Reflecting on the Korean Armistice, 70 Years Later

Recent Features

Interviews | Security | East Asia

Reflecting on the Korean Armistice, 70 Years Later

The Korean Peninsula remains divided, but in South Korea at least there are “wide-ranging and serious reflections on the meaning and consequences of the war,” says historian Gregg A. Brazinsky.

Reflecting on the Korean Armistice, 70 Years Later
Credit: Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. Naval Photographic Center.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean War was put on hold with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. It was not a permanent peace, merely a truce – but even that took two years of arduous negotiations involving not only North and South Korea but also their primary backers, China and the United States.

Seventy years later, the Korean Peninsula remain divided, the two Korean governments continue to see the other as an existential threat, and China-U.S. tensions continue to loom large over the conflict dynamics.

In this interview, Gregg A. Brazinsky, professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs, discusses the history of the armistice and the international dynamics that went into it. Brazinsky, who is also the director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and co-director of the East Asia National Resource Center, notes that the historical memory of the conflict continues to shape actions of the governments involved today. 

Negotiations for the armistice began in July 1951, but it took a full two years to reach a final agreement. What were the major factors preventing a quicker end to the full-scale fighting?

Signing the armistice was difficult for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most contentious issue was what should happen to the prisoners of war (POWs). This was a complicated situation. Many captured North Korean and Chinese POWs wanted to be repatriated to South Korea or Taiwan rather than returning home. The South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, exacerbated this situation by freeing many Korean POWs who vowed to fight against communism. The calculations of the different parties were all very complex. For instance, while the United States came to accept that the ongoing division of Korea into separate states could not be prevented, Rhee wanted to fight on until the peninsula was united under his leadership.

Famously, the Korean War ended in an armistice, and not a full-fledged peace treaty. How did the uncertain status of the Korean Peninsula – technically still in a frozen war – impact the policies of the North and South Korean governments in the immediate aftermath?

Once the war ended an uneasy peace settled on the Korean Peninsula. There was a conference held in Geneva in 1954 that was intended to find a more permanent solution to the problems of the Korean Peninsula but by that time the leaders of the two sides were too far apart. Both North and South Korea built large standing armies after the armistice. South Korea had the fourth-largest army in the world during the 1950s. Foreign troops remained on Korean soil to safeguard the peace. This included both thousands of American troops who stayed in South Korea and several hundred thousand Chinese volunteers who stayed in North Korea to provide security and assist in the reconstruction of the country. 

The People’s Republic of China – only four years old at the time – was a key combatant in the Korean War, and one of the signatories of the eventual armistice. How did more general China-U.S. tensions play into the armistice negotiations?

The war greatly exacerbated tensions between the United States and the PRC. In 1949, some officials in the Truman administration thought that it was inevitable that the United States would have to recognize the PRC. But that changed after June 1950. The United States really didn’t want China to gain a lot of prestige through its role in the Korean War. Americans feared that the war would enhance China’s credibility and that other countries in Asia would become more attracted to Maoist models of revolution and nation building. The more successful China was on the battlefield, the more it could potentially gain prestige among other Asian countries. Chinese leaders, for their part, were intent on proving that the PRC had become an important factor in East Asia and that it had ended its “century of humiliation” by standing up to the United States and its allies. They wanted to make sure that the armistice agreement reflected the PRC’s newfound standing in world affairs.

Syngman Rhee, the president of South Korea at the time, was against the armistice; he didn’t want to leave the issue of unification unsettled. Notably, South Korean representatives didn’t even sign the document. How is the armistice, with its points of unfinished business, viewed in South Korea today?

Interestingly, there has been a great deal of debate about Syngman Rhee and his legacy in South Korea in recent months. Many of the views of Rhee are greatly exaggerated. Conservatives credit him for founding the Republic of Korea and preventing the spread of communism. At the same time, they often whitewash his authoritarian tendencies and his failure to meaningfully improve the lives of South Koreans during his tenure in power. The Rhee period was one of economic stagnation in South Korea. On the other hand, Rhee’s critics say that he was an American puppet and pro-Japanese. Neither of these are true. Washington’s relationship with Rhee was very contentious and, in fact, the U.S. wanted Rhee to normalize relations with Japan but he always refused. Rhee was similarly contentious and difficult for Americans to deal with during the course of the Korean War. 

Progressives in South Korea have been more vocal in their criticism of the armistice. They have actually called for an end of war declaration or a peace treaty with the hope that this might improve inter-Korean relations and bring greater stability to the peninsula. Such a declaration will be more difficult to achieve in the next few years because a conservative president who takes a less conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang was elected in 2022. Conservatives generally view the armistice as ineffective in that it has been violated numerous times over the last 70 years. 

What were the main “lessons learned” from the Korean War for the four main combatants: North Korea, South Korea, China, and the United States?

The lesson that North Korea learned from the war is that it can never trust outside powers. There can be little question that it was Kim Il Sung that turned what had been a small-scale conflict into a larger war when he launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. But North Korea also suffered a great deal during the war. U.N. and ROK forces occupied North Korea for several months during the fall of 1950 and tried to completely erase the North Korean government. Between 1951 and 1953, American fighter jets took advantage of their air superiority to relentlessly bomb North Korea – obliterating both military and civilian infrastructure. Today, North Korea is intent on assuring that it is strong enough to defend itself (with nuclear weapons, if necessary). Part of the reason for this is that the suffering North Korea endured at the hands of U.N. forces during the war is seared into the country’s historical memory.

While the war ended in a stalemate, the PRC still viewed it as a victory. Just one year after it gained power, the CCP was able to hold U.N. forces to a bloody stalemate in Korea. They had saved a revolutionary communist regime in North Korea and now believed they could support others in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Taking responsibility for the fate of revolution in Asia would remain an important element of CCP foreign policy until the 1970s. 

South Korea is now a flourishing democracy and this has enabled it to have wide-ranging and serious reflection on the meaning and consequences of the war. There is much disagreement in South Korea about how the war should be viewed but there is perhaps consensus on the fact that it was a horrific tragedy that must nor be repeated.

The United States didn’t learn all of the lessons that it should have from the Korean War. Being held to a draw by Beijing and Pyongyang should have taught American policymakers that military and economic supremacy did not always guarantee victory and success. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States again proved overconfident in its military strength while underestimating its adversaries. This is not to say, however, that the sacrifices of American forces in Korea were in vain. Even if U.N. forces failed to unify the peninsula, with the sacrifices of American troops, South Korea would likely not be the prosperous democracy that it is today.