The North Korean government yesterday threatened to exact more severe punishment against captive American Christian human rights activist Aijalon Gomes if the United States keeps pressing to censure Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean warship. North Korea's government news agency said, "if the U.S. persists in its hostile approach toward the DPRK," it will "naturally be compelled to consider the issue of applying a wartime law to him," which could include the death penalty.
Applying wartime law might make sense from North Korea's point of view because the war has never really ended. In June 2009, Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the 1953 agreement that stopped the fighting in Korea after conducting its second nuclear-weapons test. North Korea announced at the time that it could not guarantee the safety of foreign ships sailing near its shores, and the April 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan confirmed the point.
Sixty years ago today, North Korea launched a massive military assault south of the 38th parallel in a bid to conquer South Korea and unify the peninsula under communism. Later that day, the U.N. Security Council, meeting in its first-ever emergency session, declared the attack a "breach of the peace" and subsequently authorized member states to "furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area." The Korean War was on.
This conflict, sometimes called "the Forgotten War," cost the lives of more than 54,000 Americans, but it secured South Korea's independence. Large-scale fighting ended in 1953 with a cease-fire agreement signed among the U.N., North Korea and the Chinese "volunteers" who had swarmed to North Korea's rescue when U.N. forces were on the verge of decisive victory. The 1954 Geneva conference - which was supposed to conclude a final peace - failed, and the inconclusiveness of the limited Korean conflict generated a sense of ambivalence in America, coming as it did close on the heels of total victory in the World War II. "No more Koreas" became the rallying cry in the defense establishment.
Compared with the limited wars to follow, however, the Korean conflict was a model of success. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired from command of U.N. forces in Korea for believing "there is no substitute for victory," but his point was driven home by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the aborted effort in Operation Desert Storm that set up the second war in Iraq. Today, the Obama administration refuses even to discuss the notion of victory in Afghanistan.
The nearly 60 years of uneasy peace on the Korean Peninsula have seen a case study in contrasting political and economic systems. North Korea sank into a totalitarian nightmare in which starving people eat grass and bark to try to survive. South Korea grew into a capitalist democracy with the third-highest per-capita income in Asia, after Japan and Taiwan. Veterans of the Korean War can take pride in the fact that the South Korean people have not squandered the hard-won blessings of freedom. And, most importantly, there is still no substitute for victory.
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