The Coldest War of All

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. That cease-fire established a demarcation line within a demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. That line is still there; the DMZ is a no-man’s land across which occasional pot-shots have been traded for the past 60 years. Periodic threats emanate from the North Korean leadership, usually when they perceive such bellicosity could bring tribute from the West in the form of economic – the naive call it “humanitarian” – aid to prop up that regime. China for a number of less than virtuous reasons, continues to abet the North.

Shortly after the Soviet Union and its evil empire collapsed in 1989 – 1991, a colleague remarked to me that the only Marxists left in the world were on American college campuses. Not quite. He left out a large portion of the news media. Furthermore, he apparently did not consider the two surviving communist regimes that did not collapse, and still have not – Cuba and North Korea.

Cuba remains communist for a number of reasons. Fidel Castro was a competent leader who learned from history – the page of the Bolshevik play book that counseled to get rid of your opposition immediately and completely, preferably by killing them. Castro also quickly also became a client of the Soviet Union. After the Cuban missile crisis, however, Communist Cuba was never more than a mere irritant. It is presently a threat to no one.

North Korea similarly survived. Unlike Cuba, it is a potential threat. It appears to have several nuclear warheads or bombs, and a nascent delivery system. Its conventional forces could devastate or seriously damage the South Korean capital Seoul before an effective response could be mounted. There are also 35,000 plus U.S. troops there.

Eliminating the North Korean regime is possible, but China’s reaction is uncertain. Even though it has been evolving into a market economy, it is still an authoritarian regime, and its “capitalism” is more “cronyism” in the way it operates. A unified Korea, which would be led by the South, would be a serious economic threat to China. It is doubtful if the Chinese would stand idly by if that might occur.

I confess that my current knowledge of the Korean question is superficial, so our foreign relations leaders have to be trusted. It may be that the status quo, as irritating as it might be for our Western sensibilities, is the best course for now. This is in our national interest because the world needs more examples of why the capitalist market economy is superior. That example of the progress that South Korea has made since the armistice is impressive. I spent part of 1968 and most of 1969 in South Korea. It was then definitely a third-world country that still bore the scars of war in which the active fighting, at least, had ended a decade and a half previously. There were signs then of a robust economy still in gestation. No question that nation has grown in prosperity. The devastation wreaked by another war – especially of nuclear weapons, however low-grade – on its soil would be catastrophic for the people there as well as the rest of the world.

Except for Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 – 1990, and possibly the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, the United States has not had an unequivocal military victory since World War II. Even the rump British Empire has done better than that. The Korean War was not in vain, however. President Obama, with whom I often disagree, pointed to the staggering resurgence of South Korea, and opined that holding the line in Korea, and at least making the continued existence of the South possible, was itself a victory. Whether a total military victory was possible in 1950 – 53 is now a moot point; the President is at least partially correct.

There are plenty of accounts of the Korean War available. To my mind, the most illuminating and readable are This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach (who actually fought in the front lines in the Korean War, though he never mentions that service), and The Coldest Winter, by David Halberstam.

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