Picasso legend 10 massacre in korea
A photo of "Massacre in Korea," by Pablo Picasso, depicting the 1950 Sinchon Massacre.

Let’s end the Korean war, and create a people’s Pacific

Koohan Paik

A few years before my father passed away, we were strolling, one fine spring morning, through Insadong, the artsy section of Seoul, known for its cafes, bookshops, ceramics vendors and calligraphy suppliers. As we crossed a narrow alley, he pulled me back to the sidewalk. “Can you imagine seeing the Chinese tanks going by?” I had no idea what he was talking about; I was preoccupied with the pretty gingko trees lining the curb. His eyes rolled with an equine terror that sent a shiver down my spine. “So scary!” He scuttled behind a building as if to take cover, and peered down the alley where, a block in the distance, cars were rolling down a parallel street. “Just like those cars! Tanks!”

For my father, the picturesque district harkened back to the time my grandparents and their five sons fled fighting in their home at the Manchurian border town of Uiju, settling in the southern city of Seoul. The last thing they expected at their new home was an invasion by Chinese troops, allies of newly formed North Korea.

The stone cold fear in his eyes served as the sort of communication that mainlines emotional memory from one generation to the next. In that moment, I easily imagined my father, scrawny and hungry, shrinking helplessly before the oncoming tanks – a far cry from the dumpling-bodied American he later became. It was in that moment that I also caught a glimpse into the scale of human impact by the Korean War, with its “collateral damage” of five million civilian deaths, by conservative estimates. The carnage is indelibly marked on the psyche of all Koreans, particularly survivors in the north, who were subjected to saturation bombing missions by the U.S. for three years. As Bruce Cumings describes in his book The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles), “the United States dropped more bombs in Korea (635,000 tons, as well as 32,557 tons of napalm) than in the entire Pacific theater during World War II.”

So it was with significant alarm that I reacted to the news that the Chinese had begun in late March amassing troops and reinforcements along the Korean border—for the first time since 1951. Things had been heating up in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death, when the U.S. and South Korea announced that they were implementing a new kind of war game that simulates military aggression in the event of North Korean regime collapse. Pyongyang responded angrily with a nuclear test, which then led to UN sanctions on the impoverished nation, triggering a daily barrage of North Korean threats ever since.

Then, suddenly, on the heels of the mobilization of Chinese troops, the Pentagon decided to take a break from the war games that had so infuriated Pyongyang, and to even postpone a missile launch. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel explained that the U.S. and other powers in the region don’t want to make a “complicated, combustible situation” even worse. Such is the repartee of endless war.

No peace treaty

A dirty little secret of the U.S. is that the Korean War is the longest war in American history, and still ongoing, as no peace treaty was ever signed. Instead, an Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953 by the U.S., China and North Korea. The Armistice brought a cease-fire, and stipulated that a peace treaty should be realized within three months. It also called for all foreign forces to be withdrawn from Korea—but it did not end the war. Now, after a full six decades suspended in Cold-War limbo, the chickens are coming home to roost.

One of the threats of the north’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, was to cancel the Armistice—a moot declaration, actually, when one considers how the U.S. has consistently flouted its stipulations.  Today, the U.S. stations 28,500 military personnel in South Korea and operates over 100 military installations there. And the geopolitical impact of the Korean War’s unresolved status reverberates in a narrative of fear throughout the Asia-Pacific that has justified over 400 U.S. installations in the hemisphere, including Okinawa, the Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Hawaii and Alaska, where people have been forced to forfeit land, water and self-determination to strengthen already disproportionate U.S. military might. Needless to say, it’s been a banner century for the defense industry.

Kim Young-Je, Director of the Reunification Unit of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has said that peace on the peninsula would mean peace in Asia which would mean peace in the world. But the U.S. has rejected all requests toward signing a peace treaty. As Guam scholar Michael Bevacqua points out, a divided peninsula gives the U.S. a justified presence as global policeman, but more importantly, gives it advantage over China and provides perfect strike positions for targets deeper in the Asian continent. Peace in Korea would be a tremendous blow to U.S. hegemony, and would unravel the perceived urgency for more bases, more seized land, more missiles, more Ospreys, more fighter jets, more destroyers, more carcinogens and radioactive waste released into the environment, more reefs dredged, more whale-killing sonar—and all the other horrific activities that come with policing the planet.

Philippines legislator Walden Bello has called for an alternative to a militarized Asia-Pacific, envisioning a “people’s Pacific.” A top priority toward this goal would be the signing of a peace treaty between North Korea, South Korea, the U.S. and China.

In the mean time, those who value genuine security in the Asia-Pacific can make efforts to join in solidarity for a people’s Pacific. One event that will offer a rare opportunity to do so will be Moana Nui #2, a three-day series of panel discussions from May 31-June 2, 2013, in Berkeley, California, that will bring together activists, scholars, artists, students and citizens from across the rim. The Berkeley event is a continuation of Moana Nui #1, which took place in Honolulu in November 2011, and was created in partnership between the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), Pua Mohala I Ka Pō and several other Pacific Island activist groups.

At Moana Nui #2, the pressing topic of endless conflict in Korea will be spotlighted the evening of June 1, 2013, when the masterful 37-minute documentary “Memory of Forgotten War” will be screened, followed by a panel discussion of leading thinkers on the subject. Visit the website for more info.