The Korean War is unique: we never really entered it, and we never really left.
When President Truman sent U.S. troops into South Korea to help combat an invasion by North Koreans on June 27, 1950, he acted without a declaration of war. Instead, it was called a “police action.” With or without the designation of a war, the conflict involved 328,000 Americans, killing 36,000 and wounding 103,000.
The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. But as General Maxwell Taylor reminded Americans, it was not a peace treaty, just a suspension of hostilities. It only ended the shooting as North and South Korea negotiated their differences. America wouldn’t leave “until peace and stability have been restored to Korea.”
When Rafael Steinberg wrote “The Lonely Line of Armistice” in the July 27, 1963, issue of the Post, the demilitarized border that divides North and South Korea at the 38th parallel was still, in effect, a war zone. GIs were constantly on guard against North Korean infiltrators and attackers.
In the five decades since that article, tensions have remained high. North Korean troops have repeatedly crossed the border, sometimes attacking American and South Korean troops. In 1966, with the American military focused on Vietnam, North Korea initiated a number of border confrontations. They even sent a commando team into South Korea to assassinate its president: 43 Americans and 299 South Koreans were killed in thwarting the mission.
Beginning in 1974, a series of tunnels from North Korea to South Korea was discovered. The first two were over half a mile long and were found by accident. The third tunnel, whose location was disclosed by a defector in 1978, was 5,200 feet long and 240 feet below ground. The fourth, found in 1990, was 476 feet underground.
Today, the South Korean side of the border is guarded by Swedish and Swiss guards. But the U.S. still keeps 28,000 American military personnel in the country, ready to meet any sudden action from the North.
Is the armistice still in effect? In 2013, North Korea said it was invalidating the armistice in retaliation for United Nations sanctions against it. But the UN countered that North Korea could not unilaterally abandon the agreement. Meanwhile, North Korea claims it is developing a missile system that can drop nuclear warheads on America.
Which makes the Korean armistice not only the longest in history, but also potentially the deadliest.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now