Posted by: Dr Churchill | September 15, 2017

Nuclear North Korea Today — What would Winston Churchill Do? (Chapter 37)

After the dismal end of the Great War, to End All Wars, came the restless years between 1919 and 1929 that did little to advance Winston Churchill’s reputation and career as a statesman.

Indeed, it was a turbulent decade of clashing colors, militant flags,and dark shadows. This was a world of booms, slumps, and crashes. It was the height of hubris, and the lowest ebb of humility. It was the day for Socialism, for Bolshevism, for Communism, and for the “isms” that divide people amongst themselves and spread hate and malicious violence. Yet it was also the years that saw the birth of the League of Nations, the birth of flappers, and flutters, the fashionable cocktail parties, the Art Deco, the Arts & Crafts resurgence, and the movement of all the Bright Young People, wanting to save the World through their own ideology…

Of course, this would happen only if everybody listened and followed the party line, of the Socialists, or the Communists, or the line of the “Come hither fascists.”

Inevitably, this was a decade of strikes, unemployment, of the rise of the Labour Party, of civil wars, of pacifism, of demoralization, of a half-hearted belief in collective security.

Indeed this was a decade that was to usher in a new factor in world politics: “The Common Man” and his destiny to lead the Politics and the Society of his day and age…

Does this seem familiar and a parallel with what is going on today in our World?

And does the threat of a new Nuclear war spawned by China’s evil communist child North Korea, and started by their planned attack against Pearl Harbor this year — unsettles your Hawaiian holiday plans?

Don’t fret because if we act fast and with resolve — we can solve this problem before it becomes a nuclear confrontation that will lead the world towards nuclear winter.

But let’s not discount the possibility of failure in our mission either, because that will result in massive exchanges of nuclear bombs, that will render the whole of the Northern American hemisphere, same as the Chinese part of the World — completely uninhabitable for the foreseeable future…

Since the nuclear arsenal of North Korea is a gift from China, and since their military is simply an expansion of the People’s Red Army of China, we have to be seriously considering the possibility of war against China as we advance our military options against North Korea.

It is never easy to uncover and destroy the puppet nation of a superpower, but the error of China was to give North Korea the nuclear bombs and the ICBM missile capabilities, because although, the geriatric Chinese Communists of the Politburo, and of the Central Committee, wanted to have their puppet attack the United States with nuclear weapons — they still wanted to have that done quietly, while China could still claim plausible deniability… for the disaster they wrought.

The recent history of Korea is spotty but here are some facts that explain the division of the country into North and South, during the past century: Japan conquered and imposed colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945, but with Japan on the verge of defeat after the nuclear phase of World War II, two young American army officers drew an arbitrary line across a Korean map, and split the country in two, with a border at the 38th parallel, thus creating an American zone of influence in the South and a Soviet Russian Communist zone of influence in the North. Naturally in the beginning both South and North Korea became repressive regimes, and then diverged towards oppossing political systems.
Initially, in South Korea, the United States built up a police force and constabulary, and backed the authoritarian leader Syngman Rhee, who created a fairly tolerant police state. By 1948 partisan warfare had enveloped the whole of South Korea, which in turn became enmeshed in civil war between South and North Korea.
In North Korea, the government of Kim II-Sung arrested and imprisoned student and church leaders, and gunned down protesters on November 23, 1945. Christians as well as business and land owners faced with the confiscation of their property, and the shuttering of all churches, and the closure of all alternative political institutions — began fleeing to the South Korean border.
To address that issue, the U.S. Army counter-intelligence corps organized paramilitary commandos to carry out sabotage missions in the North, a factor accounting for the origins of the war. The Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea conducted a massive invasion of the South.
The United States obtained the approval of the United Nations for the defense of South Korea. At the time, the Soviet Union had boycotted the UN over the issue of seating China. Sixteen nations supplied troops although the vast majority came from the United States and South Korea. U.S. General Douglas MacArthur headed the United Nations Command.
The three-year Korean War resulted in the deaths of three to four million Koreans, produced 6-7 million refugees, and destroyed over 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes. Over 36,000 American soldiers died in the war. And many more allied personnel from the sixteen other nations also lost their lives, in the conflict.
From air bases in Okinawa and naval aircraft carriers, the U.S. Air Force launched over 698,000 tons of bombs (compared to 500,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II), obliterating 18 of 22 major cities and destroying much of the infrastructure in North Korea.
The US bombed irrigation dams, destroying 75 percent of the North’s rice supply, violating civilian protections set forth in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.The Korean War has been called a “limited war” because the U.S. refrained from using nuclear weapons, although this eventuality was considered at one point. Yet the massive destruction of North Korea and the enormous death toll in both North and South, mark it as one of the most barbarous wars in modern history.
Reports of North Korean atrocities and war crimes were well publicized in the United States at the time. The 2005 South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, judged that most of the mass killings of civilians were conducted by South Korean military and police forces, with the United States adding more from the air.

For all the human suffering caused by the Korean War, very little was achieved. The division for one, was never solved. Neither was the ideological divide solved. Indeed, the war ended in stalemate with the division of the country at the 38th parallel becoming a permanent fixture and a reality of a new World.

Yet today, we have a new reality at hand.

South Korea is a democracy and the North is a totalitarian fascist state, and a dangerous entity for the whole world, rattling the nuclear saber to all the nations that their ICBMs could reach… such as the United States and Japan.

The Korean War memorial on the National Mall in Washington features nineteen light-colored steel American combat soldiers, representing different nationalities, heading in formation towards the American flag. The statues stand in patches of juniper bushes and are separated by polished granite strips symbolizing the rice paddies of Korea. The four architects selected for designing this memorial sued the government because their design was to include quotes on war and peace intended to raise “huge doubt about war as an institution.” The approved final version, however, omitted the telling quotes and related images, thus memorializing those who served in Korea without attempting to assess the political context for the war or the human suffering it engendered.

Korea is considered a just war that contributed to the defeat of communist totalitarianism and enabled development of South Korea into a stable and prosperous democracy.

Compared to the “bleak and brutal despotism of North Korea,” South Korea was a “political success story.” This was epitomized by the advent of free elections in 1987, thirty-four years after the Korean War ended. The lesson was that Americans needed to be patient about the evolution of democracy in countries recently liberated across the Earth.

A good barometer for judging whether a war is just or unjust is to decipher whether it was undertaken as an act of self-defense, in accordance with domestic and international legal principles, as established in the United Nations Charter.
Rather than an act of self-defense, President Harry S. Truman presented military intervention as a police action and limited war, waging it without Congressional authorization. The North Koreans, it was said, had crossed a United Nations-recognized border – the 38th parallel – and thus had committed military aggression against a “democratic” Western ally, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the defense of which had been assumed by the United States. The UN Security Council approved a U.S.-led military intervention in a 9-0 vote. (The Soviet Union had walked out of the Security Council in a dispute over the seating of Communist China, and thus was unable to veto the measure.) Canada, Great Britain, Turkey, Australia, and Thailand subsequently sent military forces, paid for mostly by the Americans. Compared to the war in Vietnam, where the U.S. did not sign the Geneva Accords nor receive UN sanction, the Korean War was legal and considered by many justifiable in its first phase.
Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, accepts the legitimacy of the U.S.-UN intervention but considers the subsequent U.S.-UN invasion of North Korea to be an act of military hubris. He also condemns the U.S. military strategy of deploying indiscriminate firepower to conserve American soldiers’ lives. While Walzer may be correct in these judgments, the legal justification for defending South Korea from northern attack does not necessarily make the war right, as the Korean perspective was not taken into account when the country was divided. The 38th parallel line, in fact, had no historical justification and was selected arbitrarily by two U.S. colonels, Charles Bonesteel and the future Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, near the end of World War II. Granted that the United States came to the defense of South Korea, it also contributed to the outbreak of war by projecting its Cold War mission onto Korea and establishing a repressive state in the south that opposed unification. The United States also trained South Korean saboteurs and commandos who infiltrated the North and even tried to assassinate Kim Il-Sung in the months prior to the June 25 invasion. The northern invasion of the South can thus be considered to have been provoked.
Truman dispatches U.S. forces to Korea under United Nations authority (New York Times, June 28, 1950)

On June 27, 1950, President Truman sent U.S. forces to Korea under United Nations authority, without a declaration of war from Congress President Harry S. Truman claimed the U.S. goal in Korea was to prevent the “rule of force in international affairs” and to “uphold the rule of law,” but this was utterly contradicted by American support for right-wing counter-insurgent forces in Greece, which committed large-scale atrocities in suppressing an indigenous left-wing rebellion led by anti-fascist elements, and in subsequent years, by Washington’s overthrow by force of the legally elected governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954, respectively. As Howard Zinn pointed out in Postwar America, 1945-1971 (1973), other cases of aggression or alleged aggression in the world, such as the Arab states invasion of Israel in 1948, did not prompt the U.S. to mobilize the UN or its own armed forces for intervention. Zinn concluded that the decision to intervene in Korea was, at its core, political, designed to uphold the dictatorial U.S. client regime of Syngman Ree and acquire U.S. military bases in South Korea, which the U.S. did as a result of the war.

Apart from the question of whether the Korean War was necessary, the horrible human cost of the war marks it as one of the worst ever fought. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) considered war a crime if it was fought with “malicious intent to destroy, a desire to dominate with fierce hatred and furious vengeance,” which was clearly the case for Korea. While 36,574 Americans died, three to four million Koreans lost their lives as a result of the war, including one out of every nine North Koreans, according to a UN estimate. In addition, six to seven million Koreans were rendered refugees and over 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and 600,000 homes were destroyed.

Donald Kingsley, head of the UN Korean Relief and Reconstruction Agency, called Korea “the most devastated land and its people the most destitute in the history of modern warfare.” This devastation was inflicted primarily by the United States and its proxies with backing from the United Nations. Taking this into account, the Korean War can be considered to have been a gross injustice and crime for which the U.S. bears important responsibility. To add insult to injury, the war did not resolve the conflict between North and South, which lingers on today, over 60 years later.

In summary, while the United Nations approved the U.S.-led international intervention in Korea, other factors should be taken into account: (1) the 38th parallel was not a legitimate international boundary in the eyes of the Korean people; (2) both South and North Korea had engaged in aggressive actions prior to the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950; and (3) the United States had set up a government in South Korea that ruthlessly repressed leftist opposition and resisted compromise toward a unified Korean government. As to the conduct of the war, the United States employed massive firepower that rendered Korea a devastated land, causing untold suffering. The U.S. air war flagrantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which ban indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their means of survival. But could this war have been avoided? In hindsight, the war could have been avoided and the Koreans left to determine their own future if the United States would have allowed it. U.S. leaders viewed the conflict through the narrow lens of the East-West conflict and the Cold War when in reality it was primarily an internal Korean civil war with anti-colonial underpinnings. Historian Bruce Cumings has suggested that the outbreak of war became inevitable once the U.S. decided to back Syngman Rhee. Wanting to unify the two Koreas under his rule, Rhee was a hard-line anticommunist who saw no room for compromise or middle ground, considering all left-wing groups and opponents of his regime to be communists. This viewpoint was shared by American Military Government leader John R. Hodge. With American military backing, Rhee launched repressive counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1940s that led South Korea into a state of virtual civil war prior to the official outbreak of war between the North and the South.

Among Rhee’s victims were moderate nationalist politicians such as Kim Ku, who warned that Koreans should not fight each other, and Yo Un-Hyong, who had wanted the peaceful unification of North and South. Yo had headed a provisional government preceding the U.S. military occupation and advocated a mix of liberal-nationalist and social democratic ideals which were anathema to the Rhee government. Revered in both North and South Korea today, Yo had been a newspaper editor who opposed Japanese colonialism, and though not a communist himself, had always been willing to work with communists. Had the U.S. supported Yo and his efforts to create a unity government with the North, the war and its attendant misery could likely have been avoided and Korea’s history would be much different.
The war itself hardened animosities on both sides and helped to consolidate Kim Il-Sung’s rule and the harsh authoritarian characteristics of his regime amidst legitimate security threats. While the nature of the Kim regime in North today is used to rationalize the Korean War, it should, in my view, be considered another horrific consequence of the war. A North-South unity government was indeed the best option for the U.S. to pursue in the 1940s in order to avoid catastrophe, although the political climate of the time and the U.S. drive for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region precluded this possibility.
Once started, the Korean War could clearly have been ended much earlier had U.S. leaders been committed to diplomacy. On December 12, 1950, journalist Walter Lippmann received a memo from New York Times reporter James Reston that the Chinese had passed to Secretary of State Dean Acheson a peace proposal from Peking offering a cease-fire in exchange for negotiations on Formosa. Acheson, however, did not take the request seriously, saying it was “merely a maneuver instigated by the Russians to prevent completion of the NATO military command and prevent the rearming of Germany.”

By the 20th century, Korea had been a singular political entity for one thousand years. It was a highly cultured state, infused with Buddhist and Confucian traditions, in which the world’s first printing press was invented. Following invasions by the Mongols and Japanese in the 16th century, Korea became known as the “hermit kingdom” for its strong isolationist policy. In 1897, King Gojong, proclaimed the founding of the Greater Korean Empire, effectively severing Korea’s historic ties as a tributary of Qing China. The country was thus sovereign and unified on the eve of the Japanese conquest in the early 20th century. With the departure of the Japanese in 1945, expectations for a unified, independent Korean nation were undermined by rival nationalist leaders and their powerful foreign patrons.

The Korean War’s origin is rooted in the era of Japanese colonialism. Japan had colonized Korea in 1910 under the Pan-Asian doctrine, claiming that its destiny was to help uplift Asia and prevent Western colonial exploitation. Emulating the practices of the West, the Japanese built up Korea’s transportation infrastructure and nascent industrial capacities, while promoting divide and rule tactics by ruling through native collaborators among the old bureaucracy and landed elites. The system was marked by pronounced social inequality, labor exploitation, rural poverty, and draconian police tactics.
Japanese oppression prompted the growth of nationalist opposition which by the 1930s was predominantly led by communists, as in Vietnam. Historian Dae Suk Suh notes that “for Koreans, the sacrifices of the communists, if not the idea of communism, had strong appeal. . . . The haggard appearance of the communists suffering from torture, their stern and disciplined attitude towards the common enemy of all Koreans [Imperial Japan], had a far reaching effect on the people.”

Following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, the communists spearheaded anti-Japanese guerrilla operations under the banner of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, which bogged down Japan’s Kwantung Army. The Japanese engaged in “bandit suppression” activities that included the denial of food to rebel base areas. Kim Il-Sung emerged in this milieu as a prominent guerrilla commander adept at unifying disparate factions and mixing nationalism with revolution. His most famous exploit was a raid on Poch’onbo, a Korean town across the border in Manchuria where he led almost two hundred guerrillas on June 4, 1937, in destroying local government offices and setting fire to the Japanese police station. Kim was hunted by a special “Kim II-Sung Activities Unit” of the Japanese, which was made up of fifty pro-Japanese Korean soldiers commanded by Kim Sok-Won, a colonel decorated by the Emperor Hirohito who later became prominent in the American-backed Republic of Korea Army. Kim Sok-Won resumed his role in targeting Kim Il-Sung after the Korean War broke out in 1950.
The redrawing of old battle lines exemplified the colonial origins of the Korean War, with the revolutionary supporters fearing the restoration of Japanese domination in Korea. Reinforcing these sentiments, Japan actually provided military assistance to South Korea during the war, hedging on violation of international agreements stipulating its demilitarization. It contributed minesweepers to clear Inchon harbor ahead of General Douglas MacArthur’s invasion and naval vessels along with other logistical support. At least twenty-one Japanese perished during the Korean War and one was taken prisoner.

Japanese rule formally came to an end in Korea in September of 1945. At the Potsdam conference in late July, Allied leaders failed to agree on a plan for administering Korea after the surrender of the Japanese. President Truman hoped that the Japanese would surrender before the Soviet Union entered the war in Asia, thus giving the U.S. and Great Britain a free hand in reconstructing governments in Korea, Japan, and China in the postwar period. However, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan on August 9th of 1945, the same day that the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The following day, Secretary of State James Byrnes directed the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee to draw up a proposal for dividing Korea into separate zones controlled by the Soviet Union and the United States. The committee delegated the task to Colonels C. H. Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, who drew the line at the 38th parallel. The proposal was designed to limit the Soviet advance into Korea, as Soviet troops were poised on the Korean border and U.S. troops were 600 miles away. Surprisingly, Stalin accepted the proposal, no doubt expecting his compromise to be reciprocated in other matters. Soviet troops entered Korea on August 12th and occupied Pyongyang on August 24th. Two weeks later, on September 8th, U.S. forces arrived in southern Korea. The former World War II allies each put into place a government that maintained close ties with its foreign patron. As the Cold War intensified, the idea of forming a unified Korean government faded; or put another way, both the South and North Korean governments sought to unify the country under their own authority. The Chinese revolution, which pitted the U.S.-backed forces of Jiang Jieshi against the Soviet-backed forces of Mao Zedong, exacerbated tension. Mao’s victory in October 1949 raised fears in the U.S. that communism would sweep across Asia. By this time, both U.S. and Soviet troops had been officially withdrawn from Korea. Yet a sizable group of U.S. military advisors remained to train and participate in South Korean counterinsurgency operations; while in North Korea, Soviet advisers remained at least to the battalion level and possibly as far down as company level.
Japan and the U.S. both entered the imperial competition in Asia at the turn of the 20th century, Japan in Korea and the U.S. in the Philippines. Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands had already established control over large areas of Asia.
Japan and the U.S. both entered the imperial competition in Asia at the turn of the 20th century, Japan in Korea and the U.S. in the Philippines. Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Russia had already established control over large areas of Asia.
Beyond occupying South Korea at the end of World War II, U.S. involvement in Korea was a consequence of the long American drive for power in the Asia-Pacific region dating to the seizure of Hawaii and conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. This mission was motivated by a trinity of military, missionary, and business interests. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the prospect opened up that the region could come under U.S. influence, its rich resources tapped for the benefit of American industry. In a March 1955 Foreign Affairs article, William Henderson of the Council on American Foreign Relations (which Laurence Shoup and William Minter aptly termed the “imperial brain trust”) wrote: “As one of the earth’s great storehouses of natural resources, Southeast Asia is a prize worth fighting for. Five sixths of the world’s rubber, and one half of its tin are produced here. It accounts for two thirds of the world output in coconut, one third of the palm oil, and significant proportions of tungsten and chromium. No less important than the natural wealth was Southeast Asia’s key strategic position astride the main lines of communication between Europe and the Far East.” To secure access to these resources, the U.S. established a chain of military bases from the Philippines through the Ryukyu Archipelago in southern Japan.
The victory of the communists in the Chinese revolution cut off American access to the vast China market and shattered longstanding American dreams of bringing China into the American sphere of influence. The revolution also represented an ideological challenge in advancing the Russian model of state-driven socialist industrial development as an alternative to Western capitalism. Since the 1930s, the United States had been committed to Chinese nationalist leader Jieng Jieshi as a bulwark of an American dominated Asia. The U.S. continued to support Jieng after he violently consolidated his power as leader of Taiwan and co-founded the People’s Anti-Communist League with Syngman Rhee.
For the American right, the “loss of China” was a devastating blow, prompting the embrace of an Asian-centric rollback policy. Supporters of this policy, including mid-western Republican Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, considered Asia as a place where the U.S. could extract minerals and gain profit while spreading American and Christian ideals. Their vision dovetailed with that of free-enterprise liberals who believed in the American mission to promote free-trade and development in the backwards regions of the globe. They feared China’s obtaining a great-power status capable of allowing it to challenge an Asian system shaped by America.
Japan was the super-domino in the postwar containment strategy. American leaders were committed to rebuilding Japan along capitalist lines in part by opening up regional markets. This policy gained greater urgency as a result of the Chinese revolution of 1949, whose primary goal was to escape the yoke of Japanese and Western neocolonialism by spearheading industrialization and implementing land reform and collectivized agriculture along with programs of uplift for poor peasants. State Department internationalists pushed for connecting South Korea’s economy to Japan’s, in part to enable Japan to extract raw materials capable of sustaining its economic recovery, and in part to keep Japan in the Western orbit as a counterweight to communist China. In January 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall scribbled a note to Dean Acheson: “Please have plan drafted of policy to organize a definite government of So. Korea and connect up its economy with that of Japan.” The war ultimately served as a great boon to Japan’s economy and the U.S. acquired military bases in South Korea that are still in its possession today.
The communist victory in China also led the Truman administration to supply military aid to the French in Vietnam beginning in February 1950. Although couched in the language of anti-communism and protection of the “free world,” it became clear to many in the “Third World” that the U.S. had chosen to align with (French) imperialism against the rising tide of nationalist revolutions in Asia and Africa.

Many Koreans yearned for a major social transformation following the era of Japanese colonial rule and, like other people in decolonizing nations, looked to socialist bloc countries as a model. Americans, unfortunately, were conditioned to view the world in Manichean Cold War terms and thus never developed a proper understanding for the appeal of revolutionaries such as Kim Il Sung. North Korea experienced a genuine social revolution in the years 1945-1950, which was driven from the top down as well as the bottom up. The liberating aspects of this social revolution, however, were compromised by the establishment of a repressive police state as well as a personality cult around Kim II-Sung, much like those surrounding Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Still, North Korea was not the puppet of the Soviet Union or China that Americans imagined.

As the Soviet Union occupied North Korea Kim Il-Sung consolidated his position as the “great leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Kim Il Sung joined the Communist Party of Korea in 1931 and, as previously noted, earned a measure of fame for spearheading nationalist resistance to Japanese rule in Manchuria during the 1930s. After being pursued by the Japanese in Manchuria, Kim Il Sung escaped to the Soviet Union and became an officer in the Red Army during World War II. He returned to Korea in September 1945 and, with Soviet backing, established himself as the North Korean leader. He gained Mao Zedong’s support by recruiting a cadre of guerrillas to aid communist forces in the Chinese civil war.

The Soviet Union’s main interest in Korea was in seeking access to warm water ports and a friendly regime as a buffer against Japan. Soviet soldiers, like most occupying armies, abused the local population, in some instances committing rapes. Their presence, however, was confined predominantly to the capital, Pyongyang. Soviet advisers helped draft a new constitution, sponsored cultural exchanges and programs, and guided certain reforms and foreign policy. North Koreans nonetheless asserted considerable autonomy and many looked to Russia and China as countries which were rapidly industrializing and had empowered the peasantry and masses by moving to abolish class distinctions.
Embracing state socialism as a means of “skipping over centuries of slavery and backwardness,” the Kim regime adopted an economic ideology centered on the concept of “juche,” or self-reliance, which helped to jumpstart economic development. At the time of Korea’s liberation, over 90 percent of the industry in the former colony was owned by Japanese interests. The material resources for an egalitarian revolution were thus available. With the Japanese deposed, workers committees led predominantly by communists took control of most of the factories in the North. For a brief period, the Soviets seized control of the economy, including of the Wonsan Oil Company, and sent equipment, parts and the raw materials (including the oil) back to Russia as a “war prize.” After the North Korean People’s Committee was established in February 1946 , North Koreans retook charge and promulgated a law on nationalization of major industries which resulted in more than one thousand industries (90 percent of all of them in the North including electricity, transportation, railways and communications) becoming state property. By 1949, more than 50 percent of state revenue came from these nationalized industries, which helped finance the building of road infrastructure, schools and politicized universities as well as hospitals. The funds were also used to create a literacy program that reached over two million farmers.
The DPRK’s crowning achievement was an expansive land reform campaign that was far less bloody than its counterparts in China and North Vietnam. According to U.S. Army intelligence, the land reform program “made 70 percent of the peasants’ ardent supporters of the regime,” although this total would later drop because of onerous taxation. Under the terms of the March 5, 1946 land reform law, all land owned by the Japanese government and Japanese nationals was confiscated along with land belonging to Korean landlords in excess of five chongbo (roughly twelve acres) and land rented out by landlords. Debts were also canceled. Nearly all of the confiscated land, which amounted to 980,000 chongbo, was redistributed to 710,000 peasant households for free, with less than 2 percent kept under state ownership. North Korea thus created a socialist economy in which major industries were under state control while most land was held by private households.
Based on the Maoist ideal of a society organized on the basis of collective social needs, Kim’s regime gained further support by promoting labor laws limiting working hours and providing collective bargaining rights as well as advancing women’s rights, passing laws to secure free rights in marriage and outlawing dowry exchange and child marriage. An editorial in a local newspaper asserted in 1947 that the “life of a North Korean woman today has been completely freed from subordination, domination, subservience and exploitation.”
Suzy Kim, in Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, points to the importance of the people’s committees set up after liberation in spearheading revolutionary transformation. Though Kim Il Sung refused a UN supervised general election in the North in 1948, local elections were held for positions in which participation was high. Lt. Col. Walter F. Choinski, who was stationed in P’yongyang, likened them to the early 1900s in the U.S. in the level of excitement. He and other observers reported that the results were contested and that village meetings vetted candidates, ensuring that those who stood for office were popular and respected. DPRK legitimacy was also bolstered after its formation through a purge of Japanese police officers linked to human rights atrocities.

The DPRK invested considerable resources into education, propaganda and culture as an important vehicle in mobilizing support for the regime. Over one hundred writers had migrated from the South. Outside observers spoke of a “cultural renaissance” of native folk dancing, music, literature and drama. A nascent film industry was developed that celebrated the nationalist struggle against Japan. In late 1949, Kim Il Sung called on writers and artists to be “warriors who educate the people and defend the republic” and most importantly “portray the heroic struggle of the working people.” Pyongyang journalist Han Chaedok and novelist Han Sorya helped create a cult of personality surrounding Kim, modeled after Stalin and Mao. It proved to be long-lasting because it drew on Neo-Confucian tradition entailing respect for familial loyalty.

The North Korean government also relied on authoritarian measures and repression of dissent, confirming the West’s negative view of it in this regard. The Kim II-Sung regime developed a siege mentality that demanded unity in the face of the threat of outside subversion. The DPRK created a draconian surveillance apparatus, purging political rivals to Kim and his clique. On November 23, 1945, in Sinuiji, security forces gunned down Christian student protesters in front of the North P’yongan provincial office; and later some three hundred students and twenty Christian pastors were arrested after further anticommunist demonstrations. American intelligence concluded that the “nucleus of resistance of the Communist regime are the church groups, long prominent in North Korea, and secret student societies. Resistance was centered in the cities, notably Pyongyang, and took the form of school strikes, circulation of leaflets, demonstrations and assassinations. The government replied with arrests and imprisonments, investigations of student and church groups, and destruction of churches.” Christians as well as business and land owners faced with the confiscation of their property began fleeing to the South. With deep grievances against communism, these refugees provided a backbone of support for the Syngman Rhee government. Many served in right-wing youth groups, modeled after fascist style organizations, which violently broke up workers demonstrations and assaulted left-wing political activists.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (north) was established Sept. 9, 1948
In June 1949, North Korea accelerated its “peace offensive” toward the South, calling for all “democratic” – that is anti-Syngman Rhee forces – to join with the North in unifying the Korean peninsula and removing the Americans. It pushed for free elections in which left wing political parties in the South were legalized and political prisoners released. According to the historian Charles K. Armstrong, in The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, a free political environment would have given the left an estimated 80 percent of the vote in the North and 65-70 percent of the votes in the South. Kim and his allies could thus come to power through democratic means had the popular uprising in the South not been repressed.
The North Korean People’s Army (KPA) grew directly out of the public security organizations developed after liberation. According to Armstrong, the Kim regime required little coercion in recruiting youth between the ages of eighteen to twenty five for enlistment, with most enlistees drawn from families of workers and poor peasants who supported the regime. The Fatherland Defense Association organized in July 1949 encouraged citizens to support the military as part of a process of mass mobilization for war that American leaders grossly underestimated.
Kim’s Manchurian cronies were placed at the head of the KPA and all Korean officers who had served the Japanese military were purged officially by June 1948. Soviet advisers remained after 1948, and the Soviets provided vintage World War II weaponry including tanks and aircraft. The connection to the Chinese Red Army was more intimate than to the Soviets though, as U.S. military intelligence estimated that at least 80 percent of the officers of the security forces were former members of the Korean Volunteer Army from the Chinese front, and at least half of North Korean soldiers in the KPA were veterans of China’s civil war. The victory of the Chinese communist forces in October 1949 resulted in the return of thousands of troops to North Korea. U.S. military intelligence said that “these experienced troops made the KPA a much more effective fighting force than it would otherwise have been.”

Syngman Rhee was a conservative nationalist who lived in the United States for over four decades after being imprisoned by the Japanese as a young man. The Truman administration brought him back to Korea in October 1945 to lead the new South Korean government. Considering him a “Jeffersonian democrat,” the U.S. Office of Strategic Services believed that Rhee harbored “more of an American point of view than other Korean leader.”

Syngman Rhee headed South Korea from its beginning in 1948 to his overthrow in 1960.
In practice, Rhee exhibited strong autocratic tendencies and relied heavily on Japanese collaborators – in part because he had been out of the country so long. He was elected president in July 1948 by members of the National Assembly, who themselves had been elected on May 10 in a national election marred by boycotts, violence and a climate of terrorism. The elections were originally intended to be held in both the North and South, but Kim II-Sung refused to allow UN supervisors entry into North Korea. Some South Koreans boycotted the elections on the grounds that they would solidify the division between the Koreas, which is indeed what happened. Syngman Rhee proceeded to consolidate his rule thereafter. When asked by the journalist Mark Gayn whether Rhee was a fascist, Lieutenant Leonard Bertsch, an adviser to General John R. Hodge, head of the American occupation, responded, “He is two centuries before fascism—a true Bourbon.”
After formal establishment of the Republic of Korea (ROK) on August 15, 1948, Rhee refused to accept power sharing proposals to unify the north and south. Rhee also reinforced the economic status quo. According to Bruce Cumings, “The primary cause of the South Korean insurgency was the ancient curse of average Koreans – the social inequity of land relations and the huge gap between a tiny elite of the rich and the vast majority of the poor.” At the same time Rhee followed American dictates in passing a secret clause agreeing to export rice to Japan and signed contracts allowing American businesses to exploit the So Lim gold mine and take over the Sandong tungsten mine, which was guarded by U.S. troops.

The Republic of Korea (south) was established on August 15, 1948.
Political opposition to Rhee’s government emerged almost immediately when Rhee, with U.S. backing, retained Japanese-trained military leaders and police officers instead of removing them. Those who had resisted Japanese rule, administered with the aid of these collaborators, called for Rhee’s ouster. The communists in South Korea protested the loudest, as they had led the anti-Japanese insurrection, but opposition to Rhee was widespread. Resistance to the U.S. occupation and Rhee’s government was led by labor and farmers’ associations and People’s Committees, which organized democratic governance and social reform at the local level. The mass-based South Korean Labor Party (SKLP), headed by Pak Hon-Yong, a veteran of anti-Japanese protest with communist ties, led strikes and carried out acts of industrial sabotage. Rhee responded by building up police and security forces and, with assistance from the American Military Government (AMG), attempting to eliminate all political opposition, which he labeled communist-backed. Thus, the earlier antagonism between rebels and collaborators during Japanese rule took on the dimensions of both a partisan struggle within South Korea and a struggle between North and South.
In October 1946, revolts broke out in South Cholla province, triggered by police abuse and the imposition of strict wage controls by occupation authorities. Riots in Taegu were precipitated by police suppression of a railroad strike that left thirty-nine civilians dead, hundreds wounded, and thirty-eight missing. Martial law was subsequently declared and 1,500 were arrested. Forty were sentenced to death, including SKLP leader Pak, who fled North. Over 100,000 students walked out in solidarity with the workers, while mobs ransacked police posts, buried officers alive, and slashed the face of the police chief, in a pattern replicated in neighboring cities and towns. Blaming the violence on “outside agitators” (North Korean support was in fact more moral than material) and the “idiocy” of the peasants, the American military called in reinforcements to restore order. The director of the U.S. Army’s Department of Transportation stated: “We had a battle mentality. We didn’t have to worry too much if innocent people got hurt. We set up concentration camps outside of town and held strikers there when the jails got too full…. It was war. We recognized it as war and fought it as such.”

By mid-1947, there were almost 22,000 people in jail, nearly twice as many as under the Japanese, with the Red Cross pointing to inadequate medical care and sanitation. Professors and assemblymen were among those tortured in custody. Those branded as communists were dehumanized to the extent that they were seen as unworthy of legal protection. Pak Wan-so, a South Korean writer who faced imprisonment and torture by police commented that “they called me a red bitch. Any red was not considered human…. They looked at me as if I was a beast or a bug…. Because we weren’t human, we had no rights.” The scale of repression in South Korea at this time far surpassed that of North Korea. In Mokpo seaport, the bodies of prisoners who had been shot were left on people’s doorsteps as a warning in what became known as the “human flesh distribution case.” A new government official defended the practice saying they were the most “vile of communists.”

Gordon Young who later worked for the CIA in Thailand spoke of a massacre by American troops at a checkpoint “comparable to the Calley incident in Vietnam.” (U.S. Lieutenant William Calley was held responsible for the My Lai massacre in which 500 civilians were killed.) The main culprit was fined one dollar and transferred out of his unit as penalty. “Nobody worried about adverse publicity in those days…. There is a distinct habit among elements of American GIs for becoming absolute slobs when away from home and society. Some of course came from backgrounds of bad upbringing and even criminal elements.” Young’s comments underscore the climate of impunity in which U.S. soldiers operated and the lack of public concern for the fate of Korean civilians within the post-World War II victory culture of the United States.
To assist in pacification, the AMG developed a police constabulary which provided the foundation for the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA). Building on colonial precedents in Nicaragua and the Philippines, the constabulary wore American supplied uniforms, carried American arms, and moved with American transport, with its eight divisions plus a cavalry regiment recapitulating the American military model. Soldiers were valued for their knowledge of the local terrain and ability to tell “the cowboys from the Indians,” as legendary Marine commander Lewis “Chesty” Puller put it. The chief adviser, Captain James Hausman, provided instruction in riot control and psychological warfare techniques such as dousing corpses of executed people with gasoline so as to hide the manner of execution or blame it on the communists.
The ROKA gained valuable experience suppressing guerrilla rebellions in the Chiri-San mountains and on the southern island of Cheju-do in 1948, where units operated under U.S. military command. They were aided by aerial reinforcements and spy planes that swept over the mountains, waging “an all-out guerrilla extermination campaign,” as Everett Drumwright of the American embassy characterized it. A third of the population in the region was forcibly relocated and tens of thousands were killed, including guerilla leaders Yi Tôk-ku, whose mutilated corpse was hung on a cross, and Kim Chi-hoe, whose head was shipped to Capt. Hausman’s office in Seoul.
Similar brutality was displayed in the suppression of a popular insurrection in Yeosu which broke out in October 1948 after the 14th ROKA regiment refused orders to “murder the people of Cheju-do fighting against imperialist policy.” Order was restored only after purges were enacted in the constabulary regiments that had mutinied under Hausman’s direction and the perpetrators were executed by firing squad. Much of the town was set on fire.
On April 14, 1950, thirty-nine Koreans suspected of being “communists” were tied to poles, blindfolded, and shot by South Korean Military Police ten miles northeast of Seoul.
On April 14, 1950, ten miles northeast of Seoul, South Korean Military Police executed 39 Koreans suspected of being “communist.”
In light of these events, the claim of John Foster Dulles, writing in the New York Times Magazine, that the ROKA and police had the “highest discipline” and that South Korea was essentially a “healthy society” does not stand up to historical scrutiny.[47] Another popular myth held that the U.S. abandoned South Korea in the late 1940s. American military advisers in reality were all over the country through this period, training Korean soldiers and police, leading counter-insurgency missions. The latter included the forced displacement of villagers that became a basis for the Strategic Hamlet program in South Vietnam. The U.S. provided spotter planes and naval vessels to secure the coasts, even enlisting missionaries to provide information on anti-Rhee guerrillas. ROKA soldiers were “armed to the toenails” with American weapons. They adopted “scorched earth” tactics modeled after Japanese counter-insurgency operations in Manchuria.
While entirely contrary to human rights principles and stated American ideals, the repression in South Korea did have a military benefit, as it deprived Kim Il-Sung’s armies of the support they expected after crossing into South Korea on June 25, 1950. This, combined with modest land reform undertaken by Rhee on the eve of the war, differentiated the war in Korea from that of Vietnam, where resistance in the South was more unified and better able to withstand state repression.

There is still a cloud of controversy surrounding the origins of the Korean War. Both Kim Il-Sung and Syngman Rhee had ambitions of unifying the Korean peninsula under their own rule. Prior to July 25, Kim II-Sung undertook a military build-up on the 38th parallel and received clearance for the invasion from Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. Yet pitched battles were already being fought across the 38th parallel. There is also speculation that, at 3 a.m. on June 25, South Korean forces under Paek in-Yop may have initiated fighting at Ongjin Southern provocations, in any case, were considerable.
General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, had opened an extralegal Korean Liaison Office whose mission was to “penetrate North Korean governmental, military and industrial agencies.” Southern youth groups under the pay of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) conducted surveillance and forays into the North in violation of UN provisions. Soviet ambassador Terentii F. Shtykov reported that South Korea had “set up subversive and guerrilla bands in every province in North Korea.” U.S. police adviser Millard Shaw considered the cross-border operations acts “bordering on terrorism” which “precipitate retaliatory raids … from the North.” The North claimed that in light of these raids that its own actions were carried out in self-defense, and there is some justification behind that reasoning.
On war’s eve, seasoned intelligence analyst Lt. Walter Choinski and the South Korean G-2 chief of staff were curiously transferred and a report by distinguished cross recipient Donald Nichol predicting a North Korean attack 72 hours before was suppressed by Willoughby. This contributed to the “intelligence failure” that rendered the North Korean attack of June 25th a “surprise” a perception that made the war more politically palatable.
On June 8th, the United States had refused a proposal by Kim Il-Sung to exchange political prisoners and hold elections and form a parliament that would meet in Seoul and unify the country, considering the proposal a propaganda ploy. On the 19th, John Foster Dulles took a trip to the 38th parallel with the blessing of Assistant Defense Secretary Dean Rusk, which stoked North Korean suspicions and hastened the decision to go forward with the invasion.
Soviet leaders only reluctantly sanctioned the North Korean invasion after prodding by Kim, making the North pay for military hardware (unlike the U.S.). Stalin cautioned Kim “if you get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao [Zedong] for all the help.” Evidence from the Soviet archives suggests that Stalin feared that an American defeat in Korea might trigger a global war. He was prepared to accept U.S. dominance of the peninsula, telling one of his subordinates: “let the United States be our neighbors in the Far East. They will come there but we shall not fight them now. We are not ready to fight.”
Although the CIA had found little evidence that “the USSR was prepared to support North Korea,” the Truman administration deemed the North Korean invasion an act of Russian aggression. Secretary of State Dean Acheson actually greeted the invasion with relief, as it justified massive military appropriations that were essential to carrying out the vision of American pre-eminence outlined in the top-secret National Security Council Report 68 of April 1950. In a press club speech on January 12, 1950, Acheson, a former Wall Street lawyer, had excluded Korea from the American defense perimeter, perhaps to keep the North Koreans off-balance, earning him the opprobrium of Republicans still enraged by the triumph of China’s Maoist revolution. Korea subsequently became a test case to show that the Democrats were willing to stand up to “communist aggression.”

Acheson, one of the war’s main architects, was himself an Anglophile with a lifelong admiration of the British Empire. Radical journalist I. F. Stone commented that he represented not the “free American spirit” but something “old, wrinkled, crafty and cruel, which stinks from centuries of corruption.” Showing little empathy or consideration for the Korean people, Acheson said Korea was “not a local situation” but the “spear-point of a drive made by the whole communist control group on the entire power position of the West.” Inaction in the face of invasion, he believed, would damage U.S. credibility, and the international system involving international treaties, the Marshall Plan and NATO, and would cause communists to seize Formosa, Indochina, and finally Japan as well as give strength to domestic isolationists whom he loathed.
While the initial goals of the Truman administration were defensive from its point of view in thwarting the North Korean invasion, they quickly shifted to destroying the North Korean army and humbling the Soviets, and by September 1950, pushing for a unified Korea under Syngman Rhee.

President Harry S. Truman wrote in his memoirs that the decision to wage war in Korea was one of the toughest of his presidency and that he felt he could not replicate the mistakes of the generation that had appeased Hitler, referencing the so-called Munich paradigm (the failure of America’s allies to stand up to Hitler after he invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938). This historical analogy dominated policy thinking in the early Cold War. Based on this reading of history, Truman believed he had to act quickly and forcefully to block communist aggression in Korea. On the other hand, he wanted to avoid a third world war, which seemed quite possible at the time. As the Soviets had successfully developed a nuclear bomb in 1949, this could mean a nuclear war.
U.S. military leaders were concerned as well. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and Army Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Omar Bradley worried about committing ground troops to a far-away conflict of limited strategic significance. Even Gen. Douglas MacArthur had told aides in Tokyo that “anyone who engages the U.S. army on the mainland of Asia should have his reason examined.” Once in the war, however, MacArthur was intent on using all means to achieve victory.

President Truman had already established the principle of U.S. intervention against “communist aggression” in March 1947, as the Truman Doctrine, when the U.S. sent aid but not troops, to anti-communist factions in Greece, Italy, and China…
To sell the war to the public, Truman evoked fears of global communist domination and relied on UN Security Council support to legitimate the U.S.-led “police action” in Korea. The “scare” campaign proved highly effective as 81 percent of Americans initially backed the intervention, according to a Gallup poll taken during the first week of the war. Time Magazine acknowledged that “it was a rare U.S. citizen that could pass a detailed quiz on the little piece of Asiatic peninsula he had just guaranteed with troops, planes and ships.” For most Americans, the threat came from the Soviet Union rather than from North Korea. The magazine quoted Evar Malin, 37, of Sycamore, Illinois: “I’ll tell ya, I think we done the right thing. We had to take some kind of action against the Russians.” The magazine’s editors similarly identified the Russians as the real enemy. “Russia’s latest aggression had united the U.S. — and the U.N. — as nothing else could,” they wrote. “By decision of the U.S. and the U.N., the free world would now try to strike back, deal with the limited crises through which Communism was advancing.”

Anti-communist propaganda was directed at both external and internal “threats”
The Red Scare was at its height in the early 1950s. According to a Gallup poll taken July 30-August 4, 1950, forty percent of Americans advocated placing domestic communists in concentration camps.

Progressive-minded critics of the Cold War had grown quieter in the wake of Henry A. Wallace’s overwhelming defeat in his bid for the presidency in 1948. Wallace served as the nation’s vice president under Franklin Roosevelt from 1941 to 1945, then as Commerce Secretary in the Truman administration. He was forced to resign the latter position after making a speech at Madison Square Garden in September 1946 in which he warned that Truman’s foreign policies could lead to a third world war. Two years later, as presidential candidate on the Progressive Party ticket, Wallace advocated for universal health care, racial integration, and a new “people’s century” devoid of war and imperialism. He supported peaceful cooperation with the Russians who he did not consider a military threat. Wallace was smeared during the campaign as pro-communist. Presidential adviser Clark Clifford advised Truman that “every effort must be made to….identify and isolate [Wallace] in the public mind with the communists.”
When the Korean War broke out, the remnants of the Progressive Party objected to the UN Security Council’s call to aid South Korea. Wallace himself, however, supported the UN Security Council’s action and U.S. involvement, stating that when his country goes to war and that war is sanctioned by the UN, he had to support his country and the UN. This position prompted Wallace’s resignation from the Progressive Party which declined thereafter.

This position was strikingly similar to that of the Republican Party. In the November 1950 midterm elections, the GOP picked up 28 seats in the House of Representatives and won 18 contested seats in the Senate. Republican leaders thus felt they had a mandate to aggressively push the rollback doctrine over Truman’s policy of limited war and containment of communism. The Republican platform of 1952 decried the “negative, futile and immoral policy of ‘containment’ which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism.” A real fear of nuclear war nonetheless deterred Republicans and Democrats alike from calling for an invasion of China and Eastern Europe, where communist governments reigned.
Liberals were not entirely or permanently snowed by Truman’s justifications for the war. Many initially supported the war because it signified the successful application of the principle of “collective security” upon which the United Nations is founded. As it became clearer during the war that the U.S. was manipulating the UN to serve its Cold War interests, and that the horrific U.S. bombing of Korea lay outside the boundaries of civilized warfare, criticism of the war became more common, albeit without any recommendation to withdraw.

Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party was the sole member of Congress to disavow U.S. intervention in Korea on the grounds of Korea’s right to self-determination. Calling the Rhee government corrupt and fascistic, he told war supporters that “you can keep on making impassioned pleas for the destruction of communism but I tell you, the issue in China, in Asia, in Korea, and in Vietnam, is the right of these people for self-determination, to a government of their own, to independence and national unity.” Earning the ire of the China lobby, Marcantonio lost his seat in the fall election of 1950.

Potential allies of progressives – labor, minority, and religious groups – generally followed mainstream opinion on the war. With workers benefiting from war-related contracts, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) supported U.S. intervention in Korea. The CIO executive board called for “complete and unhesitating cooperation of every individual in America.” In the conformist climate of the time, mainstream civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supported the war. A Philip Randolph issued a statement on behalf of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that “Negroes and other minorities and labor have a stake in the victory of the policy of President Truman…. The ruthless and vicious attack of the Russian satellite, North Korea, upon her sister nation is a violent breech of good faith by the Kremlin [and] shows that Russia is bent on world conquest.” These comments attest to the pervasive Cold War mentality underlying broad-scale public support for the Korean War.

The Catholic Church and ascendant Protestant Christian right, were major supporters of the Korean War, and the Cold War crusade in general, which helped shape Middle American backing of the war. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham called the Truman administration “cowardly” for pursuing a “half-hearted war” rather than following the advice of General Douglas MacArthur and employing the full powers of the American military. Cardinal Francis Spellman, another influential religious leader, visited the troops in Korea, advocated universal military training, and linked U.S. actions in Korea to the will of God.

After General Matthew Ridgeway was quoted in the New York Herald Tribune saying that “our aim is to kill Chinese rather than to capture ground in the current action,” Cardinal Spellman preached that he “dared hope that all at home, inspired by our boys’ heroic giving of themselves for us, may better understand the true meaning of Christmas and more strongly unite to keep God’s peace and the freedom’s he bequeathed to us.” He went on to refer to the “sublime sacrifice of mothers’ sons in emulation of that first Mother’s son who suffered and died,” rendering comparison between the suffering on the cross of Jesus with those sent to Korea to kill the evil, godless communists.

General Fred C. Weyand, who later became a top assistant to Vietnam Commander William C. Westmoreland, noted that the “American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We believe in using ‘things’ – artillery, bombs, massive firepower – in order to conserve our soldiers’ lives.” This strategy of enemy annihilation through superior firepower is rooted in the racial dehumanization of American enemies and a society that sees all progress through the lens of technological advance, in which a cult of technical rationality has corroded human solidarity and empathy. Together with the Vietnam War, the Korean War exemplifies the horrors bred by U.S. style techno-war and its limitations in confronting enemies in distant locales whose motivations the Americans barely understood.

American confidence of victory in the war was heightened by the huge government investment in cutting edge weapons systems. Building on the legacy of World War II, which had seen “the greatest mobilization of scientific power in the history of the world,” in the opinion of Dr. Karl T. Compton, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U.S. employed a variety of lethal technological innovations in Korea: three-and-a half inch rocket launchers, super-bazookas, Sikorsky and Bell helicopters, the M-26 Pershing and M-46 Patton tank equipped with a 90 mm gun, portable flamethrowers, amphibious tractors, white phosphorus grenades (“willie peter”), shells with radio controlled detonators, M20 75mm recoilless rifles, and radar-equipped jet fighter planes that were less vulnerable to ground attack. In addition, the U.S. employed aerial refueling that allowed for long range bombing missions, used naval carriers as launch pads for aircraft, missiles guided by electronic computers, and television controlled planes serving as pilotless flying bombs.

Truong Giap, a Vietnamese revolutionary stated with much accuracy that “the Korean War was the most barbarous war in history.” At the beginning, it looked as if the North would easily occupy the South and win. Kim Il-Sung believed the southerners would rise up against their government and align with the North. Yet he underestimated the effectiveness of Syngman Rhee’s repression of resistance movements prior to the war, and he overestimated popular support in the South for the northern government. Furthermore, in the first days of the northern blitzkrieg, South Korean officers ordered the execution of thousands of political opponents, including those imprisoned, in order to deprive the North of fighters who could assist their cause.
The North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, routed the South Korean Army (ROKA), and then advanced down the peninsula with tanks, taking control of Seoul on June 28. Rhee and his inner-circle fled. The following morning, South Korean forces attempted to halt the KPA’s advance by destroying a bridge across the Han River, leaving hundreds of refugees to drown. Many of the South Korea’s finest junior officers died in the fighting in the first days, with Gen. Paik Sun-Yup organizing anti-tank suicide teams equipped with hand grenades.[83] Until the deployment of super-bazookas developed by scientists at Carnegie Tech, which shot off jet-driven shells traveling the speed of a slow meteor, American anti-tank weapons were often too light to effectively pierce tank armor. North Koreans were also able to disguise their tanks in mounds of dirt.
The KPA was a motivated and disciplined force consisting of many veterans of the Chinese civil war. On July 21, the KPA captured Taejon, 90 miles south of Seoul, routing American forces in what one historian described as “one of the most thoroughgoing defeats in American military history.” The U.S. Eighth Army withdrew to Pusan in the south and formed a defensive perimeter defended by 85,000 U.S. troops. The defensive perimeter held.

During their occupation of South Korea, North Korean forces linked up with local leftists in reactivating people’s committees driven underground by Rhee. Schooled in Maoist principles, the KPA promoted agrarian reform and other principles of the revolution, attempting to win “hearts and minds,” especially among the working class, students, and women. Many in Seoul reportedly shouted and waved red flags when the northern soldiers arrived. An Air Force survey found that a majority of factory workers, students and women supported the KPA and that strict control over the media and political education helped keep the rest of the public in-line. The KPA also engaged in violent retribution against Rhee supporters in Seoul, killing an estimated 25,000 civilians. Special “base red” units killed the entire families of police and military officers, and liberal intellectuals were publicly humiliated. A police detective asserted that in the first few days, the citizens of Seoul welcomed the People’s Army and cooperated with it, but they became disappointed when promised rice supplies did not materialize, inflation spread, and they were forced to give their jewelry to the People’s Army.

American morale went through a drastic shift in the first weeks of war. Prior to the fighting, Brigadier General George Barth of the 24th Infantry thought his troops displayed an “unfounded overconfidence bordering on arrogance,” an attitude replicated by headquarters, which had ordered officers to pack their summer uniforms in anticipation of a victory parade through Seoul. With their tanks ill-suited for Korea’s mountainous terrain and radios malfunctioning, hundreds of young soldiers were cut to pieces on hillsides and riverbanks and in rice paddies during the retreat south. Over four hundred were killed or taken prisoner in Chinju on July 26th. Despite America’s enormous firepower, military historians have suggested that cuts to the basic training regimen combined with a high turnover in personnel and stagnant army doctrine based on World War II practices resulted in a lack of preparedness and poor combat results.
Cooperation between U.S. and South Korean soldiers also proved difficult. American soldiers often distrusted their South Korean counterparts, considering them to be infiltrated by communist “gooks.” A South Korean military officer interviewed for an army study pointed to a lack of patience and empathy by American military advisers, and “ignorance of each-others’ minds and liability to misunderstanding on account of differences in custom.” E. J. Kahn reported in The New Yorker that American soldiers felt that “North Korean soldiers, all things considered, fought more skillfully and aggressively than South Korean soldiers…. because they had been more thoroughly instilled with the will to fight.”

The incompetence, corruption, and venality of the ROK government were displayed when South Korean troops were left to freeze to death in the winter of 1951. Their lack of proper equipment can be traced to the embezzlement of funds in the Defense Department. Yi Yong-hui, an interpretation officer with the 9th regiment testified that he had witnessed a scene right out of Dante’s hell in which soldiers “clothed in rags” walked “barefoot in snow and ice” and were forced to “spend the night in a freezing school playground. Those that never got up after lying down were dragged without even straw-matting to cover their stiff corpses…. How could they abuse and treat so harshly these men who were not prisoners of war but their own brothers? It was the cruelest of all crimes committed during the Korean War.”

“So terrible a liberation:” Pusan, Inchon, Seoul, and Operation Rat Killer
U.S.-UN forces managed to reverse the KPA blitzkrieg at the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, which lasted from August 4 to September 16, 1950. It was a great victory for U.S.-UN forces – and utterly brutal for both soldiers and civilians. Lt. Charles Payne of the U.S. 1st battalion, 34th infantry told an interviewer that “time and again, the gooks [slur for communist Koreans] rushed us. Each time, we’d lose a man, the gooks would lose many.” The town of Pusan was described by one soldier as a “filthy hole, diseased, [and] crammed with refugees.”

Inchon landing: In mid-September Gen. MacArthur engineered an amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Inchon. The 230-ship invasion force was backed by helicopter spotters and ten Corsair and three Sky-raider air squadrons that carried out nearly 3,000 bombing sorties in a great display of combined air-sea power. Over 13,000 Marines took advantage of a 31-foot tide and climbed over high seawalls before fighting off North Korean defenders, sustaining 3,500 casualties compared to over 20,000 North Koreans. “Operation Chromite,” as it was called, was enabled by the seizure of Wolmi-do Island, after it was showered with rockets, bombs and napalm, and by a joint CIA-military operation on Yonghung-do, a small island ten miles from Inchon, where Navy Lt. Eugene Clark obtained vital information for the assault. When the KPA returned to Yonghung-do a few days later for a brief period, KPA soldiers allegedly shot more than 50 villagers, including “men and women, boys and girls, to demonstrate what happens to those who aid the Americans,” according to Col. Robert Heinl, Jr.

Puller’s men then retook Seoul on September 27 in brutal house-to-house fighting, breaking through enemy barricades of felled trees.
In a testament to the destruction bred by American weapons technology, a private described the newly “liberated” Seoul as being filled with “great gaping skeletons of blackened buildings with their windows blown out…telephone wires hanging down loosely from their poles; glass and bricks everywhere, literally a town shot to hell.” Reginald Thompson noted that few people in history “could have suffered so terrible a liberation.”

By September 30, all of South Korea was under the control of ROKA, U.S., and UN forces. American and South Korean counterinsurgency teams then began operations to snuff out partisan guerrillas across South Korea. Under “Operation Houseburner” U.S. units sprayed flame-throwers and threw incendiary grenades from helicopters on the roofs of village huts in order to deprive communists of support. When the structure of some homes remained allowing guerrillas to hide in the cellars, napalm mixture was added to ensure the mud walls came crumbling down.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was intent on resisting MacArthur’s invasion of North Korea, in part to pay back North Korea for supporting its revolution and in part because it wanted to ensure a strategic buffer to its south. Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang on the island of Formosa, with CIA assistance, was launching raids into China from northern Burma. Mao also wanted to stand up to the West and reassert China’s stature on the global stage, according to the historian Shu Guang Zhang.[109] Hence, as U.S.-UN forces approached the Yalu River, some 300,000 Chinese soldiers slipped across the river and attacked them on October 25, 1950. When the Chinese momentarily retreated after ten days, MacArthur continued on to the Yalu River. The Chinese struck again on November 25, attacking in the dark in order to negate the U.S. advantage in air power.
The Chinese infantrymen were effective in camouflaging themselves by crawling along stream beds, ravines, and thick trees. Adopting a tactic known as niupitang, in which infantry used stealth and tunneling to approach a platoon, they ambushed U.S.-UN forces after feigning withdrawal. Commanding Chinese General Peng Dehuai believed that the Americans were over-dependent on firepower, afraid of heavy casualties, and lacked the depth of reserves the Chinese could amass.[110] The Americans were also unable to march like the North Koreans and Chinese, who had better knowledge of the terrain and could cover 30 miles of mountain in a winter night, subsisting on a diet of cold boiled rice.[111] Playing on these weaknesses, the Chinese forced MacArthur’s retreat at the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir plateau in what one Marine called “the most violent small unit fighting in American history.” Some 40,000 Chinese soldiers died as compared to 561 Marines.

Many of the American soldiers suffered from frostbite owing to the lack of proper equipment. One veteran said he could never figure out why a soldier of the richest country on earth had “to steal boots from soldiers’ of the poorest country on earth.” In the unusually cold winter, vehicles once stopped would hardly run again, guns froze solid, and many automatic weapons would fire but one shot at a time. Terrified of fighting the Chinese, many ROK units broke ranks and disappeared. In a desperate attempt to break enemy morale and create hardship for the population, the U.S. army chemical corps initiated a program that used incendiary bombs filled with napalm to destroy North Korean cereal crops ready for harvesting.

Beginning on December 2, the American Eighth Army began a full-scale retreat, marching down frozen roads where they endured sniper fire. Pyongyang and other North Korean towns were plundered and put to the torch along the way, as orders were given to “shoot anything that moves.” A Navy underwater demolition team turned Hungnam Port into a wasteland, while the roads became littered with dead animals and corpses. The retreating U.S.-UN forces continued past the 38th parallel and abandoned Seoul to the advancing North Korean and Chinese armies in early January 1951. Seeking scapegoats, some in the military claimed the North Koreans and Chinese had military advantage because of their “cheap evaluation of human life.”

U.S. military intelligence director Charles Willoughby, notorious for supplying MacArthur with information he wanted to hear, had underestimated Chinese manpower and fighting capability. American soldiers learned that the “best they had in the way of equipment” was “not good enough to halt a foe willing and determined to drive forward, taking any amount of losses to reach his objective.” Colonel Paul Freeman, who fought with Jiang Jieshi’s armies in World War II, said that “these are not the same Chinese.”

The American retreat did not play well at home…

According to Look Magazine, it amounted to the military’s most “shameful disgrace” since northern troops had “cut and run at the first Battle of Bull Run in 1861.” Two former army intelligence officers writing in the same magazine criticized the military for its “obsession with” high-tech weaponry and for building its entire strategy around “these dazzling and lethal new weapons” while failing to properly “scout the rival team thoroughly as any football coach could have told them.” We intended to “rely on superior weapons and quantities of them, not surprise, skillful strategies or wily traps to offset the numerical superiority of red manpower; bigger bombs and wonder weapons, rather than new ways of fighting or superior spirit…. The only flaw in these plans was that… our leaders failed to ask the enemy if he would play the role assigned to him.” These comments encapsulate the technological hubris driving military commanders and limits of U.S. technology in confronting a motivated enemy capable of adopting guerrilla methods. The unlearned lesson would be repeated in Vietnam.
In April 1951, the Americans regained the initiative and retook Seoul; and by June they had fought their way back to the 38th parallel. For the remainder of the war, neither side gained significant territory. The conflict settled into a pattern of trench warfare reminiscent of World War I. T. R. Fehrenbach wrote that “on the frontier, there is rarely gallantry or glamor to wars, whether they are against red Indians or Red Chinese. There is only killing.” Indeed, Chinese soldiers endured nearly one million casualties, including Mao Zedong’s son, Anying.

Negotiations to end the war began on July 10, 1951, and dragged on for two years before the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. The two sides divided over the demarcation line between north and south, the presence of U.S. airfields and troop levels, and terms of the repatriation of POWs. Truman accused the communists of delaying the end of the war and proposed a demilitarized zone (DMZ) almost entirely in the DPRK. The communist delegation accused the UN of repeatedly bombing near their headquarters for intimidation purposes and violating provisions of a temporary cease-fire agreement, which Gen. Matthew Ridgway acknowledged. Ridgway, the chief negotiator, worried that an armistice would allow the Chinese, “freed from this embarrassing entanglement,” to expand their aggression in Indochina and elsewhere in East Asia. As historian James I. Matray points out, the U.S. delegation also felt pressured by Syngman Rhee’s firm opposition to anything less than reunification under his rule as a major war aim (in contrast to Kim Il-Sung’s acceptance of the 38th parallel line) and by his orchestration of huge demonstrations demanding a new offensive north.

After a delay, negotiations resumed on October 25, 1951, in Panmunjon. The Truman administration hedged further over the issue of POW repatriation, seeking to maximize the number of defectors in order to score a public relations victory in the Cold War, as historian Charles S. Young has detailed. The POW issue was thus exploited to prolong the war in a slightly different but not totally dissimilar way to Vietnam two decades later.

In the wake of the Chinese and North Korean counteroffensive, there was talk in Washington of extending the war to China. General MacArthur was intent on this option, but President Truman feared a quagmire. In January 1951 Gen. Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that a war with China would be the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He also suggested that America’s Cold War enemy, the Russians, were only peripherally involved in Korea, and that American forces needed to be concentrated in Western Europe.

On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved General MacArthur of his command in Korea. In early April 1951, President Truman recalled and fired General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, fearing that MacArthur’s aggressive policies would ignite a world war involving China and Russia. MacArthur, with support from leading Republicans, wanted to take the war into China, despite U.S. setbacks in North Korea, and to use every means at America’s disposal, including nuclear weapons, to win the war. He proposed a naval blockade off the Chinese coast; the bombing of China’s industrial centers, supply bases and communications networks; taking up exiled Chinese Guomindang leader Jieng Jieshi’s offer of using Chinese nationalist troops in Korea; and using Jieng’s forces for an invasion of the Chinese mainland. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, MacArthur’s replacement, compared MacArthur to “Custer at the Little Bighorn [who] had neither eyes nor ears for information that might deter him from the swift attainment of his objective.”

On April 25, 1951, Gen. MacArthur addressed an audience of 50,000 in Chicago, while Truman reasserted his control over the war, MacArthur became an icon to right-wing movements. MacArthur gave a famous speech before Congress on April 19, 1951, in which he stated that “appeasement begets new and bloodier war” and that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” He also told an interviewer that if he had not been fired, he had planned to drop between thirty to fifty atom bombs across the neck of Manchuria and “spread radio-active cobalt capable of wiping out animal life for at least 60 years.”
The mainstream media sided with Truman in the dispute, but a Gallup found that 69 percent of the citizenry backed MacArthur. The White House mail room was swamped with letters of protest, which outnumbered letters of support for Truman’s decision by 20-1. In Ponca City, Oklahoma, a dummy of Secretary of State Dean Acheson was soaked in kerosene and set ablaze. After MacArthur’s farewell speech, irate Americans phoned their newspapers denouncing the “traitorous State Department” which planned to “sell us down the river to… the Communists.” The Republican Party policy committee accused the “Truman-Acheson-Marshall triumvirate” of planning a “super-Munich” in Asia and abandoning “China to the communists.”
California’s freshman Republican Senator Richard M. Nixon shrewdly capitalized on MacArthur’s downfall, giving stump speeches asserting that the “happiest group in the country will be the communists and their stooges…. The president has given them what they always wanted, MacArthur’s scalp.” MacArthur, said Nixon, had been fired simply because “he had the good sense and patriotism to ask that the hands of our fighting men in Korea be untied.” This right-wing theme was later applied to scapegoat peace activists and liberal politicians for America’s defeat in Vietnam. After sponsoring a Senate resolution condemning Truman’s action, Nixon received 600 hundred telegrams in less than 24 hours, all commending him, the largest spontaneous reaction he’d ever seen, which in turn helped catapult him towards the White House.

The whole episode provides a revealing window into the intensely conservative political culture in the United States and hawkish impulses which later drove the U.S. to war in Vietnam.

For all the human suffering, the 20th century’s “nastiest little war,” as correspondent S.L.A. Marshall termed it, solved very little, ending in stalemate, with the division of the country at the 38th parallel. Formal peace accords were never signed, only a ceasefire. The U.S. in 2015 maintained 83 permanent military bases in South Korea. The DMZ remains today among the scariest places in the world, with the constant threat of renewed conflagration, exacerbated by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.

In the 1952 election cycle, public dissatisfaction with the war fell on the Democratic Truman administration, enabling Republicans to win 38 more seats in the House and 36 Senatorial contests as well as the presidency. After two years of war Americans had grown tired and frustrated, though their feelings did not translate into support for peace or anti-imperialist movements, and they failed to reckon with the wide-scale atrocities committed. Right-wing generals promoted an early variant of the “stab in the back” myth. General James Van Fleet wrote in Reader’s Digest in July 1953 that the military could have achieved total victory against the North Koreans and Chinese but was prevented from doing so by civilian policy-makers. Remembered in this way, the generals used even greater levels of firepower in the next conflict fought under similar circumstances in Vietnam.

Bolstered by over $1 billion in American military and police aid, South Korea remained a dictatorship for decades after the war, until grass-roots movements paved the way for democratization. Syngman Rhee ruled until he was deposed in a coup d’états and fled to Hawaii in 1960, following massive student protests. His regime and that of his successor, Gen. Park Chung-Hee, a CIA favorite who served as an informant during the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion of 1948, were marred by martial law rule, rigged elections, and wide-scale arrests of political opponents. Pacification of the communist underground was only completed in 1956, with police and army units backed by the United States carrying out continuous mass surveillance and raids. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency was created in the early 1960s, and by mid-decade, employed 350,000 agents out of a population of 30 million.

Fitting with a broader continental pattern, modernization theorists in Washington swept under the rug the tyrannical dimensions of the South Korean government and viewed the country as a spectacular success because of the scale of economic growth, which was ironically contingent in part on manufacturing vital equipment to facilitate the American invasion of South Vietnam. Conceiving it as a “free world frontier” protecting Japan, the U.S. was further grateful to the ROK under General Park for sending 312,000 soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Under U.S. direction, they terrorized the population and committed dozens of My-Lai style massacres. Some veterans returned home to repress the Kwangju pro-democracy uprising in 1980, in South Korea’s version of China’s Tiananmen Square slaughter.

In February 1972, President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong established a new detente, although China remained communist.

In February 1972, President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong established a new detente, breaking down Cold War stereotypes.

Across the Third World, China’s prestige was heightened by the Korean War because of its role in saving the Northern regime and standing up the United States. North Korea recovered its prewar levels of agricultural and industrial output by 1957 through the “superhuman efforts” of its population along with $1.6 billion in aid and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern bloc countries. Though warped by rigid authoritarianism, including a purging of rivals to the Kim dynasty, the northern economy was more advanced than that of the South until the late 1960s. Presenting itself as the vanguard of world revolution striving for a fair international economic order, the DPRK provided free schooling and medical services, welfare for war invalids and families of the fallen, and sanctioned women’s rights. Over the long term, however, North Korea developed into a militarized garrison state, in part because the Korean War never officially ended. North Korea was in turn used by the United States to broadcast the failings of state socialism, with most media depictions failing to provide any commentary on how its political evolution was impacted by the war.

Even as famine gripped North Korea in the 1990s, elaborate monuments dedicated to the Manchurian partisans and martyrs of the “Fatherland Liberation War” were continuously constructed in order to legitimize the Kim dynasty and its vast military spending. Author Chris Springer notes that “the DPRK does not like to commemorate its war losses, military or civilian. Doing so would remind the population of how costly the Korean War was and make them more reluctant to fight another war. The regime encourages anger at the enemy but not tears for the departed.”

For the United States, the war fostered the quadrupling of defense budgets, from $13 billion in 1949 to $54 billion (more than $500 billion in 2016 dollars) in 1953, and hastened government investment in military scientific research and development. The need to stockpile strategic raw minerals resulted in intensified exploitation of the mineral resources of Latin America and Africa, and closer alliances with colonial and dictatorial regimes. The war further consolidated the U.S. position in Southeast Asia, an enormous foreign military base structure, and a powerful military industrial complex to service it. Bechtel Corporation gained lucrative contracts to build and service U.S. military bases and U.S. oil companies profited from a 1955 agreement giving them the contract to supply the U.S. and Korean armies and civilian economy. Domestically, the steel and copper industries began operating at record levels. With military aircraft purchases tripling, employment in the aerospace industry increased from 192,000 in 1947 to 600,000 in 1952, prompting the reopening of many idle plants extending to Canada. Japanese manufacturers were also major winners in the Korean War, as they provided vital equipment to U.S.-UN forces, prompting Premier Yoshida Shigeru to call it a “gift from the gods.”

By the mid-1950s, U.S. defense and aerospace industries accounted directly or indirectly for 55 percent of employment in Los Angeles County and almost as much in San Diego (where nearly 80 percent of all manufacturing was related to national defense). All the major aircraft manufacturers reported being “out of the red” for the first time since the end of World War II. Hughes aircraft, an innovator in electronics aviation equipment, helicopters and missiles, was transformed into a $200 million per year corporation. No longer considered the “merchants of death” of yesteryear – the name of a best-selling exposé in 1935 – McDonnell, Douglas, General Electric, Boeing, Chrysler, and United Aircraft Corporations earned record profits. Lockheed-Georgia became the largest employer in the Southeast whose economy was modernized around the defense sector.

The economic boom engendered by the war coupled with the domestic climate of McCarthyism served to limit dissent. Izzy Stone wrote that “people come out to demonstrate against a war when it causes them suffering and when they feel this suffering is not justified. But except for families of young men, in Korea the war has caused no suffering. On the contrary, everyone has benefitted by the boom which followed the opening of the Korean War and the secondary boom which began with the Chinese intervention. Everybody is afraid if the war ends, jobs, orders and money will be scarce again.”
The Korean War was poorly understood in its own time owing in large part to poor media coverage. It its aftermath, as noted at the beginning, it was quickly forgotten by the American public. When the Obama administration ordered the construction of a naval base on Cheju-do as part of its “pivot” to Asia, few Americans recognized the significance. Cheju-do had been designated a peace island after President Roo Moon-Hyun apologized for war-time atrocities. The U.S., however, strong-armed local politicians into purchasing the land for the base, which was built on a world heritage site. In August 2011, riot police broke up a nonviolent rally and arrested more than three dozen activists, including the mayor of Gangjeong. Noam Chomsky wrote that the Obama administration was provoking a renewed arms race and possibly a proxy war against the Chinese, with all the terrible repercussions that this might entail, as the Koreans know too well.

Korea overall is a case study for showing the futility of war, as the war perpetuated rather than solved the countries’ problems and divisions.

Yet because it did not present us with a decisive war outcome – the horrendous violence and the suffering of the Korean people was unconscionable, and furthermore, one can only hope that it will never be repeated, again…

If we are to go to Korea this time — we ought to have a finite and definitive decisive outcome that we can truly achieve.

Otherwise, we best let the sleeping dogs lie or even bark at will…

To be continued:

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