Jul 27

This Day In History: The Korean War Armistice

Saturday, July 27, 2019 12:01 AM

By

The 27th of July, 2019 marks the 66th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. While a peace treaty was never signed (leaving the two Koreas still technically at war) the 1953 armistice nevertheless finally brought a cessation of all hostilities to the Korean War. The armistice also established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). 

While numerous factors played a role in complicating the Korean War Armistice, there were two notable reasons it took more than two years to negotiate. First, there was disagreement over the placement of the demarcation line dividing the two Koreas, which involved determining the actual location of Communist and United Nations forces. Second, the repatriation of prisoners of war was further complicated by the issue of voluntary repatriation. 

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke recalls his struggles negotiating the line of demarcation: 

One of the most important points of this whole military armistice committee was where is the line that separates our two forces. Where is it, and what should it be at the end of the armistice. . . . The first thing to do was to determine where the present battle line was, then, from that, we could determine where the final line of demarcation was to be at the signing of the armistice. The communists insisted that the present battle line would have to be the final line of demarcation, and we said no, that cannot be. If we had agreed to that, then all the military pressure would have come off the communists because it wouldn’t make any sense to take areas, to take land, and force them back if, at the signing of the armistice, they would go back to where we are now. We had found that the only way we could get an armistice was to fight for it…

When we started the negotiations on the present battle line, which had to be developed first, before we could do anything more than talk about the final line of demarcation — we agreed to start from the east coast, and we could find out where they were and where we are, our front lines, not outposts, but where the main battle lines were. Then we would determine some place in between there, a point, and then we’d connect these points as we went west and thereby determine the present battle line. . . . The first point was Hill 822, which was its height in meters — I’m not so sure that was the number, but it was right close to the east coast, and we said, “Well now, we hold Hill 822, you are north of that, and we estimate that you are here.” And they said:

“Oh, no, that’s not true. We hold Hill 822.” We said:

“No, you don’t,” and they said, “Yes we do.” And then it got acrimonious, and they finally said:

“Either you are lying or your corps commander is lying or your army commander is lying, you do not have the correct data. You do not know what you’re talking about. We hold Hill 822.”

Well, we had called up the corps commander the night before and we knew our people were on Hill 822. But, we didn’t get anywhere in negotiations that day. 

We went back to Munsan-Ni and as soon as we got back we called up the corps commander and he said: 

We did hold Hill 822 until about eight o’clock this morning, but around eight o’clock they launched a vicious attack, heavy artillery, and drove us back. We’re trying to take it now, but we haven’t been able to take it yet.

It was clear what the communists were up to. Every time we were going to talk about a point they were going to try and drive us back and make us eat crow. 

Well, we had to go to the conference tent and say: 

“We were right. We held Hill 822 yesterday, but you hold it today.”

They said, “Of course, that’s wrong, but if you want to pretend that, if that eases your position a little bit, we don’t mind your deceit. But you do agree that we hold Hill 822. … Well, now, if you agree to that, do you agree to this position of your forces?” And they had it right, so we said yes. We agreed to that maybe in an hour or so’s conversation. 

Then we started to discuss the next hill west, which was Hill 718, say, and one assumes we will discuss this hill, this point. They said yes. 

So I picked up the telephone, got the Tenth Corps, which had the east coast, and said: 

“We’re just starting to talk about Hill 718, there’s going to be an attack on it within fifteen to twenty minutes. Hold it. Not matter what, hold it.”

They did. We learned there was an attack . . . . Thereafter, there were lots of incidents like that — but we had learned to negotiate by using a military force.”

Along with determining the present battle line and subsequently, the line of demarcation, the POW problem was complicated by the issue of voluntary repatriation. Over the course of the Korean War, the United States and its allies captured tens of thousands of Communist soldiers, many of whom claimed “they were coerced into fighting for China and North Korea” and were unwilling to be exchanged to their home countries. 

North Korean Major General Lee Sang Jo, chief Communist prisoner of war negotiator (seated third from right), signs the official document on the agreement of exchanging sick and wounded POWs at Panmunjom, Korea. Seated across the table are Rear Admiral John C. Daniel, USN, United Nations chief prisoner of war negotiator, and his UN staff officers. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archives)

Admiral Ruthven E. Libby recalls his struggle to negotiate the issue of POWs while serving as the head of the US side of the POW delegation: 

We had all this mess about voluntary repatriation. We got orders from Washington to plunk for voluntary repatriation. In other words, we didn’t have to send any Commie POW back that didn’t want to go. This voluntary repatriation business was something that had never been heard before. Prisoners of War were prisoners of war and when you exchange prisoners of war, you send the enemy back and you get yours. But it came in from Washington and apparently somebody in Washington, presumably in the State Department, thought it would be a wonderful idea–it would make very fine propaganda, and all that sort of baloney. Then, of course, what it did was create unending complications, and it created an awful lot of bad blood, not that that was too important.

It didn’t make any sense to us. But we were stuck with it, and we had to try to sell it to the Commies, and it outraged them and they let us know that they wanted no part of it. That was one of the sticking blocks of ever getting the armistice arranged. 

….They didn’t like it, because they wanted their people back–they wanted all of them. … In a sense, you can’t blame [the Communist POWs] for not wanting to go back. . . . The idea may have been a good humanitarian gesture on our part and also wonderful propaganda against communism, which we were trying to discredit, of course. A lot of people elected not to go back, but it certainly put us on the horns of a dilemma even with our own people, and it created, I think, a very bad military precedent.

Anyway, this voluntary repatriation business held up the arrival of the achievement of an armistice for some months, I’m quite sure … I was with them for seven months, and the negotiations dragged on and on. It finally took me about a good three months, or a bad three months, depending on how you look at it, beating these people over the head, before we could even exchange lists of prisoners of war, which they had and which we had. Finally, when they agreed to exchange lists of POWs, about one-tenth of what we knew they had taken, and we gave them a list of something like 15,000 or 16,000. 

Due to military stalemate, North Korea and China would eventually agree to the United States’ demands of voluntary repatriation through neutral UN parties. While agreement on the prisoner exchanges led to the 1953 armistice, there still remains POWs that have never been returned.