The Unending Korean War: W.E.B Du Bois, Ko Un, and the Women's Peace Walk

04/15/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

May 24, 2015 is International Women's Day for Disarmament. On this day, an international group of women are planning a walk for peace across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the name for the 4-km wide buffer that separates North and South Korea. The goals of the peace walk are simple: to end the Korean War with a peace treaty, to reunite divided families, and to make sure that women are involved in all levels of the peace-building process.

On August 14, 1945, the same day Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, U.S. Army colonels Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, armed with a copy of National Geographic, went into a room and drew a line on a map which divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th Parallel. In 1948, the northern side of this line became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DMPRK or North Korea), while the southern side became the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea).

Five years of intensifying ideological and economic conflicts that tore communities apart all over the peninsula culminated in all-out war on June 25, 1950. After a brief, disastrous attempt by U.S./UN forces to roll back the Communist threat and achieve total victory, the Korean War devolved into brutal WW I-style trench warfare. Beat down soldiers on both sides were fighting not for total victory, but for limited victory: securing the 38th Parallel, thus the division of the peninsula.

On July 27, 1953, an Armistice Agreement was signed by the U.S., the DPRK, and the People's Republic of China (PRC) -- South Korean president Syngman Rhee didn't sign because he wanted to keep on fighting -- which halted the combat but did not end the war. Article IV of the Armistice Agreement stated that within three months:

after the Armistice Agreement is signed and becomes effective, a political conference of a higher level of both sides be held by representatives appointed respectively to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.

62 years after the signing of the Armistice Agreement, the Korean question has still not been peacefully settled, and the war continues unended, the longest military conflict in U.S. history.

In recent years, there has been an increasing number of peace pilgrimages both to and across the DMZ. This current outburst of peace activism is continuous with calls for peace that first emerged as the war was happening. Not only is Korea the "forgotten war," but opposition to the war has also been forgotten.

In the early 1950s, opposition to the Korean War was articulated through an embattled peace movement and organizations such as the Peace Information Center (PIC), a founding member of which was an 82 year-old sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois. The mission of the PIC, which existed from April 3 to October 12, 1950, was to provide information and facts to the press about peace actions in the U.S. and other parts of the world. The PIC called for an end to the Korean War and withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. Expressing opposition to the war at this time could ruin a person's life. In Black and Red, Gerald Horne reports that a judge deprived a mother custody of her children after she termed the war "an imperialist adventure."

In addition to speaking at peace rallies, Du Bois drafted a statement entitled "A Protest and a Plea," signed by 100 African American leaders, which interpreted the Korean War in terms of the histories of racism and colonialism in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the United States. Du Bois wrote:

It is said that America is waging war for the sake of peace. But peace in Korea, in Malaya, in Indo-China, and in other parts of Asia, Africa, and America does not mean that powerful nations can force their polices and demands upon weaker peoples. We want peace in Korea, but not a peace dictated by any foreign nation.

The PIC circulated the Stockholm Peace Appeal, an internationally agreed upon document which called for an absolute ban on nuclear weapons. In his study of Du Bois' peace activism at this time, Gerald Horne notes that the Appeal "may have been signed by more people than any other appeal ever devised by human hand and brain." Du Bois and other leaders of the PIC were indicted by the U.S. government for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Secretary of State Dean Acheson charged that the Stockholm Appeal was a "propaganda trick in the spurious 'peace offensive' of the Soviet Union," a charge refuted at length by Du Bois in In Battle for Peace (Mainstream and Masses, 1952).

Du Bois countered Acheson by pointing out that the appeal was supported by political and religious leaders from all over the world, many of whom had no connection to the Soviet Union or communism. It was also endorsed by many prominent artists: Thomas Mann, Leonard Bernstein, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. By September 1950, Horne notes, 2.5 million Americans signed the Appeal despite the threat of being beaten, arrested or losing their jobs. After the PRC entered the Korean War in October 1950, the U.S. threatened to use atomic bombs against Manchuria and China, critically intensifying the urgency of the Appeal.

Du Bois was eventually acquitted, and went on to establish the American Peace Crusade, which continued the call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.

In the early 1950s, McCarthyism was ascendant and President Truman was being instructed to "scare the hell out of the people" in order to win consent for the ideology of containment. The U.S. government and mainstream media worked to associate the concept of peace with communism and thereby delegitimize the growing peace movement. Despite constant intimidation by the U.S. government and being shunned by the NAACP, the organization founded by Du Bois in 1909 which made a sharp right turn during the Cold War, "It was to Du Bois' credit," Gerald Horne writes, "that he led a movement that attracted mass support during troubled times."

The fear, hysteria, and ignorance associated with McCarthyism in the 1950s recently reared its ugly head when Brian Todd interviewed Christine Ahn, one of the organizers of the 2015 women's peace walk, on CNN's Situation Room. In a pathetic display of journalistic integrity, Todd red-baited Ahn, calling her "pro-North Korean."

Ahn was clearly excited to discuss the peace walk on CNN, and was disappointed, but not that surprised, by CNN's ugly witch-hunt. Ahn responded by writing an eloquent piece for Huffington Post explaining, once again, the goals of the peace walk:

Why are we walking? We are walking to invite all concerned to imagine a new chapter in Korean history, one marked by dialogue, understanding and -- ultimately -- forgiveness. We are walking to help unite Korean families tragically separated by an artificial, man-made division. We are walking to lessen military tensions on the Korean peninsula, which have ramifications for peace and security throughout the world. We are walking to urge our leaders to redirect funds devoted to armaments toward improving people's welfare and protecting the environment.

One year before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" while decrying the fact that, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." King's indictment is as true today as when he made it in 1967 in response to the escalating Vietnam War. It was also true during the Korean War.

Blaine Harden recently described the massive bombing of North Korea by the U.S. during the war for the Washington Post. Harden, a former Post reporter, is the author of Escape from Camp 14 (Viking 2012), the story of Shin Dong-hyuk who was brutally tortured in and escaped from the notorious North Korean prison camp (Shin has recently admitted that parts of his story are inaccurate). Escape from Camp 14 is one of the central texts deployed by hawkish human rights activists in their campaigns against the North Korean government, so Harden is not someone who could be easily painted with the "pro-North Korea" brush.

During the Korean War, Harden reports, the U.S.:

bombed and napalmed cities, towns and villages across the North. It was mostly easy pickings for the Air Force, whose B-29s faced little or no opposition on many missions. The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America's own leaders. "Over a period of three years or so, we killed off -- what -- 20 percent of the population," Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984.

Although the ferocity of the bombing was criticized as racist and unjustified elsewhere in the world, it was never a big story back home.

Some 70 percent of the casualties during the Korean War were civilian. We have proper names for a few of the atrocities in U.S. history involving the massacre of civilians by the military: Wounded Knee, Balangiga, My Lai. Shocking images from civilian massacres have occasionally been burned into the national imagination, such as the image of Phan Kim Thi Phuc, the young Vietnamese girl whose naked body, burning from napalm, was photographed by Nick Ut. Kim Phuc, often referred to as "the girl in the picture," survived her burns and went on to become an inspiring antiwar and peace activist.

But what about the countless atrocities committed by the United States during those three years of saturation bombing of North Korea. How many massacres on the scale of My Lai were perpetrated during that period? Do those deaths count? What about the suffering from napalm burns of those hundreds or even thousands of young North Korean girls who did not make it into any picture? Does their suffering count?

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks, "What makes for a grievable life?"

The Korean poet Ko Un, a three-times Nobel Prize for literature runner up, addresses this question in his epic collection entitled Ten Thousand Lives (Maninbo), which comprises 4,001 poems in 30 volumes. This collection contains the names of some 4,000 people and has taken 30 years to complete.

While in solitary confinement after being imprisoned for his participation in the democracy movement in 1980, Ko Un began thinking about people he had met or heard about during his life. He made a promise that if he made it out of prison, he would write poems about each of them. This would be his way of making sure their lives counted.

A new English translation of volumes 11-20 has recently been published, entitled, Ko Un, Maninbo: Peace & War (Bloodaxe 2015). The second half of Maninbo is, as Ko Un states in his introduction to the volume, "For the Faces of the World:"

filled with random, fragmentary portraits evoking the several millions who died during the three years of the Korean War from 1950, as well as those who survived amidst the ruins.

Ko Un's poems move between different scales, from the macrologics of military strategy:

The whole country was turned into scorched earth
From carpet bombing by the U.S. Air Force.
Who among us wanted scorched earth?
Was it ruins
we so ardently desired?
("Old Sim Yu-seop")

To the level of everyday human gestures:

That war
took away the greetings we used to exchange even with strangers.
It took away customs of speaking slowly,
Words became faster
and sharp.
That war took away the clarity in the eyes
of people in autumn's cool wind.
("Other's Eyes")

The 2015 women's walk for peace hopes to reimagine the tense geopolitical situation in northeast Asia by staging a greeting for Korean women across the DMZ. Of course this is a movement without guarantees. Nevertheless, this peace walk, which builds on some 60 years of peace actions for Korea, is a profound step into uncharted territory and deserves our support.

In "Home," Ko Un writes:

That 10,000,000 families are divided between North and South
is one fact of modern Korea's history.
It is not a past that we should go back to,
but the start of tomorrow.