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Korea — Deja Vu All Over Again?

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Once again the two sides of the divided Korea are close to all-out war. This land is split into democratic South Korea, and communist North Korea. The United States claims the south as an ally, while China is the only real ally of the north. Does any of this sound familiar?

The war in Vietnam lasted for more than 20 years (US combat troops arriving halfway through, in 1965), and claimed more than 3,000,000 lives, 58,000 of them American. It divided the nation as no other event in modern times has succeeded in doing. The outcome was a unified Vietnam, but as a communist state.





The war in Iraq is over as far as American combat operations go, but the conflict is far from done. The US death toll here was more than 4,000, with somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 civilians killed, depending on the source. We “liberated” the country from Saddam Hussein, but left it virtually leaderless, a shattered ruin in a constant state of near civil war. Not a single weapon of mass destruction was found, and we certainly didn’t gain Iraq as a new ally.

The American presence in Afghanistan just officially surpassed the nine-plus years that the Russians wasted there. No one seems entirely clear what the goals are, let alone the accomplishments to date. The Afghanis are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the coalition’s presence, often expressing the sentiment that the Americans are no better than the Russians. In fact, the latest bizarre twist in this tragic tale is the Russians now joining the fray as allies of the West. So far 1,295 Americans have died, and there is no end in sight.

The first Korean conflict claimed almost 45,000 American lives, and more than 3,000,000 all told. There was no decisive outcome, only a truce that left the country divided and in a constant state of tension along the border. Most Koreans, both North and South, want re-unification, but are far apart on what form the united Korea would take.

Have we learned anything since 1953? It seems unlikely, as once again the key players are rushing to establish their positions. In a perfect world the Koreans would be left to settle their own affairs. Unfortunately, the superpowers are like high school jocks, never willing to back down, and unable to pass up an opportunity to show off their muscles. Pushing the two sides towards all-out war will result in a loss of life far greater than the first time around.

The unthinkable, a long-range war, fought with missiles and possibly nuclear weapons, would result in wide-scale destruction and massive loss of life. A conventional ground battle favors the home team, as it becomes a war of attrition (like Vietnam). Those who see themselves as defending their homeland are in it for the long haul, and are highly motivated. The invaders (that’s us) see it as a job that will be over in six months. The United Nations is having difficulty keeping up troop strengths for its current commitments, and it is unlikely enough new forces could be found for a protracted fight on the Korean Peninsula.

The United Nations urged China, the only country with any influence in North Korea, to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the belligerent and erratic Kim Jong Il. The US promptly sent an aircraft carrier group into waters claimed by China as territorial. So much for diplomacy! As a newly emerging force to be reckoned with, the Chinese are very sensitive about their image as a world power.

Showing support for our allies is one thing, but getting into a pissing contest with China is a fool’s game. A second Korean war would have disastrous consequences, not only for Korea, but for the world. As hopeless as diplomacy appears at times, it is the only real option.

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About Ian Stevenson

  • John Lake

    You made reference in your article to “superpowers”; China, a “superpower” has been very clear, and quite precise that the government of China feels it in everyone’s best interest for all parties to embrace a policy that promotes peace, discourages increased hostility. Such a policy would mean that United States military exercises with South Korea either be halted, or at the least moved to a new location, further south. If America backs away from potential war, America will appear weak, strategically, and from a political viewpoint.
    It seems foolish to refuse to actively encourage six nation talks until the North begins to dismantle their nuclear capacity. Foolish because that nuclear capacity is the most important factor that might be discussed.
    I cannot help but recall those days when Khrushchev confronted John Kennedy with missiles on the ground in Cuba. Many Americans were awake all night, awaiting the outcome.