Was Ho Chi Minh the reason why the Vietnam War is history, but the wounds of Korea still fester?
John Barry Kotch says what sets apart the Korean War from the later conflict in Vietnam is the lack of a unified political elite amid the Soviet-US divide, especially the absence of a clear national leader like Ho Chi Minh
While the first world war ended with a punitive peace, complete with harsh reparations and prolonged occupation, setting the stage for the second world war, the latter was the opposite, ending with a relatively benign occupation of the two main Axis powers (Germany and Japan), a peace treaty, and their subsequent reintegration into the community of nations.
By contrast, post-second world war conflicts in global hotspots such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have experienced less favourable outcomes. Apart from Iraq, they have all been intra-state or civil wars in which outside powers have generally been unable to impose their will and – with the sole exception of the 1991 Gulf War and Vietnam – remain unresolved.
Korea and Vietnam, both brush-fire wars on China’s periphery, are studies in contrast. Why is there closure in Vietnam four decades after the fighting ended, while there is none in Korea six decades later, making it the living symbol of the unfinished business of the cold war and currently threatening a regional nuclear conflagration?
July 27 marked the 64th anniversary of the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement, which suspended but not did not end the conflict. And while many of the provisions of the ceasefire have been eviscerated during the intervening decades, such as the ban on the introduction of new and upgraded military equipment, the armistice agreement has by and large remained intact, albeit without a peace agreement putting to rest the underlying conflict.
A key difference was that negotiations to end the Vietnam War were conducted at the political level in Paris, with the parties in face-to-face contact and zones of occupation delineated pending a final peace settlement, while those to end the Korean War took place at the military level in the field where copies of the armistice agreement were signed in triplicate by representatives of the three warring armies, the US-led UN Command, the North Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers at the truce village of Panmunjom.
No words were exchanged nor was there any acknowledgement or contact among signatories, emblematic of the bitter peace which followed.
Even as the South has proposed renewed military talks at Panmunjom as recently as two weeks ago, “to lessen all hostile activities that raise military tension”, there has never been any face-to-face meeting of the top military commanders on either side. The military mantra, “We’re still at war, it’s only a truce”, emphasises this reality, recently updated by the US Commander in Korea, Vincent Brooks: “self-restraint is all that separates armistice and war”, while reunification remains a distant goal.
But the difference in outcomes between Korea and Vietnam is best explained by the composition of their respective political elites. In a reflection of their different political systems and philosophies, the victors of the second world war, the Soviet Union and the US, supported opposite factions of the Korean political elite – communist and non-communist, respectively. This breach never healed, even after US and Soviet troops withdrew prior to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.
By comparison, Vietnam’s political elite from the start represented a unified nationalist-communist amalgam, and remained unified during the war against the French led by the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s division into North and South at the 1954 Geneva Conference, and the emergence of the Viet Cong-led insurgency in the south in the subsequent war against the US.
In short, it mattered less that Korea was divided and occupied as a consequence of a military decision at the end of the second world war, and Vietnam at the conference table in Geneva in 1954, than the fact the Ho Chi Minh enjoyed near universal backing as a Vietnamese nationalist leader, as distinct from the Korean political elites in both North and South who had to answer to their Soviet or American patrons and occupiers.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant