Ending the Korean War

In this article, Dr. Michael F. Duggan traces the roots of the present conflict on the Korean Peninsula to its origins during the Korean War. After a discussion on the causes and the course of the war, he then discusses the implications of a North Korea with nuclear weapons as well. He then discusses the reasons why North Korea would seek to develop a nuclear bomb in the first place. Dr. Duggan then closes by proposing ways that the US and China could work together to avert a potential nuclear war on the peninsula.

Dr. Michael F. Duggan has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. He has taught both at Georgetown University and at New York University’s DC program. In 2011-2012, he was the Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States.

With rhetoric ratcheting events toward a crisis between the United States and North Korea, it is instructive to take account of how the situation has evolved since the beginning of the Korean War in order to devise a workable solution.

History: Miscalculations

The Korea War began with a chain reaction of miscalculations and overreach by all sides.[1] The outbreak of any war denotes the failure of policy, and the best thing one can say about a war is that fighting it was necessary.  The Korean War was an unnecessary conflict that ended indecisively after three years of misery and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.[2] To be accurate, it has never officially ended: the Korean Armistice Agreement that was signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953, only secured a ceasefire. Because it is not a peace treaty, the conflict remains a suppressed war where potential enemies watch each other warily across the last frontier of the Cold War.

Despite the tensions of the early Cold War, then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson felt comfortable announcing that South Korea lay outside of the U.S. defensive perimeter during a speech at the National Press Club on January 12, 1950.  In fact, the speech was a public expression of the NSC48/2 document[3]. NSC 48-2 was a National Security Council policy report that spelled out US support (both military and economic) to nations resisting communist movements and what was perceived as world communism.  South Korea was not mentioned in this document, so Acheson’s speech recognized that it lay outside of our defense perimeter.Thus, this announcement was misconstrued by the North Korean government as a green light to violently reunite the two Koreas—a plan Mao and Stalin approved without enthusiasm.

The ensuing invasion took the United States by surprise, knocking the American and South Korean forces on their heels and pushing them back to a perimeter around the port city of Pusan on the southeastern coast.

According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, if South Korea had been regarded as strategically marginal before the invasion, it quickly became an item of great psychological importance within the bipolar logic of the Cold War that to lose anywhere is to lose everywhere.[4]  The United Nations regarded the invasion as a violation of territorial sovereignty and intervened under American leadership after a seven-to-one vote in the Security Council on June 27 (with the Soviet Union abstaining).  Thus began the “Police Action”[5].

In one of the most brilliant and daring large-scale military operations in history, General Douglas MacArthur landed 70,000 U.S. soldiers and marines at Inchon—a port city on the West Coast of the Korean Peninsula a mere 20 miles from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. What makes the assault at Inchon more remarkable is that the thirty-two-foot tidal differential is among the most extreme in the world. A tidal differential is the difference (usually measured in vertical feet) between low tide and high tide.  Each foot of vertical differential affects the horizontal differential to a far greater extent (i.e. on a flat beach, a sing vertical foot differential could result in a horizontal change of 50 feet).  An area with a 31 or 32-foot tidal differential would be extremely difficult for beach landing: at high tide, the landing would occur far up on the beach or even a sea wall (as was the case which was the case at the Red Beach landing at Inchon); at low tide, heavily weighed-down troops would have to cross hundreds of yards of mudflats.  If this is done under fire, the situation could result in the bogging-down and massacre of the invading troops. In spite of such hazards, American forces experienced very few casualties, effectively cutting off and destroying the North Korean invasion force in the South with a hammer-and-anvil strategy. Soon though, it would be the Americans’ turn to miscalculate.

With a pre-Cold War military mentality of total war and the view that “there is no substitute for victory”, MacArthur aggressively drove his forces north and continued their push beyond the thirty-eighth parallel. By this point, MacArthur was virtually a rogue sovereign entity pursing his own foreign policy. In a rare lapse of judgment that reflected the position of the Truman Administration, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall informed MacArthur “to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the thirty-eighth parallel.”[6] After crossing the line, resistance dropped off and it appeared as if the war would be soon be over and that a single, pro-West Korea would be restored before Christmas.

However, at least one U.S. advisor, George F. Kennan, was nervous.  As Kennan observed on August 8, 1950, “[w]hen we begin to have military successes, that will be the time to watch out.  Anything may then happen—entry of Soviet forces, entry of Chinese Communist forces…”  As was so often the case over the course of his long public career, his words would soon read like a prophecy.[7] To him the U.N. (read: the U.S.) mandate was the “restoration of the status quo ante”, and not to reunite the two Koreas[8]As with other subtle observers in Washington, Kennan feared that a wider war could touch off a third World War.

Not long after Kennan penned these words, approximately 300,000 Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River and pushed the American forces back on November 26, 1950.  Although the Americans were ultimately successful in evading destruction at the hands of the Chinese, the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir was a significant reverse and remains one of the most haunting chapters in recent American military history.[9]

After the retreat, Truman and Marshall came to their senses; MacArthur was relieved of command for insubordination and was replaced by a superb combat commander, a paratrooper with a better understanding for the subtleties of limited war within the context of the Cold War, Matthew B. Ridgway.  It was Ridgway whose inspired,yet sensible, leadership stabilized the front that would remain fairly stable for the next two-and-a-half years.

Korea’s mountains precluded a war of maneuver (tanks were sometimes relegated to the role of fixed-position artillery) and the realities of limited war ground the conflict down to a war of position. As Dean Acheson observed, “If the best minds in the world had set out to find the worst possible location to fight this damnable war politically and militarily, the unanimous choice would have been Korea[10].”  After all, Korea is a land fluctuating between extremes of heat and cold.

In the decades that followed the war, little in the North has changed, as witnessed by the abrupt cutoff of South Korean light pollution as seen from space at the sharp edge of the DMZ.

By contrast, to say that South Korea has moved on since 1953 would be a gross understatement. An economic miracle, it has grown from a poor Far East backwater (and frequent victim of more powerful neighbors analogous to Germany in the seventeenth-century or Poland in the twentieth) to a regional economic powerhouse. Now South Korea is one of the “Asian Tigers” whose 1.5-trillion-dollar per year economy is the fourth largest in Asia and eleventh largest in the world. Seoul is now a world-class metropolis of nearly ten million people and the greater Seoul Metropolitan Area, with a population of about 25.5 million people, is considerably larger than Greater New York City. Seoul is not only home of Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung, but is also home to about half of all South Koreans and its distance from the DMZ is about the same as that of Washington, D.C. from Baltimore.


Given this historical context and the subsequent 64 years, what are the likely sources of North Korea’s behavior? It seems that beyond its rigid and extreme ideology, there are three other potentially important influences.

The first is that the United States dropped an enormous amount of ordnance on North Korea during the war and that being on the receiving end of strategic bombing campaigns changes people. Even comparatively small attacks can change a nation’s outlook.  For instance, the attack on Pearl Harbor pivoted the United States 180 degrees from a mostly isolationist nation into the “Arsenal of Democracy” bent on unconditional surrender in a matter of hours, and the attacks of September 11th, 2001 led directly to two wars that fester to this day after spending trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives lost. Between 1950 and 1953 the U.S. largely destroyed North Korea via airpower and turned an already dysfunctional totalitarian state into something truly monstrous.

A second possibility is that because the U.S. continued to treat North Korea as an enemy even after the cessation of hostilities, it has instilled in Pyongyang a combination of self-confirming delusions and cynicism. Indeed, every year or two, North Korea does something provocative, and the United States acquiesces. Both sides frequently stage large-scale military exercises, the US spies on North Korea–in 1968, the USS Pueblo, a spy ship, was captured and its crew was detained for 335 days. The North Koreans have on a number of occasions detained US citizens. The desire for North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons is sometimes seen as another provocation and the US has tried with both the carrot and the stick to dissuade them from pursuing the program. The problem is that the two sides that still regard each other as enemies and eventually, North Korea will do something that the U.S. cannot shrug off or accommodate.

A third factor, and the most likely the reason why North Korea is actively seeking nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, is rational deterrence. An overly interventionist American foreign policy in recent decades has proffered a clear lesson: if an inconvenient nation does not have nuclear weapons, it may be attacked, perhaps invaded, and perhaps occupied. If a nation has nuclear weapons, it gets negotiations. North Korea has learned this lesson well and desires a nuclear insurance policy in order to preclude the same fate as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Nuclear weapons are also a quantum leap in technological achievement, and would be a boost to the pride of a nation who, outside of military power, is little more than pathetic.

Therefore, for nations like North Korea, the bomb is not only a status symbol but a Promethean goal that drives obsession. If a good man like Robert Oppenheimer could not turn away from the Manhattan Project as the goal came into sight, one can imagine the practical difficulties of trying to talk a dictatorship like North Korea out of such ambitions.

Of course in a more general sense, there was a solution to this crisis, but its time has long since passed. When the community of nuclear-armed states was a club of five, there was a potential for an active and mutually-enforceable League of Nuclear States. No new states would be allowed in, and any nation trying to develop weapons would be dealt with forthrightly.  With the nuclear club now including India, Israel, and Pakistan, the nuclear genie is long out of the bottle.

It is difficult to find a historical analog of the current situation to serve as a template to help the parties work their way through it. There is the Cuban Missile Crisis, but beyond the obvious superficial trappings there is very little similarity (in that crisis, both parties wanted the problem to go away, and the U.S. had a moderate and cautious president who was steeped in historical understanding). The attack on Pearl Harbor is even farther afield from events in Korea in that it was the active initiation of hostilities by one side. Although very different in many respects, the present situation may generally resemble the Fort Sumter Crisis of 1861 in which neither side diverged from a course that was unacceptable to the other—the resupplying of U.S. forts in the South was done in defiance of Confederate demands that they be abandoned, and the subsequent firing on those forts by Southern forces.[11] What followed should serve as a cautionary example and give us pause.

Where Things Stand

At this point, the situation is as follows.  There are two rivals with ICBMs ratcheting up tensions with increasingly threatening language, as the United States matches North Korean bellicosity with invective rhetoric of its own. This does not seem to be the way a great nation should respond to an emerging threat, and does not keep with the best traditions of American diplomacy.  The logic of the American escalation of the war of words growing out of the question of whether the mere fact of a nuclear-armed North Korea is tolerable. If it is not, then it must something must be done before they have an operational weapon that could hit the U.S. (as opposed to not being able to respond at a time in the near future when they might have dozens of such weapons). It appears we are not yet at this point, and the crisis does not justify the level of rhetoric of both sides.

What must be factored into the calculation is the fact that even a conventional war on the Korean Peninsula—although possibly limited in terms of geographical scope—would likely be a conflict of an intensity that the world has not seen for decades. Even without the use of nuclear weapons, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of civilians—perhaps millions—would be killed. Seoul is within range of North Korean artillery and the coordinates of important targets in South Korea are well-known by the North Korean military. In addition to the human cost, a war would likely destroy the South Korean economy and this would likely set off a regional economic depression and even world depression


So what is the answer? Given that a preemptive attack and subsequent war is too risky and premature at this point, and, like all wars, is likely to lead to unforeseen consequences, the best option would probably be to sequester North Korea with a goal of normalizing relations.  As many people have noted, North Korea has the qualities of a person who believes that others are out to harm him while exhibiting no concern over the possibility harming other people.  Confronting such a person merely confirms his delusions and locks in place an irrational determination that cannot easily be undone.  The way you deal with this kind of dangerous person is to lock him up. Please do not confuse the idea of sequestering (economic and otherwise isolating) North Korea with appeasement; any policy that can be backed up with overwhelming force at a moment’s notice is not appeasement, but rather mature and rational self-restraint.

Second, the U.S. has a fair measure of good will on its side—since China, Japan, South Korea, and a host of other nations have agreed to place sanctions on North Korea—and it must not squander that advantage with overreaction. North Korea cannot yet hit the United States with nuclear weapons, and if that day does come, the United States could eliminate the problem in short notice with a combination of precision airstrikes and cyberattacks in a similar way as Israeli Operation Orchard against the Syrian reactor site on September 6, 2007, and against the Iraqi reactor in 1981 In fact, some of the mishaps that have occurred in the North Korean program may have been the result of US cyber interference[12].

In the meantime, we should let China help us. They are the closest thing to a North Korean ally, and as the local hegemon, they have a vested regional interest in not letting a nuclear North Korea be a distraction from projects like the New Silk Road and a greater Eurasian economic zone11. The last thing they want is for the United States to be involved in the most disruptive kind of conventional conflict on their front doorstep followed by a massive refugee crisis.

For the time being, the United States must tone-down its inflammatory and escalatory rhetoric—it must not engage the North aggressively. It must not exaggerate and inflame the situation and transform a dangerous state of affairs into a bona fide crisis. It should isolate them and then wait and watch.  If the U.S. did this, and allowed China to exert its influence, perhaps it might be possible to use them as an intermediary in the not-too-distant future. This would not only open negotiations to deescalate tensions, but could possibly restore American diplomatic and trade relations with North Korea[13].  Given that the United States has normalized relations with China and Vietnam, and has begun the process with Cuba and possibly Iran, there is no reason why it cannot do the same with North Korea.

Finally it is important to have some “big picture” perspective. As of this writing, the Indian/Pakistani, and Israeli/Pakistani nuclear rivalries are a greater, but far less reported set of potential global crises than the situation with North Korea need be.  Additionally, China’s rise as a regional hegemon and world power is a greater threat to the United States, as are the new and perplexing tensions with Russia.  Yet another profound threat to the United States is the unfolding global environmental crisis. Perhaps most disconcerting has been the shift from the unsustainable neoliberal foreign policy of recent decades to one with with little coherence at all.

If the United States wants to roll back this crisis, it could begin by presenting Kim Jong-Un a no-strings-attached, good-faith, magnanimous proposal, such as an offer to officially end the Korean War once and for all.[14] That long-ago war was the result of missteps and error, let us hope that history does not repeat itself as an amalgam of farce and darkest sort of human tragedy.  The United States should end its old war with North Korea and in so doing, prevent a new one from beginning.



[1] Regarding the mistakes of this period, see Robert Dalleck, The Lost Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 302-332.

[2] Although casualty figures for the war vary, see Clay Blair, The Forgotten War, (New York: Random House, 1987), 975-976.   He reports that the South Korean military suffered 103,284 total casualties with 54, 246 and the U.S. suffered 63,200 total casualties with a total for both sides of about 2.4 million military casualties and about 2 million civilian casualties.Robert Dalleck observes that the war killed an entire generation of Koreans, North and South,  giving the figures of 3 million killed—or about 10% of the entire population—and another 5 million displaced.  He places American casualties at 36,000 killed plus more than 90,000 wounded.  He reports the number of Chinese killed at about 900,000.  See Dalleck, The Lost Peace, 327.

[3] John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life, (New York: Penguin, 2011), 396.  To be fair, in a letter to President Truman dated January 20, 1950, Acheson expresses “concern and dismay” at the rejection of the Korean Aid Bill of 1949 by the House of Representatives.  See Dean Acheson, Strengthening the Forces of Freedom, Selected Speeches and Statements of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1950), 174-175.

[4] Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life, 397.  The almost paranoid idea during the Cold War that to lose anywhere was to lose everywhere was fairly common and reflective of a bipolar world view.  More recently this view has been challenged by a more nuanced World Systems Theory point of view stating that even at the height of the Cold War, there were numerous regions that did not fall clearly into one camp or another.  See Tony Judt, “Still a Story to be Told,” The New York Review of Books, May 23, 2006, a review of Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History.

[5] Dalleck, The Lost Peace, 314.

[6] Dalleck, The Lost Peace, 320.

[7] George F. Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963, (New York: Random House, 1972), 24.

[8] Kennan, Memoirs 1950-1963, 23.

[9] See generally David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter, (New York: Hyperion, 2007).

[10] David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter (New York, Hyperon, 2007) 1A

[11] See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 267-268, 285-292, 301-302.

[12] Alfred W. McCoy, In the Shadow of the American Century, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017, p. 57.  McCoy in turn references David E. Sanger an,d William A Broad, “Trump Inherits Secret Cyber War on North Korea,” New York Times, March 5, 2017.  (From Chapter 1, footnote 108, of In the Shadow of the American Century).

[13] Pepe Escobar, “The New Silt Road will go Through Syria”, Asia Times July 13, 2017 http://www.atimes.com/article/new-silk-road-will-go-syria/

[14] This idea was suggested to me by my friend David Isenbergh.


Michael F. Duggan
Michael F. Duggan

Dr. Michael F. Duggan has a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. He has taught both at Georgetown University and at New York University’s DC program. In 2011-2012, he was the Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States.