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Hynes/My Turn: Our toxic legacy in Korea

AP photo
South Korean Kwon Soon-lim, right, sits in front of a headstone of her husband Go Man-doo who died during the 1950-1953 Korean War, last month. At left her daughter Go Soon-nan. The war came to an end on July 12, 1953.

AP photo South Korean Kwon Soon-lim, right, sits in front of a headstone of her husband Go Man-doo who died during the 1950-1953 Korean War, last month. At left her daughter Go Soon-nan. The war came to an end on July 12, 1953.

The American war in Korea lasted three years, one month and two days and ended in a stalemate on July 12, 1953 at 10:12 a.m. Fighting continued for 12 more hours, with even more “blood and treasure” on all sides wasted in the intense, deadly fireworks of frustrated, war-wearied soldiers. Americans at home had tired of the deadlocked war and they disconnected from it; American soldiers fighting in it did not understand its historical roots. The war’s especially morbid consequences for Korean women trapped in prostitution around U.S. military bases — in what for them has been 60 years of a war system — have not ended. The menace of nuclear war in spring 2013, with each side intensifying their threats, embodies the toxic legacy of this war.

No one won this war. Everyone lost. An estimated 5 million people lost their lives, by far the majority of them Korean civilians.

More than 35,000 American soldiers died in the war with approximately 92,000 wounded and 5,000 missing in action. What lesson was learned by the new administration presiding over the last year of the war? At October’s end 1953, President Eisenhower promulgated a new defense strategy, NSC-162/2 that would assure national security for less cost. No longer would the United States be drawn into limited conflicts and use conventional weapons, as in Korea. Massive retaliation with atomic weapons would be the threat and response, if necessary. And, thus, a foundation was laid for the escalating nuclear threat-counter threat dysfunction that poisons the Korean peninsula and imperils the world.

In a recent lecture at Lafayette College, former U.S. president and Korean War veteran, Jimmy Carter spoke bluntly about American militarism. “Almost constantly since World War II, our country has been at war.” He added that he could not think of any place on earth today where the United States is working to promote peace — nor could Secretary of State John Kerry when Carter queried him.

Regarding North Korea, Carter traced the current crisis to the Bush administration’s abrogation of a 1994 agreement with North Korea that assured North Korea would not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for energy and economic aid. In the early 1990s, Carter was asked by the North Korean leader Kim II Sung to come to North Korea “because no one in the U.S. government would talk to the North Koreans.” After persuading the adverse Clinton administration for permission, he met with Kim II Sung who expressed wanting a peace treaty with the United States and to have the economic embargo lifted against his country. The result of their talks was a successful diplomatic agreement that ended the Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting of an economic embargo, allowing Americans to search for the remains of Korean war veterans, a peace treaty and so on.

The Bush administration dismantled the agreement and included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” countries, making it an explicit target of regime change. North Korea responded by starting up a nuclear weapons program, weapons testing and chest-beating war rhetoric. The Obama administration has, in turn, ratcheted up war games with South Korea, including a simulated nuclear attack on North Korea, and tightened the economic stranglehold on banking and trade. Thus, a small, poor country wasted by its own militarization and the world’s hypermilitarized superpower are locked in a nuclear standoff.

Carter concluded his address at Lafayette College with this: “I’ve been there two or three times since the 1994 agreement and I can tell you what the North Koreans want is a peace treaty with the United States and they want the 60-year economic embargo lifted against their people, so they can have an equal chance to trade and commerce. It’s a very paranoid country. They are honestly convinced that the United States wants to attack them and destroy their country, to eliminate the Communist regime. They make a lot of mistakes but if the United States would just talk to the North Koreans … I believe … we could have peace, and the United States would be a lot better off in the long run.”

From this war, though, there is an unexpected outcome. The 155-mile long by 2.5-mile wide demilitarized zone dividing the people of Korea has evolved into an unforeseen ecological habitat for several endangered plants and animals, among them the iconic red-crowned crane, the Korean tiger and Asiatic black bear, in what is one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world. Ecologists there have identified nearly 3,000 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 329 species of birds. All in a heavily monitored, militarized, and mined buffer zone.

May it serve as nature’s model and metaphor for an as-yet-unreconciled, yet deeply connected people.

H. Patricia Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts and works with Nuclear Free Future.

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