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The Korean conflict, 70 years later

The differences between the two Koreas vindicate the fight for freedom


Korean War veterans wave national flags during an event marking the 73rd anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in Seoul, South Korea on June 25, 2023. Associated Press/Photo by Lee Jin-man

The Korean conflict, 70 years later
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This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. The long-term results of that war—the long-term division of into the two nations of South Korea and North Korea—demonstrate the differing results of democratic and Communist systems. Americans should be proud that their fathers and grandfathers led the UN force that saved South Korea from being conquered by the communist north. We should also be proud that America continues to be a force for good in the region.

Japan conquered and then brutally occupied the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century. Japanese slave labor camps, the abuse of “comfort women,” and authoritarian military discipline became well-known in Korea. At the end of World War II, the southern part of Korea was liberated by U.S. troops, with Soviet troops moving south to occupy what became North Korea. This divided zone situation, analogous to the occupation of East and West Germany, lasted until North Korean troops invaded South Korea in June of 1950. The attack caught South Korea and its allies off guard, and its armies were nearly pushed entirely out of the country.

The United Nations authorized global assistance, and more than 20 countries followed the U.S. lead in ultimately driving the North Koreans and their allies back over the 38th parallel. Of course, there is much more to the war, officially identified as a “conflict,” from Douglas MacArthur’s daring amphibious invasion at Inchon to his egotistical miscalculation in pushing almost to the Chinese border. The total death toll of this three-year (June 1950 – July 1953) conflict is staggering: at least three million dead.

The war ended in an armistice, or cease-fire, without a more significant peace settlement. Officially, the conflict continues. In a very real sense, it continues on the ground, in strategy, and in cyberspace as well. The two countries were divided by a land-mined “demilitarized zone” (DMZ), which is heavily fortified on both sides. Since South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, is just 40 miles from the DMZ, it has always been at risk for bombardment and attack.

A satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night shows a destitute north sandwiched between China and an illuminated and prosperous south.

A satellite photo of the Korean peninsula at night shows a destitute north sandwiched between China and an illuminated and prosperous south. Wikimedia Commons

It is what came after the war that is so stunning. Over time South Korea gradually matured into a peaceful, democratic, market economy that exports its goods and culture worldwide. It ranks as the 13th largest economy in the world, with global brands such as Samsung, Kia, and Hyundai. Korean BBQ, bakeries, and K-Pop music are available from Los Angeles to Dubai. Its military has served as peacekeepers in places such as Afghanistan, and it has a dynamic, highly religious society. Indeed, it is home to large Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and other Christian congregations.

All of this happened under the security umbrella of the United States and its allies under the early authorization of the United Nations. To be clear, the United States is not a colonial power. We did not invade South Korea. We helped liberate the South Korean people from the Japanese and later the Communists. We continue to work alongside the South Korean military to keep the peace in the region. That alliance, which includes Australia, Japan, and others, is a bulwark against the aggression of both North Korea and China.

North Korea stands in stark contrast to all of this and is a reminder of how ugly and evil rule by a Communist elite is. A new article by Bloomberg reports that North Korea’s economy is just one-30th that of its southern neighbor. North Korea’s population often faces food insecurity as a small oligarchy lives well at the expense of the majority. North Korea’s barbed wire keeps its own people in rather than defending its populace from external aggression. It has developed little to export, contributes little to the global common good, and spends an inordinate amount on sophisticated weapons production, including ballistic missiles that could strike targets as far away as Australia and the United States.

North Korea is one of the worst places to be a Christian or a religious person of any sort. The state has developed a nationalist mythology around the ruling family that combines historic Korean symbols with a materialist Communist ideology. Neighboring China finds North Korea’s aggressiveness both useful and irritating. On the one hand, pugnacious North Korea puts Japan and others on edge. On the other hand, the last thing that China wants is a million half-starved, desperate North Koreans flooding its borders.

Pitiful and poor, though dangerous, North Korea is a testament to the depravity of Communist ideology, a state-driven economy, and a corrupt elite. One is hard-pressed to think of any positive contributions from the ironically named “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK). The north is a militarized society driven by ideology and horror.

As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice, we can be thankful that the sacrifice of 36,000 U.S. troops, alongside our South Korean, British, Canadian, Australian, and other allies, was an investment in regional security for the rest of the Cold War and beyond. Our vigilant presence there outlasted the evil empire of the Soviet Union and buttressed not only South Korea, but also Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, and others in the region. That is no small victory.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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