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Issue #1515      24 August 2011

The Korean War: 1950 – 1953

The Coldest Winter, America and the Korean War

by David Halberstam

The problem with mainstream western journalists writing history is that they tend to think they “know what readers want” and therefore use dumb stereotypes to create “interest”. David Halberstam is no exception. The sub-title says it all: his focus is on American involvement and the heroics or otherwise of US troops and generals in what is often called the “forgotten war”: Korea. Stripping bare Halberstam’s agenda, the US empire counts most because it was the power supporting capitalism. The question begs throughout: what about the Koreans? What were they thinking? And why does this “forgotten war” continue to fray the nerves of us all, with confrontationist “incidents” threatening an end to armistice on the Peninsular every day?

Division at the 38th Parallel

One of the seminal events glossed over by Halberstam was the original division of North and South Korea in 1945. Arguably this was one of the most unnecessary carve-ups in world history.

The Truman administration was taken aback by two startling developments in August 1945. One was the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, on the very day (August 9) promised at both the Teheran and Yalta Conferences i.e. exactly three months after the defeat of Hitlerite Germany. The second was the lack of immediate and total surrender by Emperor Hirohito after the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9), which the Americans thought would be automatic after the horror of atomic power was displayed.

The Japanese had sought “Terms for Surrender” on August 10, but this had happened before and was generally perceived as a stalling procedure to allay what was always on the table: unconditional surrender.

The fact was that the Japanese military junta still felt they could defend the Japanese mainland as long as the Kwangtung Army, over a million strong and stationed in Manchuria at the time, had the capacity to fight. This capacity rapidly diminished with a mightily successful Russian pincer attack and after a few days fighting it was clear that the Soviets were advancing far more rapidly than anyone had anticipated. What’s more, an airborne drop of Soviet troops in northern Korea to cut off any Japanese retreat into the peninsular meant that the communists were in a far better tactical position to occupy the whole of Korea before the Americans arrived.

Contrary to US propaganda in Wikipedia, there had never been any agreement at Potsdam to divide Korea. The whole matter of Korea was still up for discussion. Indeed, it was still quite feasible to have a joint occupation of the country, as in Austria, until an agreed timetable for independence was agreed.

Instead the US wanted, even at this early stage, to “contain communism” and to establish a “toehold” in Korea for purely strategic reasons. The Joint Chiefs of Staff locked General Charles Bonesteel and Colonel Dean Rusk in a room on August 14 (the Emperor Hirohito would rather ambiguously call for peace and cessation of hostilities the next day, August 15) to find a “border”, some “acceptable solution” to expanding Soviet power in the region. They unilaterally came up with the 38th Parallel, demanding US control of the south and simultaneously denying Stalin’s request for Russian troops in Hokkaido, to share the occupation of Japan. Stalin agreed, without argument. Why?

The Soviet position

Stalin’s cooperation in the Asian theatre at the end of World War II was generous, to say the least. On August 15, when the ceasefire was called, (in reality, many Japanese units in Manchuria and Korea kept fighting), the nearest US troops were 600 miles away from Korea, in Okinawa. Stalin had the right to make a stand over Hokkaido, because this had been a Russian claim from the very start, from a powerful ally in the anti-fascist war.

There were several factors weighing down the Politburo’s thinking, however. One was the enormous rebuilding that was currently underway within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe itself, enormously costly and demanding of manpower. There were also ticklish situations arising out of the chaos of Europe at the time, including the stand-offs over Greece and Poland and the occupation of Germany and Austria. Stalin’s preoccupation was in the establishment of states friendly or neutral towards the Soviet Union so that another Armageddon like the one just experienced would never happen again.

Politically, it must have been profoundly difficult to convince the Russian people, a people who had just suffered the most horrendous loss of 20-30 million lives, to then send nearly two million soldiers across seven time zones to engage in yet another war against a remote and deadly enemy, and for minimal gain. Whereas the Americans had lost 100,000 men in the Pacific in the years since December 1941, the Soviets lost 12,000 in a single week.

Despite claims to the contrary, the use of atomic bombs on civilian targets by the US must have had a stunning effect upon the Politburo (indeed, the whole world). It would surely have caused the Soviet leaders to stop and consider their position and to act cautiously. On the other side, there is no doubt that the acquisition of nuclear power emboldened the bellicose stance of the Right in US politics, and urged Truman to play “hard ball” with their previous ally.

For their part, based upon the evidence, it is not hard to appreciate that both Roosevelt and Stalin had a genuine belief that there could be some form of “peaceful coexistence”, even productive cooperation, after World War II was over. In 1945, at least, Stalin still held the conviction that this was possible and even desirable.

Finally, the Soviets must have been sanguine about a friendly state emerging from post-colonial Korea, no matter who occupied which portion of the country. The capitalist class were tainted by collaboration with the Japanese (don’t they always “act pragmatically”?), and a strong left-wing independence movement existed at the ground level.

The situation in Korea, 1945-50

Prior to the arrival of US troops on September 8, steps had already been taken by Koreans to establish a transitional government towards national unity and independence. In the north of the country, Soviet commander General Chistiakov had moved swiftly to round up Japanese troops and police, dismiss the colonial administration, both Japanese and local collaborators, and replace them with loyal (usually socialist) Koreans. He also heralded wholesale land reform and the end of feudalism.

Below the 38th Parallel the incumbent Japanese Governor General, one General Abe, handed over the government in Seoul to Yo Un Hyong, in the hope that Yo could guarantee the safety of the 900,000 Japanese stranded on the peninsular. Yo was a leftist social democrat who immediately set up the “Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence” (CPKI) as well as “Peoples’ Committees” to take over the administration and organise a transitional government.

By September 6 the CPKI could announce a new provisional government for the whole of Korea: it contained representatives from Left and Right including Syngman Rhee (Chairman), Yo Un Hyong (Vice Chairman) as well as a range of cabinet posts including Defence, filled by none other than Kim Il Sung. It was to be called the “Korean Peoples’ Republic”, and without doubt, it would have commanded the support and respect of the vast bulk of the Korean people had elections been held anytime in 1945. Unfortunately, many of those named as leaders of the KPR had not been consulted, and their cooperation could not be guaranteed.

Already the previous Japanese rulers were alarmed by the popularity and militancy of the CPKI, and they began to urge repression of the new movement and the rapid arrival of US power to “restore order”. When General Hodge arrived on September 8, he was already convinced that the CPKI was a communist conspiracy directed from Moscow. Supported by US troops, the Japanese colonial administration was restored, in the midst of loud Korean protests and outrage. From Japan, General Douglas Macarthur ordered Hodge to treat Koreans less like enemies and more like a “liberated people”. Subsequently the more obvious Japanese at the top were sacked, but most of the police remained as right-wing collaborationist thugs, and the Japanese were retained as “consultants”.

There followed a period of assassinations: practically all the leftists and communists associated with the CPKI were killed, including Yo Un Hyong himself. Massive protests, civil unrest and strikes ensued, culminating in the Autumn Uprising of 1946, in which police were attacked by angry mobs and killings occurred on both sides. The US administration responded by imposing martial law and banning strikes.

On April 3, 1948, a mass uprising of workers and leftist soldiers occurred in South Korea and was answered with brutal violence: an estimated 60,000 protestors were massacred by South Korean police, called the “Jeju Massacre”. Less than six months later, the US installed an anti-communist government, the Republic of Korea (ROK) in Seoul, headed by Syngman Rhee. As in Germany, it was the Americans who first set up a separate state as a “buffer” against communism. Weeks later, the Soviets supervised elections for the newly formed Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK): it was to be based in Pyongyang and led by Kim Il Sung.

In his account of this period, Halberstam prefers to avoid the complexities of Korean politics and slate the blame for the poor situation in South Korea on the personality clash between Hodge and Macarthur. Macarthur was distracted by Japan (he rarely, if ever visited Korea), and Hodge really had little knowledge or experience of Asiatic culture – simple, really.

The two leaders

Halberstam defines the differences between North and South Korea through personality analysis. Significant space is devoted to the biographies of Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung to explain their later political ideologies.

When Syngman Rhee’s gentrified parents moved to Seoul he ventured beyond a study of the classics to that of English. He was soon converted to Christianity (Methodism) and became an avid pro-Western “democrat/moderniser”. The youth was imprisoned for his anti-government activities, but upon his release in 1905 he headed for Washington, where he became a “coat-tugger” for Korean independence. He was educated at Harvard and Princeton, was familiar with several US presidents, and was a protégé of China’s Guomindang leader, Chiang Kai-shek.

This last connection led to his sudden rise to prominence. Once the 38th parallel issue had been resolved, Macarthur needed someone to “…control those mobs” in Korea. He asked Chiang for a suitable candidate, and Chiang nominated Syngman Rhee: he was pro-Western, Christian, fanatically anti-communist and a rabid nationalist, and despite being out of Korea for most of his life, was still known locally. He was a typical American choice, and parachuted into the leadership above other more native candidates.

Kim Il Sung was born Kim Song Ju in a peasant village in northern Korea in 1912, two years after the Japanese had fully colonised the Korean peninsula. Their exploitation and repression of Korean culture was so onerous that hundreds of thousands of nationalistic Koreans, like the Kims, emigrated north into Manchuria. There, the boy was educated in Chinese and politicised, eventually joining a communist youth group and being imprisoned for his troubles. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, he became a guerrilla fighter under the nom de guerre “Kim Il Sung” – a name that had Robin Hood connotations for most Korean patriots.

Halburstam is at least prepared to concede that the detractors who denied any guerrilla service by Kim, were wrong. He went with the evidence, which showed some ten years of continuous struggle, first alongside the “Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army” under Chinese general, Yang Jingyu.

Kim proved himself an able commander of his unit of Korean troops, and even occupied a town in northern Korea and held it for several days – no mean feat in an area swarming with Japanese pursuers. The Imperial Army’s pursuit was thorough and relentless: they offered local peasants money for information, or death for non-cooperation. Guerrilla warfare at this time was difficult, fraught with danger, and offered little reward: victory seemed impossible.

This is the first of a three part review.

Next week: Into Soviet territory  

Next article – Of torture and tyrants

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