Michael Bassett on a tank at a preschool in Rajin-Sanbong, North Korea, circa 2013. Photo courtesy of the author

My father was an abusive alcoholic who abandoned me as a child, but luckily I had an amazing grandfather who replaced him. My grandpa is the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever known and he had an enormous impact on my life. 

I remember him teaching me how to play baseball and then showing me pictures of him playing baseball with an orphaned Korean boy from the Iron Triangle in 1952. I imagined myself like that boy, and having a little better childhood thanks to my grandpa.

Michael Bassett’s grandfather and the Korean orphan he taught baseball, Iron Triangle, Korea, circa 1952.

Following in his footsteps, I joined the US Army. After a tour in Germany I finally found myself stationed on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near Panmunjom in Area 1. 

One night we were alerted around 0300hrs because a defector had made it across. Our squadron commander ordered us all into the gym to listen to her story. She’d been a supply clerk and was accused of stealing a pack of pencils. In the gulag she was raped, and then tortured for being raped.

I was so mad I wanted to reignite the war by launching tank rounds into the DPRK. Luckily, I was talked down. A few years later I went into reconnaissance. 

After the army I chose scholarly and activist approaches. I found myself a peace activist with the delusion that I could end the Korean War if people would just listen to me. I was blogging and writing for think-tanks, and even served as an intel analyst who briefed everyone from military leaders to government officials and ambassadors. 

I had effectively done everything humanly possible to become a Korean War expert: I learned the language; lived in Korea for a decade; studied North Korea in college, in grad school, and even in North Korea during three months of visits. At the end of it, I knew every actor in the field and what their positions were.

I began to realize that every position anyone notable ever took always resulted in a perpetuation of the North Korean regime, and therefore the war. It drove me crazy. 

The harder I fought to end the war, the more resistance I got. Especially from human rights actors and NGOs – oddly enough. At one point I wrongly believed that North Korea was the only country that truly wanted to end the war. But then the regime detained and interrogated me during a visit. I was kicked out and banned, which taught me a valuable lesson that I’d never forget: Engagers are the biggest threat to the regime.

My (borrowed) theory was that radical guerrilla engagement could force the Hermit Kingdom to collapse, whereupon South Korea could absorb the North. So I launched several public diplomacy projects ranging from orchestras to rap videos, from environmental projects to parades. Later, I even worked as a US Department of Defense intelligence analyst, briefing senior leaders at the two-star, four-star and combatant command levels. 

Several more terrible experiences later, I’d finally come to the bitter conclusion that it is in nobody’s interest to end the Korean War. America, South Korea, Japan, North Korea, China and Russia – the main stakeholders – all have their own incentives to keep the war perpetually going. The Korean Peninsula basically serves as a frontline between communism and freedom. To end the war would be to snap that Achilles’ heel and all hell would break loose. 

To provide an example of what I’m talking about, recently I read an article – which perhaps triggered me to write this piece – in which an analyst, Dr Christopher Richardson, claimed that North Korea is struggling against South Korean influence. Despite the opposite being true – which is apparent from all of President Moon Jae-in’s seemingly pro-North Korea policies – Richardson made anecdotal arguments about how Southern ideology has influenced the North.

True or not, what is the point of giving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reasons for crackdowns and telling them exactly what to look for? My problem with this article is that when those running the regime read it, it will cause them to crack down on their people more. In the human-rights sense, crackdowns are devastating to the population. In the sense of preserving the status quo, that’s exactly what crackdowns achieve.

I digress because I’ve finally realized that the status quo, no matter how ugly it is, is for the good of the order. No amount of current human suffering or pain caused by today’s division, is, according to the experts, more important than preserving the status quo. After all, breaking that Achilles’ heel would make today’s problems seem like a walk in the park. 

I have many regrets in my life but the Korean War is my Rosebud. I have done my best since leaving the field, in disgraced failure, to make amends to everyone I hurt by accusing them of perpetuating the Korean War. I can only hope that they have also forgiven me, too. Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way. None of us is perfect, certainly not I. 

It greatly pains me to know that North Korean people are still suffering under the regime, that divided families are still separated and that Korean War veterans will probably be long gone before the war they fought 70 years ago ends. I have no remedies for such conundrums. Telling these groups of people that their suffering is for the greater good will not likely leave them content. And perhaps that’s why nobody admits the sad truth.

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Michael Bassett

Michael Bassett served his country honorably for 20 combined years as a soldier, contractor and civil servant. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from American University, blogs at mikesfuckingblog.com and is a certified Harley-Davidson technician who lives in Iowa with his wife and their pets.