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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

History and legends... the importance of knowing the difference

Some of you may not know this, but the North Koreans were actually forced to sign the armistice document ending the Korean War in July of 1953 by my father.  True story!

At least that's the story we grew up with in my house. 

You see my dad was a young US Army Corporal on a troop ship sailing towards the Korean peninsula when the Armistice was signed.  The joking assumption about the chronological proximity of these two events is that once they heard that Cpl Del Bogner was on his way towards the 38th Parallel, the North Koreans had no choice but to sit down and talk terms.

There are all kinds of open problems in this silly story I grew up with... some less obvious than others.  In fact, some I am am only now starting to understand.

First off, even at an early age, I understood that this was a tongue-in-cheek anecdote that was destined to become part of our family lore specifically because it was utterly implausible.  After all, while I love my father, he is not the image one conjures when thinking of the dog-face American GIs who fought the North Koreans, Chinese and Soviet Union to a bloody draw back in the early '50s.

In fact, to my knowledge, my father's time in Korea was mostly spent performing clerical tasks (think Radar O'Reilly) and honing his oil painting skills (as evidenced by a couple of nice framed canvases we had in our house; one a portrait of his then fiance (who would one day become my mother), and another a portrait of the Korean houseboy who looked after the needs of the tent where my father and a few of his fellow soldiers lived).

But back to the shaky story/family legend.

1.  The most glaring fallacy we've already discussed; the idea that my father had anything to do with the armistice.  I think we can all agree that this simply isn't true... nor was it ever believed to have been.

2.  Another problem with this well-loved family legend is that even though there was, in fact, an armistice signing that coincided with my dad's arrival in Korea, South Korea never actually signed it... and the North Koreans have stated countless times in the ensuing half century that they do not feel bound by the Armistice Documents.  So while yes, the shooting stopped... it has been the presence of armed troops (a lot of them) rather than the armistice, that has kept the shooting from starting again (for the most part).

3.  But the worst flaw in that old family story is the mistaken idea that anyone was brought to the negotiating table and forced to sign.  Sure, both sides had a vested interest in ending hostilities.  But the two sides had been negotiating an end to hostilities for more than two years when the firing was finally stopped.  The real sticking point was that most of the North Korean and Chinese POWs refused to be repatriated... a situation that the North couldn't accept.  Obviously a formula was finally worked out... but the problem remained that like any military conflict without a clear winner or loser... both sides got to write their history books the way they liked them, and then went on to set foreign policy as if they were the victor.  A dangerous situation.  (sound familiar?)

Clearly we haven't evolved much since 1953, because the UN and western powers still place an inordinate amount of faith in the power of ceasefire documents and signed agreements where there are no victors or vanquished.... and where non-adherence carries little or no risk to one or both parties.  They also seem to operate under the illusion (delusion) that anyone can be forced to sign anything.

So while bedtime stories of how daddy won the Korean War may be fine for an eight-year-old... anyone who has studied the causes and history of the Korean Conflict can't help but look at this week's violence as nearly inevitable.  Yet, the UN is acting completely gobsmacked by this week's North Korean aggression... as they'll almost certainly act gobsmacked when the Palestinians set aside whatever document they are eventually 'forced' to sign with Israel.

Learn your history, people.  Or get used to seeing it repeated.

Posted by David Bogner on November 24, 2010 | Permalink

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I actually have a similar story. I was told that my grandfather led the troops that liberated the Koreans from the Japanese in 1945. I've seen some pictures of a parade, and I know my grandfather was an officer during the war, but I've never seen anything online (or anywhere else) to confirm the story...

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Nov 24, 2010 4:38:37 PM

I guess repeating history is no problem for a country that puts up with Interminable TV reruns....

Yom Hodu sameach!

Posted by: Aharon fischman | Nov 24, 2010 4:47:48 PM

@ Dave (Balashon)

The US did liberate Korea at the end of WW2.

The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. One of the conditions of surrender was that the Japanese had to leave Korea. The US sent in troops to keep order. So did the Russians. And so the whole mess began.

The Koreans still celebrate August 15 as Liberation Day.

Posted by: antares | Nov 24, 2010 10:37:06 PM

Obama becomes Pres.and the N.Koreans respond with the 2 most serious attacks on S. Korea in years. Any connection?

Posted by: ED | Nov 24, 2010 11:00:02 PM

Antares - I know that the US liberated Korea. I just could never find any evidence that my grandfather was the one who led the troops.

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Nov 25, 2010 7:01:58 PM

If we are to picture Radar O'Reilly for your father's clerical skills, then we must follow through and invoke the name of Sherman Potter when speaking of his oil painting skills...

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Nov 29, 2010 2:43:45 PM

How ironic, David, my father served during the Korean War and he too would tell me of Cpl Del Bogner forcing the North Koreans to sign the armistices :-)

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Nov 29, 2010 4:01:27 PM

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