Peace and Conflict Monitor

COMMENT
On the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement
Kim Yeon-chul
January 21, 2013
Though the combat phase of the war is over, the Korean peninsula is still without a lasting peace.


Kim Yeon-chul, Inje University professor. Photo: The HankyorehThis year marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War. The fratricide of the conflict did not end on July 27, 1953; it merely came to a temporary halt. We have spent the past 60 years living not in a post-war era, but under a ceasefire. Can we continue to live under such an unstable system? As we greet the New Year, I wish to ponder just what the meaning of the armistice agreement is.

Over its five years in office, the Lee Myung-bak administration has reversed the hard-fought efforts of the post-Cold War era and amplified lingering memories of hatred. We have gone back to the days of a war that is indeed cold: the global Cold War may have ended 20 years ago, but the anachronism remains alive and well on the Korean Peninsula. The Military Armistice Commission has long since stopped being able to maintain the armistice system on a peninsula where the armistice agreement is not even being adhered to. Antagonism lives on in the deserted paradox that is the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily armed place on earth.

Where is the peace?

The North Korean nuclear negotiations have lost all momentum. The six-party talks are part of a distant past. Discussions toward a peace regime remain on ice. In the last presidential election, peace proponent Moon Jae-in lost to security proponent Park Geun-hye. Has peace lost its way? Even the border regions have abandoned their rational decisions of the last few elections. This is the part of the country that stands to suffer the most for the tensions in terms of its property rights, the region whose economy will be hurt by the declining number of tourists. In the past, it voted for the future, for peace, rather than the traditional national security line.

Not this time. How do we explain this? It is a matter that demands deep and painful contemplation. A great wall existed between our memories of the war and our ability to imagine peace. We were all too casual in the face of the memory gap between the generations, too neglectful of the backwardness of today’s politics.

Do we have the alternatives of forgetting and compromising? A sense of apathy is rearing its head, as well as a failure to comprehend that we are living under an unstable armistice regime. People are becoming less aware of the North Korea variable, forgetting the military tensions, ignoring the realities of division and dismissing peace as pure idealism. We must not lose sight of that fact that while this gap between perceptions and reality grows, the armistice system is festering inside us.

To be sure, we cannot deny that the North Korean nuclear issue has become more serious, or that Pyongyang has been slow to change. Peace is not something that one side can declare unilaterally; it is forged as part of a relationship. I certainly do not expect it to be an easy process. But I cannot agree with those in today’s political opposition who would latch onto the public’s desire for security and forget all about what division has done to us. It is anachronistic to talk about moderate views or the new politics as involving a “conservative approach to security.” Politics isn’t something you do simply with your head, and it will never inspire people when it fails to recognize our historical responsibilities.

So we must start over. We have lost our way - between a cease-fire and a formal end to hostilities, between war and peace. We have an abundance of memories of war, but still only the faintest glimmerings of a sense of what peace might be like. Still, we must not forget. Our duty today is to turn our unstable armistice system into a permanent peace regime. Rather than looking solely to the achievements of past administrations, we must present a new path to peace that takes into account the political changes that have taken place. Many people now are fighting to uphold an everyday peace. We must be able to convince people that peace is not a mere obligation, but something that can change the lives we live.

We must wait for peace like Vladimir waited for Godot, asking “Will it come tomorrow?” It’s hard to go back to talking of “hope” here, but this 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement poses a question to us all: what does peace mean? Peace is not something given to us; it is something we create.

Right now, there is someone standing out there in this bitter cold, high up on a precarious perch. It is a last-ditch measure from a person facing a desperate plight, a person who saw no other way of drawing attention. When you risk your life, people pay attention. They forget all about ideology and feel only concern.

Don’t they?

Not us. We’re too busy. What is the only way to save them? To protest down here on the ground, each in our own way. To not look away. That’s all.


This article originally appeared in The Hankyoreh (hani.co.kr) and has been reposted with the author's permission. The original Korean text is available here.
Kim Yeon-chul, Inje University professor.