WASHINGTON (AP) — Sixty years after it finished fighting in Korea, the
U.S. is still struggling with two legacies that are reminders of the costs
— political, military and human — that war can impose on the generations
The first is the leading role that America still is committed to playing
in defending South Korea should the 1950-53 Korean War reignite.
Washington has tried for years to wean its ally, South Korea, off its
dependence on the U.S. military by setting a target date for switching
from American to Korean control of the forces that would defend the
country in the event North Korea again attacked the South. That target
date has slipped from 2012 to 2015 and, just this past week, American
officials said the Koreans are informally expressing interest in pushing
it back still further.
The second is the seemingly endless challenge of accounting for thousands
of U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in action. That mission, which
competes for Pentagon resources with demands to also retrieve and identify
MIAs from the battlefields of World War II and Vietnam, is beset with
problems including bureaucratic dysfunction, according to an internal
Pentagon report disclosed July 7 by The Associated Press.
The common thread that binds these two legacies is the lingering hostility
between the North and South and between the North and Washington, which
still has no formal diplomatic relations with the communist nation. What
began as a Cold War contest, with the former Soviet Union and China siding
with the North and the U.S. and United Nations allies supporting the
South, remains one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. In some
respects, the security threat from the North has grown more acute in
So the U.S. is stuck with a lead wartime role in Korea and with a dim
prospect, if any, of building the kind of relationship required to return
to the former battlefields of North Korea to excavate remains of U.S.
MIAs. The Pentagon says there are about 7,900 MIAs, of which approximately
half are thought to be recoverable.
President Barack Obama marks the armistice's 60th anniversary with a
speech Saturday at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
The U.S. has kept combat forces on the Korean Peninsula since the fighting
halted on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice, or truce, and
it still has 28,500 troops based in the South. They are a symbol of a
vibrant and important U.S.-South Korean alliance, and few advocate even a
partial American troop withdrawal. But some U.S. military officers believe
their permanence on the peninsula, with a singular focus on North Korea,
is an anachronistic arrangement that should have been overhauled years
The armistice agreement itself did not envision a long-term U.S. troop
presence. It contains a passage recommending that within three months a
high-level political conference be convened to negotiate the withdrawal of
all foreign forces from Korea and "the peaceful settlement of the Korean
question." That has never happened.
Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the RAND Corp., a federally funded think
tank, says he believes the argument for giving Seoul wartime command of
its own troops loses ground as North Korea's nuclear ambitions grow
bolder. The North has tested nuclear devices and may be capable of
mounting one on a ballistic missile — a worry not only for South Korea,
Japan and others in the region but also for the United States.
"From the South Korean perspective — and I believe there is a lot of truth
to their argument — having the U.S. in (the lead) is a strong deterrent of
North Korea, and it means North Korea can't split the alliance," he said.
For similar reasons, some South Koreans favor asking the U.S. to
reintroduce short-range nuclear weapons onto the peninsula. President
George H.W. Bush withdrew all U.S. nuclear weapons from Korea in 1991.
In 1994 the South took peacetime control of its forces from the U.S.
four-star general who heads a South Korean-U.S. Combined Forces Command,
but the American general remained responsible for wartime control. In 2006
the two countries agreed that South Korea would assume wartime control of
its forces in April 2012.
But in June 2010, shortly after North Korea torpedoed and sank the South
Korean ship Cheonan, Seoul and Washington agreed to delay the handover of
wartime operational control until December 2015. Now, U.S. officials say
Seoul officials are again raising the prospect of another delay, although
no formal request has been made.
Also on hold are U.S. hopes to send forensic science teams back to North
Korea to find U.S. MIA remains. Although the North began to allow U.S.
excavations in 1996, Washington stopped in 2005 amid rising nuclear
The mystery of what happened to MIAs in North Korea runs deep, as do the
emotions of MIA family members who have petitioned the government,
searched military records and in some cases pleaded with diplomats to find
"It's that unanswered question that lingers year after year," says Richard
C. Thompson of Chestertown, Md., a distant cousin of Gilbert L. Ashley,
Jr., an Air Force lieutenant who was one of five members of a B-29 bomber
crew who became prisoners of war after surviving their shootdown over
North Korea in January 1953.
Thompson and other relatives of Ashley and the other four airmen learned
in the 1990s that they had been alive in the hands of North Korean captors
after the July 1953 armistice was signed, but the men were never heard
"It's a lingering melancholy," Thompson says.