We visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on Friday. It is the c.10 km strip of land that separates north and south and has, as the title suggests, no soldiers in it. Although that hardly seems important when there are hundreds of thousands facing each other off a few centimetres just beyond the lines in the sand.
The Koreans, both sides, are still at war. Although you would have to look very hard to notice it here. And as they’ve done no proper fighting since 1953 you can begin to understand why they’re much more into K-pop than Kalashnikovs.
But … and this is my point, for people of my generation 1953 is not that long ago. My dad didn’t fight in the Korean War, but he could have. Out of a British force of 15,000 soldiers we lost 1,109 dead with two and half thousand wounded. That’s no small excursion (the US lost close to 40,000 soldiers), and heartbreaking when you consider that many of those were only five years on from keeping their lives after the horrors of World War Two.
And it could have been so much worse. This little known war brought the world as close to World War Three as any time during the Cold War. Under the banner of the UN, at one point us lot (mostly, but not exclusively, the US, the UK – and the Commonwealth, Turkey (?) and 600,000 South Koreans – oh and 900 Belgians) were fighting almost one and a half million Chinese soldiers. Yes, we were fighting the Chinese.
In a nutshell it started because after World War Two a minor official in the US State Department drew an imaginary line on the 38th Parallel, carving up the Korean peninsular between Russia and the US, much like Germany was split into four zones: Russian, Brit, American and French. Neither Russia nor the US paid much attention to their assignments and in 1948 both north and south founded their own states and automatically started hating each other. The north’s army, funded by the Russians but supported with Chinese weaponry, turned south in 1953 on a route march, crossed the border and Seoul was taken 3 days later. In the following weeks the South Korean forces, with limited, but now v agitated US support, were almost pushed off the bottom of the country into the sea. It was that easy.
The US, now badged UN and led by commie-hating General MacArthur, landed a huge force well up on the left hand side of the peninsular (the Inchon Landings), and the war swung in the south’s favour. They pushed on north and were close to defeating the Chinese/North Koreans when Mao said enough was enough and applied the principle that quantity has a quality all of its own, throwing a million men at the problem.
And here was when common sense thankfully took hold. The Chinese halted their advance back on the 38th parallel and decided to stop the pendulum from swinging. World War Three was averted. Three years bitter (literally) entrenched warfare followed whilst an armistice (not a peace treaty) was signed. And since then both sides have been staring down the barrels of each other’s guns, whilst the US maintains its largest overseas deployment in the South and the North are close to having ‘the bomb’. You’ll be up to date with the latest between His Trumpkiness and Rocket Man … so I need not elaborate further.
My point, and it’s unsurprisingly political, is that we must do all we can to keep the peace before we find ourselves launched into another war which kills thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of our own soldiers. 1953 is pretty much within my lifetime. I’ll inevitably give you an overview of the Vietnam War in due course, which is definitely in my lifetime. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a pacifist. Indeed, I would not be on speaking terms with Kim Jong-un and certainly would not give him the satisfaction of allowing him on the same world stage as me. And owning a highly competent and well equipped army is a massive deterrence, and we should definitely have one of those. What we shouldn’t be doing is breaking apart the international institutions which have kept the uneasy peace in this fractious world. The West’s strength has been its solidarity. The Soviet Bloc broke apart because it was held together for all the wrong reasons: fear and loathing. The EU and NATO are bonded together by the strength of cooperation and friendship. Our togetherness is what stops our adversaries from thinking they can snipe at any one of us. Disassemble that and who knows which lunatics are going to think they can pick a fight with an outlier.
Trump – and the rise of nationalism – ignores these lessons. Lessons of my lifetime. And, I guess, yours. We live in a dangerous time.
Anyway, phew, enough of that. Other than the DMZ, what have we been up to?
We have walked (miles) and ran up some big hills. We have eaten well. And we have played indoor baseball and sung our hearts out in a v Korean karaoke booth. Today we are walking to the main war memorial in Seoul, Rebecca heads off to Borneo with the school and we must repack for Singapore.
What a life.