Korea exploded 44 years ago tomorrow

June 24, 1994|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

SEOUL, South Korea -- For virtually his whole adult life, Kim Chong-kop has lived under war and the threat of war.

The defining moment for Kim's generation happened exactly 44 years ago tomorrow, when on June 25, 1950, seven North Korean Army divisions swept past a lightly armed South Korean force on the 38th parallel dividing the former Japanese colony.

The attack not only sparked a war in which millions died. It also seared a generation of Koreans with one very simple lesson: Power is what counts.

"That's why they came, because we were weak," says Mr. Kim, a retired South Korean lieutenant general now in his 70s. "At the beginning of the war, we had nothing."

The three-year Korean War shattered the Korean peninsula, killed 4 million people, including nearly 2 million civilians, and dragged in more than 22 other nations on both sides. In Korea, unlike in Vietnam, U.S. soldiers fought directly against both Soviet and Chinese adversaries. About 34,000 Americans died.

Today, Moscow and Washington are working together on the world stage. China and the United States are important economic partners. The geostrategic rivalry between the West and the communist world has ended everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except here.

The Korean War's unfinished legacy goes beyond the threat of renewed conventional conflict, which could involve 1.7 million Korean troops and 37,000 Americans stationed in the South.

In recent months, the likelihood that North Korea could develop -- or already has developed -- nuclear weapons has shot to the top of the global agenda. North Korea has balked at full inspections of nuclear facilities by the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the communist government has followed a zigzag path between threats of war and promises of renewed cooperation.

Kim Chong-kop and his fellow Korean veterans -- who dominated South Korea's government until the transition to civilian rule with the 1992 election of President Kim Young-sam -- express confidence about resolving the nuclear issue and attaining the long dream of Korean unification. But they say they doubt that significant progress will occur as long as North Korean President Kim Il-sung is alive.

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