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The Korean war at 60 part three: armistice and aftermath.

Editor's Note. As the officially approved system for transliterating the Korean script into English has been changed many times since the 1950s, all Korean words, including names, are rendered according to the conventions in use at the time of the events referred to and/or as commonly used by historians.

ON June 25th, this year, there were many events organised throughout South Korea in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. The sad fact is that only the outbreak can be commemorated, because the war was never satisfactorily concluded: there was a ceasefire and an armistice was signed, but the two halves of Korea are still technically at war. In the first article in this series (Contemporary Review, no. 1697, Summer. 2010) an account of the origins and outbreak of the Korean War was provided, and several important questions were raised: in what senses could it be accurately described as a limited' war, and did this perception contribute to it being often referred to as the 'forgotten' war? The second article (Contemporary Review, no. 1698, Autumn. 2010). outlined the general course of the war and included especially an account of the British involvement. This third and final article will consider the protracted armistice negotiations, which lasted for about two years, and the aftermath of the war. Finally the current state of mind of people living in South Korea will be assessed. It will also include, at the end, some recommendations of works of literature and films which reflect in various ways events of the Korean War.

If the world was hopeful when delegates from North Korea and the UN forces met for the first time, on June 1, 1951, in the town of Kaesong, to discuss terms for an armistice, then those hopes were to be short-lived: the proceedings very rapidly deteriorated into farce, into a black comedy in fact, which would be dragged out tediously, to no one's amusement, over a further two years.

The North Koreans and the Chinese had suggested the location for the meeting, and the UN at first saw no particular significance in this, but Kaesong was a communist stronghold. It came to symbolise the communist attitude to the talks: they considered themselves to be the victors, and had not come to negotiate in the way that the UN expected, but to accept a UN surrender. From the beginning the obsession with formalities delayed any real discussion. The UN readily agreed to hold the talks under a white Hag symbolic of truce, but the communists presented this fact to the world as being indicative of capitulation. There was then an argument about the height of the chairs: those for the UN delegates had been placed lower than those for the communists. An absurd climax occurred on August 10, when the two delegations sat opposite each other in total silence for two hours and eleven minutes. On August 22, the leader of the communist delegation, the North Korean General Nam II, declared the talks at an end, because, he claimed, the UN had attempted to have his fellow delegates murdered. During the five weeks of these initial talks all that had been achieved was the reinforcement of the military positions on both sides. Kaesong itself was destined to remain in communist hands long after the armistice was finally agreed, and is at present just inside North Korea.

In the period from August to September the fighting concentrated on control of the Hwachon reservoir, which was the vital source of both power and water for Seoul. Finally, on October 14, the US 2nd Division gained control of it. In the west UN forces had managed to advance successfully nineteen miles north of the 38th parallel. As a result of these UN successes the communists agreed to resume negotiations, which started again, on October 25, in the no-man's-land between the two forces at the village of Panmunjom because of its truly neutral location. By November 12, the leader of the UN delegation, the American Vice-Admiral Charles Turner Joy, felt confident of making a firm offer to the North Koreans and Chinese: in return for signing an armistice within 30 days, the existing front line between the two armies would be recognised as the final line of demarcation. After agreeing in principle to this the communists continued to wear down the UN delegation with bombastic propaganda for about a month, to provide time for their soldiers to fortify their positions. By December 27th they had established, to their own full satisfaction, a firm front against the UN forces.

The line of demarcation was to remain substantially the same throughout the final two years of the war, and in this sense the UN had achieved their general goal of containment, a limited war, limited to the re-establishment of the status quo between the great powers present in the region as it had existed prior to the outbreak of hostilities. This state of relative inaction, essentially a stalemate, led naturally to a sense of reluctance and lack of will among the soldiers to participate in normal military duties. The demarcation line had to be patrolled and the UN forces did it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. In 1952, during the short Korean springtime, which always progresses rapidly from first buds, through a flurry of blossom to a riot of green, it was all somehow bearable. But with the advent of the stifling heat of summer, both sides were finding it almost impossible to cope.

As it became obvious during the negotiations that further territorial gains were out of the question, the focus turned to the treatment of prisoners of war. The UN set itself two main objectives: to ensure that all the prisoners held by the North Koreans would be returned, and that, among the Chinese and North Korean prisoners held by them, only those would be returned to the North, who really wanted to go. Naturally enough the communist negotiators were none too happy with the idea of large numbers of prisoners preferring to stay in the South. The situation was complicated when it was discovered, after a survey, that only 70,000 of the 132,000 prisoners in the South wanted to return to the North.

The situation in Korea was also complicated in the latter part of 1952 by events on the other side of the Pacific Ocean: the campaign for a presidential election in America. In late March President Truman announced that he would not seek a third term in office. His own choice of successor, Adlai Stevenson, failed to unite the Democratic Party fully behind him, and the Republican candidate, the celebrated and popular war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower ('Ike'), was to win an impressive victory. Apart from his promises to wipe out corruption and curb crime, his attitude to the Korean conflict was crucial. Most Americans were tired of hearing about Korea and wanted to see their forces withdraw as soon as possible. The Democrats constantly taunted Eisenhower about his lack of commitment to do something about American involvement in Korea. On the advice of his speech-writers Eisenhower finally made a decisive commitment to resolving the Korean issue in a speech in Detroit, on October 24: his priority as president would be to end the war in Korea, and he would go there personally to discover the best peaceful way to do so.

After the election Eisenhower fulfilled his promise. Under conditions of great secrecy he left New York on 29 November, 1952, to spend three days in the country, where he carried out the usual symbolic tasks of a visiting politician: inspecting troops, visiting the wounded, and venturing as near the front line as deemed safe. A brief meeting with the South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, was obligatory. He also met and talked with various US generals, especially Mark Clark. The generals were naturally desirous of military solutions, but Eisenhower only wanted to settle the conditions for a truce.

The first clear demonstration of Eisenhower's policy on Korea was the declaration of intent to seek a 'Koreanisation' of the war: this meant basically financing the expenses of the Korean army. The programme was to be put into effect in the spring of 1953.

Options for the termination of the Korean conflict were further complicated however by America's successful detonation, in January 1953, of the first tactical atomic weapon, a nuclear device which could be deployed by artillery forces. Thereafter the possibility of employing such a weapon in Korea was being seriously considered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. John Foster Dulles, the new Secretary of State, on a visit to India in May, asked the Indian Prime Minister to convey to the Chinese that if a truce was not agreed on soon in Korea, America would start to drop bombs north of the Yalu River, in other words, in China itself.

It may be that much of this was bluff and brinkmanship on the part of the Americans, but at a meeting of the National Security Council in early February, Eisenhower had suggested in all seriousness that Kaesong, which was in North Korean hands, would be a suitable site to demonstrate the force of a tactical nuclear weapon. In March he was still saying that the use of nuclear weapons would be worth the cost if it ensured a UN victory in Korea. It seems unlikely however, with hindsight, that Eisenhower would have authorised such an attack, unless the Chinese and North Koreans had taken aggressive action first, but it will never be known for certain. Whatever Eisenhower's intentions at the time, rumours about them did reintroduce a sense of urgency into the Panmunjon talks. Panmunjon is a few miles east of Kaesong.

Military action still continued during this period, with the communists provoking the UN forces, to test their strength. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1952 the communists fought to gain possession of a hilltop in the centre of the peninsula, and in March, 1953, they finally managed to control it, after defeating a Columbian regiment. It was not a very significant gain strategically, but the hilltop overlooked another geographic feature which has entered American folk memories of the war and become known as 'Pork Chop Hill'.

Two platoons of the 31st Infantry, 7th Division, very much undermanned, were guarding the hill. Shortly after 10 pm on April 16, 1953, two Chinese companies entered the valley with the intention of attacking the hill. A mere 96 American soldiers found themselves isolated on the hill, and by 2 am the Chinese had gained control of it. All through the next day the Americans fought hard to regain the hill. At 9.30 pm on April 17th, two infantry companies attacked the western end of the hill, and by the night of the 18th they had defeated the Chinese. But the Chinese did not give up and the struggle continued well into the summer. By July 10, which was only two weeks before the final signing of the armistice, the new commander of the 8th Army. Maxwell Taylor, had decided that it was simply not worth fighting for the hill any more. This action was perhaps one of the most notable of the many small-scale actions, fought with great courage for futile ends, in the final stages of the war.

Another notable battle, this one involving several British regiments, was fought over a ridge near the western coast, which became known as 'The Hook'. The action extended over a long period. Already in late October, 1952, the US 7th Marines had defended the ridge successfully and then handed it over to the Commonwealth Division. The British regiment, the 1st Black Watch, fought the second battle to defend the 'Hook' on November 18, and the third battle, a lengthy affair, was fought in late May, 1953. The Duke of Wellington's Regiment bore the brunt of the onslaught. By dawn on May 29 most of the fighting was over and the regiment had lost 29 men with 120 wounded; the Chinese came off worse with 250 dead and 800 wounded. The Chinese started bombarding the British again, and another infantry attack was expected, but it never came.

Meanwhile significant progress had been made at Panmunjom, when, at the beginning of April, the communists agreed that any prisoner who did not wish to return to the other side should be transferred to a neutral state for further investigation. And on April 11 a rare event occurred at Panmunjom: rapid agreement. The first exchanges of prisoners followed in the period from April 20 to May 3. And by April 26 negotiations for further exchanges had already started. The North finally made further concessions: the whole process of the political screening of prisoners could take place within Korea, and the time period was shortened. All the while the Americans continued with attempts to strengthen their bargaining position by bombing dams and destroying supply lines in the North.

The final obstacle to the signing of the armistice proved to be not the obstructions of the North Koreans or the Chinese but the attitude of the South Korean president, Syngman Rhee. For Rhee an armistice meant the end of all his hopes: it would mean the permanent division of Korea and the ever-present threat of further invasion from the North (in these respects, of course, time would only prove him right). Over a period of many days at the end of June and in early July, Rhee was locked in argument with Mark Clark and a special envoy from Eisenhower, Walter Robertson. Meanwhile the North Koreans and the Chinese were stepping up hostilities to force the hand of the UN at the negotiating table. Finally, on July 9th, Rhee agreed not to obstruct the armistice, though he would not sign it.

A special building was constructed, in which the armistice would be signed. At 10.00 am on 27 July, 1953, the two delegations entered the building from opposite ends, the UN delegation led by Lieutenant-General William K Harrison and the communists led by General Nam II. The two did not exchange a word with each other. They signed the relevant documents in silence and then at 10.12 am they left, still in silence, by the separate exits. Later the UN Supreme Commander, General Mark Clark, also signed the documents in his office. Syngman Rhee had allowed no South Koreans to take part in the ceremony. The ceasefire was to come into effect later that day at 10 pm.

In Korea, both North and South, there was certainly nothing for most of the combatants to celebrate. And the UN veterans found, on returning to their home countries, that no one was interested anymore in hearing about the Korean issue and whatever experiences they had had. For most of those at home, especially in America, it was a war that had been lost: the only outcome was a stalemate and the line of demarcation between North and South Korea had been re-established very much as it had been before hostilities had started. So, what was there to cheer about?

Over the years the veterans of the war, in America, Britain and other participating countries, have bemoaned the fact that they have not been honoured so much as the veterans of the Vietnam War and other subsequent conflicts. They have, with justification, complained that it has been the 'Forgotten War'. It was eclipsed by the Vietnam War, which was the first war to gain widespread TV coverage and impress itself vividly on the conscience of the world, night after night, with images of destruction and suffering. Because the Korean War had been a 'limited war', both in intent and in its outcome, most people in the West preferred to think it never happened.

If there were no victors in the war, there were decidedly many losers, primarily the Koreans themselves. However limited the UN may have intended the war to be, both geographically and in terms of its intended repercussions, it was a total disaster for the entire Korean peninsula. The historian Bruce Cumings has described the effects in shocking and gruesome detail: the entire country was a 'smouldering ruin' (Cumings, 1981, vol. 1, xix), hardly a building was left standing anywhere, and the capital, Seoul, presented a nightmarish landscape with hollow shells of buildings as far as the eye could see. If it is difficult to imagine, then Europeans should recall those films taken from aircraft flying over the devastated German cities at the end of the Second World War. The Germans call that time 'Stunde Null' ('Zero Hour'), and it was 'zero hour' for Koreans too on 27 July, 1953. Cities everywhere, including also the northern capital of Pyongyang, were piles of rubble and ashes. People were living in tunnels, caves and makeshift shacks: they had to start rebuilding their lives using only the refuse of war. In the War Memorial Museum in Seoul you can walk between life-size dioramas of city-scapes wasted by the war, which make it difficult to re-enter the normal world outside with an easy conscience. About a tenth, three million, of the entire population of Korea at the outbreak of the war, had been wounded, killed, or were missing; ten million Koreans were wandering around disorientated, separated from other members of their families. Virtually all industry, North and South, had been destroyed, dams had been blasted and the already devastated landscape inundated.

In the previous two articles the experiences were recounted of a Korean couple known personally to the writer, Kim Joon-shik and his wife Kwon Won-bun (married Korean women retain their maiden names). Kim had been wounded in the offensive against the 'Iron Triangle' in the spring of 1951: a piece of artillery shell is lodged to this day in the back of his head. After recuperating in Pusan he was sent back to the front, as the South Korean army lacked a sufficient number of well-trained sergeants. In consideration for his wounded condition he was attached to a reserve battalion. He recalls that once negotiations for an armistice had got under way, rumours began to spread in the army, and he and his fellow soldiers started to entertain hopes that they might after all survive the war and see their families again. When the news finally came that an armistice had been agreed and a ceasefire was announced, there was indeed rejoicing. Kim and his comrades started singing and dancing and went to the local village to beg or buy some popular traditional alcoholic brew called makkeolli, a potent cloudy rice wine. Their celebrations must have become somewhat riotous as their officers soon told them to quieten it down, but though they tried to comply by reducing the volume, it was obviously difficult to restrain jubilation on such an occasion. It was to be three days before Kim received a document allowing him to return home.

Kim's wife, Kwon Won-bun, was not feeling so jubilant. Having already lost a young child, who had never been able to see his father, she was getting by doing household jobs and helping her husband's family with the farming. Eventually rumours spread in the village that an armistice had been signed and she started to nurture hopes of seeing her husband again. But no one in her husband's family or in the village was in the mood for celebration; there were no parties of any kind. Looking back on those dark days she still shrugs her shoulders and asks: 'What was there to celebrate?' She was just relieved that she, and the other village girls, would not be pursued any more by lustful UN soldiers.

The only positive effects of the war at the time were that all will for further conflict had been eliminated, and the Americans decided therefore to support the expansion of the South Korean army as a security measure. In November, 1953, Kim II Sung, the North Korean leader, was able to negotiate agreements with China for long-term economic and cultural, as well as military support for North Korea.

Internationally the war had affected the balance of power. China, hitherto not a major player on the world stage, had forced America to a compromise solution in Korea, and its delegates sat as equals with the North Koreans and the Americans at the negotiating table at Panmunjom. The Russian dictator, Stalin, was now forced to regard China, and Chairman Mao in particular, as a force to be reckoned with. Another direct beneficiary of the war was Japan: during the four years from June 1950 America spent about three billion dollars in Japan, which it used as a military base for its sallies into Korea and as a recuperation centre. This kick-started the Japanese economy in ways which led to its subsequent rapid rise.

The effects on the UN itself were minimal: the war did not establish the UN as the preferred and proven successful means of settling conflicts between nations. The UN had not demonstrated a strong will and efficacy of action. One historian has commented: 'That young organisation played a critical role in the conflict, but it was not really strengthened as a result' (Stueck, 1995. p. 370).

So, what of the present? It is beyond the scope of these three articles to trace the rapid economic growth of South Korea in the latter part of the twentieth century, symbolised by the recent G20 Meeting there. The frequent skirmishes and battles of words between North and South Korea have been too numerous over the years to list in detail. This year has of course witnessed a considerable escalation in tensions between the two countries. The assumed destruction of the South Korean warship Cheonan by North Korea, in March, 2010, has still not been satisfactorily resolved. As this last article goes to press, the world holds its breath yet again after North Korea fired probably as many as 170 artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday November 23. The island lies just south of the NLL (Northern Limit Line), the sea border drawn up by the UN Command under the armistice agreement at the end of the Korean War, and has been the focus of several naval skirmishes in recent years. On the island many buildings were destroyed, 2 South Korean marines were killed, and 16 other people were wounded, some seriously, among them several civilians.

The South Korean government has beefed up its military presence in the area and the US has sent an aircraft carrier to join the long-planned training exercises there. As ever North Korean reactions to these manoeuvres will continue to be unpredictable.

While these events engender scary headlines around the world, people who live in South Korea know that it is unlikely to be the last of such incidents, which stir up panic in the rest of the world, and stimulate a few small demonstrations in Seoul, but which cause most South Koreans just to shrug their shoulders: they have heard it all so many times before.


Cumings, Bruce, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947, Princeton University Press. New Jersey, USA. 1981.

Stueck, William, The Korean War. An International History, Princeton Studies in International History and Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, and Chichester, UK, 1995.

Select Bibliography

A select bibliography was included with the first article in this series of three (Contemporary Review, vol. 1697, Summer, 2010, pp 158-168).

Selected Literature on the Korean War

The following works of fiction have acquired a reputation for their perceptive analyses of the lives of Koreans during the Korean War and are available in English translation.

Ahn, Junghyo, Silver Stallion: A Novel of Korea, 1989, hardback edition, 2003. The novel is set in a small village, in 1950, and shows how life there is affected by the arrival of Western soldiers. A young boy's mother is raped by soldiers and has to work as a prostitute.

Cho, Sun-jak, The Preview and Other Stories, translated by Kim Chan Young and David Carter, 2003. Cho is famous as a writer who depicts well the underside of Korean society. The famous novella The Preview, tells of the experiences of three children during the war. Other stories in the volume evoke the conditions of life in the aftermath of the war. The translations are by the present writer in collaboration with Kim Chan Young.

Kim, Eun-kook, The Martyred, 1964. The novel is about the fate of 14 Christian ministers arrested by the secret police in Pyongyang, just before the outbreak of the war. Twelve are killed and only two survive. A South Korean officer investigates the incident. The novel has been translated into 10 languages, dramatised twice and filmed. An English edition was published in 1984 with the author's name as Richard E. Kim.

Kim, Won-il, Feast of Fire, 1997. Originally written over 18 years in 7 volumes and reduced to 5 by the author. It is based on experiences of the author's father, a communist in South Korea during the war, who escaped to North Korea.

Kim, Young-ha, Empire of Light, 2006. The novel is not about the Korean War as such, but reflects the situation of the two Koreas in the aftermath. It tells the story of a young man who becomes a spy, integrating himself into South Korean society.

Park, Wan-seo, The Far Mountain, 1995. The writer was born in North Korea, and the novel reflects her experiences when she was captured by the North Korean army and other aspects of her life during the war.

Yoon, Heung-gil, The Rainy Spell, 1973 (English translation, 2002). A famous novella narrated by a boy about the conflict between his grandmothers, due to the fact that his uncle on his mother's side is fighting for South Korea, while his uncle on his father's side is a guerrilla fighter supporting North Korea.


The following are a selection of films which depict events related to the Korean War. Many of them are based on novels which have become well-known in their own right.

Korean Films

Nambugun, directed by Jeong Ji-yeong, 1990.

To the Starry Island, directed by Park Kwang-su, 1993.

Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War, directed by Kang Je-gyu, 2004.

Welcome to Dongmakgol directed by Park Kwang-Hyun, 2005.

American Films

The Bridges at Toko-Ri, with William Holden and Grace Kelly, dir. by Mark Robsen, 1954.

Battle Hymn, with Rock Hudson and Dan Duryea, dir. by Douglas Sirk, 1957.

Pork Chop Hill, with Gregory Peck and Rip Torn, dir. by Lewis Milestone, 1959.

All the Young Men, with Alan Ladd and Sidney Poitier, dir. by Hall Bartlett, 1960.

MASH, with Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, dir. by Robert Altman, 1970.

MacArthur, with Gregory Peck and Dan O'Herlihy, dir. by Joseph Sargent, 1977.

British Film

Hell in Korea, with George Baker, Harry Andrews and Stanley Baker, dir. by Julian Amyss, 1956.

David Carter, born in London, 1945, has lived and worked in South Korea for over 18 years as Professor of Communicative English at Yonsei University, Seoul. Now formally retired, he works as a writer, translator and freelance journalist. Amongst many other works he has published books on Korean cuisine and culture, a volume of short stories by the Korean writer Clio Sun Jak, translated together with Kim Chan Young, and East Asian Cinema, a survey and analysis of the films of China, Taiwan, Japan and both North and South Korea. For further details see website:
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Author:Carter, David
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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