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5 things to know about the Korean War

The inter-Korean border—from South Korea looking into North Korea—near Panmunjeom, the “truce village” straddling the border. Photo: Jennifer Deibert / AFSC

On July 27, 2022, I will join many others in a ceremony to unveil the new Wall of Remembrance at the Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C. The date commemorates the day that an armistice was signed, ending three years of active fighting. The new wall will feature the names of over 36,000 U.S. servicemen and 7,200 Koreans who augmented the U.S. Army who died in the fighting.    

On that day, I will also be thinking of memorials and museums in Seoul and Pyongyang, the capital cities in the northern and southern parts of the Korean Peninsula. The memorials in all three capitals tell the stories of pain, trauma, and the continued legacy of the Korean War.  

In the U.S., the Korean War is often called the “Forgotten War,” but for so many, the war is not something that will ever be forgotten.  

Here are five things you should know: 

1. The Korean War is not over. 

War broke out on the Korean Peninsula in 1950. Active fighting ended in an armistice signed by military representatives from the U.S., Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea), and China on July 27, 1953. This agreement was intended to be temporary, with peace talks planned as well as a formal peace treaty to end the war. But efforts to negotiate a permanent end to the war over the years have not been successful, most recently during 2018 talks between leaders of the U.S. and DPRK.  

Nearly 70 years after the armistice was signed, the war is still technically ongoing.  

The continued state of war on the Korean Peninsula creates dangerous conditions that could lead to violence and miscalculations. Formally ending the decades-long war could set the stage for peace and cooperation. 

Demarcation Line sign that is the official separation between the two parts of the peninsula. Most of the markers are in this condition or worse because they were meant to be temporary markers. Photo: Jennifer Deibert/AFSC

2. The U.S. and Soviet Union are responsible for dividing the Korean Peninsula, fueling conditions that led to war.

The origin of the conflict on the peninsula lies in the unnatural division that was drawn in 1945. Korea had been forcibly annexed by Japan in 1910 and remained a Japanese colony until 1945. After Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Korea was occupied by the U.S. and the Soviet Union until 1948.  

In 1945, the division of the Korean Peninsula was drawn by two U.S. officials from the U.S. War and State Departments. They sat in a room, looked at a map, and decided to propose a division at the 38th parallel to the Soviet Union. With this division, the stage was set for a conflict to break out, and it did in 1950. Active fighting lasted for three years, but the war never officially ended. An armistice was signed in 1953, and the most militarized border in the world was created to divide the peninsula.  

The current relationship between the DPRK and the U.S. grew out of the fears of the Cold War, in a long, slow march toward where we are now—a relationship characterized by tensions, economic sanctions, and isolation.  

3. Separation still affects many individuals and families in Korea and the U.S. 

Many people continue to feel the impacts of the ongoing war. Many Korean families, including Korean Americans, are separated from their family members by the highly militarized “Demilitarized Zone”, a 2.5-kilometer-wide buffer zone between the northern and southern part of the peninsula. In 2017, the U.S. government banned U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea with only a few exceptions for humanitarian workers, journalists, and Red Cross workers. Notably, travel for the purpose of family reunions has not been among the allowed categories.  

The war also still affects the families of an estimated 5,200 U.S. servicemembers whose remains are still in North Korea.  

4. AFSC has been working with people in North Korea to promote peace since 1980.

In 1980, AFSC sent its first delegation to DPRK to talk about how to work together to promote peace on the peninsula—and that work has continued to this day. Today we work with four cooperative farms in North Korea, piloting field-tested innovations to increase farm productivity. AFSC delegations have been able to travel in and out of DPRK to work with local partners to promote understanding and work toward common goals, like implementing a project to introduce a new method for transplanting rice seedlings to farmers.  

(Curious what a visit to the farms is like? Check out this video showing a typical visit to the farms.) 

5. U.S. engagement North Korea—not isolation—is the only way to build peace on the Korean peninsula.

There are many misconceptions about engagement with North Korea. The narrative from mainstream news tells a one-sided story, often presenting isolation as the key to changing the relationship with North Korea. Today it is as critical as ever that the U.S. work toward a pursuing a peaceful relationship with the DPRK that is built on mutual flourishing—not the vestiges of Cold War conflicts. Isolation will not move the world closer to a future free of the threat of nuclear war.   

Healing the wounds of war starts and ends at the interpersonal level. That’s why AFSC advocates to the U.S. government for policies that would promote engagement by reuniting separated families and bringing home the remains of servicemembers. We also continue to urge the government to allow privately funded organizations like AFSC to deliver humanitarian assistance to North Korea and work toward a peaceful end to the Korean war.  

 

Will you join us in advocating for peace on the Korean peninsula? Contact Congress today and urge them to support peace and humanitarian cooperation with North Korea! 

About the Author

Jennifer Deibert has been working on peace in Korea and humanitarian aid since 2014, including living in Chuncheon, South Korea from 2014-2021. Jennifer currently serves as the DPRK program director with AFSC and is based out of Reedley, California.