In July, I visited the demilitarized zone on the east coast of South Korea. It was my first visit as a researcher at the Quincy Institute (QI), a transpartisan Washington think tank dedicated to advancing military restraint and international engagement. I first visited the DMZ in 2009 with a congressional delegation. But this time more than any other I grappled with what it means for the Korean War to technically continue to this day.
I’ve struggled with this question quite a bit during the past two years at QI. While many Americans think of the Korean War as history, it is very much alive and shapes the lived experience of the Korean people.
I was born in South Korea, and grew up hearing stories about how the war changed the lives of the Korean people for generations. My parents, both of whom were born around the start of the war in 1950, recalled the chaos that uprooted their lives. My father would talk about being so poor that he wore pants made from rice sacks. My mother often spoke about the traumatizing experience of losing land to the South Korean government because her family’s home was near what became the demilitarized zone. She struggled to finish high school while taking care of four siblings with her mother while her father succumbed to alcoholism.
The Korean War continues to have a profound impact on Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel. They view each other with a near permanent hostility, hardened over the years by occasional skirmishes resulting in military and civilian deaths. Former president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Kim Dae-jung faced harsh criticism for advocating better relations with North Korea, and current South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been accused of being a communist and a spy for promoting inter-Korean cooperation. Formally ending the Korean War is better than the protracted status quo as a means of making renewed conflict less likely and protecting US interests in the region.
Read the full article in Plough Quarterly.