THIRTY-TWO years ago this past Saturday, on July 27, 1953, the guns of Korea fell silent; an elaborate armistice agreement negotiated for two years and signed by American, North Korean, and Chinese generals substituted verbal for armed confrontation. No South Korean ever signed. Seoul was represented by the United Nations commander, an American, to whom its armed forces were subordinate. North Korea signed under its independent leader, Kim Il Sung, who was no subordinate to the signing commander of the Chinese People's Volunteers. This dissymmetry still shadows the armistice, partly frustrating the needed transition to more permanent peace. Pyongyang is not unnaturally keyed to negotiating with Washington, not Seoul, a course we set her on. Only in the last months and weeks do North-South Korean negotiations on aid and mutual visits open the more natural inter-Korean channel.
Of the 19 nations that once contributed to the Korean war, 16, including China, no longer retain active organizational interest. The two Koreas and the United States alone remain, their confrontation ossified by the armistice in the archaic postures of an ancient, curiously unremitting hostility. Panmunjom's Military Armistice Commission sponsors the world's longest running political theater of the absurd, re-creating in thousands of meetings the same futile, curiously childish drama, endlessly accusing
and monitoring tension while never approaching peace.
This bristling minuet degrades all participants and even threatens to petrify the political relations between Seoul and Washington. None by altering the armistice dares open Pandora's box. A vigorous, competent 600,000 South Korean military cannot be fully master even in its own small house but must largely continue to accept operational control by a four-star US general parading as a UN commander, though beyond the slightest UN control or representation, without the pretense of UN troops, and despite o ne UN vote to abolish the command. US troops remain, expensively, to support his rank. No one who visits North Korea credits it with the technical proficiency or economic sinews for the successful attack on South Korea ceaselessly augured by Pentagon and Seoul militaries.
Meanwhile, Washington's military overlordship propels it dangerously into South Korean politics, a fact that led to violence in May 1980 when non-UN Korean paratroopers ran so amok in quelling democratic demonstrators in the southwestern city of Kwangju that the whole city rose against them. The United Nations commander chose to permit his well-trained and more sober Korean troops to retake Kwangju with restraint to forestall non-UN command Korean troops retaking it with terror. Requests, however, that the government apologize and try the guilty paratroopers were ignored. This American political-military act, formally avoided by the Soviets in the similar Jaruzelski suppression of Solidarity, underlay Korean students' occupation of the United States Information Service (USIS) in Seoul in late May and foreshadows future dangers.
Thus in Korea the United States has command without control. Seoul believes we have control without command. Either way, the relationship is ambiguous, misunderstood, and untenable, subject to collapse under real military pressure.
Indeed, military action, if ever invoked, might well come to rest on painful legal controversy, harmful to legitimate defense. Even in peace, the situation is seen both by Korean students and many military as insulting to Korean sovereignty.
The armistice contributes to such freezing of United States policies to Korea. None wants to touch them; yet revision gradually becomes essential. That Panmunjom is the only US contact with North Korea is an antiquated absurdity. Americans must trade and talk through civilian channels with Pyongyang. The influence acquired will benefit all, South Korea not least. The United States must gradually withdraw from its command -- or control -- of South Korean troops. American troops can remain if truly needed
or gradually be drawn down but under a lower-ranking, less omnipotent commander.
Armistices exist to be temporary. Alone in Korea, our 1953 armistice assumes a queasy permanence. Only North Korea talks of peace. As the Korean armistice grows old, we too might recall that an armistice is not the intended final end of conflict.
Gregory Henderson, a specialist on Korea in government and academe since 1947, was a Foreign Service officer in the US Embassy in Korea during the opening months of the Korean war.