This weekend, we again recalled the beginning of the Korean War. For me, it is also the start of my memories. Not yet 3 years old, I was too young to fully grasp the magnitude of the conflict and contextualize my memories. So, the upheaval that began on 25 June 1950 still remains a disjointed sequence of scenes. Among them: A sister went out when Seoul was in North Korean hands – and never returned; without warning, an American soldier awakened my family, waving a flashlight in our single room; and during another night, my other sister, who had joined relatives evacuating southward, came home on a military jeep, accompanied by an army officer – shocking me.
My sister married the good-looking officer. And on his visits, he would bring a few cans of tasty American treats for his little sister-in-law. But I was yet too young to appreciate my brother-in-law’s benevolence. Much later I would learn that the cans were called C-Rations and realize that he had not completely eaten his field meals. Even without the war, Korea’s economic condition was fragile. With the bloody internecine conflict, survival was a daily struggle. The annual per capita income was only $100. Hunger was boundless among the ashes of a devastating war that followed brutal colonial rule and territorial partition, with millions of lives lost. Children swarming around US soldiers, hoping to get a taste of chocolate, were commonplace scenes.
After entering elementary school, I became familiar with powdered milk donated by unknown people from faraway lands. These old memories welled up as I watched the news of US President Joe Biden’s visit here last month. The sprawling plant of Samsung Electronics in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, with the world’s largest semiconductor production line, was the first stop in Biden’s first Asian tour as US president, evincing his urgent priority of tackling supply chain problems amid intensifying strategic competition with China. Addressing the company’s employees, President Biden said the visit to the plant was an “auspicious start of his trip” and “emblematic of the future cooperation and innovation that our nations can and must build together.”
He thanked Samsung for its commitment to invest $17 billion to construct a similar plant in Taylor, Texas. It is the largest-ever foreign direct investment in Texas, its governor, Greg Abbott, said in announcing the project last November. For Samsung, it is the company’s largest investment ever in the United States. The electronics giant expects the new facility will boost production of high-tech chips used for 5G mobile communications, advanced computing and artificial intelligence, enhancing supply chain resilience. When it goes into operation in 2024, the plant will be Samsung’s second in Texas. It has operated a chip fabrication plant in Austin since the late 1990s. Before leaving for Japan, President Biden met the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group. They celebrated the automaker’s decision to invest $10 billion in a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in Savannah, Georgia.
When questions hang over his economic strategy in Asia, Biden reaped remarkable achievements in his pursuit of helpful partners in South Korea. Biden’s substantial investment deals with Samsung and Hyundai underscore the success of the seven decade alliance between South Korea and the United States. There is no doubt that South Korea’s miraculous economic development has been possible with US assistance and security guarantees. The nation also owes significantly to America for its flourishing popular culture today, represented by K-pop and movies. In the meantime, the prolonged stalemate on the Korean Peninsula since the 1953 cease-fire reveals the underside of the alliance.
The ceasefire signed by North Korea, the United States and China – with South Korea refusing – created a 4-kilometre-wide buffer zone undulating across the middle of the peninsula, not much different from the pre-war 38th parallel. Troops and weapons were supposed to be withdrawn, but contrary to its name as the Demilitarized Zone, this strip of no man’s land is the world’s most heavily fortified zone, which keeps a vulnerable peace. Resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, dating to the early 1990s, has floundered. Most notably, inconsistent policy approaches between successive administrations in Seoul and Washington have undermined coherence. As policy vacillates between tough talk and economic rewards and regime security, the North has seized opportunities to further upgrade its nuclear and missile capabilities under dynastic leadership. Negotiations have stalled.
Pyongyang wants full security guarantees; Washington demands the North’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization; and Seoul seeks to advance inter-Korean peace and reconciliation. Now, with all dialogue and diplomacy disrupted between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea, Pyongyang has been escalating missile and artillery rocket launches. There also are speculations that its seventh nuclear test is imminent when the economy is at its lowest since the “Arduous March” of the 1990s and the pandemic is taking its toll. In the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, extended deterrence and strategic stability sought by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration may seem inevitable.
But armed confrontation and mutual display of firepower alone cannot translate into durable peace and reconciliation. Experience has proven that sanctions cannot persuade the North to change course. In academic circles, the Korean Peninsula has been described as a place “where war seems unlikely, but so does peace.” The only viable choice for any peace-loving Korean must be “trying to enlarge the realm of peace and coexistence through exchange and cooperation by easing inter-Korean conflict and confrontation.” Looking ahead to the 70th anniversary of cease-fire next year, it is suggested that the two Koreas and the United States restart talks in Panmunjom, where the truce agreement was signed on 27 July 1953 after two years of negotiations and limited movement of battle lines. China, as a party to the agreement, may also be invited. Who knows? A breakthrough may emerge, based on parameters not even broached yet.