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NMSU historian says relations with North Korea headed in right direction

The easing of U.S. economic sanctions against North Korea is a "wise and farsighted policy" on the part of the United States, says New Mexico State University historian James Matray.

James Matray, professor of history at New Mexico State University.

"The best way to ensure that North Korea will not have an incentive to start a new war is through a policy of engagement with the North Koreans to build dialogue and cooperation," said Matray, a professor of history at NMSU who has dedicated his professional life to studying U.S. policy toward Korea.

"Just as increasing contacts with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe economically eventually ended the Cold War and brought down the Berlin Wall, our best hope for getting the North Koreans to cease behaving like a renegade state is by not trying to isolate North Korea."

The United States on Monday formally eased economic sanctions against North Korea after that country agreed to a moratorium on its missile-testing program. Just last week, Kim Dae-jung, president of South Korea, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il agreed to negotiate an end to the civil war that began nearly 50 years ago. Veterans and scholars of the Korean War will mark the anniversary by remembering the war that officially began June 25, 1950. The United States entered the war a week later on June 30 when President Harry S. Truman authorized combat troops to the Korean Peninsula.

Matray said the U.S. involvement in the Korean War should be remembered as a turning point in American military history and the Cold War.

"It's hard to imagine an event in American history that has had a greater significance in its impact on U.S. foreign relations," Matray said.

Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and, after World War II, was divided at the 38th Parallel into two separate zones with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States the south. The Cold War prevented unification of the country and a communist government was installed in the north and a capitalist government in the south.

After World War II, the United States began reducing its military capabilities, Matray said. Participation in the Korean War changed all that.

"After the U.S. sent troops into Korea, U.S. foreign policy became militarized, the United States vastly increased defense spending and those patterns continued until the early 1990s," he said. "The United States became much more active in its involvement politically and militarily in countries around the globe, particularly in the Third World countries of East Asia."

The United States entered the war in an attempt to restore a boundary line at the 38th Parallel. But, according to Matray, U.S. troops helped turn the tide after the September 1950 Inchon landing and "couldn't resist the temptation to reunify the country."

"What the North Koreans did at the start of the war in waging an offensive to reunify the country, the United States committed the same mistake in attempting to reunify Korea," according to Matray.

The war between the Koreas never produced a clear-cut winner and it never really ended. An armistice agreement was signed July 27, 1953, and China withdrew forces within a few years. The United States kept a military presence and still maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea. But the Cold War strains continued to divide Korea along the armistice line, a "demilitarized zone" that serves as the boundary between the two Koreas along the Korean Peninsula.

"The armistice line has arguably been the most dangerous and hostile areas in the entire international community," Matray said.

Matray has written three books on Korea: "The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950," "Korea and the Cold War: Division, Destruction and Disarmament," and "Historical Dictionary of the Korean War." Matray is currently working on a manuscript for his fourth book that will be titled "The Uncivil War: Korea 1950-1953." That book is expected to be published within the next two years.