but until a treaty is signed, the war is technically ongoing.  

b)"The events happening today in the Koreas have absolutely no connection to the Cold War Era (1947-1993)."

are you freaking kidding me? the cold war era is what caused the split in the koreas. a split that's still ongoing. and guess why? because the national identities and policies were cemented during the cold war period, and they still maintain them today. the events happening in korea today have everything to do with the cold war era. 

it's sad when the people helping foster our best and brightest are unable to even look past the surface of something and attempt to understand it at a deeper level. god help your students


eagle11772
eagle11772

@georgepavlakis37 I agree we should leave, and should have left decades ago, Germany, Japan, and dozens of other countries.  Tele the politicians to stop spending the American taxpayers' money for the defense of these countries, and let their own people pay for it.