"Understanding Is Better
Than Remembering: The Korean War, 1945-1954"
Raymond E. Mason
The Dwight D.
Eisenhower Lectures in War & Peace - a biennial series
Allan Reed Millett A
Allan R. Millett is the
Raymond E. Mason Professor of Military History at The Ohio State University and
Associate Director of the Mershon Center. He earned his Ph.D. in History from
Ohio State in 1966 and served for three years on the faculty of the University
of Missouri before returning to his alma mater, where he has remained ever
since. He has authored or edited nine monographs and anthologies of military
history, including the prizewinning Semper Fidelis: The History of the U.S.
Marine Corps (1980; revised 1991) and In Many a Strife: General Gerald C.
Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1917-1956 (1993). He has also written
dozens of articles, essays, book chapters, and pamphlets. His has primarily
focused on American military policy and institutions.
Professor Millett also
served his country as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps for over thirty years
and remains on standby reserve status. His service to the historical profession
is equally distinguished, with stints, among many others, as president of the
American Military Institute, chair of the U.S. Bibliographic Committee for the
International Commission of Military History, and founding member and trustee of
the Marine Corps Historical Foundation. He has also won numerous awards for his
scholarship, service, and teaching.
Millett is presently completing a history of the Korean War for the University
Press of Kansas. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and daughter.
From his pedestal above
twelve lanes of crawling traffic along King Sejong Boulevard in downtown Seoul,
the statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin maintains his frozen watch over the security of
the Korean people. Four hundred years ago the real Admiral Yi guarded Korea's
shores from the ships of the Japanese tyrant, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Yi Sun-sin had
no illusions about the fate of the Korean people, trapped on a peninsula between
two more numerous people, the Chinese and the Japanese: "The mountains and the
rivers tremble; I whip, I sweep blood dyes hills and streams."'
The monuments march along a trail of death from the Han-Inijin estuary back along the Hangang to the place where it flows in from the south to join the Pukhan-gang, which brings the cold waters of the northern mountains. At Kanghwa Island the monuments commemorate Korean battles with French, American, and Japanese naval forces. Farther up the Han, not far from Kimpo airport and the Haengju bridge where the 5th Marines crossed the river in September, 1950, stands a monument at Haengjuansong fortress, a site of a futile defense against the Japanese in 1592.
East of the city, the
monuments mark the desperate battles of the winter of 1950-1951 when the Chinese
People's Volunteer Forces swept around the city. Over the same battlefields
Mongol invaders chased the Koryo court to its fortress on Kanghwa-do in the 13th
century. In less than one year, 1950-195 1, control of Seoul changed hands four
times. Taking the longer view, Koreans believe their country has been invaded at
least 600 times since the dawn of recorded history.
When they weren't fighting or fleeing foreign conquerors, the Koreans fought themselves with kingdoms shifting and contracting throughout the last two thousand years. The Koryo kingdom, which succeeded Unified Shilla, gave way to the Kingdom of Choson, founded by General Yi Song-gye in 1392. The Yi dynasty survived until 1910. The longevity of the Yi dynasty did not mean stability. In addition to the usual court plots, the people themselves, the yongban of land-holding position and the commoners, admired the rebels among them. (One of the most durable Korean folk heroes is Hong Kildong, a youth of impetuous spirit who conquers evil landlords and gives their wealth to the poor.) In the nineteenth century, the spirit of rebellion flamed in the countryside in 1812 and 1862.
new religion that fused Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, preached by the
martyred holy man Ch'oe Cheu-u, flourished among the poor farmers. This creed of
national pride and moral rejuvenation, "Eastern Learning" (Tonghak) created a
fervor that produced another agrarian revolt in 1895. This revolt by the
Tonghaks helped weaken the hold of the court in Seoul, which had begun to open
the doors of trade and cultural exchange to Japan, several European states, and
the United States after 1876. Various court factions, some dedicated to reform,
others who sought only to preserve the traditional state, looked to foreign
patrons for assistance. Toying with novel concepts of efficiency and honest
administration, the court reformers did not notice they were riding the tiger of
final collapse of the Yi dynasty in 1910 unleashed and deepened two competing
revolutionary visions that had first taken root in Korea thirty years before
with the arrival of Western learning, some of which came through the unique
medium of Japanese economic and bureaucratic institutions. After the opening of
the Kingdom of Choson, the court of King Kojong drew into its royal protection
entrepreneurs, technicians, modem administrators, military advisors, doctors,
engineers, and Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Western concepts of trade,
business practices, human rights, the rule of law, the precepts of rationalism
and humanism, the dictates of the empirically-derived physical sciences, the
liberating powers of modem technology, and whole new schools of the arts came to
Seoul and seeped out to the countryside, at least to a few other cities. None of
this "progress," introduced largely by either Protestant missionaries or
Japanese administrator-businessmen, came easily, and much of it remained tainted
by imperialistic politics. Coping with Russian, Japanese, and British
modernizers often reminded the Koreans of a historical oppression they shared
with the Poles, Jews, and Irish.
politics of modernization became the politics of Korean anti-imperialism, and
from the 1890s until March, 1919 the mounting demands of the Korean modernizing
revolutionaries focused on the reform of national life without foreign
governmental intervention. To some degree they shared the same goals as the
Chinese revolutionaries who rallied to the cause of Sun Yat-sen. In speeches,
books, and newspapers, the new Korean intellectual and political elite developed
its broad themes during the waning days of the Yi dynasty and the early years of
Japanese colonial government, which began in 1905. The Korean people, as
philosophers like Yuri Ch'iho asserted, must earn their own redemption through
sacrifice, hard work, social harmony, civic virtue, and a deep commitment to
preserve the communal values of Korean culture, which had been perverted by
Confucianism. Many intellectuals seized the ideals of European liberalism and
socialism untempered by political realism.
Some reformers asserted that a new secular Korean nationalism would be enough, but the predominant leadership also stressed that the ethical foundations of national reconstruction must come from the teachings of Jesus Christ. The reformers sought personal and social salvation, moreover, in evangelical Protestantism, most notably Presbyterianism and Methodism, introduced by missionaries from the United States and Great Britain, men and women whose names now grace the history of Korea: Allen, Underwood, Appenzeller, Hulbert, Avison, and Gale. Even when hounded by the Japanese authorities for their subversive activities, the Korean evangelicals could find some protection (if only exile) from their missionary teachers.
Christian-educated youths who attended the Pae Chae Boy's School played a key
role in the creation of the Independence Club (1896), the cutting edge of
modernization and anti-Japanese resistance. When the Club collapsed under Court
oppression, some of its members reappeared as officials in the Seoul Central
YMCA and Protestant mission headquarters. One of its strongest leaders, So
Chae-p'il, carried on the Independence Club's goals with a new name, Philip
Jaisohn, an American medical degree, and American citizenship. Another of the
Club's young firebrands, Yi Sung-man, survived torture and prison to emigrate to
the United States where he learned to speak English, earned three university
degrees, published political tracts, and remained a leader of the Korean exiles
under a new name, Syngman Rhee.
The Protestant evangelicals shared their vision of a new Korea with other resistors, but the course of the anti-Japanese resistance and the nature of Japanese colonial policy divided the Korean nationalists into two broad groups by the 1930s. Essentially liberation movements in exile, they both claimed legitimacy in armed resistance to the Japanese, the first by rural guerrillas of the "Righteous Armies" (Uibyong), whose war of 1907-1909 cost the lives of 18,000 Koreans. The second event, which shaped Korean politics for decades, was the Samil (March 1, 1919) Independence Movement, which included the Ch'ondogyo Group (the remnants of the Tonghaks) who had now mixed in Christian elements with eastern learning, the Protestant evangelicals, Buddhist activists, and a coalition of socialists based in Russia, China, and Japan. Among the latter was the People's Socialist Party (1918), a Soviet supported Communist party founded in Siberia.
1919 Declaration of Independence, however, was an evangelical document; all but
one of its signers was a Protestant or Ch'ondogyo leader. The central assumption
of the organizers was that the United States, which had betrayed Korean
independence in the peace settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905,
would now champion the cause of Korea in the League of Nations since it had
turned back Japanese claims to new areas of influence in China. A declaration of
independence brought millions of Koreans into the streets of the major cities
for non-violent demonstrations, where they met the colonial police and Japanese
army. In the repression that broke up the demonstrations and decapitated the
movement, the Japanese killed perhaps 1,200 Koreans at the cost of nine security
force lives, arrested 19,500 (of whom about 3,000 received jail sentences), and
burned thousands of homes, churches, temples, and schools.
destruction of the March First Movement accelerated a Korean diaspora that
continued for twenty-five years. Thousands fled their homeland for Siberia,
Manchuria, China, the United States, and even Japan; the Japanese themselves
encouraged immigration as a way of defusing nationalism. They also compromised
the Korean middle class with places in the Japanese colonial bureaucracy and
overseas enterprises, especially in Manchuria. The Protestant evangelicals
migrated to Shanghai and the United States, which had Korean communities in
California and Hawaii. The Communists found their way into the leftist
underground in Japan, exile groups in Siberia and the Russian Maritime Province,
and, eventually, into the Chinese Communist enclave in Yenan. Some Communist
guerrillas formed terrorist and partisan groups in Manchuria. Almost any place
in the world proved safer for Koreans than Korea itself.
In the face of Japanese colonial rule and economic exploitation, which worsened in the 1930s, the appeal of Communism as an alternative revolutionary solution to Korea's backwardness and oppression is hardly surprising. For self-proclaimed Korean patriots, especially those disillusioned with the non-violent forbearance and gradualism of the Protestant evangelicals, the ideological assumptions of Marxism seemed singularly appropriate: the party vanguard would lead the masses of workers and peasants into a new utopia of independence, a classless society, and a state-managed economic system that would ensure the equitable distribution of wealth. In addition, the Korean Communists could draw support and protection from two traditional counterweights to Japanese exploitation, China and Russia. The Communists also provided a structure of opposition to the Japanese (the Korean Communist Party and the Korean Communist Youth Association, formed in 1925) that survived the periodic Japanese crackdowns until the final, relentless pursuit of the Communist organizers (including one phoenix-like founder, Pak Hon-yong) in 1929-1930.
Communists also proved adept at undermining their challengers. In China the
Communists lured the trained subversives of Kim Won-bong's Korean Volunteer
Corps to Manchuria and integrated them into their own Korean Volunteers Army -
North China Branch. Within Korea they subverted Shinganhoe (1927-1931), a
promising mass anti-Japanese association formed by the evangelicals. The
Communists claimed that their revolution was far more authentic than the Western
liberalism of the March First Movement. They rejected the economic
incrementalism and survivalism that had taken root among some of the leaders of
the Protestant evangelicals. Not surprisingly, every effort at some sort of
"unified front" resistance organization failed, largely over the issues of
ideology, organization, and "collaboration."'
Both claimants to the cause of Korean nationalism and independence, the Protestant evangelical reformers and the Communists found little common ground beyond their shared opposition to Japanese colonialism. Even on that point their ardor varied. The westernized reformers turned away from violent action and direct protest within Korea since their rich experience in martyrdom made them keenly aware of risks of retaliation to the Korean masses. The Communists required terrorism and partisan warfare to build the party, impress their Soviet sponsors, and politicize the rural masses, who were encouraged at every opportunity to stage peasant protests and workers' strikes, whatever the economic and human cost.
liberal revolutionaries saw long-term advantages in Japanese investment in
Korean manufacturing enterprises and extractive industries and supported the
concept of entrepreneurship and economic development, even to the point of
taking pride in such enterprises as the Kyongbang Spinning and Weaving Company,
the textile conglomerate founded by the Kim family of Koch'ang. Although many of
the new entrepreneurs became ardent champions of Japanese economic development
and opponents of political nationalism, others looked forward to a new kind of
Korean capitalistic corporatism that would be free of Japanese economic
colonialism. The Communists, of course, advocated state-ownership and the
revolution of agriculture through collectivization, which they described as
providing land for the tenant farmers enslaved by the Japanese.
terms of political theory, the Protestant evangelical modernizers and the
Communists advanced programs for democratic participation in political life, at
least an authoritarian version. The ideal of a republic fired the
revolutionaries' imagination, but not their minds, since few of them could
envision a largely rural and uneducated people exercising much real political
power. The appeal of top-down administrative government run by an
especially-prepared bureaucratic elite, drew strong support in the Koreans'
Sino-Confucian past and even fit some western modernizers' notions of
Progressivism (one of their heroes was Woodrow Wilson) and the Communists'
emphasis on the party in shaping the perfect socialist state. Both movements
wanted a single Korean state, but they differed dramatically on the relationship
of that state to Japan. At the level of popular politics, condemning Japan for
its cultural imperialism and inhuman cruelty to fellow Asians had no equal for
crowd appeal. At the level of policy-making, however, the capitalist
revolutionaries realized that good relations with Japan spelled Korean
prosperity. Neither the Soviet Union nor China could fill the need for capital,
markets, technology, and managerial knowledge. For the Communists, Korean
economic development meant some sort of economic integration into a commonwealth
of socialist states, not Japan.
While it would be tempting
to stretch the analogy, the two major revolutionary movements for Korean
independence might be compared with the Federalists and Jeffersonians of the
American postcolonial period, 1783-1815. The evangelicals-capitalists were
Hamiltonians, ready to make peace with the former colonial master for the sake
of immediate economic advantage and limited social reform. Just as the
Federalists made reconciliation a critical part of their policy, the
evangelicals-capitalists believed that Korean well-being and independence
required some accommodation with Japan. The Communists, on the other hand,
rejected detente with Japan or leniency for Koreans who had played any role
(however marginal) in the Japanese colonial system. Like the Jeffersonians, they
stressed the purity of the farmers and workers and national self-sufficiency,
even if such economics froze the Koreans in relative poverty. Their source of
external inspiration was not an economic power, but a fountainhead of ideology
with the Soviet Union (or a Communist China) playing the same role for Korea as
France had played for the Jeffersonians. Of course, both the Hamiltonians and
Jeffersonians shared values drawn from the Enlightenment. In Korea, however, one
could serve Christ or Marx, but not both.
Another division that made
compromise in the cause of national unity impossible was simply generational and
historical, complicated by the relative importance of the individual leaders who
had led the failed March First Movement. Of the thirty-three men who signed the
Declaration of Independence of March First, all were leaders of religious
groups. Not one was a Communist, even in the philosophical sense. Korean
socialists thus found it easy to condemn the first generation of nationalists as
failed old men, handicapped by Confucianism, traditional education, false
western values, and a fear of military action. The Communists were the "new" as
well as true Koreans, men of youthful vigor and action. A superficial comparison
of some of the elite leaders of 1945 shows their contrasting ages:
Cho Man-sik (63) Kim Il-sung
Kim Ku (69)
Pak. Hon-yong (45)
Syngman Rhee (70) Kim II (32)
Yo Un-yong (60)
O Chin-u (36)
Philip Jaisohn (79) Chae
Yun Ch'i-ho (80)
Kim Tu-bong (56)
Yi Pom-sok (45)
Ch'oe Ch'ang-ik (49)
Kim Kyu-sik (64) Kim
Cho Pyong-ok (51) Ho Ka-I (41)
The struggle for revolutionary political legitimacy between the Protestant evangelicals-entrepreneurs and the Communists deepened with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and mobilization of Korea as a war time resource. Enforcing the policy of naisen ittai (the complete integration of Koreans into Japanese culture), the three wartime governors-general (all Japanese generals) dealt a series of blows to the Korean nationalists that fell least heavily upon the Communists, already outlawed and underground. Koreans had to adopt Japanese names and conduct as much business as possible in Japanese (about one-third of the population learned Japanese); schools could no longer conduct classes in Korean or teach Korean language and literature. The only authorized religions after 1935 were Shintoism or Japanese-style Christianity taught from a Bible devoid of the revolutionary Old Testament.
Thousands of Christians
ceased open worship and education or went underground. Japanese prisons
overflowed with political protestors, many of whom found themselves shipped off
as involuntary laborers to Japan and Manchuria. High school and college students
took required military training, and after 1942 Korean youths faced conscription
into the Japanese army. All Koreans had to join at least one patriotic society
and submit to constant surveillance by economic and political police. Yet the
Japanese war effort, at least in its early stages, also offered new profits and
plant expansion for Korean businesses, which hastened to join the Greater East
Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. On the whole, however, the Koreans exhausted
themselves in what appeared to be a fruitless struggle.
With the Japanese challenged
only by passive and symbolic resistance within Korea, the two Korean
revolutionary movements rallied their scattered forces abroad, both dedicated to
claiming a special role in the eventual liberation of their homeland from Japan.
Forced by determined Japanese and Korean anti-partisan units to abandon
Manchuria, the Communists sought the protection of the Soviet armed forces,
whose legal neutrality gave the Communists plenty of excuse to sit out the war.
Those Korean Communists who sought out their Chinese comrades in Yenan profited
from their military training with the Eighth Route Army, but conducted only
minimal operations against the Japanese army. The Koreans who rallied to the
Chinese Nationalists in Shanghai and then retreated to Chungking mustered only
3,000 indifferent soldiers. The Korean exile armies specialized in names ringing
with dreams of liberation. The forces with the Chinese Nationalists styled
themselves the Hanguk Kwangbokkun (the Korean Restoration Army) while the
Communists joined the predominately Chinese Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army,
a partisan force in Manchuria, or entered the First or Second Route Armies.
Keenly aware of the political vacuum in Korea, the exile leaders cultivated
their hosts, lobbied for help in Washington and Moscow, and husbanded their
resources for the struggle ahead. As the elite units of the Japanese armed
forces perished, the Koreans awaited the inevitable day of liberation.
Outside isolated rural
villages in central Korea the enterprising traveler can still find an occasional
pair of carved figures that look suspiciously to an American like totem poles.
They are changsung, the symbols of the dualistic relationship of good and evil
and a plea to the mystical forces of the universe to protect the village. Carved
and painted to represent a male spirit and a female spirit, the changsung do not
look entirely friendly, even to each other, but their power is supposed to work
in concert to protect the people. Like the changsung, the two Korean
revolutionary movements in 1945 needed each other as much as they hated one
another. In ideological terms they despised one another as only true-believers
can hate heretics. Yet they both shared a deep commitment to restore Korean
sovereignty and to lead the nation into the modem, post-colonial world. Their
own flaws and the accidents of history turned this hope into tragedy.
collapse of the short-lived Japanese empire in 1945 created a vacuum of
political power that extended from India through Southeast Asia and north along
the international date line to Japan itself. Nowhere were the former European
colonial powers or governments-in-exile or resistance movements prepared to take
power except in the most superficial sense. The politics of post-war Korea
should be understood within this crisis of legitimacy and succession, which
affected all of Asia. Wars of post-colonial succession and social revolution
became the rule, not the exception, although for the Koreans some special
conditions shaped their own civil war.
all of Asia, with the exception of Thailand, the war created revolutionary
conditions in which native political leaders sought to replace the European and
Japanese imperialists. In India, communal religious conflict spread through the
country between Moslems and Hindus, leading to partition and the creation of two
states, Indian and Pakistan. In Burma the non-Burmese hill tribes, who had
provided the fighting heart of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League, fought
each other (Communists versus non-Communists). Then, after the assassination of
Aung Sen, the national resistance hero, they fought a central government
established by the collaborationist Burmese. In Malaya the anti-Japanese
resistance, dominated by ethnic Chinese led by the Communist Chin Peng
reorganized to oppose the restoration of British-Malay rule in 1947.
pattern of political pause and renewed civil war repeated itself almost
everywhere in Asia. Within a year from the end of the war Indonesian guerrillas
had returned to the jungle to take up arms against the Dutch with the leadership
tilted slightly to the Moslem nationalists of Sukarno rather than the
Communists, but both could claim active resistance to the Japanese. In Indochina
the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Ho Chi Minh) survived Japanese repression while
the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dong fought itself into extinction with revolts against the
French and the Japanese, 1930-1945, which left the field to the Communists. The
Viet Minh, however, did not begin their war against the French until they could
be sure that weak French colonial forces would replace the Commonwealth and
Nationalist Chinese divisions that arrived to take the Japanese surrender in
1945. The anti-Japanese resistance in the Philippines, which included Americans
and profited from external support from General Douglas MacArthur's Southwest
Pacific Command, produced two post-colonial political elites, the americanistas
symbolized by Ramon Magsaysay and the Communist Hukbalahaps of Luis Taruc. In a
war of succession that went on from 1946 until the early 1960s, the
americanistas held a slight edge, largely through economic assistance and the
honored promise of Philippine independence in 1946.
China the final conflict between the Nationalists and Communists began before
the end of 1945 as the Communists rushed into the cities of, Manchuria and north
China to claim Japanese arms and to petition for Soviet military aid. Despite
the assistance of the U.S. Navy, which provided shipping' and two U.S. Marine
Corps divisions, the Nationalist army never really reached parity with its
principal opponent, the Fourth Field Army (Lin Biao). American assistance
propped up the Nationalist armies until 1949, but diplomatic negotiations with
the Communists and equipment and advisors for the Nationalist army could not
halt the Communist march south and the flight of the Nationalist government to
Taiwan. The first U.S. serviceman to die in combat with a Chinese Communist
patrol - a Marine - fell in northern China on May 21, 1946, not four years later
in Korea. Far to the south the Nationalist government sent a military expedition
to claim the right to govern Taiwan (Formosa), which had been annexed by Japan
in 1895 after its successful war with the Manchus. After enduring more
oppression from their new colonial masters, the Taiwanese rose in arms and mass
protests in February, 1947. They died by the thousands at the hands of the
Nationalist army and thus established a thirst for freedom from mainland Chinese
rule that does not discriminate between the vestiges of the Quomintang and the
claims of the People's Republic of China.
The experience of Korea stands in sharp contrast with other Asian nations, not because the Koreans did not seek liberation, but because they received it at such low cost. Nationalism throughout Asia had been forged and tempered by the fires of fighting the European imperialists, then the Japanese, and even themselves between 1937 and 1945, but in Korea the sheer weight of Japanese oppression and economic co-option had eliminated all but symbolic resistance. There is no Mahatma Gandhi, Aung Sen, Chin Peng, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, or Ramon Magsaysay in Korean history, so Korean claimants for power had to invent themselves as great national heroes - or allow foreign patrons to perform this service.
Perhaps if more Koreans had
fought and died between 1937 and 1945, fewer Koreans would have died in
1948-1953. Of course, thousands of Koreans died in World War II, but they did so
as part of the Japanese armed forces or as victims of American bombing of the
Japanese home islands. Dying as a participant in the Japanese war effort,
however unwilling, is not the same as sacrificing one's life and liberty in the
cause of national independence. Only a handful of Korean politicians could stake
a real claim to being resistance leaders. If there is any lesson in
post-colonial politics, it is that power grows out of a gun grasped by a
partisan leader who remains in his homeland and fights, as the shades of Jorno
Kenyatta, Josip Broz, Menachim Begin, George Grivas, and Houari Boumedienne can
If the self-defined elite of the Korean people had either been stunted by exile politics or survivalism within the Japanese colonial government and approved businesses, the people themselves had done little to prepare themselves for post-colonial self-rule except to cheer themselves hoarse for the Cause: "Dai Han Dok Nip Man Sei!" or "Long Live Korean Independence!" A lack of popular political consciousness need not be a permanent disability except that Korean political tradition stressed the ultimate responsibility of the people (especially farmers) to protest oppression, demand social justice, assert communal values, define moral righteousness, and maintain the bond between the Korean people and the spirits of the land and nature.
In its various forms -
Christian, para-Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, and animist - the minjung ideal
persists in Korean political culture. In a sense it is a variant of the western
concept of populism, but it carries a spiritual burden that transcends mere
politics and concerns itself with redemption and salvation. Minjung cannot be
divorced from the concept of han, the abiding truth that the fate of the Korean
people is to live in a state of sorrow and resentment. Needless to say, such
deeply imbedded faiths offer revolutionaries an unparalleled opportunity to
ignite significant portions of the people into political protest, whether the
grievances are real or imagined. Not since March, 1919 had the Korean people had
an open opportunity to rail against their oppressors and in September, 1945
those oppressors left Korea just as fast as they could find passage back to
Japan. Who would replace the Japanese as the targets of rage and
Measured by the
post-colonial politics of Asia, the Korean war began in September, 1945, and is
not yet finished. There is one Germany, one Vietnam, one China, and many
Yugoslavias, but there are still two Koreas. After the defeat of Japan, the two
Korean revolutionary movements raced home from exile and established two
competing "people's wars" or "wars of national liberation." In classical
Communist terms, which means the writings of Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh with a
fey Hispanic variant produced by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the concept of
"peoples war" helps explain the politics of postwar Korea - with one very large
exception. In Korea there were two revolutionary movements trying to replace the
theory a people's war progresses through three phases. The first is the period
of organization and political mobilization during which the revolutionary
vanguard creates a shadow government (at least at the local level) and forces
the most humble people into making political choices, voluntarily or coerced.
The goal of this phase is to create a broad foundation of popular support and
legitimacy for the revolution and an image of inevitable victory and
irreversible, fundamental changes in society. Bornagain politics, however, are
not enough. The revolutionaries must progress to a second phase (although the
organizational work continues) and that is the use of violence to destroy the
legitimacy of the existing social order. The most-hated representatives of
government are obvious targets: administrators, policemen, soldiers, and
tax-collectors. But even within the public service the death list expands to
include any representative of authority: teachers, social workers, public health
technicians, public works engineers, and mailmen. The proscribed occupations do
not end with salaried civil servants, but include any representative of
institutions that might challenge the revolution: social aristocrats, clergymen,
businessmen and bankers, foreign welfare workers, and heads of families, clans,
and villages. Although one might be tempted to brand Communism alone with such a
thirst for public service pogroms, it is well to remember that the Terror in
France and the American Revolution cast a very wide net before the birth of Karl
third and final phase of people's war brings the final victory and domestic and
international recognition of the revolution's success. The shadow government
enters the light (usually of the foreign media) as the only legitimate regime
within the country; it proves its right to govern ("the mandate of Heaven") by
fielding an army capable of defeating its opponents in conventional battles. It
finds patrons abroad, and it can borrow money and negotiate international
agreements for security and economic development. While it is easy to justify
such theory from the experience of the Soviets, 1919-1922, or the Chinese
revolutionaries, 1945-1950, it is instructive to recall that American patriots
bound themselves to France for exactly the same reasons, 1777-1783, and then
spent about twenty years attempting to cancel the commitment. For the
revolutionary leadership the tricky problem in this phase is not to exchange one
foreign master for another. For the Koreans the end of Japanese colonialism set
off two competing people's war, neither of which quite succeeded nor
War Memorial, sparkling white below Namsan, the mountain that defines downtown
Seoul, includes a long arcade with plaques that bear the names of the Republic
of Korea's honored war dead. The list begins with Liberation Day (August 15,
1945). Whatever Americans think, the Koreans know when their civil war began -
and it is not June 25, 1950. The periodization is not even determined by the
first American deaths. The first serviceman to die in the Korean War was Captain
Harry C. Symmonds, an advisor in the 5th Brigade, Korean Constabulary, who died
on October 25, 1948 of injuries from a jeep accident while on active operations
against Communist partisans near Masan. The first (and only) civilian victim of
terrorists was one of the most prominent and best-loved Americans in Korea,
Ethel Van Wagoner Underwood, the wife of the Rev. Horace H. Underwood, former
president of Chosim Christian (Yonsei) University. On the afternoon of March 17,
1948 two assassins burst into a meeting of a women's group at the Underwood
residence and demanded to see a Miss Mob, a prominent nationalist poetess. Mrs.
Underwood confronted the killers, one of whom shot her through the body, a
mortal wound. Three thousand Koreans attended her internment in the Foreigner's
Cemetery on the north bank of the Hangang near the Yanghwa bridge. Two Americans
would be lost among the thousands of Korean names on the plaques at the War
experience of the Korean people in World War II established the preconditions
for competing postwar revolutions by fracturing the bonds of family and
community already weakened by Japanese colonial rule. The Korean experience had
little to do with economic destruction. War-fueled prosperity and industrial
development produced indices of increased wealth and productivity that would
have pleased any developing nation; the coal and mineral mines, lumber
companies, factories, hydro-electric plants, and commercial fishing companies
increased productivity. Korea suffered virtually no physical war damage since
American bombers conducted only seven raids (five to lay mines off Pusan) at the
very end of the war. This development, however, did little to establish any
basis for an independent national economy.
Instead the Korean people were sucked into the very maw of the Japanese war effort and paid a price for their largely involuntary participation. First, farmers could not keep up with Japanese demands for rice, could not meet their debts for seedlings and fertilizer, and fell into a swelling number of tenant farmers or left the land for other work. Tenant-landlord disputes rapidly increased, fueled in part by the fact that Korean rice consumption per capita dropped by half at the same time rice production increased. In addition, the Koreans shared the Japanese wartime inflation, taxes, and infrastructure neglect. The Japanese handled rural unrest in a straightforward way: they drafted Koreans for war industries and sent over two million to Japan and some 700,000 into China and the Pacific to work on military construction projects. Thousands of Korean women "served" the Japanese army as captive prostitutes.
Despite conscription, the
Japanese accepted only 40,000 Koreans for actual military service, much of it in
either support units or in elite counter-guerrilla units in Manchuria. Koreans
within Japan organized their own underground political groups for postwar party
organization; the most numerous groups were rightist-revolutionary, but the
Communists had fewer factions and greater cohesion. With the war's end the
expatriate Koreans in Japan rushed home - more than a million to southern Korea
and an estimated 350,000 to northern Korea - to find a disrupted economy, a
swollen and underemployed population, and a volatile political environment.
Fleeing the Russian armies sent to occupy Korea above the 38th Parallel, more
than another million Koreans fled Manchuria and northern Korea.
rush to an independent Korea included a stampede of expatriate politicians who
sought some sort of government that would serve revolutionary goals: (1) to end
all forms of foreign domination, especially the economic and cultural oppression
of Japan; (2) to create a constitutional republic that would be a single Korean
nation; (3) to establish economic policies that would increase wealth, establish
higher agricultural production, improve internal communications by rail and
road, and create a balance between industry, extractive enterprises, and
agriculture; (4) to spur a Korean version of western modernization that would
not sacrifice communal values and would promote some more equitable distribution
of wealth and power; and (5) to win international recognition and economic
most immediate challenge was to form some sort of coalition that would present
the American and Russian occupiers, both of whom viewed the Koreans as not quite
allies nor enemies, with united political opposition. The foreign troops should
leave Korea as soon as the Japanese army and civilian population (almost a
million people) returned to the Home Islands and left their wealth behind.
Desperate for free passage home and to retain some leverage over the Korean
economic system, the Japanese governor-general turned over power to Yo Un-hyong,
a well-known nationalist and leftist-reformer, to form an interim government. Yo
accepted this responsibility, provided that the Japanese released all political
prisoners, on August 15, 1945, now Liberation Day in Korea. Throughout Korea the
national flag, the taegukki, appeared on buildings and mountain tops (including
Namsan) as if by magic.
Learning of Soviet and American plans to occupy Korea and of their vague commitment (the Cairo Declaration, November, 1943) to a free and unified Korea, Yo Un-hyong transformed his emergency Committee for the Preparation of National Reconstruction into a Korean People's Republic on September 6, 1945 with most power in the hands of People's Committees at the city and county (kun) level. The immediate challenge was to preserve some public order and to start a reform program of replacing all Japanese collaborators, nationalizing Japanese property, and passing laws that advanced women and the underclasses. The national governing "central committee" of the Korean People's Republic, however, still reflected the notion that one Korea should be guided by a wide-range of revolutionaries. The membership of the "central committee," which was largely determined by three left-revolutionaries (Yo, Ho Hon, and Pak Hon-yong), tilted toward a socialist vision of a new Korea. As published on September 6, the committee of fifty-five included thirty-seven men who had some sort of socialist political orientation, including twenty-one members of the reborn Korean Communist Party. Four men, including Kim Il-sung, represented exile Communist groups.
Only eight men could
definitely be identified with the evangelicals-capitalists, six of them members
or former members of the exile Korean Provisional Government. Five men - and
perhaps as many as eight - eluded categorization. Twenty-five members of the
committee had been political prisoners of the Japanese. Two days later Yo
announced a ten-man cabinet, headed by Dr. Syngman Rhee, still in exile in the
United States. Key members of the cabinet remained outside the country; Rhee did
not return until October 16, and Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik arrived in Seoul from
China a month later. In the meantime the U.S. XXIV Corps (Lt. Gen. John R.
Hodge) arrived in Seoul on 8 September, and the Soviet 25th Army (Col. Gen. Ivan
Chistiakov) occupied Pyongyang on August 26. The occupiers showed substantial
differences in their behavior, but the most important became American
vulnerability to Korean political pressure and the Soviets' absolute resistance
to any program that threatened control of their occupation zone.
almost three years (1945-1948) the two competing Korean revolutions established
geographic bases and separate governments on either side of the 38th Parallel,
but only as an interim step in eventually creating a unified Korean state. The
leaders also cajoled and coerced their patrons (the Soviet Union and the United
States) into maintaining economic and military ties with "their" Korea. The
Koreans themselves helped frustrate any agreement that would have created a
unified nation and a coalition government. Southern Koreans would not accept any
sort of joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. trusteeship agreement, and the Northern Koreans
could not tolerate a United Nations trusteeship. Whatever "center" or "moderate
faction" existed among Korean politicians - and it was never much of a force -
disappeared through violence, repression, and intimidation on both sides of the
38th Parallel. The differences were simply too personal and too ideological for
key strategy for the Korean political elite was to move from "oppositionists" to
the independent control of the governments of half of Korea. In southern Korea
the American military government tried to dampen popular protest (e.g. the
autumn harvest uprisings of 1946) through progressive "good government" and
"Koreanization" of the ministries it inherited from the Korean People's
Republic, which it did not recognize as legitimate. Lack of sympathy for the
south Korean left-revolutionaries, especially keen in General Hodge's case, did
not mean great happiness with the evangelicals-capitalists, many of whom would
have been quite comfortable in Cromwell's Commonwealth. Rhee tried to maintain a
personal aloofness from the messy business of Korean politics; he preferred the
course of personal influence upon the military government rather than create or
join a political party. His principal rival, Kim Ku, did the dirty work of
eliminating the opposition of every political coloration. Assassins linked to
Kim Ku's Korean Independence Party killed two successive heads of the Korean
Democratic Party and then Yo Un-hyong himself in 1947. (An Army lieutenant
murdered Kim Ku in 1949, and the assumption is that he did so with the
encouragement of someone in the Rhee government.) Although the Korean
Constabulary remained under effective American military direction, the Korean
National Police, assisted by the paramilitary youth associations directed by Yi
Pom-sok, another rightist-revolutionary, hounded the South Korean Workers Party
(the Communists) into underground opposition. American administrators became
simply advisors in August, 1947, and left the government altogether in 1948 with
the declaration of the Republic of Korea.
Displayed by the Soviets for
the first time on October 14, 1945 and named the secretary of the "northem
bureau" of the Korean Communist Party the next day, Kim Il-sung took less than a
year to eliminate or neutralize his northern rivals. An assassin killed the
leading Communist leader in northern Korea, and the Kim Il-sung faction (the
"Soviets") pushed many of the Yenan faction (Koreans who had served with the
Chinese Communists) into peripheral positions. The leaders of the northern
evangelical-capitalists (principally the revered Christian leader of Pyongyang,
Cho Man-sik) and the Ch'ondogyo sect disappeared into prison, fled south, or
survived in an anti-Communist underground that barely existed. Thousands of the
Koreans who fled to the south joined the ROK security services, rightist
political associations, and paramilitary groups, thus strengthening the
anti-Communist cause. Kim Il-sung's major problem then became dealing with the
southern Communists who fled north in 1947 and 1948.
In southern Korea the uneasy coalition of evangelicals-capitalists could agree on eliminating the left-center coalition of the Democratic National Front (Yo Un-hyong) and the South Korean Workers Party (Pak Hon-yong), but had grave difficulty fashioning a program for economic development and social justice. Some of the leadership, including Rhee, found accommodation easy with the Korean business leaders who had assumed control of Japanese nurtured and financed corporations or the surviving landlord class in the countryside. Deprived of access to northern electric power, coal, and minerals and with the economies of China and Japan in disarray, Korean entrepreneurs could barely survive; inflation and limited American aid made economic progress a dim dream.
Crimes against property were
epidemic; the U.S. Army Forces in Korea (USAFIK) could not stop massive
pilferage, and a black market flourished. Agricultural prices and wages could
not keep pace with the cost of living. Ravaged by rampaging Soviet troops and
stripped of assets as "Japanese reparations," businesses and farms in northern
Korea were in no better shape. Sovereignty for the Republic of Korea (August 15,
1948) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (October 12, 1948) occurred
at a time especially suited for the politicians of revolutionary violence.
second major phase of the Korean people's war of revolution and national
liberation began with the establishment of two competitive states north and
south of the 38th Parallel. It ended with a pause in the war of subversion and
partisan operations that had almost produced a Communist victory in 1948-49, but
had swung in favor of the Republic of Korea by the spring of 1950. The
terrorist-partisan war was not an even match. The South Korean Labor Party - and
the many other Rhee opponents who joined its ranks - had no counterpart in North
Korea, and the Kim Il-sung's security forces, progressively led by his personal
cadre and favored by the Russians, had no trouble stamping out any impulses of
rebellion that rose in the north. Although the civil war in South Korea slowed
economic recovery and added new grief to a people groaning under their
accumulated tragedies, the conflict eventually worked to strengthen the Rhee
regime, a paradoxical outcome in light of the fact that its superficial result
was quite the opposite.
Encouraged by labor and rural unrest that simmered throughout 1947, the South Korean Labor Party made one last attempt to prevent the formation of the Republic of Korea by staging a general strike and sporadic attacks on the police and economic targets in February-March, 1948. The continuing competition for power in South Korea and Russian intransigience convinced the U.S. State Department and General Hodge to surrender the idea of a Joint US-USSR commission on Korea and to turn to the United Nations for a new figleaf for withdrawal.
United Nations produced the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea
(UNTOK), which could provide independent testimony on just who was doing what to
whom. The UNTOK representatives found nothing very appealing about the Rhee
regime, but they received absolutely no cooperation from North Korea in the
matter of national elections or schemes for regimes of reconciliation and broad
representation. United Nations involvement did not thrill Rhee since he had no
more liking for European liberals than American liberals, but it gave his
government a degree of respectability in the international arena it sorely
lacked in 1948. For the Truman administration, passing some (if not all) of the
responsibility for Korea to the United Nations gave the appearance of principled
abandonment, yet left broad flexibility on handling Korean problems.
The failure of the general strike gave Pak Honyong and his immediate organizers pause, but they continued to plan for a general uprising sometime in the summer of 1948, depending upon how quickly they could gather arms, subvert the Korean National Police and the Constabulary, and organize partisan units throughout South Korea. On Cheju-do, always a hotbed of revolt, the island rebels ignored the broad schedule and started a guerrilla war in April, 1948, hoping to capitalize on popular resentment toward a repressive and corrupt governor and the incompetence and indiscipline of the island KNP and KC units.
After six months of vicious
and inept rural warfare, neither side could claim much advantage. The Cheju-do
revolt, however, became a national problem when the 14th Constabulary Regiment
mutinied during the process of moving to Cheju-do and set off a sympathetic
civilian uprising in Yosu and Sunch'on as well as some neighboring villages. The
southern coast of Korea (eastern Chollanam-do and western Kyongsangnam-do)
blazed with battles throughout October, 1948, but the urban rising died under a
determined Constabulary counteroffensive.
surviving rebels, however, established guerrilla bases in the Chiri, Odae and
Taebaek mountains, aided by two smaller mutinies in the Taegubased 6th Regiment
in November and December, 1948. Further assistance came in the form of refugee
southern Koreans who infiltrated back to the south as partisans. By mid-1949
Rhee faced a significant rural partisan force in five of his eight provinces.
Although both the Communists and the government forces widely misreported
losses, incidents with casualties ran around an average of 1,000 a month between
October, 1948 and October 1949, then jumped during the Winter Suppression
Campaign, 1949-1950. The partisan war took on additional dimension when in May,
1949 regular units of the North Korean border constabulary clashed with infantry
regiments of the South Korean army, as the Constabulary had been redesignated in
December, 1948. For a year units up to regimental size staged operations on both
sides of the border, focused principally on the Ongjin peninsula, the hills
north of Kaesong, and the mountains that surrounded Chunch'on, the provincial
capital of Kangwon-do, the gateway to the guerrilla bases in the Taebaek
As long as it survived, the Rhee regime could and did exploit the guerrilla war to its political advantage. In November, 1948, the National Assembly passed a draconian National Security Law that outlawed the Communist party and gave the security forces detention and judicial powers that made Western lawyers quake, but would have surprised no Asian. Although the National Security Law gave a veneer of legalism to the anti-left vendetta - for such it was, reciprocity for the horrors visited upon the Korean National Police and its families - the Rhee government did not ignore the rightist challengers. Earlier in the year (August, 1948), the Assembly had passed the National Traitor Law, which gave the government power to arrest, to deny public office, and to confiscate property from any Korean who had served the Japanese colonial government in a leadership position (broadly defined) and whose loyalty now seemed suspect.
The Korean National Police, for example, tried to use this law to purge the Korean army of its senior officers, the majority of whom had been junior officers in the Japanese and Manchukuo armies. Both laws and the general internal regulations of the KNP and Korean army allowed both organizations to purge their own ranks of suspected rebels. The Korean army rid itself of more than 4,000 officers and men, jailing about a thousand and executing around 200. The U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG), about 500 officers and men, formed a strong bond with the army's surviving senior officers to protect the army from Rhee and the police while it recruited itself up to 100,000 and worked on its training and equipment problems.
The border war raged in fact and rhetoric with the North Koreans holding a slight edge on the battlefield and the Rhee regime a slight edge in alarming its enemies and supporters with its belligerent talk of a "march north." Kim Il-sung did not need fiery words since he had a better army, advised by Russian line officers, armed with good Soviet weapons of World War Il vintage, and progressively reinforced with trained Korean soldiers released by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. In July, 1949, regular units of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA), including heavy artillery, replaced the border constabulary as the Communists' principal combatant force. Kim Il-sung also took control of the guerrilla movement. When Pak Hon-yong fled southern Korea in 1947, he and other southerners established the Kangdon Political Institute at Haeju, Hwanghae province, just across the border from the Ongjin peninsula.
institute trained leadership cadres and guerrillas for infiltration into the ROK
and for terrorism, sabotage, and espionage. In a major guerrilla campaign in the
summer of 1949 several thousand Haeju partisans crossed the border; although
many of them died early in their passage, the survivors bolstered the mountain
guerrillas and brought their strength to 3,000, thus keeping the structure alive
even when operations dwindled that winter. Kim Il-sung, however, could not
tolerate a separate power base for Pak Hon-yong, so he used his control of
Russian money and advisory personnel to close the institute and to establish
alternative partisan schools under his own proteges.
Il-sung's consolidation of power also shaped the half-hearted effort to keep
opposition to Rhee alive and active in the public-political sense. At Pak
Hon-yong's initiative, the northern communists called a conference at Pyongyang
in April, 1948 and invited southern politicians to attend, which Kim Ku and Kim
Kyu-sik and others did, in order to discuss peaceful unification. Without
significant political results, the Pyongyang conference discredited the southern
non-Communists who attended, a result then extended to the southern Communists
in a similar meeting at Haeju in August. When formed in June, 1949 the
Democratic Front for the Unification of the Fatherland, which included
twenty-six member groups and claimed a unified front against Japanese-American
neo-colonialism, functioned only as concealment for the reorganized (June, 1949)
Workers Party of Korea and its new chairman, Kim Il-sung. The DFUF claimed to
represent the anti-Rhee opposition throughout Korea, but its other function was
to distract any potential factional challengers to Kim within North Korea.
Rhee's warlike rhetoric,
echoed by some of his favored generals, disturbed the State Department enough
that it blocked KMAG's request in 1949-1950 for light tanks and improved medium
artillery for the Korean army. Part of the Truman administration's reluctance to
arm the Korean army for more than counter-guerrilla operations came from the
suspicion that Rhee would siphon off Mutual Defense Assistance Act (1949) aid
for personal and political aims and turn the army into a bulwark of political
repression. The fear had some foundation, but was also naive since the Korean
National Police and its para-military youth auxiliaries already had enough
resources for this "mission." To insure the quest for traitors in the army, Rhee
created the Army Investigative Command (which evolved into the Korean
Counterintelligence Corps) and placed it under the command of Brigadier General
Kim Chang-yong, a former sergeant-investigator in the Manchurian army and
notorious among his colleagues for his unrelenting search for Communist
subversives, broadly defined.
Brigadier General William L. Roberts, USA, chief of KMAG, argued, the arms he
requested had little to do with policing the civilian population and a great
deal to do with stopping an invasion. Roberts and his advisors felt confident
that ammunition rationing and their own influence would keep the Korean army on
the defensive. Even when the Truman administration approved increased aid to the
Korean army (no tanks, though), it could not obtain Congressional approval until
it tied Korean aid (which it wanted) to military assistance to the Chinese
Nationalist army on Taiwan (which it did not want). The result was that the
Korean army received $10 million in badly-needed assistance in March 1950, but
too late to help.
As Kim Il-sung pressed his argument with Stalin and Mao Zedong that the NKPA could conquer South Korea in a matter of a few weeks, the Truman administration twisted and turned away from any binding commitment to the Republic of Korea. It removed the last American tactical unit (a small regimental combat team) in June, 1949. Its internal studies and public pronouncements in late 1949-early 1950, the most famous Secretary of State Dean Acheson's National Press Club speech of January 12, 1950, stressed that the United States did not need Korea for "strategic purposes," a euphemism for advanced bases to deter or fight the Soviet Union in World War III. No one made an absolute disclaimer of interest, but cited a collective responsibility (presumably through the United Nations) to safeguard South Korea. Other political forces, however, were already at play. The political backlash for "losing" China made the Democrats reluctant to write off another Asian nation, especially one with an Americanized, militantly Christian elite, many of whom expressed political views far more liberal than Syngman Rhee's.
Even more powerful, if
expressed only in low voices, was the concern for future American influence over
Japan if Korea should go Communist. A bastion of conventional military threat
and subversion aimed at Japan, which already harbored a considerable
Japanese-Korean militant left, Korea could become a strategic asset for the
Soviet Union. Within the State Department, a pro-Japanese faction (John Allison,
Dean Rusk, John K. Emmerson, and John Foster Dulles) pushed aside the "Old China
Hands" and the "Europe Only" champions, headed by George Kennan. Key
influentials like Paul Nitze and Philip C. Jessup and even Dean Acheson himself
took Korea more seriously in the spring of 1950.
As Syngman Rhee understood, heightened American interest in the fate of the Republic of Korea did not necessarily improve the survival of the Rhee regime. >From his arrival in Seoul in 1945, he had survived assassination attempts and rumors of military coups; now his secret police and intelligence operatives heard that the U.S. Embassy might be considering covert action through his own army. He had done nothing to reassure the Americans since he had discouraged the elections scheduled for May, 1950, pleading the guerrilla threat to the voters. With maximum pressure from the State Department and the United Nations Commission on Korea and minimal partisan interference, the National Assembly elections (monitored by UNOK observers, however superficially) produced a stunning setback for Rhee and every other organized faction. Independents captured 126 of the 208 seats while "ruling party" candidates won only fifty-five, rightist oppositionists twenty-four, and the left (now virtually outlawed) three seats.
With his domestic powerbase
still in danger, Rhee courted foreign friends and was in turn cultivated in the
name of a new anti-Communist alliance that would include South Korea, Taiwan,
the Philippines, and, Japan. Rhee cultivated his friendship with General Douglas
MacArthur and welcomed John Foster Dulles on a visit to Seoul. He corresponded
feverishly with any American he thought could muster support in Congress or
set-up "off line" military assistance and counter- subversive aid. As the
monsoon season of 1950 approached, Rhee saw nothing ahead but a season of
discontent, but he did not expect war.
The third phase of the Korean War - the "real war" or conventional conflict of June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953 produced such mixed results for all the belligerents that judgments about the war's outcome are still marked by confusion and dismay. The maximum war aims of all the belligerents went a' glimmering in the war's first year. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea did not unify the nation by military conquest and popular uprising as it anticipated and persuaded Stalin to believe, too.
U.S. Eighth Army and the South Korean army wore down the NKPA in July-September
1950 even as they gave ground, sometimes quite hastily. After three months of
war the NKPA had lost about half its prewar trained soldier strength, in part
because it suffered the pain of continuous air assault by U.S. Air Force,
Marine, and Navy aircraft, assisted by the driest monsoon season in recent
memory. Shifting to the offensive on two fronts on September 15-19, 1950, the
United Nations Command drove across the 38th Parallel in October to unify Korea,
a new war aim framed in Washington and approved by the United Nations. Then the
People's Republic of China, which had considered intervention as early as July,
found a compelling set of advantages in intervening to rescue Kim Il-sung's
regime and to create a unified Communist Korea.
From its first clash with UNC forces in late October, 1950 until its fifth major offensive in May, 195 1, the Chinese People's Volunteer Force (the official name of the Chinese expeditionary force) could not overcome its own shortcomings in logistics, air support, and heavy weapons. Direct Soviet assistance in air interceptors and anti-aircraft artillery did not extend far from the Yalu River. The Chinese, too, caught "the victory disease" after three successful offensives took them past Seoul. The CPVF stalled in battle against a reformed, reorganized, and sobered Eighth Army, now led by Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgeway, its second commander. The Korean Army, expanded by a draconian national mobilization, also improved, in large part because MacArthur gave Ridgway complete control of all the field forces, something he had denied his predecessor, Lieutenant General Walton Walker.
American divisions profited from an infusion of tested combat commanders and
better-trained troops (many of them reservists with World War II experience) and
prodigious amounts of materiel as well as effective air support. Limited
offensives and a flexible response to the Chinese offensives of April and May
once again created conditions for a general offensive back across the 38th
Parallel in May and June, at which time the Soviets (speaking for their
embarrassed Asian allies) suggested the time had come for negotiations, which
opened in July, 1951 at Kaesong.
In superficial terms the start of negotiations, conducted by the military and held on the battlefield, seemed to mark the beginning of two years of "stalemate" and fruitless war. This assessment is much like similar judgments of the war on the Western Front, 1915-1917, three years of slaughter anchored in two mobile campaigns in 1914 and 1918. Although they may later have regretted the continued cost of the war in lives and treasure - and only those belligerents involved in a "total war," the two Koreas, would have accepted the cost as proportional to the aims - the warring nations had good reasons to continue the war or at least not to accept peace at any price. At little direct cost in lives and military capability, the Soviet Union could distract the United States from its NATO commitment, weaken or slow the buildup of American military power, pour more resources into its nuclear weapons development and especially into fusion warheads and intercontinental rockets, and maintain some leverage over the Chinese and Koreans as well as pressure the Japanese toward a more neutralist position. It did not attain all these goals, but it certainly sought them for understandable reasons of state.
Chinese leaders could not tolerate an anti-Communist regime - presumably under
American and Japanese influence - on their sensitive northern border. The
Chinese also entered the war in part to justify access to Soviet aircraft, air
defense weapons, heavy weapons for combined arms warfare, and the foundation of
its own defense industry through technology transfers from the Soviet Union.
Basing his argument on the mutual security and economic development treaty with
the Soviet Union of January, 1950, Mao Zedong finally squeezed an agreement from
Stalin over the aid program in October, part of his price for saving North
Korea. As long as the war went on, so did the Soviet military assistance
program, although the Russians extracted payments in raw materials and cash for
their military largesse.
In addition to its shared burden of saving face, the Truman administration also had a political-strategic agenda that a protracted war might serve, and most of the reasons had equal applicability to the Eisenhower administration when it came to office in early 1953. The sense of crisis the war created, especially the Chinese intervention, forged a bipartisan Congressional coalition that accepted defense budgets four times larger than the prewar budget (FY1950: $14 billion; FY1951: $48 billion as amended), passed legislation for compulsory military service that ensured large active and reserve forces for the Cold War, revitalized the defense industry with long-term subventions, and approved the dispatch of active duty forces to Europe that established air, ground, and naval forces within NATO that numbered almost 400,000 for the next forty years. The Korean commitment also showed that the United States would sacrifice the lives of Americans in the name of its alliances and the principle of collective security, something it had assiduously avoided until forced into two world wars.
Korean commitment also ensured that Japanese politics would shift to the right
and toward a peace treaty and mutual security treaty (1960). American wartime
military spending in the Japanese economy, 1950-54, provided much needed
economic stimulus to Japanese producers of goods and services. Although the
American public soured on the war in 1952, its ire focused on the Democratic
party (especially the President and Secretary of State) and not the concept of
the Korean intervention itself. It accepted Eisenhower's promise "to go to
Korea" as a pledge to end the war even by escalation if necessary, but Americans
did not want to settle for less than their initial war aims, an independent
Republic of Korea.
The American prerequisites for a satisfactory armistice also served the needs of the Rhee regime, which included long-term military assistance to an enlarged army (in fact, four times its 1950 prewar strength), a capable navy and air force, and a continued American military presence. The conditions for the last requirement proved contentious and a source of difficult negotiations between the United States and Korea in 1952-1953. The Americans argued that the United Nations commitment was enough, but Rhee wanted a separate bilateral mutual security alliance to protect South Korea (and him) from some future United Nations action that the United States Congress might not control or support. As part of his price for accepting an armistice and a divided Korea, Rhee finally managed to squeeze from the Eisenhower administration a treaty he probably could not have gotten from Truman and Acheson. Again, Rhee profited from John Foster Dulles' obsession with America's future in Japan and his commitment to aiding the Chinese Nationalists and anti-Communist Vietnamese.
Rhee turned in a virtuoso
performance, especially when he trampled the constitution in 1952 to ensure his
own reelection, not possible until a constitutional reform. In the process, he
used parts of the Korean army and police outside of much American influence to
cow the National Assembly and his street opponents. Again he failed to bend to
threats of a coup (Operation Everready) or a cutoff of economic assistance,
gambling that he could retain his mantle of national wartime leader and staunch
anti-Communist nationalism. He recognized an essential truth: the Americans
needed him as much as he needed them.
Rejected as essential to the American defense of its Pacific glacis before 1950, three years later Korea appeared important in the growing web of American commitments to mainland Asia (e.g. Indochina) and off-shore bastions (e.g. Taiwan), especially since Korea could serve as the combat outpost line that protected Japan from both China and Russia. Of course, there is nothing like the investment of 36,914 American lives (the adjusted figure of 1995) to give a place strategic significance. The investment of lives notwithstanding, the strategic environment did give Korea more significance. Since the U.S. armed forces had already deployed in force to Korea and Japan, they might as well develop postwar missions that would keep the forward-deployed forces on the postwar troop list. (No responsible service chief is ever happy to see overseas units slated to return to the United States since such a decision usually results in abolition.) Did Korea really have any military significance?
The answer is
"affirmative." It could contribute to the air defense system for north Asia, and
it could become an important post for intelligence activities targeted on
Beijing and Vladivostok. Access to Korean naval bases made control of the
Straits of Tsushima marginally more effective. Ironically, the expansion of the
U.S. armed forces made it possible and reasonable to integrate Korea into a
north Asia defense concept that then made the U.S.-Korean military relationship
take on a life of its own.
Although the American and Chinese interventions - and the surreptitious Russian limited participation, a rerun of the Soviet "commitment" to Republican Spain - produced an international war, the Korean War remained an intense ideological struggle for the Koreans and, for different reasons, their American and Chinese patrons. At stake were issues of "moral right" and legitimacy, the emperors' new words of Cold War conflict, but also deadly serious business for those people who happened to be caught in a "total war."
Korean war was not new in this respect. For example, the New Englanders who had
fought and died for Louisbourg did not thrill at its return to France in 1748 as
part of a global peace settlement between France and Great Britain. Nor did the
Shawnees and Creeks rejoice at the Treaty of Paris (1815) that brought an end to
the "indecisive" War of 1812, but ended their tribal life east of the
Mississippi. In Korea, the status of the prisoners-of-war became the focal point
of disagreement between the military negotiators through almost a year and half
of continued warfare along what became the Demilitarized Zone, another
imaginative Cold War euphemism. The roots of the problem remained in the recent
memory of POW status in World War II and the outmoded assumptions of the Geneva
Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war had an inalienable right to return to their native land at the end of hostilities. But what if they didn't want to return? In the case of United Nations Command prisoners in the hands of the Chinese and North Koreans, the number of non-repatriates was not large, 22 Americans and Europeans and 325 Koreans. Even the 565 Americans who were investigated for acts of treason, collaboration, and other forms of criminal behavior in captivity chose to take their chances with their own homeland rather than to seek refuge elsewhere. For the Koreans and Chinese who had (for whatever reason) entered the United Nations Command prisoner of war system, repatriation became literally a matter of life or death. For the Koreans, their status reflected the vicious nature of the civil war and its repression. Koreans might be northerners impressed into the NKPA who did not want to return to the DPRK where they faced sure death for class and religious reasons.
Koreans caught south of the
38th Parallel fell into several groups: Communists or anti-Rhee activists who
had either joined the NKPA or fought as guerrillas; young men impressed into the
NKPA after June, 1950 who had no desire to be "repatriated" to a state they did
not acknowledge; and civilian "internees" of indeterminate loyalty to the ROK or
victims of simply bad luck. Having returned Slav and Baltic soldiers serving in
the Wehrmacht to Soviet custody after World War II and thus dooming them to
death or years of vocational training in the gulags, Harry S. Truman and the
American military had no stomach for a repeat of such betrayal.
The first reckonings on the numbers of POWs held by both sides and available for repatriation sent shock waves through the delegations at Panmunjom. The Communists claimed to hold only 7,142 South Korean soldiers of the 65,000 missing in action; they claimed that the others had been "released at the front," which might mean anything from being dragooned into the North Korean army to "release" from life itself. For the American armed forces the arithmetic proved no less distressing. To the best of its ability Far East Command estimated that the American armed forces had around 8,700 missing in action (as of December, 1951), yet the Communists claimed to hold only 3,198 American servicemen. Survivors of the twin disasters of 1950 knew that many more men had fallen into enemy hands, and hundreds had already been found murdered by their captors. One war crimes investigator stated for the press that he believed that more than 5,000 GIs had been executed by the North Koreans or had died of maltreatment of a criminal nature.
Even if they proved
completely false - and they did not - such sensational estimates made
involuntary repatriation politically volatile. On the other side, the Communists
had their own concerns. United Nations Command might know how many prisoners it
held (around 132,000), but it did not really know who would resist repatriation.
An early, incautious estimate put the number of likely repatriates at 116,000,
but a later and more careful estimate reduced this figure to 70,000. For the
captured Chinese, for example, the first estimate put the repatriates at about
two-thirds of the total prisoner population (20,578), but a 1952 revised
estimate cut this figure in half, which meant that only one in three of the
ideologically pure Chinese soldiers wanted to return to the People's Republic of
China. Such a lack of enthusiasm for repatriation clearly stained the image of
Mao Zedong's people's paradise, especially since the non-repatriates wanted to
settle in fascist Formosa. The Communists were also loath to admit that so many
of their soldiers had fallen into UNC hands.
issue of war crimes further complicated repatriation. United Nations Command
held in custody hundreds of Koreans who had confessed or been identified by
survivors as the murderers of GIs, ROK soldiers, and Korean civilians. UNC judge
advocates had prepared triable cases under the war crimes precedents of World
War II, the Geneva Convention, and other codes. The Communists, on the other
hand, had pressured (to the point of extreme torture and psychological assault)
American airmen into confessing to bombing civilians and delivering
bacteriological warfare vectors. In addition to threatening to hold these
"criminals" for public trial for Third World audiences, the Chinese shared the
aviation POWs and any other captured technicians with the Soviets, who set up a
joint technical intelligence center in Mukden, Manchuria, to quiz the prisoners
on American aviation development, air defenses, communications, and radar
measures and countermeasures. Could these special POWs be saved, even if it
meant sparing murderers and accepting the fact that the Communists would never
make a full accounting of the allied POWs who had died or disappeared in
sum, the matter of the POWs was serious business in which both sides had much to
lose or gain, something the Communists and the South Koreans recognized much
more quickly than the American political leadership. Anyone who had any exposure
to the POW camps on Koje-do or Cheju-do, both islands also awash with refugees,
understood that while UNC might meet Red Cross standards of treatment, the POWs
themselves ruled the camps with mob violence, murder, arson, and riots
throughout much of 1951-1952. Creating any incident that embarrassed the UNC
guard force or disrupted the screening of non-repatriates became the hardcore
resistors' mission; Korean and Chinese organizers actually allowed themselves to
be captured, and their agents had little trouble hiding among the refugees and
smuggling information and key supplies. Both islands, moreover, had problems
with Communist partisans and terrorists as did the major hospital camps on the
mainland near Pusan. The POWs might have lost their conventional weapons, but
they were still part of the war.
While the armistice negotiations festered on with the POW issue the largest running sore, both sets of enemies found some political advantage in the continued war. On the battlefield UNC and the combined NKPA-CPVF did more than just spar over some disputed outpost, but tried to find ways to inflict painful casualties on each other in what became an artillery war that more than matched the cascade of shells on the Western Front. Although United Nations Command never mounted more than limited operations, executed by individual divisions, the Communists staged major offensive actions in October-November 1952 and July 1953. In both cases part of Communists' goal was to punish the ROK army for getting bigger and better, the other a preemptive offensive designed to prevent UNC from withdrawing crack divisions into theater reserve where they might become available for Inchon II, a potential corps-sized amphibious envelopment seriously discussed within Eighth Army in 1951, but not in 1952.
Communists wanted to take no chances, given their weakness in air and naval
strength. They reinforced their forces (several divisions) in Hwanghae Province,
just south of Pyongyang, the major operating area for the UNC partisans
stationed on islands off North Korea's western coast. The Communists even
recaptured some of the islands until turned back by UNC naval and air forces.
The partisans also served as cover for specialized UNC special operations forces
who collected signals intelligence, raided the mainland for enemy equipment and
high value POWs, and rescued downed fliers. Behind UNC lines Communist partisans
continued to strike at truck convoys, the railroads, and isolated military
posts. At the height of the fighting in 1951-1952 the Korean army committed two
full divisions against the guerrillas (Operation Ratkiller), which was still in
progress in reduced form in 1953.
Although the evidence remains murky on just who planned to do what to whom in 1952, both Kim Il-sung and Syngman Rhee believed they were the targets of assassins and conspirators. Neither had a free hand with their perceived enemies since the Communist "conspirators" had Chinese and Russian patrons with the exception of the Pak Hon-Yong faction, which became the first to feel Kim's wrath in 1953. In retrospect, Kim doesn't appear to have been in much danger, given his hold on the army and police, but his genuine lack of legitimacy as a national hero and his real status as a Russian protege gave him plenty of cause to be nervous. Syngman Rhee had a different problem: the expectation of part of Korea's political elite and much of the State Department that he should share power, punish corruptionists, and face his real economic problems. Rhee did not relish cooperation.
slowed reconstruction by pressing for an unrealistic won-dollar exchange rate
while his printing presses ran amok and inflation soared; Koreans paid in
dollars by American contractors (from humble handymen to the Chung family
construction empire) prospered while farmers and many others (including the
officer corps) struggled to support their families. In 1953 Rhee found his own
solution to the POW problem by ordering his provost marshal and military police
to organize the "breakout" of 27,000 Koreans whose loyalty had been sufficiently
established. Infuriated by Rhee's obstinate behavior and resistance to an
armistice, State Department officers and economic assistance administrators
railed against Rhee, but "the old man" charmed the U.S. Army, cultivated his
political agents in Washington, and worked the press like an American city boss.
His opponents faded to the edges of resistance in 1953, which gave him enough
confidence to accept the armistice while keeping his "march north" rhetoric
aflame. Difficult in war, Rhee promised to be no less so in peace.
In one sense, of course, the Korean war did not end in 1953, but simply shifted into another type of intense competition in which military preparedness played a major role. Without producing a summary of all the warlike acts the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea have committed on one another since 1953, it seems safe enough to say the regimes have reverted back to the second phase of People's War in which the focus is upon subversion, terrorism, sabotage, and economic warfare. It has been a war much like that conducted between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China over exactly the same period.
However, distorted - even betrayed - the revolutionary dreams of 1945 might be, the competing revolutions still stand in sharp contrast to one another. Beggared by the collapse of support from the Soviet Union and China, the Democratic People's Republic struggles in The Brave New World after Kim Il-sung, who reached his final apotheosis in 1994. Only its desperate attempt at security juiche through nuclear weapons gives the DPRK any claim to world attention, which it parlayed into fuel and food assistance from the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
citizens of the Republic of Korea are rich beyond imagination, now ranked among
the top ten nations in per capita income. Its political system, distribution of
wealth, level of public services, and environmental quality may not meet the
most exacting western standards, but South Korea is one of the few post-colonial
success stories in the last fifty years. Although the war probably cost the
lives of two million or more Koreans in both states and destroyed more than half
the national wealth, the natural resilience and doggedness of the Korean people
survived the division of the country, a product of the end of World War II.
Remembered and understood, the story of the war of 1945-1954 remains a
historical watershed for the Korean people and all those who claim to be their
author wishes to thank the Mershon Center, The Ohio State University, and the
Korea Foundation for financial support and appreciates the critical and
linguistic assistance of Dr. Horace G. Underwood and Dr. Mark C. Monahan, Yonsei
University; Dr. Kim Taeho, Korean Institute of Defense Studies; and Dr. Donald
N. Clark, Trinity University, San Antonio, TX.