North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the sea Monday, hours after a second American nuclear-armed submarine arrived in South Korea. Meanwhile, peace activists are gathering in Washington, D.C., for a national mobilization to call on President Biden and Congress to officially end the Korean War, 70 years after the signing of the July 27, 1953, Korean Armistice that ended active military conflict. To discuss the renewed call for peace and the history of “the dirtiest war of the 20th century,” we’re joined by two guests: Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of several books on Korea, and Christine Ahn of the organization Women Cross DMZ and the coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now! Ahn calls for the U.S. government to “atone” for its role in the war by replacing the ceasefire with a peace agreement, not feeding into the peninsula’s nuclear hostilities.
AMY GOODMAN: Tensions are escalating again on the Korean Peninsula. The United States has deployed a nuclear-armed submarine, the USS Kentucky, to South Korea for the first time since the '80s. Last week, South Korea's president, Yoon Suk-yeol, became the first foreign leader to ever board a U.S nuclear-armed submarine. Meanwhile, on Monday, North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the sea to protest the U.S. On Monday, North Korea fired those missiles into the sea hours after another U.S. submarine, the nuclear-propelled USS Annapolis, arrived at a port on Jeju Island.
This all comes 70 years after the signing of the Korean Armistice, which was signed July 27th, 1953. While the agreement halted active fighting in the Korean War, a peace agreement was never signed. This week, peace activists are gathering in Washington, D.C., for a national mobilization to call on President Biden and Congress to officially end the Korean War and replace the armistice with a peace agreement.
We’re joined now by two guests. Bruce Cumings is a professor of history at University of Chicago, author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. But first we go to Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, also the coordinator of the campaign Korea Peace Now!
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Christine, talk about the significance of this week, of this date, and what exactly you’re calling for in Washington, D.C., before you head off to the State Department after this interview.
CHRISTINE AHN: Thank you so much, Amy and Juan, for having us.
It is so significant that hundreds of people from across the country — multigenerational Korean Americans, many from divided families; humanitarian aid workers with on-the-ground experience in North Korea; academics — we have a conference with nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, Bruce Cumings; Dan Leaf, who is a three-star general, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it’s time to end the Korean War and make peace with North Korea. So, it is a phenomenal gathering of a broad and diverse coalition, many long-standing Korean American organizations that have been working for peace, but also on social and economic justice, all coming together.
And so, we will be having a congressional press conference tomorrow. It’s actually hosted by Barbara Lee, who, you may know, was the only member of Congress to vote against giving Bush authorization to use force in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that was because of her father, who served in the Korean War. And in the moments before she had to make that decision, he told her there is nothing good that comes from war. And so, that is what — the incentive for her to take that bold and brave stance.
So, we’re having a press conference. We’re having a han and healing circle with renowned dancer Dohee Lee and Joseph Han, who won numerous awards for his book called Nuclear Family. And then we have a White House rally that begins at 5 p.m., with renowned social media star Nick Cho, Your Korean Dad; Josephine Lee; and actually David Kim, who ran for Congress in Koreatown, is running again. He’ll be also speaking at the White House. And then, on Friday, we have a conference at George Washington University. And many folks can join virtually; you just go to the KoreaPeaceAction.org, and there’s a schedule there.
But we really would love hundreds, thousands of people to gather with us. We’ll march from the White House and towards the Korean War Memorial, where we will honor all the lives that have been killed, not just the 36,000 U.S. soldiers but the over 2 million mostly Korean civilians. And, you know, we’re going to be carrying photos, portraits of the people that we’ve lost, our ancestors, because 70 years is just far too long. And as the situation grows more and more dangerous and tense, this has to end. And this is not just a war between North and South Korea. This is America’s oldest war. And we, the people in the United States, have our responsibility to pressure our government to do the right thing and end this war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Christine, most of the people listening or viewing this show were not even born when the Korean War erupted. Could you talk about how it began, why, and why we still have about 28,000 troops, American troops, stationed in South Korea?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, the Korean Peninsula, my parents were actually born in the 1920s during Japanese occupation. And so, from 1910 to 1945, Korea was colonized by the Japanese. And at the end of World War II, in the defeat of Japan, the Soviets and the Americans were scrambling, right? And so, the Korean Peninsula was a place where — actually, the frontline of the Cold War. And so, it was actually two U.S. young defense officials who were assigned to, basically, divide up the peninsula. And Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, later secretary of state, tore a page from the National Geographic and literally drew a line across the 38th parallel, giving north of it to the Soviets, and the U.S. keeping south of it and Seoul. And that was Truman, who then sent a memo to Stalin, and Stalin accepted. But, really, I would say that it’s the U.S. that, you know, divided the peninsula. And we held military governments in South Korea from 1945 to 1948. And then, you know, Kim Il-sung emerged as the leader in the North, and then the U.S. installed Syngman Rhee to be the president of South Korea.
And then, in that period — this is where Bruce is really helpful. He has shown that there — you know, most of the official narrative is that the Korean War began on June 25th, 1950, when the North Koreans crossed over into South Korea, across the 38th parallel. Well, in fact, what Bruce and other historians have found is that there were incursions back and forth, actually, for a long period of time. But it was at that moment, when the North Koreans crossed into South Korea, that the United States, under President Truman, basically called for not authorization to go to war, but a limited police action, went to the Security Council, got overwhelming votes in support of the U.S. intervening under what is called a U.N. Command. And it is not a United Nations Command, as the ruse is. It is actually a unified command. But they still use the U.N. flag. And that is basically the beginning of the Korean War.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the documentary Crossings, which is now streaming on PBS World Channel. This is Ri Ok Hui testifying at the Women’s Peace Symposium in Pyongyang about her experience surviving being fired at by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War.
RI OK HUI: [translated] The bullet mercilessly cut through my right wrist. Without thinking, I lifted my left hand and grabbed the door handle. The soldiers shot my hand again, a child’s left hand. I fainted and fell to the ground. It was more frightening than even death. Today, at this gathering of women, I appeal to justice and to your conscience. A war which women and children will suffer the most, that kind of war in this world must be prevented. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from Crossings, a documentary now streaming on PBS World Channel. Christine Ahn, I was wondering if you can respond to who she is, and also this Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Phony Korean 'Peace' Movement,” that personally attacks you and the peace movement, saying that “the mobilization and the legislation promote the North’s demand that the U.S. sign an unconditional peace agreement.”
CHRISTINE AHN: I haven’t read that piece, but I’m aware of that trope. Absolutely, this is a legitimate peace movement. And it’s not just a peace movement of peace activists across the country that are multigenerational Korean Americans. These are a lot of faith-based leaders, like the United Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church. These are Korean American leaders who have been involved in engaging with North Korea. They are the ones that actually made the call to President Carter to go on a plane, armed with a CNN camera crew, to go meet with Kim Il-sung, because the Clinton administration was close to conducting a preemptive strike on North Korea. And so, this is a well-established, long, multigenerational peace movement that has been calling for the U.S. to replace the ceasefire with a peace agreement.
This extends across the border. Just this past weekend, masses of South Koreans, under the Korea Peace Appeal, which includes over almost 500 civil society organizations, gathered on the streets. They protested. They sang songs. We are collectively calling for an end to this war, that is threatening the future of 80 million Korean people. But all of us that are in this diaspora, that is calling on our government — the Korean people in North and South, they can only deal with their governments. But we in the United States must pressure the United States to do the right thing.
As we saw in the last summits between Trump and Kim, and Kim and Moon, there was a moment where we felt that peace was actually going to break out. But, unfortunately, the Trump administration, you know, under John Bolton’s leadership, basically did not follow through on some of the commitments that they made.
And so, here we are, in a situation with the Biden administration that is basically a return to strategic patience, which is doing nothing. And that result is more, more provocation, more military exercises, the biggest, most dangerous ones on display between the U.S. and South Korea. North Korea, last year, I think they tested more than 200 missiles.
And actually, there was a CSIS report, Lisa Collins, that actually — I mean, CSIS, but it actually showed that there was an inverse correlation, where the more military provocations that there are, the less likely there will be engagement. But when there is engagement, active diplomacy, there is very little provocation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the Korean diaspora here in the United States. Again, for those folks who don’t know the history, there was a significant development of the growth of the Korean communities in the United States starting in the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter first began reducing the U.S. troop deployments in South Korea. Could you talk about the direct relationship between the growth of the Korean diaspora and the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, absolutely. I think that it’s also the growth of democracy in South Korea, right? And, I mean, really, South Korea didn’t really fully become a democracy until 1998, with the election of Kim Dae-jung. So, I would say that it’s both. It’s the growth in the political organizing of Korean diaspora. And now, you know, at this gathering, we’ve raised funds, and 30 — under-30 youth will be coming to participate. We see this, like, new energy with this community that is unstoppable.
We understand this critical history, a lot of it shaped by progressive academics like Bruce Cumings and the generations that he has taught — Suzy Kim, J.J. Suh, the list goes on. And now there’s another generation of academics that are teaching this critical history. I think that what we’re trying to do is challenge the official narrative that the Korean War is a victorious war, that North Korea is bad and South Korea is good, when, in fact, it is so much more complicated.
And I think the U.S. still has to atone for a lot of its misdeeds in the past century, whether it’s the division of Korea without consulting a single Korean; the brutal military occupation that basically put into power the Koreans that had collaborated with the Japanese during occupation, you know, participating and overseeing massacres like the Jeju third — what’s called sasam, massacre, that killed up to 80,000 people on that island; basically, using the Cold War to quash, arrest, detain, imprison and even murder those who had any kind of progressive values, whether it’s trade union rights or worker rights or gender equality, to be cast as communist. You know, the Cold War was fought on the frontline. And here we are, 70 years today, because the war never ended, we’re in a new Cold War.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in —
CHRISTINE AHN: And actually —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — professor Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, a history professor there and an expert on Korea. The USS Kentucky became the first U.S. nuclear-armed submarine to come to South Korea since the 1980s. Your response to why, especially now with the Biden administration, there is this renewal of confrontations with North Korea?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, it’s really not a renewal; it’s just using a different instrument to carry out nuclear blackmail against North Korea. Every president, for — you know, going back decades, has sent nuclear-capable bombers near Korean waters. Obama did it a lot, Trump, Biden. And the arrival of a nuclear submarine is, you know, something that hasn’t happened for 40 years, and it gains attention, but it’s just part and parcel of the nuclear threats that the U.S. has mounted against North Korea since the armistice.
The armistice itself was ensconced in a kind of cocoon of nuclear blackmail by the Eisenhower administration and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. They made a big show of threatening North Korea and China with nuclear weapons. They made a big show of blowing off the first nuclear cannon in Nevada, which was on the front pages of many newspapers in the U.S., in May 1953. That cannon shot a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead, about half the size of the Hiroshima bomb. They detonated an enormous nuclear weapon in the Nevada desert around the same time. Some people thought it was a hydrogen bomb. It wasn’t. But it was the time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were doing atmospheric testing of enormous weapons.
Dean Rusk, as Christine said, became secretary of state under the Kennedy administration, and he looked through the files to see if these nuclear threats actually brought North Korea and China to the point of signing the armistice, and he concluded that it didn’t. And Eisenhower himself later said that this was mostly for show, and he had to kind of control Dulles, who was always talking about massive retaliation and the use of nuclear weapons.
North Korea had no nuclear weapons from that point until 2006, and yet the U.S. consistently threatened North Korea with nuclear weapons. Dulles also masterminded the emplacement of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea in January 1958, Honest John missiles, tactical nuclear weapons of other types, soon even backpack nukes, which weigh about 60 pounds, and one soldier can carry them and place them around any place north of Seoul or near the DMZ. George H.W. Bush took those nuclear weapons out of South Korea as part of a general drawdown of those weapons on a world scale, but the U.S. has continued, as I said earlier, to threaten North Korea with nuclear weapons. And it’s just game theory or deterrence theory 101, that after you threaten a small country with nuclear weapons long enough, they’re going to go for their own. But I have to say, it’s always the media attention on North Korea firing off a missile or blowing off an atomic bomb, and almost never any attention to this decades-long history of American nuclear blackmail.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cumings, the Yale University historian Samuel Moyn has said the Korean War was, quote, “the most brutal war of the 20th century, measured by the intensity of violence and per capita civilian death.” Yet the Korean War is also called “the forgotten war.” You have said it’s more of an unknown war. So, as we begin to wrap up, if you can talk about where that leads, where you feel it should lead the U.S. today, and the impacts of the sanctions on North Korea, especially on the humanitarian situation on the ground there?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, what Professor Moyn is saying is exactly right. And I have to say it’s also not anything new. A revisionist historian on the Vietnam War, back, I think, in 1979, published a book where he said that civilian casualties — he had a table — civilian casualties in Vietnam were 40% of all casualties. And then you look at Korea: 70% of all casualties — which I think is right. He didn’t bother to comment on that.
It was an unbelievably dirty war, with the U.S. Air Force razing every North Korean city to the ground. The U.S. Air Force ran out of targets within a couple of months, but kept pounding North Korea for three years. And this came from the highest level. Robert Lovett, the defense secretary under Eisenhower, said we should just continue to go on tearing this place up; it will make it very hard for those people. So, it was a kind of genocidal air campaign, accompanied by massacres of — political massacres of ordinary citizens, especially by South Korea, but also by American soldiers from time to time. So, easily the dirtiest war of the 20th century in terms of major, major wars, much worse than Vietnam, which I think will surprise many people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Cumings, we only have about a minute left —
BRUCE CUMINGS: The second part of your question —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — but I was wondering — you’ve also said that the Korean War inaugurated the U.S. military-industrial complex. Could you elaborate on that?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, Harry Truman went into the war with a defense budget of $13.5 billion, and within six months he had $56 billion — in other words, a quadrupling of defense expenditures to the highest point ever, until George Bush exceeded it in 2008. Just an enormous defense budget, at a time when the American GDP was much smaller. So, defense was about 3%, I believe, maybe 4%, of GDP during and after the Korean War, compared to a much smaller percentage today or in 2008.
The Korean War established a national security state at home, a CIA with so much money, they didn’t know what to do with it, so they tried to overthrow regimes in Guatemala and Iran in 1953 and '54. And we established for the first time military bases across the globe, more than 900 today, which most Americans know nothing about. It's an archipelago of empire, surrounding especially China. But we have an Africa Command. I mean, it’s just all over the place. And all of this got going not with World War II, when Roosevelt wanted to demobilize, and Truman continued that for a couple of years, but with the Korean War.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bruce Cumings, we want to thank you so much for being with us, history professor at University of Chicago, author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. And we want to thank Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, also coordinator of the Korea Peace Now! campaign.
Up next, an eyewitness to the assassination of Malcolm X reveals for the first time he overheard a New York police officer ask about one of Malcolm’s assassins, “Is he with us?” Stay with us.