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'Korea: The Never-Ending War' Debuts on PBS
April 29, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Korea, to many Americans, is the irritating gnat they can’t believe is still buzzing around their heads.

Korea: The Never-Ending War, a documentary airing Monday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), reminds us that sadly, it’s a little more than a gnat.

More importantly, director John Maggio’s fast-paced film tells us why.

Short answer: because North Korea feels it has been attacked and ravaged by the world, particularly the United States, for more than 70 years, and its best shot to survive in a dangerous world lies in having leverage.

That is, nuclear weapons.

That’s why President Donald Trump is trying to cut the same deal as other U.S. presidents at least back to Bill Clinton. You stop producing nukes, he tells North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and we will give you, basically, money.

So far, despite Trump’s flattering assessments of Kim, he has had no more success than his predecessors.

One of the most telling passages in Korea notes that after China exploded its first atomic bomb, it got a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. After the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II.

The takeaway for North Korea: Nukes is the way you get international respect. Fear works better than friendship.

The more complicated part of Korea, or at least the part that takes longer to explain, really goes back to 1910 when Japan colonized Korea, killing men and enslaving women.

The end of World War II kicked the Japanese out leaving Korea as one of those border areas between the U.S. and, in this case, China and Russia.

As almost an afterthought to clean up a messy loose end, the U.S. had a couple of State Department employees, with no Korean background, propose a compromise that would “temporarily” divide Korea in half. After about 30 minutes of deliberation over a National Geographic map, the 38th parallel was selected as an acceptable midpoint. The U.S. and Russia agreed, and thus was Korea bisected.

Ironically, both the democratic South and the communist North ever since then have wanted the line erased and the country reunited. But broader geopolitical considerations didn’t allow that, particularly after the North invaded the South in early 1950, the non-communist world fought back, the Chinese sent troops to aid the North, and the Korean War turned into a bloody three-year stalemate.

In the end, which was simply a truce and never a treaty, four million people were dead, and the only difference was that the dividing line shifted slightly.

In the aftermath, at first, the South was poor while the North prospered. That changed by the late 1960s, and today the South remains healthy while things in the North are more Spartan which has only increased the North’s resolve to hold a visible and menacing trump card: nukes.

Korea: The Never-Ending War strongly suggests leaders in the North have solidified their power by portraying the U.S. as a devil waiting to swoop in and crush the people.

At the same time, it notes that U.S. troops, during the Korean War, did kill many South Korean civilians. In a chilling preview of what would happen in Vietnam a few years later, military policy advised soldiers to assume any native was the enemy.

It all points toward the depressing and tragic conclusion that Korea – North and South – has spent the last seven decades as a pawn in an international power struggle. Its fate, too often, has been decided by outsiders like the gifted and egotistical U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who confidently assumed the Chinese would never enter the Korean War and if they did, the U.S. would crush them. Wrong and wrong.   

The most impressive and optimistic part of the documentary lies in the fact that the South, and even to an extent the North, have been able to build a functioning culture in which people can live relatively secure lives.

Narrator John Cho emphasizes, however, that this is still a story without a conclusion – and until that “temporary” dividing line is erased, it very likely won’t have one.

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