“The wet season had begun. Heavy rain fell along much of the 38th Parallel, the two-hundred-mile boundary between North and South Korea. In the Ongjin region, an isolated area on Korea’s west-central coast, the crackle of small arms fire and the hollow boom of artillery suddenly interrupted the monotonous patter of the raindrops. It was the early hours of Sunday morning, 25 June 1950.” (William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History)
Two professional military forces began on this day in 1950 a three-year accelerated reprise of this century’s wars that, 62 years later, scores of brilliant leaders from around the world and two bitterly divided Korean societies still cannot transform into a lasting peace. The casual viewer, jaded with the histories of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, would notice the ramping up of tensions, the diplomatic gambles by leaders of recovering societies sick of world war, and the war gaming. Contingency, in the form of Kim Il-sung’s decision to invade the South, wreaked havoc with the Korean peninsula for three years. Task Force Smith, MacArthur’s inspired gambit at Inchon, his equally vainglorious blunder at the Yalu, trench warfare, carpet bombing of the North, the advent of the Chinese volunteers, and the brain-numbing tedium of years of filibuster at Panmunjom mark the Korean War as more of a precursor for 62 years of warfare than the two world wars. The Korean War shows the ingenuity humans have with creating misery.
Perhaps, after the October 1949 victory of the Communists in China, a conflict in Northeast Asia was inevitable, but more likely over Taiwan. Joseph Stalin’s price for agreeing to back Kim Il-sung’s stab across the 38th Parallel was Mao Zedong’s acquiescence, to support Kim and not to invade Taiwan, to rid the Communists of their Nationalist nemesis, Chiang Kai-shek. Koreans, from the diaspora, like Lee Seung-man, and Kim Gu, who had fought with the Nationalists in Burma, or Kim Il-sung, leading veterans of the Chinese civil war and the guerrilla campaigns against the Japanese in the last war, were ready and capable to kill one another. War was inevitable, but where it started was a very unimportant mystery, because in a sense warfare in Korea had not ceased since the Japanese had suppressed independence movements throughout the peninsula after the failed March First, 1919 movement. The Korean War is a coda of sorts, a catharsis.
Fast forward to today, and Taiwan and North Korea are still competing for relevance and the undivided attention of the world. I offer this “Fact Sheet” for readers to use to read and make their own judgments. How the two Koreas will resolve their feud usually centers around the focus on what North Korea will become. Most observers assume South Korea is the kernel of a unified Korean peninsular state, and how that end state occurs is a debate worth having. Nicolas Levi lays out two scenarios for North Korea’s future:
1. The first scenario which we can take into account is an eventual satellization of North Korea by China…
2. Another scenario that I partially believe in is the effective dissolution of North Korea. In the event of a collapse in Pyongyang, the United Nations would need to sanction the movement of foreign forces into North Korea, but that requires the permission of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It would be logical that North Korean territory will be occupied for a while by troops under the auspices of the United Nations. If North Korea then disappeared as a sovereign state, it could still be a country in a geographical sense, divided into various occupation zones. This situation may be similar to the one that happened within the Balkans, where peacekeepers were sent…
There’s also this “Debate, In Bloom“, about what might succeed the current Kim regime in Pyongyang, and how. I am currently reading Victor D. Cha’s The Impossible State, so I have no dog in this fight. As someone reared in political science as much as political philosophy, I am not into predictions, which I leave to charlatans. “…[M]ost of us do not aspire to provide accurate predictions of single events. Most of us seek to understand the causes of outcomes, which leads us t be able to predict that y is more likely or perhaps only possible if x is present (which she ultimately condemns in her conclusion). This can lead to predictions. Indeed, having more understanding should allow us to develop expectations. Having less understanding or no understanding is probably not the pathway to predicting anything.” And, having been burned for too many years by this Six Party conference, or that diplomatic gambit to Pyongyang by some former politician, and 62 years of tension, I doubt there will be peace on the peninsula for another 62 years.
In that light, my final recommendation is Juan J. Linz’s Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.
“We should not forget either that even established competitive democracies in a period of social change and revived ideological passions might undergo crises that lead to authoritarian rule unless a last minute and deliberate effort of reequilibration succeeds…
Paradoxically, great shifts in mass electorates in advanced societies, except in extreme crisis situations, are unlikely, and therefore evolutionary rather than basic change characterizes democratic politics. Since in authoritarian regimes change depends on few actors, less constrained by constituencies difficult to convince by persuasion rather than imposition, important changes can take place more unexpectedly and can change the system considerably.Perhaps the particular types of authoritarian regimes are less likely to be fully institutionalized, and therefore we can expect many changes within the genus authoritarian.” (Conclusion, p. 269)
June 25, 1950 has made me appreciate the wisdom of this epigram: “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” The war games never cease.
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