This is not to suggest that either the United States or the Soviet Union were necessarily desiring this conflict, because "based on the scattered evidence now available from Soviet archives," Stalin was "wary and reluctant" in his support of the North, and only finally agreed to offer military equipment and advice when it became clear that China would intervene should the Soviet Union fail to offer support (Cumings 144). Likewise, the United States was hesitant in the face of South Korean entreaties to assist with a proactive invasion of the North, definitively stating that "Washington would not come to the aid of [the South] unless it were attacked without provocation" (Cumings 145). Recognizing this reveals that although the Korean War was a proxy war in the sense that either side was supported and partially controlled by external actors, there were serious internal divisions between the North and South which made the Korean War not a rapid and unexpected event, but rather "a culmination, a denouement, that took the internal struggles to a new a decisive level" (Cumings 146).
However, this should not diminish the sense that the course of the Korean War itself was the result of the United States' and Soviet Union's intervention and assistance, because although the war was motivated by longstanding differences between the North and South, it seems almost impossible that the war would have played itself out the way it did, let alone occurred, without the shadows of these two world superpowers looming over the peninsula. That this is undoubtedly the case is evident when one considers that both the North and the South were only confident enough to increase their respective provocations because they knew their respective benefactors would intervene. As discussed above, both the United States and the Soviet Union were reluctant to assist short of an unprovoked attack, creating a kind of perverse incentive for both the North and South to antagonize the other into attacking. Thus, both North and South were emboldened by the support they expected from their benefactors, and so actually had little incentive to downplay their respective animosities.
In a sense one can view the United States' and Soviet Union's interest in the Korean peninsula as focused not on Korea itself, but rather China. For the United States, South Korea (along with Japan) represented an important foothold in the far East, and following China's Communist revolution, the country was likely wary of Communism gaining any more ground. Similarly, the Soviet Union was wary of China's influence, even though they ostensibly shared the same organizing philosophy. Far from expressing excitement at the idea of a second Communist power, Stalin was wary Chinese assistance to the North might represent a power shift from which the Soviet Union could not recover, and as such agreed to help when Kim Il Sung intimated that if the Soviet Union did not offer assistance, "Mao Zedong […] will always help Korea" (Cumings 144). In some respects the consequences of the Korean War proved the apprehensions of both the United States and the Soviet Union correct, because Chinese intervention in the latter years of the war cemented a close relationship between North Korea and China that continues to this day, a relationship that represents a continual thorn in the side of both American and Russian foreign policy (although in the latter case to a much lesser extent).
Although the casualty figures from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are shocking, especially in terms of civilian deaths, they appear miniscule compared to the Korean War. According to most accounts, "the countries involved in the three-year conflict suffered a total of more than 4 million casualties, of which at least 2 million were civilians" (Cumings 35). Of the total number of casualties, 36,940 Americans died, 415,004 South Koreans died, an estimated 2 million North Koreans were injured or killed, and around "900,000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives in combat" (Cumings 35). Of course, this does not take into account the millions which have perished as a result of the war, largely due to North Korea's depressed economy, political repression, and devastating food shortages.
One reason it is important to consider the Korean War alongside contemporary conflicts is the fact that the Korean War has been so misunderstood, and in some cases, forgotten. At the time, it was regarded in the West as a civil war, but "a civil conflict purely among Koreans might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division, and foreign intervention;" instead, the war "solved nothing: only the status quo ante was restored, only a cease-fire held the peace" (Cumings 35). Something like this same phenomenon occurred in Iraq, were a "civil war" broke out even though that war was largely instigated and fought by external forces, whether they were the United States military of foreign terrorist groups and their supporters. Another reason this comparison is crucial is because it demonstrates how, in regards to civilian deaths, the United States' way of waging war has not changed substantially.
For example, the United States was responsible for the No Gun Ri massacre, in which hundreds of Korean refugees were machine-gunned out of the fear that the group included North Korean infiltrators (Cumings 167). The Pentagon finally acknowledged the massacre in 2001, but it described it as "an unfortunate tragedy inherent to war and not a deliberate killing," even though eyewitness accounts revealed that the massacre occurred over the course of three days, wherein American soldiers, after having initially gunned down hundreds of people, periodically returned to the site "checking every wounded person and shooting them if they moved," in order "to assure themselves that there would be no survivors to tell the tale of Nogun-ri" (Cumings 166-167). The massacre was not a one-off, tragic event, but rather a single example of a theater-wide policy of firing on refugees maintained both by the United States and South Korean militaries.
Most disturbing, however, is the fact that the policy which allowed for the No Gun Ri massacre represents not so much an aberration of the American way of war as the origin of it. The American response to the revelation of the massacre was to deem it a mere necessary evil of war, rather than the result of specific actions and policies, and this attitude has characterized the American approach to civilian deaths in nearly every conflict since. Civilian deaths are tragic, yes, but are not considered anyone's fault unless that fault can be laid squarely at the feet of the opponents; for example, while the United States does not keep tallies of the civilian deaths it is responsible for (as mentioned above), it is careful to point out when civilian deaths are caused by its opponents, such as al-Qaeda or the Taliban (Ackerman 2011). This callous approach to human life has actually helped to perpetuate the animosity in the Korean Peninsula, because both the North and South have been forced to deal with the devastating consequences of the war without ever being allowed to discuss, openly and honestly, the actual character and consequences of that war. Thus, South Korea has been reluctant to confront the United States over its actions in the war out a fear of losing some support, and this reluctance has allowed the North to rather successfully argue that South Korea acts at the behest of foreign interlopers, rather than the Korean people.
Clearly, war is not a reasonable means of ever achieving the unification of the Korean peninsula, and even if there ever was a time when, as discussed above, a civil war might have had the chance of expunging some of the long-held animosities between North and South, the example of the Korean War demonstrates that this is no longer the case, because the consequences of the conflict between North and South Korea extends far beyond their respective borders. Similarly, one must recognize that the policy of restriction adopted by South Korea and the United States has not helped to diminish tensions on the peninsula, but rather only exacerbated the plight of the North Korean people by denying them food aid and other assistance while further antagonizing the North Korean government. The failure of restriction largely lies in its connection to militarism; while technically it may be considered a kind of "tough" diplomacy, it depends upon the threat of force as well as the infliction of economic (and in the case of food aid) physical pain in order to achieve its ends. Instead, the peninsula must work towards a more reasonable approach to unification that is dependent not on the threat of force but rather on shared values and a desire for peace.
In the book Nonkilling Korea, Glenn Paige defines a "nonkilling" society as a society "with no killing of humans and no threats to kill; no weapons specifically designed to kill humans and justifications for using them; and no conditions of society dependent upon the…