How the Korean War and the War on Terror Are Connected

October 30th, 2021 - by Daniel Jasper / Opinion @ NK News

Twenty years after 9/11, Bush’s “Axis of Evil speech” still
epitomizes flawed DPRK policy that perpetuates ‘forever war’

The Circuitous Connections between the Korean War and the War on Terror

Daniel Jasper / Opinion @ NK News

 (October 14, 2021) — Korea and Afghanistan are seldom connected in the minds of most Americans. Separated by time and space, the two conflicts seem to reflect vastly different geopolitical circumstances and national priorities. 

Yet the two conflicts have a circuitous connection that gave rise to the now infamous brand of conflict dubbed the “forever war.”

In many ways, the Korean War paved the way for the conflict in Afghanistan (as well as many military operations before Afghanistan such as Vietnam). At the same time, the militarized response to 9/11 remade the Korean War into a new type of conflict — one devoid of context with amorphous goals and no clear plan of action from the US.


Following the reports of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the media declared over and over that the US’ “longest war” had finally come to an end. These headlines and commentaries somehow gloss over the fact that the US’ longest war abroad — the Korean War — has been going on for over 71 years. This is not a mere technicality: The unended war lies at the root of today’s conflict and permanently changed the US military.

Prior to the Korean War, the US military was far smaller than it is today. As historian Bruce Cummings has pointed out in his book “The Korean War: A History,” the American public didn’t support the idea of a large standing army during peacetime for most of US history. Outside of war, the military was a small force with relatively minor influences on US society and the economy. Even after World War II, the military followed a regular pattern of scaling down — going from over 11 million soldiers to just 554,000. 

However, before the outbreak of the Korean War, a top-secret policy paper known as NSC 68 spelled out the need for a permanent military establishment to counter the Soviet Union — one with a vastly expanded budget, new nuclear weapons and more military aid for allies. The North Korean invasion of South Korea provided the impetus to put these plans in motion, making the military-industrial complex a permanent global fixture even after the active fighting of the Korean War stopped. 

The Korean War didn’t just supply the material means for a permanent war footing. Because President Harry Truman never sought legislative approval for the war, it also created the legal pathways for the executive branch to take “police actions” without congressional approval. It was this legal circumvention that paved the way for the executive branch to devise other creative interpretations on how to use military force in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Libya.

While active fighting ended with an armistice in 1953, the US and North Korea never formalized a peace treaty. Instead, the US kept a permanent military presence in the South and largely abandoned attempts to end the war permanently. The so-called Forgotten War was effectively wiped from the US collective memory, creating a conflict today that is devoid of context in the minds of most Americans.

Thus, the first “forever war” became an unquestionable aspect of Washington’s foreign policy. Strategy and rhetoric have so effectively shielded this policy that few have stopped to consider why this war has continued and whether maintaining a state of war for three-quarters of a century is sound strategy.


George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech was the catalyst that dragged US-North Korean relations into an unrelated and ill-defined war against terrorism in the wake of 9/11. And it was largely done so as an afterthought: As Mike Chinoy writes, North Korea was added to the 2002 State of the Union on the suggestion of Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, in order to avoid a sole focus on Iraq.

Despite the fact that North Korea had no connections to 9/11, the Bush administration lumped North Korea into a group of countries that would collectively define the frontlines for the militarized US response to the attacks.

This derailed US-DPRK relations for years, perhaps even to the present day. Not only did the Agreed Framework essentially dissolve — a key goal of then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton — but diplomatic channels between Washington and Pyongyang slammed shut. Within a year of the speech, North Korea announced it would withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and signaled it would restart its nuclear weapons programs.

The nuclear weapons that the DPRK possesses today are a direct result of the Bush administration’s thoughtless response to the attacks epitomized by the “Axis of Evil” speech; a fact that even gave rise to the name “Bush’s Bomb” for North Korea’s early nuclear arsenal.

George W. Bush at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Feb. 21, 2002


Now, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, new public opinion research shows that the US public is ready for a new approach to North Korea.

survey commissioned by the American Friends Service Committee and conducted by Ipsos found that the US electorate supports ending the Korean War and engaging with North Korea. A plurality of respondents — 41% — agreed that the US should end its longest war abroad with North Korea by signing a peace agreement, while only 24% of respondents did not agree and 35% didn’t know. 

Fifty-two percent of those surveyed also agreed that the US should establish a diplomatic presence such as a liaison office in the DPRK, and the survey found even stronger support for humanitarian cooperation, repatriating the remains of US service members and family reunions. While the US says it supports such engagement, it doesn’t appear willing to elevate these concerns over the denuclearization issue. 

North Korea often declares that it wants an end to Washington’s “hostile policy.” While some in the US express confusion over what North Korea means by this, it should be obvious that they are asking for a fundamentally new approach to the conflict: one not based on carrots and sticks, but perhaps based on breaking bread together to resolve the underlying issues. 

As the US turns an important corner in Afghanistan, we must reflect on how the outrage in the aftermath of 9/11 not only brought us disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but has also revived a state of perpetual war with North Korea. The US public wants out, and it’s time the US government took concerted efforts to end its actual longest war abroad.

Daniel Jasper is the AFSC’s Public Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Asia. American Friends Service Committee, 1822 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009

The preceding article is an opinion piece by Daniel Jasper of the American Friends Service Committee. Views expressed in opinion articles are exclusively the author’s own and do not represent those of NK News.

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