A man stands at a counter as television screens display a news broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands following a document-signing event in Singapore, in an electronics store in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

North Korea’s Nukes and the ‘Forgotten War’

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- How many Americans today would have any idea what you were talking about if you mentioned the 38th parallel? How many would stare blankly if you mentioned Syngman Rhee? How many would be able to tell you what this photo depicts

North Korea’s Nukes and the ‘Forgotten War’

It is a cliche that the so-called police action in Korea from 1950 to 1952 is America’s “forgotten war.” But, like most cliches, there is a lot of truth to it. American ignorance about the Korean War is a shame, and not only because it devalues the sacrifices of those who fought in it. With North Korea’s nuclear arsenal now threatening the U.S. mainland (not to mention Hawaii, Japan and the folks on the southern end of the peninsula), and President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un set to meet again next month, a little historical perspective might be helpful. 

One person who agrees with me is Hampton Sides, the best-selling writer of historical nonfiction including “Ghost Soldiers,” a page-turner about the secret mission to rescue U.S. survivors of the Bataan Death March in World War II. Sides’s latest book, “On Desperate Ground,” recounts another little-known chapter in American military history: the savage 1950 battle at the Chosin Reservoir, in which 20,000 Marines fought off more than 300,000 Chinese troops to escape a trap that might have ended the war in defeat. Here is a lightly edited transcript of a chat Sides and I had about Korea then, now and tomorrow:

Tobin Harshaw: Starting with your second book, “Ghost Soldiers,” you have written about war, the Western frontier, political assassination and polar exploration. Why go back to war now? Was the current state of affairs with North Korea an impetus?

Hampton Sides: It did seem to me, with all the recent developments in our relations with China and North Korea, that this was an auspicious time to tell this story. I wanted to go back and try to understand the deeper roots of what got us to where we are now. To an eerie extent, not much has changed since the Korean War.

It’s extraordinary how quickly everything went into freeze-frame, and how thoroughly the strategic picture ossified. We have now what we had then —a precarious stalemate, along this artificial line (the 38th Parallel), with a paranoid hermit kingdom to the north, supported by China and, to some extent, Russia. With the very real possibility that troubles emanating from this one inflamed appendix of land could ignite a nuclear war. Only now, all the parties in the conflict possess nuclear weapons.

TH: We call Korea the “forgotten war” in the U.S. But does it linger over the South Korean mindset six decades later?

HS: It certainly isn’t the forgotten war over there. It was a cataclysmic event that shook that society to the core. I went over there with a group of Korean War veterans as part of an amazing “revisit” program. It’s designed to formally thank these now-frail old men, from all the participating UN nations, who helped save their country. The South Koreans are tremendously grateful, and realize that but for the sacrifices of these men, their country wouldn’t exist. South Korea is a modern, thriving, functioning, technologically advanced democracy, with the world’s 11th-largest economy. When you stand at the Demilitarized Zone and stare across the minefields and the snarls of barbed wire and gaze upon this sad, strange, stunted state to the north, the dichotomy couldn’t be starker.

TH: Today’s Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is the grandson of Kim Il Sung, who led North Korea during the war. What insight did you gain into the enduring Kim dynasty?

HS: Not only does the apple fall close to the tree, it rots. It gets weirder and wormier. Kim Il Sung was a formidable guerrilla fighter during World War II, but as the supreme leader, handpicked by the Soviets, he quickly proved to be a malevolent dictator. After all, he had learned at the knee of the master — Stalin himself. And so early in his regime you start to see the gargantuan billboards, the odes to himself, a mythology of omniscience and omnipotence. It was said he could make himself invisible in battle, that he could walk on water, that he was the greatest human who had ever lived. That mythology only became more elaborate over succeeding generations of the dynasty. And even in 1950, in photographs of Kim, you start to see the origins of the Kim Jong Un haircut. That haircut is an extraordinary construct. It was three generations in the making.

TH: Looks like we may have another Trump-Kim summit next month. I know you aren’t a foreign affairs or military policy mandarin, but how would you advise the U.S. in dealing with North Korea today?

HS: Be mindful of the fact that North Korea’s fear and loathing of the U.S., however warped it seems, does have legitimate historical roots. During the Korean War, the U.S. bombed that country back to the Stone Age: Every building, every bridge, every village. The stated goal was to not leave a single brick standing upon another brick. That air campaign was gratuitous and cruel. We killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. We’re a country that has a habit of bombing people and then wondering why those people hate us. As we parse the madness that is the Kim regime, we should always keep in mind that this underlying history of “terror from above” figures into that madness.

Kim strikes many as a lunatic, but his nuclear strategy has actually been quite rational and effective in achieving his goals. So coaxing him to give up his nukes will take some extremely creative and forceful negotiating. The Hermit Kingdom desperately needs many, many things from the outside world — food, medicines, capital, technology, expertise and so on, and Kim knows this. A big question is whether he would really allow his own people to benefit in any meaningful way from the flow of goods and amenities that a removal of sanctions would usher in. Another question is whether he’d actually allow outside experts to come in and closely monitor his regime’s nuclear compliance. Caveats aside, we can only hope the talks continue. I’m highly skeptical of Trump’s much-avowed skills as a deal-maker, but a deal is certainly in the interest of the whole wide world.

TH: China at that point was a fledgling nation just emerging from an epic war. Yet it didn’t hesitate to enter Korea to keep the U.S. off its borders. Do you see parallels with China’s attempt to push an outward security blanket in the South China Sea and elsewhere?

HS: China is an infinitely more powerful nation now, and so any parallels have to take that into consideration. But I do think that China is and has always been extremely vigilant to any threats, real or imagined, to its national security. And for good reason. It has a long history of being invaded or meddled with by outside forces — the European colonial powers, missionaries, the Japanese and their atrocities — and so it tends to be keenly proactive.

Certainly that was true in the autumn of 1950. It was clear that China perceived American forces as a direct threat. And why wouldn’t they? We were marching right up to the Yalu River, which is the Chinese border. What would we do if the Chinese landed at Veracruz and marched through Mexico right up to the Rio Grande? We wouldn’t hesitate to intervene.

TH: When talking about Chinese determination, you say they were fighting with “the weight of the culture behind them. The might of an ancient society.” As China attempts global preeminence, is that deep history still a driving motivation?

HS: I’m no scholar of Chinese history, but in 1950, you certainly had the sense that this was a nation yearning to take its rightful place on the world stage, eager to flex its muscles and make an impact. It was intensely galling to Mao that after he had won his revolution, the U.S. and many other nations refused to recognize his regime as the legitimate government of the world’s most populous nation. There has always been an inferiority-superiority complex about China, a kind of double-stranded thinking that says, “We’re one of the oldest and greatest societies on earth, and yet we have so far to go to achieve that greatness.” I think that same double-helix still drives their aims and actions.

TH: As you recount the heroism of the Marines in 1950, they are also vastly concerned that their branch of the military is going to be diminished or even eliminated. Now the service is being forced to cut 20,000 troops, and there is talk of reducing its ground combat responsibilities. What does the military lose in particular if it shortchanges the Leathernecks?

HS: There is something very special about the Marines, and in my book I try to get at its essence. They have a certain steady, ready competence, and an ethos that seems to breed success. They’re neither fin nor fur nor feather — they’re their own thing, set apart from our other branches of service. And they’re ferocious fighters, of course. Whenever there’s trouble somewhere in the world, we say, “Time to call in the Marines.” There’s a very good reason for that expression.

TH: I’m assuming you didn’t get entry into North Korea. How did you paint such a vivid picture of the Chosin Reservoir and its surroundings?

HS: I always like to travel to the places I write about and of course I yearned to see the battlefield at the reservoir. But I just couldn’t get there — it’s a sensitive place and not generally open to tourists. I could have gone to Pyongyang, but had no interest in doing that — this was shortly after the death of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student. I had no interest in paying the regime a lot of money just to see some flag-waving ceremonies or go to a propaganda museum.

So I did the best I could with topographical maps, photographs, some motion pictures and Google Earth. I also went up to the DMZ and got a feel for the mountain range that surrounds the Chosin Reservoir — those same mountains, the Taebaeks, extend down into South Korea. By triangulating all this, and by interviewing scores of veterans of the battle, I was able to get a pretty good picture of the terrain.

TH: Those veterans you talked to -- what are the main things they remember about it?

HS: Mainly, the cold. In olden days, when it got that cold outside, soldiers would just lay down their arms and say, “See you in the spring.” At Chosin, the mercury dropped to 20 below zero, sometimes even lower. Many weapons wouldn’t fire. Lots of guys froze to death. The weather claimed more casualties than the combat did. More than 80 percent of these men suffered severe frostbite. Many lost fingers and toes. Some of them told me they still feel the cold, that they never did quite draw the chill from their bones.

And yet it’s a battle that most of the veterans I spoke to are extremely proud of having been part of. It’s one of the most decorated clashes in our nation’s history, and with good reason. The extremity of the ordeal brought to the fore a naked survival instinct, a fierce camaraderie, and a rare improvisational spirit. To me, there’s something timeless about this epic engagement — with shades of Thermopylae, or Xenophon’s account of the “March of the Ten Thousand.” Chosin was a classic ambush and envelopment in which the Chinese quite nearly succeeded in destroying one of the finest U.S. fighting forces, the First Marine Division. But on the shores of a frozen alpine lake, the Marines held on and heroically bashed their way out of Mao’s trap, marching from the mountains to the safety of the sea.

TH: A review in the Washington Post said “Trump is never far from a reader’s mind” and that it’s a cautionary tale for “our Trump-saturated culture.” I found that kind of odd. Do you see the connection?

HS: It was repeatedly said during the 2016 campaign that Douglas MacArthur is Trump’s “favorite general.” I don’t get the sense that Trump reads history — or anything else, for that matter — but it’s a telling detail. Because with Douglas MacArthur you had a grandiose and vainglorious autocrat who had surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-men. He was a colorful and interesting character — in narrative terms, a gift that keeps on giving. But he was a thoroughgoing narcissist. It was said that he didn’t have a staff; he had a court. He didn’t want to hear inconvenient information. He didn’t like experts — he was the expert. He was in love with the vertical pronoun. It was all about him. This sounds extremely familiar to me.

TH: Finally, it’s usually taken for granted that South Koreans view unification as an unalloyed good. I wonder. I’m old enough to remember what Germany went through in the 1990s, and differences between East and West Germany pale in comparison to what we see on the Korean Peninsula. And, overnight, many South Korean families would be burdened with supporting scores of relatives they didn’t even know existed. 

HS: I was in South Korea back in June and there was a certain energy in the air, almost a hint of what we saw in Germany before the wall came down. Trump likes to take credit for the new atmosphere, but the desire to improve relations between the two Koreas is so much bigger than any one person. What we’re seeing is largely an organic phenomenon of the Korean people, not one that’s particularly being driven by the U.S., China, or any other outside power.

Of course, Korea should never have been divided in the first place — drawing that line created one of the great geopolitical tragedies of modern times. Many thousands of families were torn apart and never allowed to see each other again. Historically speaking, there’s no difference between northern and southern Korea. It’s one country, one language, one culture, one people. 

Or at least it was. After more than 70 years of living apart, a reunification, if by some miracle it ever happened, would be a wrenching and doubtless violent process. It’s not clear how a brainwashed and traumatized people from an impoverished police state integrates into the dynamic capitalist society that is modern South Korea. Still, I believe it’s destined to happen one day.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security and the military for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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