SOUTH KOREA: Park Jong-Wook remembers the day June 25, 1950, when without warning, the communist North Korean forces launched a surprise attack on South Korea in the wee hours of the morning.
Unprepared and shocked by the invasion, Mr Park – who was a South Korean soldier in the 1st division in the 13th regiment – recalls how his troops avoided the invaders for days, and were forced to pull back to Munsan and subsequently to the banks of the Hanju River.
“We’re soldiers and we didn’t know what was causing it politically. Suddenly, the North Korean tanks invaded us, and what we had then was a 81mm mortar, not enough to go up against the North Korean tanks,” recalled Mr Park, 91, a retired lieutenant colonel today, speaking to the programme Insight. (Watch the episode here)
Korea had been divided into two spheres of influence after World War Two, which had ended just five years prior. The Americans controlled the South while the Soviet Union installed a communist regime in the North.
This 38th parallel line left a deep division between the two halves, with each claiming to be the legitimate government of all Korea.
ONLY THREE DAYS TO TAKE SEOUL
In 1950, North Korean forces launched an attack across the 38th parallel and quickly took most of the territories in the South.
For us, it felt like burglars suddenly broke into our homes.
“That was why our preparation for the war was insufficient and we were not able to fend off the North Koreans,” Mr Park said.
They were forced to use delaying tactics to slow down the North Korea military as far as possible, including building a defence force at the south of the Han River. However, it only took three days for the invading army to overrun South Korea’s capital Seoul.
“No words can describe how I felt. Seoul being defeated was not something that we could have imagined. It happened so suddenly,” he said. “Many South Korean soldiers died and many were wounded.”
When the 38th parallel was established, the division was arbitrary and had no basis in history, pointed out Mr John Delury, associate professor of East Asian studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
With the invasion, North Korea had wanted to reunify the Korean peninsula.
“The South actually wouldn’t have minded invading the North,” said Mr Delury. “In the end, it was the North that decided they had the opportunity.
“They thought they had the military advantage so Kim Il Sung, with the support of the Soviet Union and of communist China, decided to invade. And that led to horrific consequences for everyone involved.”
The United States then was not ready to fight as it had demilitarised after WWII; It had just a small number of forces in South Korea, said Mr Thomas Byrne, president of the New York-based Korea Society. And none of the soldiers had combat experience.
“Korea had also been excluded from the perimeter of defence that the US would consider to be within its strategic interests in East Asia,” he added. “And that probably encouraged the North Korea leader Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin (leader of the Soviet Union) to give the green light to the invasion.”
THE NORTH’S SIEGE MENTALITY
The United Nations (UN) then backed what it called a “police action” to repulse the advance of North Korean forces – some 21 countries eventually entered the conflict with the US providing 88 per cent of the UN Forces.
Former US President Mr Harry Truman said then: “If aggression is successful in Korea, we can expect it to spread in Asia, Europe and this hemisphere. We are fighting in Korea for our own national security and survival.”
The allied forces launched an amphibious invasion in 1950 – the Battle of Inchon that resulted in a decisive victory and strategic reversal in favour of the UN. It led to the recapture of Seoul and the allied forces also managed to push back the North Korean invaders – all the way to the Northern border with China.
“That completely turned the course of the war,” said Mr Delury. “That was one of the great military strategic triumphs of modern history.”
The US forces then attacked North Korea with one of the most devastating aerial bombings in history – dropping more than 600,000 tons of explosives on the country, including more than 30,000 tons of napalm. More bombs were dropped on North Korea than throughout the entire Pacific theatre during WWII.
“They were carpet-bombed to no end. There are US military documents complaining that there were no targets left, there’s nothing to hit,” said Mr Delury.
So it created the kind of siege mentality that you still see is a part of the North Korean psyche to this day,
STALEMATE AND ARMISTICE
In October 1950, China entered the Korean conflict and with its troops, pushed the US and UN forces back to the 38th parallel.
There was a two-year stalemate with bloody battles but not very much changes in territory, said Mr Bruce Klingner, an Asia expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
“So that’s why you can say everyone lost, no one won – just horrific bloodshed,” he added.
An armistice was subsequently signed in 1953 which froze the forces in place.
“The two sides kind of lost their will to keep slugging it out. It was pretty clear no one was going to win militarily and so, they signed an armistice agreement,” said Mr Delury, adding that it was supposed to be a prelude to a peace treaty.
That treaty never happened, he added. “And so Korea has lived with this very temporary armistice system for about 70 years.
So that’s how the Korean War sort of ended – it both ended and it didn’t.
By the time the armistice was signed in July 1953, 2.5 million people had died, and it is estimated that 20 per cent of the North Korean population perished.
But until today, many North Koreans still believe that it was the US which provoked the war in 1950 as part of its broader strategy of the post-war global domination.
Former North Korean military officer Choi Jung-Hoon, who defected to the South in 2006, said their history books showed that it was the South that attacked them first.
“When I came to South Korea, what shocked me the most was the history that I studied in North Korea was a complete lie, and that was the first time I knew about it,” he said. The North Korean mindset was that “the US military had fought wars and killed many North Koreans”.
The end of the armed conflict, however, failed to bring an end to hostilities between the two countries – if anything, it put both nations technically and perpetually in a state of war.
Many North Koreans still regard the US and South Koreans as the aggressors, and preventing another attack by the US therefore became the priority of the regime. This survival mentality was what prompted supreme leader Kim Il Sung to embark on an ambitious nuclear program to help ensure its long-term security.
Mr Nah Liang Tuang, a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, said the country was subjected to widespread devastation – Pyongyang had been completely levelled to the ground and had to be rebuilt from scratch.
“When you consider that North Korea was at that time assisted by hundreds and thousands of Chinese solders as well as support…from the Soviet Union, while at the same time still suffering so much devastation – then the rationale for acquiring nuclear weapons as an independent deterrent to preserve national security becomes understandable from Kim Il Sung’s standpoint,” Mr Nah said.
Mr Choi shared that the leaders were so hell-bent on developing their own nuclear weapons that they were willing to ignore the plight of their own people.
Even though the North Korean people were starving to death, they will only focus on nuclear development.
With the help of the Soviet Union, the North began to work on its nuclear complex, and in the early 1980s, it successfully built its first nuclear power plant in Yongbyon.
Pyongyang insisted it was only for peaceful purposes, and even became a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, which barred the country from producing nuclear weapons.
But when pressed for access to its nuclear waste sites, it started to become jittery and threatened to withdraw from the NPT. The country also began to reprocess fuel rods from its nuclear reactor – a process which would give it enough weapons-grade plutonium for five or six nuclear weapons.
Former US president Bill Clinton later negotiated a peace deal with Pyongyang in 1994, where North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for aid.
THE END OF GOODWILL
But that goodwill ended when Mr George W Bush took over as US President in 2001 – he took a more hardline stance towards North Korea and even called the country, along with Iraq and Iran, part of an ‘Axis of Evil’.
Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT and reactivated its nuclear power facilities – the agreed framework signed between the two countries simply collapsed.
By 2005, North Korea declared that it had its own nuclear weapons, and a year later, it tested its first nuclear device – sending shockwaves through Asia and around the world.
Mr Bush called for stiff UN sanctions on the regime, but it continued to defy numerous UN resolutions to halt its nuclear weapons and missile tests.
When US President Barack Obama took over, he maintained a policy of strategic patience, but that failed to persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table. If anything, the policy had allowed the country to further develop its nuclear and long-range missile capability.
In 2016, they conducted their fifth underground nuclear test – its most powerful thermonuclear weapon.
Less than six years into his reign, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested more missiles than his father and grandfather combined, and he also claimed that the missile could hit major cities in the US.
“The deposit of strategic patience did not have sharp enough teeth,” pointed out Mr Nah. “Strategic patience was in effect fairly ineffectual because it was not backed up by effective sanctions.”
THE TRUMP EFFECT
The rise of Mr Donald Trump as US President last year changed the dynamics in the region – the US policy of strategic patience was replaced by a tough foreign policy of engagement towards North Korea.
Last October, the US sent a naval strike group led by aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the Pacific as a show of force – a warning to them against conducting further nuclear tests.
The Trump administration presents new opportunities for North Korea, said Mr Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, and Mr Trump had never negotiated with North Korea before.
He wanted a new kind of negotiation style of his own to be reflected in his talk with North Korea.
“So I think the presidency change in the US might be harder on the two countries’ relationship, but at the same time, it gives a new opportunity…for the two,” he said.
But as both sides kept engaging in a dangerous game of political brinkmanship, the chain of threats and counter-threats between two erstwhile enemies brought the two nations closer to an armed conflict.
From calling each other names to taunts about nuclear devices, Mr Trump and Mr Kim kept the world riveted with their war of words.
Mr Choi believes that when push comes to shove, Mr Kim might use his missiles to protect himself and the regime.
“The nuclear weapons were developed to keep the US in check. If Kim Jong Un gets pushed into a corner, he might fire those missiles,” he said.
“They claimed to have built an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) that flew 16,000km across the missile range. So if he gets cornered, he could use those nuclear missiles.”
OLIVE BRANCH TO THE SOUTH
But in a surprise move, Pyongyang suddenly offered an olive branch to the South – it announced that it would send its athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February this year.
That led to an inter-Korean Summit between the two historic foes, culminating in the Panmunjom Declaration which reaffirmed the commitment of both leaders to work towards “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and bringing the Korean War to a full closure.
This diplomatic gesture marked a significant shift in relations between the two Koreas, and also set the stage for a historic meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Trump.
Pressure from the international community, the US and its hardline policy may also have made the North Korean people more disgruntled – making Mr Kim realise that these may put its regime in danger, said Mr Kim Hyun Wook.
“There might have been some change of Kim Jong Un’s perceptions that he is a different leader from his father and his grandfather,” he said.
He has experienced a Western society, educated in Switzerland…maybe he wants to make North Korea a normal state like other countries.
For North Korea, if it wants to improve the economy and standard of living, and to shift its strategic focus of building up its military to that of the economy – then it has to have unfettered access to international markets for trade and finance, said Mr Byrne.
“The sanctions that exist…have basically boxed in North Korea, and more severely cramped North Korea’s ability to earn foreign exchange to trade, to develop its own economy,” he said.
Ms Kim Jiyoon, a senior fellow at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that Mr Trump would be looking at a breakthrough too, especially with the midterm elections coming up in November and the presidential elections in 2020.
“He’s not really in a good situation domestically right now…so he probably wants to have (a) really good deal for him to brag about,” she added.
POSITION OF STRENGTH
But there’s a growing realisation in the Trump’s administration that a deal may not be reached in just one meeting.
Said Mr Trump: “It’ll be a beginning…I’ve never said it happens in one meeting, you’re talking about years of hostility, years of problems. Years of really hatred between so many different nations. But I think you’re going to have a very positive result in the end, (but) not from one meeting.”
Mr Delury said that there’s real political will between the two leaders for the summit to be a success, but the negotiation will be complex.
“If Singapore doesn’t happen, that probably means the parties are close enough. And so they are going to wait and try again,” he added.
That’s also the dream of retired lieutenant colonel Mr Park – peace.
He is constantly reminded of the pains of the Korean War – today, in his sunset years, he spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, many of whom are former soldiers, to share and relive old memories.
After experiencing the bitter war in the 1950s, he does not wish to see the repeat of the painful episode ever again.
War – he feels – should never be the solution to the ongoing problem facing the two divided nations, especially for South Koreans who have been living under a nuclear threat shadow for decades.
“Shouldn’t my children and my grandchildren not have to go through another war like this? If you have not fought a war, you won’t understand. There should be no war. This is my only hope,” he said.
Watch this episode of Insight here.