COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Just over 70 years ago, the Korean War ended; however, the close of that conflict did not necessarily show any indication that a relationship between South Korea and the United States would continue, according to experts. Choosing to stay connected, they agreed was a strategic decision.
In a discussion titled “US/Korean Relations in the Cold War and After” hosted by Columbus State University (CSU), panelists discussed factors which shaped ties between the United Sates and Korea in the period between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and initial North Korean missile tests in 2006.
“I think the most significant element and the that we ought to think about is the extent to which North- and South Korea became larger symbols of the Cold War,” said panelist Mitchell B. Lerner, a professor of history and director of the Ohio State University East Asian Studies Center.
Lerner was joined by Korean Economic Institute of America fellow and Director of Academic Affairs Clint Work, as well as retired Lt. Gen. Michael A Bills, former commanding general of U.S. 8th Army United Nations (UN) Command and Combined Forces Command of United States Forces Korea.
By Lerner’s analysis, following the end of fighting in the Korean War, North Korea and South Korea represented the battle between communist and capitalist societies embodied in the Cold War.
Over the course of the Korean War, one of the first wars to receive UN aide, the United States spent nearly $67 billion in providing support to South Korea. During that period, over 36,000 U.S. troops were killed in Korea, according to the Department of Defense (DOD). Over another 100,000 were wounded in action, the DOD states.
Lerner continued, “My simple answer is, this became the very embodiment of the rivalry and the struggle between the two global systems that dominated 50 years of world history and took the Korean peninsula to where it is today.”
While Work agreed with Lerner, he added the United States’ relationship with South Korea is also part of a larger “strategic tapestry.” Work also noted the 1965 Immigration and Nationally Act allowed for significant growth in immigration from Asian countries, including South Korea, further tying the two nations together.
“We went from the war to a whole multifaceted set of different connections between our countries,” Work said.
Although escalatory actions from North Korea have been taken over the years, panelists agreed that the avoidance of a war was in part due to strong U.S. policymaking. Work added U.S. officials tended to choose more restrained courses of response, deterring further escalation in the conflict, even as missile testing began.
According to Work, based on his past conversations with military officials, part of the issue when considering courses of action taken toward North Korea includes consideration of the people in South Korean cities who could be impacted.
Additionally, he noted North Korean capabilities are such that a prolonged war cannot be sustained, and in the event of a conflict the country would likely aim to quickly ramp up response. Work reminded audience members that a conflict in Korea would not remain localized, especially given the state of the U.S. relationship with China.
“I want people to understand that North Korea is a long-term problem,” said Lerner.
He continued, “There’s no easy answers, there’s no way to fix it either. The [North Korean] government has been in power for so long and has such rigid control, it’s just not an easy solution.”
CSU’s speaker series focused on the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea in the years since the armistice ending the Korean War will continue in 2024.
The next panel will occur on Feb. 1, focusing on the legacy of the Korean War. It will feature Emory University professor of law Mary Dudiak, Deputy Department Head of History at the United States Military Academy at West Point Col. Bryan Gibby and U.S. Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig.