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The Korean War: A Forgotten “Forever” War

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. ET
Code: 1J0115
This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
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Korean Demilitarized Zone

The Korean Peninsula is arguably one of the most perplexing and paradoxical places on the planet. Today, South Korea conjures up images of a dynamic, vibrant, and modern country, which are manifested in its spicy cuisine, wildly popular K-Pop, and cutting-edge technologies. In stark contrast, North Korea evokes images of an archaic, desperately poor, and unstable society led by a brutal madman threatening the world with weapons of mass destruction.

These two countries, whose inhabitants share a history and culture spanning 2,400 years, have been locked in a military standoff that began with a devastating war in June 1950 and continues to this very day, and remain divided by the most heavily weaponized border in the world. The three years of bloody conflict—officially a “police action”—would become the first real test of the recently formed and fragile United Nations. The first major global armed conflict after World War II, it effectively ushered in the Cold War era.

Today, the Korean War is largely relegated to the annals of U.S. history as the “Forgotten War,” despite the fact that the years of armed conflict involved some 3.5 million military personnel from more than 19 countries, including 300,000 from the U.S. There were an estimated 5 million casualties, including some 37,000 U.S. servicemen.  A temporary armistice between the two Koreas has essentially kept the military conflict frozen in place since 1953. But the lack of a permanent peace treaty has effectively preserved the Korean conflict as the last remaining remnant of the Cold War and, technically, America’s longest engagement in an on-going “hot” war, with close to 28,500 active U.S. military personnel still deployed in South Korea today.

Academic and policy analyst Balbina Y. Hwang explores the dynamics of Korea’s unique culture and long history, which are at the heart of the modern divided Korean Peninsula. She also explains how this tiny corner at the northeastern tip of Asia has been at the nexus of Great Power interests for centuries, the locus of their intense political conflicts in the 20th century, and will likely play a pivotal global role in the 21st century.

Hwang is a visiting professor at Georgetown University and a Korean Peninsula expert.

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