Lessons of the Korean War

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.  This bloody and brutal war killed nearly 4 million people and laid waste to cities, towns and villages across the Korean peninsula. It resulted in the lasting division of the once proud and unified country of Korea.  Although the continuous fighting ended in 1953, hundreds of thousands of troops continue to confront each other even today across a highly fortified buffer zone (DMZ) in the middle of the peninsula, making Korea one of the most militarized places on earth.  Many thousands of Korean families continue to be divided on either side of the border with no hope of seeing their loved ones.

The Korean War was waged primarily to further the aims of US imperialism to establish itself as the world hegemon and to try and contain the growing influence of socialism and communism, in the period immediately following World War II.  However US imperialism, with its control over means of propaganda on a global scale, has always made out that the cause of the war was that ‘communist North Korea’ invaded ‘democratic South Korea’.  They make out that the US, as part of the United Nations, sent in troops to defend ‘democracy’ in South Korea and beat the invading communist forces back.  But the real truth about who was responsible for the War and who was responsible for the terrible suffering that it caused can be understood by looking at the facts of the War and the circumstances in which it took place.

Korea had been a unified and independent country for more than a thousand years till the 20th century.  However, in 1910 a rising aggressive Japan invaded and occupied the country.  When Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, in August 1945, the Korean people expected to recover their independence.  This had also been accepted by the Allied powers, including the US and the Soviet Union, in the last stages of the War.  As one of the Allied powers neighbouring Korea, Soviet troops moved into Korea to accept the surrender of Japan’s forces there.  Immediately, US troops in Japan landed in Korea to block any further Soviet advance.  American officials arbitrarily drew a line at the 38th parallel in the middle of the country and declared that everything south of that line was under American authority. Within a short time, this line became a militarized border, and Korean people were not allowed to cross it without permits.

In the meantime, in the wake of the collapse of Japanese authority, patriotic people’s committees sprang up all over Korea to take charge of affairs. The US authorities refused to recognize the people’s committees or the People’s Republic of Korea that had been set up under the leadership of anti-colonial fighters and communists.  To delay Koreans gaining independence in conditions which would result in Korean communist and other patriotic forces coming to power, the US proposed that the United Nations establish a ‘trusteeship’ to allegedly guide the Koreans towards independence.  Against this delay in recognizing Korean independence, and against the division of their country, masses of Korean people rose up repeatedly against the US military occupation authorities from 1946 to 1948.  This included a major uprising in Jeju island in 1948, which was brutally suppressed by the combined forces of the US and its Korean henchmen, many of whom had served the Japanese colonial authorities.  Most of the major uprisings were in the southern part of the country.  A US-Soviet Joint Commission was formed to try and resolve the problem.  In September 1947, the Soviet delegate in this Commission, Terentii Shtykov, proposed that both Soviet and US troops withdraw and give the Korean people the chance to form their own government, but the US would not agree to this proposal.

In May 1948 the US went ahead and arranged a trumped-up election in the southern part of Korea to bring to power there its lackey, the rabid reactionary Syngman Rhee.  This election was opposed by both the Soviet Union and many political parties and leaders in the south who boycotted it.  However, the US got the recently formed United Nations which it manipulated and controlled to declare Rhee’s government as the ‘legitimate government’ of the ‘Republic of Korea’.  The US formally handed over power to Rhee, though it continued to maintain a heavy military presence there.  Thereafter, in September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was established in the north, with Kim Il-sung as its premier.  Soviet troops withdrew from the north in 1948.

From 1948 to 1950, clashes continued to take place along the 38th parallel dividing north from south.  Also, major uprisings such as the Yosu uprising continued to take place in the south, which were ruthlessly suppressed by the military and paramilitary forces of the new regime.  Anyone suspected of being a communist or sympathizer, including their families, were brutally killed and tortured.  The extent of killings and human rights abuses in the south were hushed up for decades by the US and South Korean regimes.  However, in the last couple of decades, painstaking efforts have been made by the governments and citizens of South Korea to document and expose these crimes, which are now public knowledge.

Finally, in June 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel and pushed into the south to try and reunify the country.  Some of the worst killings of the war were committed by the US army as it retreated in great haste.  The most notorious of these was the No Gun Ri massacre, where hundreds of unarmed people, mainly women and children, who were trying to escape the fighting and took shelter under a railway bridge, were repeatedly bombed and strafed by the US 7th cavalry.  The US then launched “Operation Chromite” and landed huge American forces on the peninsula on 15 September.  When the US-led troops were on the verge of pushing back over the 38th parallel, the newly established People’s Republic of China came to the aid of the North Korean forces in October.

After this, the ground warfare in Korea resulted in a stalemate.  The fighting was eventually ended, not by a peace treaty, but by a temporary armistice, on 27 July 1953.  However, the period from 1950 to 1953 saw some of the worst bombing of civilian targets by the US air force, resulting in a higher ratio of civilians killed in the Korean War compared to even World War II or the later Vietnam War.  Approximately 12 to 15% of the population of North Korea lost their lives. The US launched the use of napalm bombs that led to terrible suffering and lifelong disfigurement of its victims, including those who survived.  That this ‘scorched-earth policy’ was a deliberate strategy to make the Korean people suffer can be seen in the words of the US commander, General Douglas MacArthur.  “Every installation, facility and village in North Korea”, he declared, “now becomes a military and tactical target”.  And to General Stratemeyer of the US Air Force he reiterated: “Burn if you so desire.  Not only that, Strat, but burn and destroy as a lesson any of those other towns that you consider of military value to the enemy.” (Taewoo Kim, “Limited War, Unlimited Targets”, Critical Asian Studies 44:3 (2012), pp.480, 482). In the final stages of the war, the US military resorted to another evil strategy – that of bombing the dams in North Korea.  The idea was not only to literally send thousands of people to watery graves, but to destroy the North Korean agricultural economy and starve the people there.

Thus, in the Korean War, the real character of the US as the new imperialist superpower in the modern era emerged clearly.  The War in fact gave a powerful boost to the development of the military-industrial complex in the United States.  It marked the beginning of the development of a network of permanent US military bases stationed all across the globe.  The characteristics of this new superpower, which cold-bloodedly rained napalm bombs on hapless civilians, suppressed popular forces in other countries, and turned whole countries into wastelands, while all the time talking of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ – these were revealed in full force during the Korean War and the run-up to it.  These remain the distinctive features of US imperialism.  They were again revealed in the Vietnam War, and then again in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and other places.  The peoples of the world must draw the correct lessons from the Korean War and recognize that US imperialism is the main danger to the independence, sovereignty and unity of countries.

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