Monday, October 09, 2017

For America, There Can Be No Returning to North Korea

9 October 2017

David Halberstam has been gone ten years now. I had not realized that he had died in an automobile accident on April 23, 2007. He was one of my great heroes in uncovering the misdirected brutality and needlessness of the Vietnam War. 

Recently, I've been revisiting the Korean Conflict, which was raging at the time of my birth, and thus a part only of my indirect memory. I do recall that at school, we were told to finish the food on our plates, because Korean children didn't have enough to eat. 

It turns out that Mr. Halberstam, originally a "liberal" supporter of the Vietnam War who had turned strongly against it after travelling to Vietnam to report it firsthand, had also disassembled the Korean Conflict. 

The Coldest Winter, Halberstam's history of the Korean War focuses on the egregious missteps of General Douglas MacArthur, who directed what became a holocaust, also presiding over the greatest American military loss since the (thankful) defeat at Little Bighorn. I recall that even as a young child, my parents had warned me of MacArthur's wrongheaded attitudes and failed campaigns. The New Yorker has summarized Mr. Halberstam's career here. 

Let me say at the outset that in my view, America was right to defend South Korea against the Stalin-inspired surprise invasion which threatened to collapse the two Koreas into one totalitarian communist police state in a matter of literally days. However, as Halberstam makes clear, MacArthur committed a series of drastic strategic errors after successfully winning back the south through a brilliant encircling tactical maneuver launched from Inchon. 

Rather than halting at what is now the DMZ, MacArthur launched a full-scale assault on the North, not believing the Chinese would send forces to their aid. When hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops met his advances, an American military disaster ensued, and this was followed in turn by what has been described as the near total retaliatory destruction of every major structure standing in North Korea, drastically punishing its civilian population. 

At the end, the death toll stood at 33,000 Americans, 415,000 South Koreans, and, one among many estimates, 1.5 million (perhaps 2-3 million) North Koreans and Chinese --- on the order of 20% of the population of North Korea left dead in the first great post-war holocaust. (Until let go by President Truman, MacArthur sought to assuage his defeat and finish his devastation of the North by launching a nuclear assault on China.) 

Given today's renewed hostilities with North Korea, we would be well-advised to be alert to its history. I am in no way sympathetic to the brutal, totalitarian North Korean regime, but in the light of history, it is rational to conclude that the present impasse with the North is not America's to resolve. North Korea is now a regional Asian problem. We should not, indeed, cannot, go back to North Korea. MacArthur's dark legacy cannot be escaped.

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