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H. Patricia Hynes & Frances Crowe: A war in Korea that wouldn’t quite end 60 years ago

Americans at home had tired of the deadlocked war and disconnected from it; American soldiers fighting in it did not understand its historical roots. The war’s especially morbid consequences for Korean women trapped in prostitution around U.S. military bases — in what for them has been 60 years of a war system — have not ended.

The menace of nuclear war this spring, with each side intensifying threats, embodies the toxic legacy of this war. This war had no winner. Everyone lost. An estimated 5 million people lost their lives, by far the majority of them Korean civilians.

More than 35,000 American soldiers died in the war, with approximately 92,000 wounded and 5,000 missing in action. What lesson was learned by the new administration presiding over the last year of the war?

By October 1953, President Eisenhower promulgated a new defense strategy, known as NSC-162/2, that would assure national security for less cost. No longer would the United States be drawn into limited conflicts and use conventional weapons, as in Korea. Massive retaliation with atomic weapons would be the threat and response, if necessary.

And so, a foundation was laid for the escalating nuclear threat and counter threat dysfunction that poisons the Korean peninsula and imperils the world.

In a recent lecture at Lafayette College, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a Korean War veteran, spoke bluntly about American militarism: “Almost constantly since World War II, our country has been at war.” He added that he could not think of any place on earth today where the United States is working to promote peace — nor could the new Secretary of State John Kerry when Carter queried him.

Regarding North Korea, Carter traced the current crisis to the Bush administration’s abrogation of a 1994 agreement with North Korea that assured North Korea would not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for energy and economic aid. In the early 1990s, Carter was asked by the North Korean leader Kim II Sung to come to North Korea “because no one in the U.S. government would talk to the North Koreans.”

After persuading the adverse Clinton administration for permission, he met with Kim II Sung, who expressed wanting a peace treaty with the United States and to have the economic embargo lifted against his country. The result of their talks was a successful diplomatic agreement that ended the Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting of an economic embargo, allowing Americans to search for the remains of Korean war veterans, a peace treaty and so on.

The Bush administration dismantled the agreement and included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” countries, making it an explicit target of regime change. North Korea responded by starting up a nuclear weapons program, weapons testing and chest-beating war rhetoric. The Obama administration has, in turn, ratcheted up war games with South Korea, including a simulated nuclear attack on North Korea, and tightened the economic stranglehold on banking and trade. Thus, a small, poor country wasted by its own militarization and the world’s hypermilitarized superpower are locked in a nuclear standoff.

Carter concluded his address at Lafayette College: “I’ve been there two or three times since the 1994 agreement and I can tell you what the North Koreans want is a peace treaty with the United States and they want the 60-year economic embargo lifted against their people, so they can have an equal chance to trade and commerce. It’s a very paranoid country. They are honestly convinced that the United States wants to attack them and destroy their country, to eliminate the Communist regime. They make a lot of mistakes but if the United States would just talk to the North Koreans ... I believe ... we could have peace, and the United States would be a lot better off in the long run.”

Interestingly, the 155-mile demilitarized zone dividing the people of Korea — 2.5 miles wide — has evolved into an unforeseen ecological habitat for several endangered plants and animals, among them the iconic red-crowned crane, the Korean tiger and Asiatic black bear, in what is one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.

Ecologists there have identified nearly 3,000 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 329 species of birds. All that in a heavily monitored, militarized, and mined buffer zone.

May it serve as nature’s model and metaphor for an as-yet-unreconciled, yet deeply connected people.

Frances Crowe is a longtime peace and justice activist and lives in Northampton. H. Patricia Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts.

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