July 27, 1953: Korean War Armistice— Ceasefire Without Peace

By Callie Oettinger

The Korean War armistice talks lasted over a year, with the signing taking place July, 27, 1953 at Panmunjom.

One of the key problems during the negotiations?

Many of the Communist prisoners didn’t want to return home and Truman held back, remembering what happened to those who returned home to Stalin after WWII.

As the talks continued, the battles and the deaths increased.

A declassified CIA report dated July 19, 1953 noted activity as the armistice signing day approached:

Scheduled flights of North Korean aircraft during the past few days strongly indicate a massing of other elements of the North Korean air force in the Yalu River area, in addition to the MIG’s already there.

On 16, July, two separate groups of 24 piston fighters and 20IL-10 piston ground-attack aircraft, using the same frequency, were scheduled for flights southward into Kungchuling, with at least the former group proceeding to an unidentified airfield believed to be in the border area. On 15 July, from three to six IL-28 twin-jet bombers and two TU-2 conventional bombers landed at an airfield in the Antung area; these aircraft had been scheduled for a “combat” mission.

The purpose of this apparent concentration near the combat area is not known. It is conceivable that the Communists are planning to give air support to a large-scale North Korean-Chinese offensive which may be planned for late July. These moves could also be preparatory to the North Korean air force entering Korea just before an armistice comes into effect.

The negotiations continued, even after the armistice date had been set:

From a declassified CIA report dated July 23, 1953:

Ambassador Briggs reports that South Korean foreign minister Pyun on 21 July made an “unequivocal, reckless and last-minute” threat to torpedo” the armistice by demanding “clarifications” on two of the assurances which UN chief negotiator Harrison made to the Communists on 19 July. Specifically, Pyun and Prime Minister Paek Tu-chin wanted to know what Harrison meant when he said that the UN would “maintain the armistice” if it were violated by South Korea, and would “protect” neutral nation personnel authorized to enter South Korea,

Implying that Robertson had shown bad faith in his conversations, Pyun and Paek also demanded to know whether the United States would give “moral and material support” in case of unilateral South Korean military action, and whether it would grant Rhee the type of mutual defense pact he requested on 9 July.

"When armistice terms were finally agreed at Panmunjom," wrote Walter J. Boyne, in his book Beyond the Wild Blue:

Mao boasted that the war had been a victory for China. “From a purely military point of view,” he told the Russians, “it would not be bad to continue to strike the Americans for approximately another year.” The war had achieved everything Mao had sought—recognition that there was a new China, a China that was a great power. This was not the pathetic basket-case China of the past hundred years. After Korea, the whole world would take China seriously.

In his book Commander in Chief Geoffrey Perret wrote:

Korea had been five wars in one.

A civil war between those who had collaborated with the Japanese and those in the anti-Japanese resistance;

a revolutionary war to bring about a new social order;

a nationalistic war to unite a divided Korea;

a proxy war within the Cold War, with the ROKs as America’s proxy forces and the Inmum Gun as Stalin’s;

and a war for prestige.

No one made the prestige argument more often or forcefully than Dean Acheson. Ironic, that. The net winners in the prestige war were Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung. The net loser was Truman. American prestige stood higher on June 24, 1950, than it did on July 27, 1953, when the armistice was agreed.

And, though the armistice was signed, there was no peace.

James Brady wondered what those GIs in Korea thought as he wrote The Scariest Place in the World: A Marine Returns to North Korea:

I’d had my war and, like most soldiers, didn’t really want to fight another, yet Korea continued to exert its pull.

It was where boyhood ended, where I learned to fight, where I really became a Marine. Half a century after the war we fought to save Korea, we still had thousands of Americans stationed south of the DMZ. Were these GIs infantrymen? Or specialists operating radars and listening posts? They could hardly defend in depth. Did they simply man a few outposts, just a political force the Communist North would have to take into account if another war began? Were American kids out there as a tripwire, “raw meat on the end of a stick”?

What did they think about it, being raw meat? What was duty like for the GIs still in Korea, manning that long and wondering line? Did the troops think another war was  coming to “the scariest place”? And the generals, what were they saying?

No one in the States seemed to be asking those questions, writing or broadcasting that story, not with a second Iraq War about to break out. Myopic, perhaps, but for me Korea remained in clearer focus . . .

The Korean War became known as the “Forgotten War,” between the “Good War” and Vietnam, yet for the veterans returning home, particularly those who had been POWs, it remained top of mind.

At Panmunjom, Korea, exchange site, Major General Lee Sang-Jo Communist liaison officer, departs after agreeing in substance to all points of the UN proposal for exchange of sick and wounded prisoners., 04/10/1953. Credit: National Archives.

At Panmunjom, Korea, exchange site, Major General Lee Sang-Jo Communist liaison officer, departs after agreeing in substance to all points of the UN proposal for exchange of sick and wounded prisoners., 04/10/1953.
Credit: National Archives.

At Panmunjom, Korea, POW's (recently repatriated in the UN POW exchange) are off-loaded from ambulances, 04/21/1953 Credit: National Archives.

At Panmunjom, Korea, POW’s (recently repatriated in the UN POW exchange) are off-loaded from ambulances, 04/21/1953
Credit: National Archives.

Men at Munsan-ni, Korea, preparing for inspection prior to acting as honor guard at signing of armistice at Panmunjom. Navy men giving their shoes a spit shine, 07/23/1953. Credit: National Archives.

Men at Munsan-ni, Korea, preparing for inspection prior to acting as honor guard at signing of armistice at Panmunjom. Navy men giving their shoes a spit shine, 07/23/1953.
Credit: National Archives.

The armistice is signed. U.S. Army Gen. W.K. Harrison (left table) and North Korean Gen. Nam Il (right table) sign documents, July 23, 1953.  Credit: U.S. Air Force

The armistice is signed. U.S. Army Gen. W.K. Harrison (left table) and North Korean Gen. Nam Il (right table) sign documents, July 23, 1953.
Credit: U.S. Air Force

Return of the Prisoners of War during Operation "Big Switch," Panmunjom, Korea. 08/12/1953. Credit: National Archives.

Return of the Prisoners of War during Operation “Big Switch,” Panmunjom, Korea. 08/12/1953.
Credit: National Archives.

Litter cases of North Korean POW's are shown at the Communist receiving center at Panmunjom, Korea, during the recent UN POW exchange, 09/08/1953. Credit: National Archives.

Litter cases of North Korean POW’s are shown at the Communist receiving center at Panmunjom, Korea, during the recent UN POW exchange, 09/08/1953.
Credit: National Archives.

 


CALLIE OETTINGER was Command Posts’ first managing editor. Her interest in military history, policy and fiction took root when she was a kid, traveling and living the life of an Army Brat, and continues today.

 

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