NEW YORK – On a July morning a lifetime ago, two generals, one in American khaki, the other in North Korean drab, strode into a makeshift building in a no-man's-land, took their seats at separate tables and signed the papers put before them. They left after just 12 minutes, without a handshake, without a word.
The papers said it all: The warring armies would cease fire that night "in the interest of stopping the Korean conflict, with its great toil of suffering and bloodshed."
The armistice agreement signed in 1953 at Panmunjom, Korea, did stop the fighting, but it didn't start the peace. Now the last generations to remember the "great toil" may see their war truly come to an end, if the two Koreas achieve the peace settlement proposed last week by their leaders.
The vision of two nations at peace — with normal trade, comings and goings, diplomatic ties — falls short of reunification, Koreans' vision of two nations made one. And ending a 54-year-old war-on-hold will mean negotiating through a diplomatic and political thicket grown denser by the decade, and remaking the face of a fortress peninsula.
But a peace treaty is a necessary step toward finally moving beyond the all-devouring 1950-53 war, a conflict that left the two Koreas a wasteland of bombed-out towns and cities, downed bridges, severed rail lines, flattened factories and schools, with millions of homeless, destitute people. Possibly 4 million people perished in the war, scholars estimate. The U.S. military suffered more than 33,000 battle deaths.
In subsequent decades of dictatorship, and then 20 years of democracy, capitalist South Korea rebuilt itself as an economic powerhouse. The northern Democratic People's Republic, meanwhile, became an ever more tightly controlled, impoverished, at times famine-afflicted one-party state.
Through it all, the armistice has largely held, and held within it the seeds of diplomatic trouble, of unanswered questions.
Does peace demand a separate treaty between North and South Korea, along with a broader agreement incorporating their two main wartime allies, China and the United States? What about the 15 other belligerents, nations from Belgium to the Philippines that sent small fighting units to Korea at U.S. behest?
Add this complication: South Korea never signed the armistice, since its then-President Syngman Rhee had hoped to fight on. The northerners consequently maintained they would make peace only with America. Washington, for its part, long contended it, too, hadn't signed the cease-fire — that its generals represented the U.N. command, of 17 fighting nations, not the U.S. government.
Korea scholar Selig S. Harrison said such tricky issues were "kicked down the road for later diplomacy" in last week's vague statements at the Pyongyang meeting, between South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"The United States has not ever formally said we would be a signatory to a peace treaty," noted Harrison, of Washington's Center for International Policy. But, he said, "it's clear China has to be a signatory, and it's clear the U.S. has to be a signatory for North Korea to go along with this whole process."
The prospect of peace talks raises other, ground-level questions, on a peninsula weighed down by 2 million troops facing each other across a hair-trigger front line, the 4-kilometer-wide (2.5-mile-wide) demilitarized zone, or DMZ.
A major reduction and redeployment of armed forces would be expected to accompany a peace treaty, and that would be a costly operation. "With huge armies confronting each other, the logistics of actually ending the armistice are very difficult," said Korean War historian Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago Asian specialist.
And what about the remaining front-line U.S. force in South Korea, 28,000 troops? The bitter legacy of hot and cold wars suggests the North Koreans would demand a U.S. withdrawal as part of any peace. But Cumings cautions against such assumptions.
"The North Koreans told (former South Korean President) Kim Dae-jung and Noh privately they would live with a situation where U.S. troops remain south of the DMZ," Cumings said. The reason: The U.S. would offer a "balance" to the historic Chinese and Japanese influence over Korea.
What's more certain is that peace won't be possible unless North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program. That goal looked closer last week with announcement of a major agreement in six-nation disarmament talks.
Much less certain is when Korea, divided by U.S.-Soviet fiat in 1945, might become one nation again.
Pyongyang's Communist leaders resist relinquishing their repressive power. China is assumed to prefer keeping this Communist buffer on its northeast. In 2000, in his opening to the north, former President Kim de-emphasized talk of one nation, in favor of "confederation." And at last week's summit, "it's very significant they didn't play up the issue of reunification," Harrison said.
"Reunification is probably another 20 to 25 years away," added Cumings.
Both veteran analysts focused instead on what Cumings called the "unanticipated" substance of north-south economic deals announced last week: a joint fishing zone; a new joint industrial park in the north; joint shipbuilding; an agreement to ship southern rail freight through North Korea to China.
Those are the deals that build trust and may help change Korea after a half-century of no war, no peace.
"North Korea and South Korea are rapidly moving toward reconciliation," Harrison said.