A truce stopped the fighting in Korea that once threatened to spread into a world war whose outcome might have been decided by nuclear weapons. Sixty years later, the costs of the Korean War continue to mount even amid relative peace.
Hostility lingers between the North and South and between the North and the US, which still has no formal diplomatic relations with the communist nation in spite of the war’s end on July 27, 1953. That ongoing antagonism is rooted in the US commitment to take a leading role in assisting the South should war break out again on the Korean Peninsula.
Washington has tried for years to wean its ally off its dependence on the US military by setting a target date for switching from US to Korean control of the forces that would defend the country in the event North Korea again attacked the South. That target date has slipped from last year to 2015 and, just this past week, US officials said the Koreans are informally expressing interest in pushing it back still further.
Another powerful legacy from the 1950-1953 conflict is more personal for the US: The seemingly endless challenge of accounting for thousands of US servicemen still listed as missing in action. That mission, which competes for Pentagon resources with demands to also retrieve and identify missing-in-action soldiers from the battlefields of World War II and Vietnam, is beset with problems including bureaucratic dysfunction, according to an internal Pentagon report disclosed on July 7 by The Associated Press.
What began as a Cold War contest, with the former Soviet Union and China siding with the North, and the US and UN allies supporting the South, remains one of the world’s most dangerous flash points. In some respects, the security threat from the North has grown more acute in recent years.
So the US is stuck with a lead wartime role in Korea and with a dim prospect, if any, of building the kind of relationship required to return to the former battlefields of North Korea to excavate remains of US soldiers. The Pentagon says there are about 7,900 soldiers missing in action, of which approximately half are thought to be recoverable.
US President Barack Obama marked the armistice’s 60th anniversary with a speech yesterday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
The US has kept combat forces on the Korean Peninsula since the fighting halted with the signing of an armistice, or truce, and it still has 28,500 troops based in the South. They are a symbol of a vibrant and important US-South Korean alliance, and few advocate even a partial US troop withdrawal. However, some US military officers believe their permanence on the peninsula, with a singular focus on North Korea, is an anachronistic arrangement that should have been overhauled years ago.
Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the RAND Corp, a federally funded US think tank, says he believes the argument for giving Seoul wartime command of its own troops loses ground as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions grow bolder.