As South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, signed the peace treaty on April 27, Anglo-American University hosted an international conference on the topic of the Korean and Cold War in East and South-East Asia.

On April 26th and 27th, 2018, students at Anglo-American University (AAU) had the opportunity to participate in the conference titled, “Korean Security and the 65 Year Search for Peace”. The conference was accompanied by a photography exhibition on the same topic, inspired by the discovery of photographs of the repatriation from the personal archives of Pavel Winkler, the Deputy Chairman of Czechoslovak delegation to Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission from 1953–1954.

The whole AAU community is encouraged to take a look at the photography exhibition. It will be on campus until May 4, 2018.

The conference offered free entrance to everyone and proved to be most appealing to International Relations & Diplomacy students. Why is the Korean War known as the “forgotten” war? What does repatriation of prisoners of war mean in the context of the Korean War? Why should we care about this historical event altogether? These were the questions that the event tried to answer.   

The event, attended by ambassadors from four countries, international experts, and former Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission members, was organized by Professor Milada Polišenská, AAU’s deputy to the President and professor of History and International Relations. The main emphasis of the conference was on the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission chaired by India, which Czechoslovakia was a member of; other members include Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden. Furthermore, the conference also focused on the larger context of diplomacy, security and international developments from 1953 till the present day.

We had a chance to talk to George Hays II. Ph.D., Chair of the Department of AAU’s International Relations and Diplomacy, on the topic to understand its significance at the time and the impact it made on international relations today.

What does repatriation of prisoners of war mean in the context of the Korean War?

Throughout the years of war and fluctuating territory/front lines, both the North Korean/Chinese allies as well as the United Nations allies captured several thousand of the other’s combatants. One of the key points of the armistice negotiations was what to do with these combatants – should they be automatically returned to their state of origin, or should they have a choice whether or not to go back. This was a significant point, as it would be a Cold War test of systems and who would choose one system over the other. In the end, it was agreed that prisoners would be given a choice. Many chose to return home, but some prisoners chose to stay in the region that had captured them.”

What’s the impact of repatriation on the relationship between North and South Korea?

“As was just mentioned, the repatriation was in some ways a political competition between the two regions and two Cold War poles/systems. It was a source of tension, in terms of negotiating the repatriation point, as well as a source of tension in terms of repatriation itself. There were efforts from the North Korean/Chinese allies, in particular, to influence prisoners to choose to return/go to North Korea/China. There was also a push by them to gather information on prisoners who chose not to return, in order to exact some form of punishment.”  

What was the Repatriation Commission responsible for?

The commission was responsible for establishing the procedures, executing the procedures, and monitoring the procedures of repatriation. The UN chose Sweden and Switzerland to be members, while the North Korean/Chinese chose Poland and Czechoslovakia. “Neutral” here meant that they had not participated in the war, not that they had no interest/alignment with one side or the other. As sympathetic members, both Poland and Czechoslovakia operated in the interest/support of the North Korean/Chinese allies, at times operating almost as subordinates. This caused tension within the commission, as the competition for repatriated prisoners, discussed above, now seeped into the supposedly neutral body.”

What’re your thoughts on the peace treaty signed by the two Korean presidents on April 27?

While there is great historical significance to the Korea summit being held on April 27, and it will hopefully continue the incredible thaw in relations on the peninsula, a major part of its utility will be to set the stage for the intended US-North Korean summit to be held in late spring/summer. The Korea summit will be a way for both sides to get a better feel for the core interests, negotiable areas, and non-negotiable areas each is bringing to the table. For the US, it will be an essential window into the thinking of the secretive North Korean regime, and will heavily guide the US strategy going forward. The leaders of all three states see these summits as not only important for regional and global affairs, but also as a means to solidify their personal positions in history. Perhaps such an impetus is better reason than most to hope for a successful and beneficial turn of relations on the Korean peninsula.”

Professor Milada Polišenská, AAU’s Deputy President & Chief Academic Adviser, professor of History and International Relations, holds the belief that it is a very positive and important step for establishing a mutual relationship between the two Koreas. It is important to wish that the summit will be a success. However, it is important to be realistic and not expect miracles from it since the relations between the two states are complex and contain numerous long-term issues. It is vital to observe the progress of the summit with pragmatism, which however should not prevent optimism.

Some thoughts on the conference and exhibition from our International Relations and Diplomacy students:

„I am very glad to witness such events taking place at our campus. AAU is blessed with having Mrs. Polisenska as part of our academic community. Her knowledge and interest for Czech diplomatic history is unique in the Czech Republic, and through her work; researching, publishing books, holding events, she makes AAU a relevant academic institution in Czech Republic and Central Europe. The story of the work done by the NNRC, and Czechoslovakia's contribution in the aftermath of the Korean War, deserves more attention, and what better way than to do it with a photo exhibition? This way, people can really get an impression of the trauma, the effort and the impressions that the people went through on the Korean peninsula after the Korean War, and the work that followed in trying to rebuild and reorganize according to the new situation that had arisen. This is an important part of history, and an important event for our university.“

  • Knut Marius Uddu Skjerve, President of the AAU’s Model United Nations Club

“The whole topic of the Korean War has been “overshadowed” by other events of that time (the end of the WW2 or the Vietnam war). Many people don’t realize that the war has not officially ended – there was no official peace treaty signed. Not only is it considered the first military action of the Cold War, but mainly for people who have died for nothing – both Koreas still occupy almost the same territory and there is no official “winner”. It’s important to remember this tragedy today, when Kim Jong Un is (as the first North Korean leader) crossing the demilitarized zone into South Korea with a peace-settlement is on his agenda. I bet we all can’t wait for the results.”

  • Vanda Prošková, student, School of International Relations and Diplomacy

“Yes, of course from an idealistic perspective reunification is the ultimate goal, but one has to think about what happens next, will South Korea hold North Korea accountable? And how will their economies merge? It's important to keep teaching historical events like these so hopefully we can learn from history's mistakes and how such events have long lasting consequences that affect generations.”

  • Sofia Sollo, President of AAU’s Diplomatic Club

“The issue of Korean Conflict is one of the hot topics in International Relations. The War that took place in 50s might be over, but the hostilities between those two sides are still present. One of the reasons that makes this case so complicated is the fact that many countries' interests are intersected in Korea. Nevertheless, the events of the Korean Olympic games showed us that there is a willingness for a dialogue from both parties. It should also be noted that since the new US administration, the negotiation processes have escalated. One of the key roles was played by the new US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who visited North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un around two weeks ago. The further proof of improvements are the ongoing summit in South Korea, where the leaders of both North and South Korea are holding talks and have reached a joined statement, as well as the upcoming summit in June, which the US president, Donald Trump will attend. Of course the removal of nuclear missiles from North Korea won't happen in a single day, but the fact that leaders are willing to have a dialogue on this subject after several climatic events, shows signs of progress and leaves hope for solution of this long conflict.”

  • Nodar Pkhaladze, Vice President of AAU’s Diplomatic Club

Photogallery

Publication date: May 03, 2018