The Korean War Memorial in Washington. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

At midnight on July 27, 1953 – 65 years ago to the day – an eerie silence, one unheard for three hideous years, descended over Korea. The guns had ceased to fire. An armistice had taken effect.

For soldiers from China and from the US-led UN forces, there was relief that this away-from-home, “limited” war, so costly in blood and gold, had finally burned out. But for the combatants whose divided land the conflict had cratered, it was a war without victors.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who had ignited the carnage with his June 1950 invasion of the South, paid a colossal price: His country was a wasteland, devastated by aerial bombardment. South Korean leader Rhee Syngman acted to undermine, and furiously refused to sign, an armistice that left Korea divided. His consolation was a subsequent security alliance with the United States.

To this day, no peace treaty to replace that armistice – and so to end the war – has been inked.

But if South Korea could not win the war, it would decisively win the peace. The country’s extraordinary rise from the ashes is, perhaps, the greatest national success story of the second half of the 20th century. As such, it provides a benchmark for nation building under the US-Western aegis – a benchmark ignored in subsequent, and disastrous, US interventions in East Asia and the Middle East.

North vs South: Battling for legitimacy

Yet it was North Korea that recovered first. During the 1910-1945 colonial period, Japan had built up the North with heavy industry, leaving the agricultural South as the rice basket. With generous aid from the communist bloc, North Koreans cleared the rubble and got down to business.

South Korea presented a shabbier face. While United Nations troops were told they were fighting for democracy, UN allies were appalled at the human-rights abuses committed by Rhee’s paramilitaries and police. Postwar leader Rhee, increasingly dictatorial, was eventually exiled to Hawaii after a massacre of student protesters.

South Korean modernization would be executed by a vastly different figure: Park Chung-hee, a dynamic, driven ex-general who seized power via a coup. Under Park, a hugely ambitious scheme of industrialization began. Marrying big-picture, top-down policies with private capital and management expertise, while leveraging militaristic practices in education, the workplace and wider society, Park radically re-engineered South Korea. Infrastructure arose. Poverty was eradicated. Conglomerates expanded in all commercial directions. A once-cowed people became fierce go-getters.

Park’s dirigiste capitalism was not the laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon model: it was government-led, highly protectionist. The key ingredient for success was overseas outreach. Park recognized that for Korea Inc to be competitive, it had to do battle in global markets. An export-centric economy was cajoled and incentivized into being. By the early 1970s, North Korea, overtaken economically by the South, ceased publishing economic data.

But Park’s politics were backward and repressive. Similarly anti-democratic policies were enacted by his successor, Chun Do-hwan, another general who seized power via putsch. Simmering anger against authoritarian governance exploded into protests. In 1980, hundreds were killed in an army massacre. Seven years later, the street pressure proved too great. In 1987, Chun conceded to fully democratic elections.

South Korea had capped its economic miracle with a political miracle. In the years following, South Korea globalized and softened the rough edges of its economy, society and culture. Today, like neighbor Japan, its people – while racially and culturally East Asian – share similar lifestyles, values and aspirations with North Americans and Western Europeans.

North of the border, things regressed horrifically. A once proudly socialist state mutated into an inherited monarchy. Its ruling family generated the world’s most pervasive personality cult, backed up by an insidious security apparatus and a massive military. After the collapse of European communism in the early 1990s, North Korea’s already inefficient economy imploded. The land was racked by murderous famines.

Today, its economy is expanding thanks to the collapse of the state distribution system and to ongoing, though legally precarious, marketization. But the countryside is still stalked by malnutrition, and citizens enjoy no freedoms of association, of speech, of travel or of judicial representation. Political representation is severely limited, and human-rights abuses are rife.

For this state of affairs, North Koreans can thank the leadership they are taught to revere. Conversely, while the South Korean people can take justifiable pride in their success, they had external help – from their one and only ally.

Uncle Sam’s helping hand

The United States guaranteed South Korea’s defense for six decades, releasing it from massive cost and human-resource burdens, while simultaneously underwriting sovereign credit ratings and inward investment. Certainly, Cold War-era Washington supported dictators in Seoul – but though authoritarian, they were never as effectively totalitarian as the Kims. Moreover, there was steady pressure on Seoul to upgrade politics and human rights. (The US Central Intelligence Agency famously rescued opposition firebrand and later president Kim Dae-jung from murder at the hands of Park’s thuggish intelligence services.)

South Korea’s ascent followed the postwar renaissances enjoyed by West Germany and Japan. In all three cases, the US underwrote defense with long-term security alliances. The US also promoted the growth of national institutions and eased those nations’ exports into its domestic economy and into global markets, while promoting civil society.

This did not take place overnight; it was the work of decades. And South Korea is the last US client state to enjoy such results. Alas, there was no long-term, multi-faceted US commitment to the security, political stability or economic enrichment of South Vietnam, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan.

In recent years, some voices in the United States have sought to rebrand the Korean War: from “The Forgotten War” to “The Forgotten Victory.” This is dubious. As recognized by US generals at the time, the war was not won. But when it came to winning the peace, the victor is crystal-clear.

North Korea’s image is woeful. An economic black hole at the heart of thriving Northeast Asia, it is best known for human-rights abuses, nuclear-arms programs and the oddities of its leadership. Its only global relevance is as a threat.

South Korea’s national brand portfolio is glittering. The country is home to one of the world’s finest high-tech infrastructure networks and world-class brands and a superbly educated populace. Host of global events including the Olympics, the World Cup and the Group of 20 summit, it is a vibrant democracy and a pan-Asian cultural powerhouse.

While a peace treaty to replace the armistice – a long-standing demand of Pyongyang – is being debated in related capitals in this landmark year, the fact that South Korea’s zero-to-hero success story was written in the face of an existential threat for the 65 years deserves consideration.

Perhaps the oft-maligned agreement of 1953, and the South Korea-US security alliance that followed it, need to be recast in a more positive light.

Andrew Salmon

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia correspondent.

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