These days, you can never miss a news headline or breaking story about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The fascination or even borderline obsession with the northern half of the Korean peninsula has become a frequent topic of conversation among people. As a Korean American, I am often asked about the reclusive state with questions ranging from "Were you born in the North or South?" to "Is crazy North Korea going to bomb us?"
For the record, I was born in Seoul. As for the latter, I am left feeling more concerned about potential United States military actions against North Korea instead of North Korea attacking us. This past January, the world witnessed an unprecedented gesture by Pyongyang stating they will permanently dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for a formal treaty with the U.S. to finally end the Korean War. Washington, however, dismissed this historic offer and refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue. Instead, the U.S. responded by conducting Key Resolve Foal Eagle, a full-scale military offensive exercise aimed at invading North Korea. At a Pentagon press conference on April 6, 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates threatened North Korea with the possibility of nuclear attack by warning, "All options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you."
It's easy for us to label North Korea "crazy" if we don't understand the set of historical events leading up to this current situation. It likely explains why the Korean War is often referred to here as "The Forgotten War." The Korean conflict though, is not forgotten among many of us in the Korean community. Nor is it forgotten by North Korea with its near constant state of war mentality that influences their defensive relations with the United States.
We have to remember that the United States and the former Soviet Union divided Korea in half after Japan's surrender in World War II. Instead of Korea's liberation from Japanese occupation, tens of millions of Korean families became separated. The United States made the decision to divide Korea in half by using a National Geographic map of the Korean peninsula. As a result, a Korean civil war broke out in hopes of reunifying the peninsula. But this civil war escalated into an international conflict, which is what many of us know today as the Korean War.
Well over 3 million lives were lost and the devastating warfare wiped out entire towns, villages and cities. Two weeks into the Korean War, U.S. General MacArthur requested permission to use nuclear weapons. Former President Truman was also close to authorizing the atomic bomb on multiple occasions during the conflict, and later approved Operation Hudson Harbor, which simulated atomic bombing runs over North Korea. Eight years later after the 1953 Armistice Agreement, the U.S. began to station nuclear weapons in South Korea and target them at Pyongyang. In 1967, over 950 nuclear warheads were aimed at North Korea, which was a direct violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The nuclear arsenal was later removed in 1991.
It's worth noting that while North Korea became a nuclear dartboard for the U.S. military, North Korea didn't possess any kind of nuclear technology throughout the Korean War. That fact alone leaves many to wonder why the U.S. would authorize such excessive force. But it likely explains why North Korea has maintained its wartime policies for so long and developed a survivalist outlook.
Undoubtedly, it would also give a reason for the austere relations between North Korea and the United States. In 1994, former President Clinton threatened a preemptive strike against North Korea and brought the Korean peninsula to the brink of war. The Pentagon projected it would have caused one million civilian deaths. In 1998, the U.S. simulated the firing of long-range nuclear weapons at North Korea. In 2002, the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review included North Korea in a list of seven targets for potential attack. And in 2004, the U.S. revised OPLAN 5027, its military operation plan in the event of a war in Korea, to include preemptive nuclear strikes against Pyongyang. These set of events were only met by North Korea announcing its first successful test for a nuclear defense program in 2006.
President Obama has said that his administration will work towards a world free from nuclear weapons. Yet the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, unveiled this past April shows that his policies are fundamentally no different from those of the previous administration. North Korea, along with Iran, remains on the list of potential targets for nuclear warfare, and military plans like OPLAN 5027 and Key Resolve Foal Eagle, full-scale, offensive military exercises that simulate a war with North Korea and include plans for preemptive nuclear strike, remain in effect. These aggressive military actions will only set the stage for increased hostility. North Korea will have the grounds to maintain and potentially expand its own nuclear arsenal leading to an expanded military presence throughout the Korean peninsula.
U.S. Special Envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth has said, "Pyongyang won't give up its nukes until it's sure Washington has permanently abandoned its hostile policies, and mutual trust has been established by establishing diplomatic relations and striking a peace agreement that formally ends the Korean War."
If the United States wants North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons, it should lead by example by taking genuine steps to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal of 5500 warheads and end its decades long North Korean policy based on military provocation. As noted by Bosworth, the United States should reconsider the possibility for signing a peace treaty with North Korea that would finally end the Korean War. The recent sinking of the South Korean naval vessel in contested waters near the North Korean border is the latest example of how the continued state of war can be deadly.
June 25th marks the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War. We can't afford to be forgetful when it comes to this divisive and historic event. The barbed wires that cut across the divided Korean peninsula are a rusty remnant of the bygone Cold War era. It's time to take them down and chart a new future. Pyongyang has said that it is ready to talk peace. Now the question is: Are we?