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What It Would Mean to End the Korean War

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While North Korea’s pleas to end the war had been ignored by its allies, the United States repeatedly reined in South Korea’s efforts to prolong it. The South Korean government didn’t want the conflict to stop until the reunification of the Korean Peninsula could be assured, and it staged various mass protests against armistice talks. Its National Assembly passed several unanimous resolutions to that effect: in 1951 proposing to continue fighting for an “independent and unified country” and in April 1953 opposing any armistice that didn’t also provide for a reunified Korea.

American and Chinese negotiators had already agreed in late 1951 to keep the peninsula divided by a demilitarized zone — and so when the Americans presented the U.N.C.’s final offer to the Communists in May 1953, they did not show it first to President Syngman Rhee of South Korea, for fear of his reaction. When he found out, Mr. Rhee ordered South Korean guards to release some 25,000 North Korean prisoners who didn’t want to go home. Fighting broke out again; there were tens of thousands of new casualties; the armistice was postponed.

In the end, the armistice terms struck in July 1953 — after 575 meetings between representatives from the U.N.C. and the Communist camp — were essentially the same as those that the U.N.C. had proposed when talks began in July 1951. And although Mr. Rhee’s last-ditch gambit did win South Korea several major concessions in exchange for its agreeing to end the fighting — a mutual defense pact with the United States, long-term economic aid, American support for expanding the South Korean military — the hard truths remained.

The conflict had been fought on Korean soil. Some 5.7 million people, soldiers and civilians, were killed, wounded or went missing, and most were Korean. Yet neither North Korea nor South Korea had much weight in their respective side’s decisions about how the fighting was conducted or how it ended. Both Koreas were, in effect, pawns in their own war.

Given this historical context, the symbolism of Mr. Kim’s and Mr. Moon’s recent meeting is significant: They met in Panmunjom, South Korea, where most of all those armistice talks took place, but alone, without their powerful allies.

The Koreas are no longer devastated client states caught in their patrons’ Cold War web. Today, South Korea is a vibrant democracy and one of the world’s largest economies. North Korea may still be isolated


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