WASHINGTON — President Trump and Kim Jong Un, like American and North Korean leaders before them, are fighting political battles in the long shadow of an oft-forgotten war.
A nuclear-armed North Korea; American military forces stationed in South Korea; the rise of an aggressive China: These and other issues facing Trump and Kim at their Singapore summit scheduled for next week have their roots in the Korean War fought from 1950 to 1953.
In Kim’s country especially, “it’s like the Korean War happened yesterday,” said Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.
The American memory of the Korean War is hazier. Sandwiched between the glory of World War II and the trauma of Vietnam, the Korean conflict is most often recalled in books with titles such as The Forgotten War.
In North Korea, the war is ever-present.
Kim and his government hail the war as a golden moment in which their country stood up to the United States. They cite it as a warning that the United States and its capitalist allies are determined to conquer the communist state, one of the reasons they use to justify their nuclear weapons programs.
Holidays are devoted to what North Korea calls the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.
Technically, the war isn’t over, one of the reasons the Korean War itself is likely to be on the agenda when Trump and Kim speak Tuesday in Singapore.
In 1953, the fighting stopped after an armistice. The parties never signed a peace treaty, so North and South Korea operate under a cease fire more than six decades old. The two sides renewed talks about a formal peace treaty, a subject that may surface between Trump and Kim.
“Can you believe that we’re talking about the ending of the Korean War?” Trump said last week. “We’re talking about 70 years.”
The paperwork for ending a war that hasn’t been fought since 1953 may seem trivial compared with the threat of nuclear weapons, but analysts said the Korean War remains the wellspring of all sorts of problems on the Korean Peninsula, and formally resolving it could smooth negotiations in other areas.
Armstrong called it “the fundamental problem of an unfinished war.”
The Korean War was the first all-out military conflict of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that boiled up after their joint victory in World War II. Part of the postwar settlement in Asia was the split of Korea along the 38th Parallel: a Soviet-backed state in the north and a U.S.-backed one in the south.
When Trump sits down with Kim, the echoes of the Korean War will be all around them.
The invasion itself
When North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950, to invade South Korea, it did so at the behest of its leader, Kim Il Sung — the first leader of North Korea and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
Condemning North Korean aggression, President Truman authorized a plan that sent U.S. and United Nations troops to defend South Korea.
That decision ignited still-running debates about whether the United States should intervene militarily in other countries, an argument that would continue through Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East, particularly Iraq.
Previewing approaches taken by future presidents, Truman did not seek approval from Congress for the Korean War. He agreed with a reporter’s assessment that it was “a police action,” not a war.
Cumings, a history professor at the University of Chicago, called the Korean War “the occasion for the U.S. to become a very different power than it had been before.”
Trump has questioned the size of the remaining U.S. military presence in South Korea and throughout the region. That could also be a topic of discussion in Singapore.
The China response
When American-led forces pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel, they pursued them almost to the Chinese border — triggering an invasion by the Chinese in October of 1950 that pushed back the Americans and began a bloody stalemate that ended with the armistice in 1953 that kept the Koreas divided by a Demilitarized Zone.
China still celebrates its intervention in the Korean War, saying it made the nation a major player in the region a year after Mao Zedong and the communists seized control of the vast country.
China remains North Korea’s patron and is involved in the current talks. In the run-up to the summit with Trump, Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
When Trump canceled the summit May 24, he blamed critical comments by Kim’s government about U.S. officials and suggested Xi was behind the friction. Though the meeting was rescheduled, the Chinese may well influence North Korean decisions about a deal with Trump.
Trump wants the United States and other countries to withhold economic aid to North Korea as long as it maintains nuclear weapons. China questions the need for excessive sanctions if North Korea agrees to talk about curtailing its weapons programs.
The public reaction
The public initially backed Truman on Korea, especially as the U.S.-led military rolled back the North Koreans. Public opinion turned against the war after the Chinese came in, and more Americans died in the suffocating summer heat and the stark winter cold of a little-known country far away.
Today, some Americans fear the prospect of new U.S. military action in North Korea if it does not agree to a nuclear weapons deal with Trump. The president, who has derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and spoken of “fire and fury” over the nuclear weapons issue, has done little to allay those concerns.
Many Americans know the Korean War through the long-running sitcom M*A*S*H, and in that program, Korea served mostly as a proxy for Vietnam.
In his 2007 history, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, journalist and historian David Halberstam wrote that many Americans of the prosperous 1950s and later simply wanted to forget Korea, to the degree they could.
Though the divisions between the two Koreas were the same as before the war, Halberstam wrote, “the United States was not the same: Its strategic vision of Asia had changed, and its domestic political equation had been greatly altered.”
At least 36,000 U.S. troops lost their lives in the conflict, according to the Pentagon, and some 7,700 American soldiers are still unaccounted for.
It is estimated that the war killed more than 1 million North Korean soldiers and civilians.
Different views of the Korean War could remain an impediment when Trump and Kim negotiate in Singapore.
“The two sides,” Armstrong said, “have such incompatible views of what the war was all about.”