Barely five years after World War II ended, the Korean War began. On June 25, 1950, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched a full-scale invasion of the South, drawing in both the U.S. and China. The conflict ended essentially where it started, with an armistice. American troops still remain on station against the now nuclear North.
Until recently, U.S. involvement in a second Korean War would have meant horrendous conventional combat, but the damage would have been limited to forces on the Korean peninsula and nearby. Today, however, America’s homeland could be targeted by a nuclear attack. Nothing at stake is worth that risk. With the Republic of Korea capable of defending itself, Washington should formally end the conflict, drop its security guarantee, and bring home its forces.
As Japan surrendered in World War II, the allies viewed Korea’s status almost as an afterthought. Moscow and Washington split the Korean peninsula into occupation zones divided by the 38th Parallel. Two separate nations quickly evolved, threatening each other with war. But only the Soviet Union armed its protégé with heavy weapons. After securing support from Moscow and Beijing, the DPRK’s Kim Il-sung launched an invasion of the South.
The Truman administration won United Nations support, since the Soviets were then boycotting the Security Council—to protest the continued membership of Chiang Kai-shek’s government—and rushed U.S. troops to the ROK’s rescue. However, as allied forces neared the Yalu River and North Korea’s complete defeat loomed, the People’s Republic of China intervened, creating what U.S. commander Douglas MacArthur called “an entirely new war.” The battle lines soon settled near the original border and a couple years of static combat ensued. An armistice was signed in July 1953.
However, American forces remained to protect a devastated country ruled by the aging, irascible, unpopular, and authoritarian Syngman Rhee. He was ousted by a popular uprising that eventually led to a military takeover and Park Chung-hee’s ascension to the presidency. In the 1960s, Park oversaw the South’s economic takeoff, during which the ROK raced past the DPRK, removing an important justification for America’s continued presence on the peninsula.
After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China moderated its hostility toward Washington. Democracy came to South Korea in 1987. The Cold War ended as the 1980s closed; the Soviet Union formally dissolved in 1991, after which Russia, and then China, recognized Seoul. The case for a continuing American military presence on the peninsula dissipated, but Washington kept its forces in the ROK to advance its status as the world’s “unipower.”