From chocolates to chips to nuclear warheads

June 23, 2022

SEOUL – This weekend, we will again recall the beginning of the Korean War. For me, it is also the beginning of my memories.

Not yet 3 years old, I was too young to fully grasp the magnitude of the conflict and contextualize my memories. Thus, the upheaval that began on June 25, 1950 still remains a disjointed series of scenes. Among them: a sister who walked out when Seoul was in North Korean hands – and never came back; without warning, an American soldier woke my family, waving a flashlight in our single bedroom; and on another night, my other sister, who had joined relatives evacuated to the south, returned home in a military jeep, accompanied by an army officer, which shocked me.

My sister married the handsome officer. And when he visited, he brought a few boxes of tasty American treats for his little sister-in-law. But I was still too young to appreciate my brother-in-law’s benevolence. Much later, I would learn that the cans were called C-Rations and I would realize that he hadn’t completely eaten his field meals.

Even without the war, Korea’s economic situation was fragile. With the bloody internal conflict, survival was a daily struggle. The annual per capita income was only $100. Hunger was boundless among the ashes of a devastating war that followed brutal colonial rule and territorial partition, with millions of lives lost. Children milling around American soldiers, hoping to taste chocolate, were commonplace scenes. After entering primary school, I became familiar with powdered milk donated by strangers from distant lands.

Those old memories sprang up while watching the news of US President Joe Biden’s visit here last month. Samsung Electronics’ sprawling factory in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, with the world’s largest semiconductor production line, was the first stop on Biden’s first Asian tour as US president, demonstrating his urgent priority to address supply chain issues amid heightened strategic competition with China.

Speaking to company employees, President Biden said the factory tour was an “auspicious start to his journey” and “emblematic of the future cooperation and innovation that our nations can and must build together”. He thanked Samsung for its commitment to invest $17 billion to build a similar factory in Taylor, Texas. This is the largest foreign direct investment ever made in Texas, said its governor, Greg Abbott, in announcing the project last November.

For Samsung, this is the biggest investment the company has ever made in the United States. The electronics giant expects the new facility to boost production of high-tech chips used for 5G mobile communications, advanced computing and artificial intelligence, improving supply chain resilience . When it enters service in 2024, the plant will be Samsung’s second in Texas. It has operated a chip manufacturing plant in Austin since the late 1990s.

Before leaving for Japan, President Biden met with the chairman of Hyundai Motor Group. They celebrated the automaker’s decision to invest $10 billion in a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing plant in Savannah, Georgia. When questions hang over his economic strategy in Asia, Biden has reaped remarkable achievements in his search for useful partners in South Korea.

Biden’s substantial investment deals with Samsung and Hyundai underscore the success of the seven-decade alliance between South Korea and the United States. There is no doubt that South Korea’s miraculous economic development was possible with US assistance and security guarantees. The nation also owes a lot to America for its thriving popular culture today, represented by K-pop and movies.

Meanwhile, the prolonged stalemate on the Korean peninsula since the 1953 ceasefire reveals the underside of the alliance. The ceasefire signed by North Korea, the United States and China – with South Korea’s refusal – has created a 4 km wide undulating buffer zone in the middle of the peninsula, not very different of the pre-war 38th parallel. Troops and weapons had to be withdrawn, but contrary to its name of demilitarized zone, this strip of no man’s land is the most strongly fortified zone in the world, which maintains a vulnerable peace.

The resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, dating from the early 1990s, has stalled. Most notably, inconsistent policy approaches between successive administrations in Seoul and Washington have undermined coherence. As politics vacillates between harsh rhetoric, economic rewards and regime security, the North has seized opportunities to further improve its nuclear and missile capabilities under dynastic leadership.

Negotiations are at a standstill. Pyongyang wants comprehensive security guarantees; Washington demands the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the North; and Seoul seeks to advance inter-Korean peace and reconciliation.

Today, while all dialogue and all diplomacy are interrupted between the two Koreas and between the United States and North Korea, Pyongyang is increasing the launches of missiles and artillery rockets. There is also speculation that its seventh nuclear test is imminent as the economy is at its lowest since the “arduous march” of the 1990s and the pandemic takes its toll.

In the face of the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, the widespread deterrence and strategic stability sought by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration may seem inevitable. But armed confrontation and the mutual demonstration of firepower alone cannot result in lasting peace and reconciliation. Experience has proven that sanctions cannot persuade the North to change course either.

In academic circles, the Korean Peninsula has been described as a place “where war seems unlikely, but so does peace”. The only viable choice for any peace-loving Korean must be “to try to expand the realm of peace and coexistence through exchange and cooperation by mitigating inter-Korean conflict and confrontation.”

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the ceasefire next year, it is suggested that the two Koreas and the United States resume talks in Panmunjom, where the truce agreement was signed on July 27, 1953 after two years of negotiations and limited battle movement. lines. China, as a party to the agreement, could also be invited. Who knows? A breakthrough may emerge, based on parameters that are not even addressed yet.

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