Life During Wartime

Every Korean person I know who has died has died during the Korean War

The 70th year of the war arrives as the days lose their meaning. In a city of more than 20,000 deaths, I am waiting alongside millions in a year of waiting: for a vaccine, for the layoffs to reach us, for unemployment to expire, for the second wave, the eviction notice, the arraignment. The minutes and hours, the rent days and due dates, all the brutal illusions of capitalist time orchestrated to index productivity and profit, patience and progress disintegrate before the absurdity and abhorrence of These Troubling Times. In spite of everything, the bosses and landlords, the cops of every denomination and tendency insist on their scheduled rituals of exploitation and expropriation — after all, submission to their temporal order is requisite to order itself. Each day passes just like the next. What’s another day but another sun, another street seized with revolt, another thousand deaths, or 50,000 infections. Another day of waiting for the war to end, like so many have spent their whole lives doing.

Every Korean person I know who has died has died during the Korean War. Those generations born after the signing of the armistice are often said to have never known war, a sentiment that speaks to the haptic terrors haunting the survivors of hostilities from 1950 to 1953 — the whine of falling bombs, the heat and smoke pluming in their wake, the flash of bullets like teeth in the night, the running, the waiting, the hunger. The truth of this is incontrovertible, and yet the fact remains that all of us born since the war’s purported end have lived our lives in wartime. The war lives on as a material fact, not just as a haunting, or a legal condition.

The Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea, features prominently in U.S. narratives of the pandemic, alternately functioning as a paragon of technocratic governance, a liberal-democratic foil in villainizing narratives of China, and a stage for classic Orientalist bloviations on Eastern collectivity and automatism versus Western individualism and indomitability. Less prominently reported is the ongoing militarization of the peninsula. Just before the novel coronavirus was first identified by officials in Wuhan, a coalition of Korean and international peace activists and organizations submitted a petition to the Moon Jae-in administration to stop the construction of an aerial base on Jeju Island. In May, thousands of R.O.K. police officers were deployed to the remote village of Soseong-ri to escort the delivery of replacement interception missiles for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a U.S.-installed and U.S.-operated missile shield.

This build-out of military infrastructure occurs in the context of the ongoing war against the D.P.R.K., a process that includes the escalating sanctions regime critically refurbished by the Obama administration, which targeted more than three quarters of the country’s export industries and functionally banned it from conducting most international trade or accessing global capital. The labyrinthine financial restrictions and outright bans on items containing metal by the U.S. and U.N. have deprived the D.P.R.K.’s agricultural and medical sectors (along with all other sectors) of basic supplies and funds, and stymied efforts to deliver aid to the more than 15 million people living in poverty. The resulting delays and shortfalls affecting U.N. health programs alone resulted in 3,968 deaths in 2018 — including 3,193 children under the age of 5 and 72 pregnant persons. This figure does not include deaths caused directly or indirectly by shortages of basic necessities, shocks to the local economy, and impacts on critical infrastructure like water sanitation systems. Yet even with this figure of 3,968 deaths in a single year, we can extrapolate that the United States is killing approximately 11 people a day in North Korea, about 9 of them children under the age of 5. In wartime, the passage of time is the passage of death, and all time on the peninsula is wartime.

Americans often memorialize the Korean War as the “forgotten war,” yet Korea is all but forgotten. As the first battleground of the Cold War, Korea was a laboratory for new military technologies, and strategies of counterinsurgency and regime installation crucial to the development of modern interventionist wars. The U.S. dropped 32,557 tons of napalm and 635,000 tons of explosive ordnance on Korea in the three years of hostilities, more bombs than were used in the entire Pacific theater of WWII and nearly double the amount of napalm dropped on Japan, which has three times the land area of the D.P.R.K. Virtually every building in the D.P.R.K. was destroyed, including dams, hospitals, and remote villages. By 1953, 5 million people were dead, more than half of them civilians — roughly 10 percent of the prewar population. Yet an emphasis on the distinction between soldier and noncombatant casualties may leave an inaccurate impression of the nature of the fighting; more than 100,000 of these casualties included political enemies of the far-right Rhee Syngman government of the Republic of Korea, which also conscripted vast quantities of soldiers that included at least 30,000 children. For its part, the U.S. military frequently ordered soldiers to shoot internal refugees, leading to hundreds of massacres.

The war itself is not forgotten, only its dead. U.S. experience with napalm in Korea preceded and informed its use in the First and Second Indochina Wars, the Algerian Revolution, the First and Second Gulf Wars, and the U.S. War in Afghanistan. Korea haunts every contemporary interventionist war, not only as a blueprint for counterinsurgency and so-called democratization but also as an exemplar of the mythic “just war.” Despite four decades of U.S.-sponsored authoritarian rule, the eventual emergence of the contemporary liberal republic in South Korea (itself the imperfect achievement of decades of protracted working-class struggle) is retroactively presented as proof of how the U.S. “saved” Korea. South Korea’s transit from the extreme periphery towards the imperial core — a process enabled by rural displacement and proletarianization, hyperexploitation of workers, participation in imperial projects like the invasion of Vietnam, the sale of transnationally adopted children, extreme repression of dissidents, and militarized sexual violence accompanying decades of ongoing U.S. occupation — is upheld as the hope for all yet-to-be-invaded nations.

Where South Korea offers a vindication of capitalist modernity that transforms conquest into liberal magnanimity, North Korea figures as a permanently abjected enemy whose depravity eclipses and necessitates the domestic and international brutalities of the U.S. world order. Packaged as foils according to the interdependent racial logics of the model minority and yellow peril, the two Koreas, or rather their simulacra, comprise an axiomatic terrain for the resolution of neoliberal contradictions. The extravagant villainy ascribed to the D.P.R.K. functions as a mirror that reflects U.S. settler colonialism back as an idealized Western liberty, affirming military hegemony as moral hegemony. The United States’ dubious distinction as the most carceral, nuclearized and militarized nation in world history is obscured through a fixation on North Korean nuclear weapons, prisons, and autocracy. The war is thus framed as a heroic struggle for the globalization of liberal freedoms rather than an incomplete conquest sustained by the U.S.’ geopolitical investment in the ongoing state of division, war, and occupation.

July 27 marks the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which put an end to three years of bitter fighting without formally ending the war. In the absence of a peace treaty, an unresolved state of war persists. Although article 4 of the armistice called for a conference within three months to “settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc,” the results of multilateral talks at the Geneva Conference six months later were inconclusive. Historian Michael Pembroke attributes the failure of the Geneva Conference in part to U.S. representatives’ unwillingness to negotiate with China. U.S. contempt for the prospect of peace and reunification was demonstrated once again in 1957 when it violated the armistice to install nuclear weapons in South Korea — a detail conspicuously absent from contemporary invectives about the North Korean nuclear program.

Decades later, the United States remains recalcitrant, having discouraged and denied multiple overtures for peace in the intervening years. Although the joint R.O.K.-D.P.R.K. Panmunjom Declaration and U.S.-D.P.R.K. Singapore Summit of 2018 represented significant progress, U.S. inflexibility on denuclearization and sanctions has stalled, and now scuttled, the latest efforts at peace and reunification. Washington’s insistence that denuclearization be a precondition to further negotiations puts the D.P.R.K. in the position of accepting military vulnerability with no guarantee of successful talks.

A month ago, the D.P.R.K. demolished the special liaison office it had created to communicate with the R.O.K. in the border city of Kaesong. In the face of U.S. refusal to either offer a reprieve from sanctions or sign a peace treaty, the D.P.R.K. has halted the peace process in recognition that further progress is unlikely under present conditions. Looking ahead to this year’s elections, it’s unlikely that the next administration will depart from the bipartisan consensus that prioritizes disarmament and permanent military occupation over demilitarization and peace. With tens of millions unemployed and an endlessly cascading political crisis, the U.S. ruling class is escalating militarization throughout the Pacific and antagonism towards Russia and China in a desperate bid to retain its legitimacy. Korea will not be able to escape involvement in any potential Pacific conflict. By all indications, there will be a 71st year of war, and a 72nd, and so on.

What does it mean to keep waiting? To wake up to another day of war and separation, another nine dead children? What does our accounting of wartime mean when the war began long before the date that marks its “official” commencement in the eyes of the law and the archive? On June 25, 1950, the Korean People’s Liberation Army crossed the 38th parallel — this is the start of the war as a legal state but not as a state of relation. Before June 25 there were months of border skirmishes, 2 years of mass uprisings throughout the south resulting in over 100,000 deaths from joint U.S.-R.O.K. repression, 4 years of U.S. military occupation after the 1945 disbandment of nascent popular councils of Koreans, and 35 years of Japanese colonial rule facilitated by the partition of the Asia-Pacific region by the U.S. and Japan. War has defined the relation between the United States and Korea since the former’s efforts to integrate the latter into the world capitalist system in the 19th century. In 1868, just over a decade after Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan, the U.S. Merchant Marine ship General Sherman entered Korea bound for Pyongyang through the Taedong River in defiance of the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty and fired on a crowd of onlookers, killing several. The ship was eventually captured and its crew killed. Three years later, in 1871, the U.S. returned to Korea and killed 300 people at the Battle of Ganghwa Island before demanding trade relations, which were refused.

I find myself thinking often of the General Sherman massacre, which occurred just a year before its namesake was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army, a position from which Sherman the man oversaw the Modoc War, the Great Sioux War of 1876, and the Nez Perce War. Then as now, I cannot say where one war ends and the next begins. When Black youth ignited a rebellion in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd, it was just a week after the 40th anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising. In 1980, demonstrations against martial law transformed into a rebellion in Gwangju after Special Forces troops murdered Kim Gyeong-cheol, a deaf bystander, during a clash with student protestors. Tens of thousands took to the streets, arming themselves from captured armories and police stations to fight against soldiers. Gwangju transformed into an autonomous zone operated and defended through mutual aid and community defense. After nine days, an R.O.K. Army division dispatched from the DMZ with U.S. knowledge crushed the uprising. By the rebellion’s end, hundreds had been slaughtered and countless others maimed, tortured and raped. Every precinct, cop car, and police-union-association building that burns seems to burn out of time. What year of the war is it really? Is one war so discrete from the next? How can a peace treaty transform war as a relation when all relations of the United States are premised on war?

At the time of my writing, there are 41 Congressional sponsors for House Resolution 152, which calls for a formal end to the Korean War and the “conclusion of a binding peace agreement.” A peace treaty purports a transition to peace as a time after war, but all time is wartime in the context of war as a state of relation to imperial rule, where declarations of war and peace are modalities of governance. Wartime pervades the “post-war” temporality a peace treaty heralds. As a central point in northeast Asia at the juncture between the Pacific and the continent, Korean politics and lived reality will be overdetermined by imperialism as long as U.S. global military hegemony persists, particularly in the Indo-Pacific — a body of water that links every continent in planetary circuits of trade and military force. Signing a peace treaty is a necessary step towards decolonization and demilitarization as legal and logistical processes, but peace, like war, is a state of relation produced by practice, not a temporality that arrives through inevitable progress. The work of peacemaking therefore exceeds peace advocacy and matters of governance to encompass matters of being — the basic questions of supplanting conquest as a modality of relation and interrupting the passage of death, not only in Korea but across the oceanic and atmospheric connections that bond Korea to the world, for Korea is everywhere. The task ahead is tremendous and mundane; nothing more and nothing less than living as a practice of lifemaking amidst and against systemic slaughter.