- Donald Trump’s goal when he meets with North Korea’s ruler later this week is to “advance the cause of peace,” as he tweeted recently. If he declares an end to the Korean War, as his administration says he might, he will fulfill a decades-old North Korean objective—one the American national-security establishment has fiercely resisted.
- In this issue, The Masthead travels with the Korean War historian Bruce Cumings back to the end of the fighting, in 1953. Cumings revisited an Atlantic archival story: “Our Mistakes in Korea,” by S. L. A. Marshall.
- The audio of our interview is available on SoundCloud and in your members-only podcast feed. Here’s how to access it via your podcast player of choice.
“It is high time for us to bring our Korean expeditionary forces back home,” wrote the historian Bruce Cumings in 1997. The military mission that began in 1950 as an effort to resist Communist aggression was no longer worth the cost. “We need to take a hard look at the dangers of our many far-flung responsibilities, which have now long outlasted the Cold War and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.,” he wrote.
More than 20 years have passed since Cumings wrote those words in The Atlantic. The two sides haven’t engaged in major combat since a truce was signed in 1953. But officially, the war continues, a fact included in North Koreans’ daily indoctrination. A formal peace is now closer than ever. The idea of a peace treaty to end the Korean War will be up for discussion when Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, in Hanoi on Wednesday and Thursday.
To set the stage for the summit, I called up Cumings—now a history professor at the University of Chicago—and asked him to go back to the roots of the conflict. We looked back even further in the Atlantic archives, to a 1953 article by S. L. A. Marshall, an official U.S. Army historian, titled “Our Mistakes in Korea.”1 Cumings agreed that plenty of mistakes were made—but perhaps not the ones Marshall identified. Here are three key takeaways from our conversation. For more, listen to the full podcast.
1. Americans have misunderstood the North Koreans from the beginning. “It started on the first day of the war,” Cumings said. General Douglas MacArthur “said he could beat these peasants with one hand tied behind his back.” He was wrong. The United States and its allies overextended their forces and fell into a trap, leading to the military stalemate that still persists. The root cause of the military disaster wasn’t an intelligence failure, but a willful disinterest: Senior Americans officials had “terrible prejudices about Asians,” Cumings said. Marshall even used a racist term to describe Koreans in his Atlantic story.
“Of course, the North Koreans don’t help anybody get to know them,” Cumings said. But by now there’s little excuse for ignorance.
What North Korea wanted in 1953 isn’t all that different from what it wants now. American leaders have traditionally opposed a peace treaty because it would legitimize a regime that brutalizes its people and threatens its neighbors. “The North Koreans see a peace treaty as legitimating them, too, because you can’t make peace with a party that you don’t recognize. And we still don’t recognize North Korea,” Cumings said.
2. America once restrained both Koreas from going to war. Now it’s blocking their pursuit of peace. South Korea refused to sign the 1953 armistice. The country was a dictatorship until the 1980s, and America’s troop commitment was intended in part to prevent the South from attacking the North. Now, under President Moon Jae In, South Korea wants to end the war. That aligns its goal with the North’s ambition since a peace conference in 1954. “We have excellent documentation on this, particularly from captured documents and from the American intelligence side. The North Koreans really did expect to negotiate a peace between the Chinese [who supported North Korea] and the Americans,” Cumings said. “But it’s clear from the documentation that is available now that the U.S. had no intention whatsoever to have a peace in Korea.”
The animating difference now is between Trump and the American national-security establishment. The consensus view has held that a peace treaty should come at the end of a process in which North Korea takes steps to reduce the threat it poses to South Korea, Japan, and the United States, including by limiting or giving up its nuclear-weapons program. Trump sees nothing wrong with engaging with North Korea before that happens, and doesn’t see strategic value in keeping American troops in South Korea. If Trump can restrain or ignore his hawkish advisers, South Korea’s leadership could advance its push for a peace deal. Things could cut the other way, though. “I think the U.S. runs the real risk of anti-American sentiment—in both Koreas, but South Korea is the key one for us”—if it blocks a treaty, Cumings said.
3. Korea is the true forever war. “Korea is, I think, the best example in post-world-war history of how easy it is to get into a war and how hard it is to get out,” Cumings said. The U.S. presence in Syria shows the same dynamic of military inertia. Trump declared bluntly that American troops would withdraw from the Middle Eastern country, and yet they remain. The administration announced Thursday that it would keep 200 troops in the region as peacekeepers. “If somebody had said that in 1953 you would have 28,000 American troops in Korea in 2019, I think people would have fainted,” Cumings said. And even if Trump makes a declaration of peace, the historical record strongly suggests that troops will stay. “My prediction from the beginning of the Trump administration has been, this is one thing he won't get rid of,” Cumings added.
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- Marshall’s work as a historian has been credibly questioned in recent years. Cumings found small inaccuracies in Marshall’s Atlantic article—“He gets the number of North Korean soldiers off by a factor of six”—but said there was no reason to disbelieve the broader thrust of the story. ↩