War without end overshadows Korea 60 years on
Byun Jong-Rak was working in his dyeing factory in central Seoul at dawn on June 25 1950 when he heard that war had broken out.
“Leave the city! The North Koreans are coming,” police told him.
The conflict, which began 60 years ago on Friday, lasted three years, cost millions of lives and never officially ended.
Byun and thousands of other South Koreans knew only that they had to escape. As news spread in the afternoon of the North’s invasion, a frenzied bid to flee overtook the city. Panic intensified the following day.
Byun, now 80, was waiting for a bus to his hometown when North Korean jets began strafing the queue.
That night artillery began shelling one of the Han River bridges.
In the weeks to come, tens of thousands of civilians like Byun—along with the South’s army and a US military task force hastily flown from Japan—were to flee southwards from the North’s troops and Soviet-supplied T-34 tanks.
The North’s founding father, Kim Il-Sung, came close to winning his gamble that he could seize all of Korea, divided two years earlier into a Soviet-supported communist North and a US-backed capitalist South.
His motivated and well-equipped troops almost drove US and South Korean forces clear off the peninsula. They rallied and made a stand inside the Pusan Perimeter in the south-east tip.
Massive reinforcements arrived and a US-led United Nations force drove the North Koreans back deep into their own territory, until communist China intervened in October with hundreds of thousands of troops.
The Chinese and North Koreans recaptured Seoul in January 1951 before being forced back in their turn some two months later. Negotiations on a truce began in July but dragged on for two years while fighting continued.
The armistice signed on July 27 1953 was never followed by a peace treaty, leaving the two sides technically at war.
Casualty estimates vary greatly but most say that a total of about two million civilians died in the North and the South.
About 138 000 South Korean troops were killed, according to Seoul’s Defence Ministry, although other estimates are greater. About 37 600 of the South’s UN allies, including 33 600 Americans, died.
Most estimates say about 400 000 Chinese soldiers died, along with 215 000 North Korean troops. The fighting left the peninsula in ruins.
Although the conflict ended in a draw, South Korea won the peace.
After decades of dramatic industrialisation, coupled with democratisation in 1987, the South’s annual gross domestic product is now at least 35 times larger than that of its impoverished neighbour.
The decline in the North’s state-directed economy was exacerbated by the loss of Soviet aid in the early 1990s, mismanagement and a diversion of scarce resources into missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
US and UN sanctions aimed at curbing those programmes have worsened the plight of the North, which relies largely on an economic lifeline from China.
Famine killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s and the country—under the absolute rule first of Kim Il-Sung and then his son Kim Jong-Il—still suffers severe food shortages.
The UN children’s fund estimates one-third of children are stunted by malnutrition.
Food aid from the South dried up as relations soured.
Sixty years after the war broke out, tensions are high along the heavily fortified border after the South accused the North of sinking one of its warships.
The North says reprisals announced by Seoul could trigger war. Analysts discount the possibility of full-scale conflict, but see no end in sight to the uneasy truce along the last Cold War frontier.
About 28 500 US troops support the South’s 655 000-strong armed forces to deter any attack by the North’s 1,2-million member military.
‘I personally think it is a separate country’
North and South are each officially committed to reunification. But younger generations of South Koreans increasingly see their neighbour as a foreign country, an object of pity, scorn or indifference.
A poll released last November showed 56% of South Korean respondents of all ages believe reunification is necessary—down 8% from two years earlier.
“More than half the people regard North Korea as part of the nation to reunify with, but the younger they are, the lower the ratio gets,” Lee Sang-sin, a professor at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, told Yonhap news agency.
“There is a growing idea among younger people that North Korea is a separate, foreign nation.”
Even the history is getting blurred. In a March survey, 63% of teenage respondents could not say what year the war started, despite Seoul government plans to stage 44 commemorative events this year.
“I don’t know too much about the war,” Kwang Jae-Bum, a 14-year-old schoolboy, told Agence France-Presse.
“I’ve been told by teachers that North Koreans are our brothers and we must be reunited. However, I personally think it is a separate country.”
Tens of thousands of families separated since the war still dream of reunification—or, at least, of a chance to meet long-separated relatives. There are no mail or telephone services across the minefields and barbed wire.
A reunion programme began after the first cross-border summit in 2000. More than 16 000 Koreans from both sides have held face-to-face meetings, while 3 200 others too old to travel communicated through video links.
An estimated 600 000 people in the South are believed to have relatives in the North but reunions have been suspended amid the political chill. Many will die before seeing loved ones.
“I ardently wish for reunification,” said Seoul resident Choi Jong-Kwon (78). “I still dream of seeing my sister who was left behind in my home town, although I don’t know whether she is alive or dead.”—AFP