Nationalism and Communism in Korea.
I. Background to 1945.
1. Geography, Population, Strategic Importance.
Together, the two Koreas cover an area of 85,286,000 sq. miles, or about the size of
Minnesota. The total population is about 60 million, of which 20 million live in North Korea
and 40 million in South Korea. The two states are divided by a border running roughly along
the 38th parallel.
Strategically, the area forms a bridge not only between northeast China and Japan, but
also between the Soviet Far East and Japan.
2. History and Culture to 1910.
Korea has existed as a state since approximately 190 B.C., but was not unified until
668 A.D. It was also ethnically homogeneous. Therefore, a divided Korea, as it has existed
since 1945, is as much an anomaly as Germany and Vietnam used to be. Of course, the
unification of Germany in 1990 resulted in a free country, while Vietnam still has a communist
For most of its history, Korea was under predominantly Chinese political influence,
although this influence was generally benign. While Confucianism dominated Korean culture,
the social structure differed from China because Korea not only had a hereditary elite of
landowners and scholars, recruited from the aristocracy - which eliminated upward mobility
through education on the Chinese model - but also an agrarian bureaucracy, which did not
exist in China.
Members of the old Korean elite were educated in the Confucian ethos, i.e., with
emphasis on the family and on education. Classical, or Mandarin, Chinese was the language
of scholarship and administration. Although the Korean alphabet was systematized in the 15th
century by the greatest of Korean Kings, Sejong, it did not come into general use until the
The name "Korea" comes from the Koryo dynasty, which ruled the country from 668
A.D. to 1392. From 1392 until 1910, Korea was ruled by the Yi dynasty, which came to
power after the Mongol invasion. It was characterized by a strong, centralized, government,
staffed by the landowning class, the Yangbans, who provided the elite of scholar-officials. The
common people were mostly tenant farmers; they also made up caste-like hereditary artisan
groups like butchers, tanners, and beggars. This social stratification is reflected in the
language, which has different forms of address for superiors and inferiors, like the languages
of European nations whose aristocratic elites survived into modern times.
The key characteristic of old Korea was isolationism, which developed after the
unsuccessful Japanese invasions of the 1590s. This isolationism made Westerners call Korea
"the Hermit Kingdom." It bequeathed to the Koreans a heritage of distrust of all things
foreign (xenophobia). This is particularly evident in today's North Korea, both in its isolation
and its Juche ideology, i.e., the dogma that Korea always comes first and Koreans have their
own way of doing things, independent of outside influence.
Korean isolationism began to break down around 1870. With the decline of China,
Korea's geographic location made it an object of rivalry between Japan and Russia, after the
latter annexed the present Soviet Far Eastern provinces in the 1860s.
Japan forced an opening into Korea in the 1870s, while some American involvement
began in the late 1860s and 1870s. In June 1866, a ship, the U.S. Surprise was wrecked off
the coast of Korea, but the crew returned safely. This was not the case, however, with the
General Sherman which was burned in August, and the crew killed. In June 1871, a flotilla
of 5 American ships engaged the Koreans at Kanghua. In 1883, King Kojong's efforts to get
military and diplomatic advisers from the United States were ignored, but in that year
unofficial U.S. influence began to spread through American missionaries, such as Horace
Allen and Horace Underwood, and teachers, such as Homer Hulbert, and others.
In 1894, the T'onghak, i.e., the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China. This religious,
anti-foreigner movement, provoked massive Western intervention in China, as well as the
Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). Japan won the war, after which it annexed Formosa (Taiwan),
the Pescadores Islands and the Liaotung Peninsula. China also had to recognize the
independence of Korea. Japan then began to establish its influence in Korea and Manchuria.
In February 1894, King Kojong sought refuge in the Russian legation and stayed there
until 1897. Russia intervened in the summer of 1895, forcing Japan out of the last two
regions. In October 1895, Japanese agents and their Korean allies seized the royal palace and
killed Queen Min. However, Russian influence was dominant in Korea until the Japanese
victory over Russia in the war of 1904-05.
The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 because Japan opposed continued Russian
penetration of North Korea, and also resented Russian penetration of Manchuria. On the
Russian side, Tsar Nicholas II and his closest advisers thought they could both consolidate
Russian influence in the Far East, and divert popular attention away from economic and social
problems at home with victory in a "little war," which they fully expected to win against the
Asian "monkeys," i.e., the Japanese.
Thus, negotiations between the two powers led nowhere because of Russian
obstinacy. Japan then broke off diplomatic relations and attacked Port Arthur (now Lushan)
on February 8, 1904, thus bottling up the Russian Far Eastern fleet. (Port Arthur surrendered
on January 2, 1905). A Japanese-Korean Treaty was signed on February 23, 1905, making
Korea a virtual protectorate of Japan in return for guarantees of its territorial integrity.
Japanese armies occupied Dairen (now Dalien) in May, and proceeded to inflict
crushing military defeats on the Russian armies. The land war, fought in trenches with the use
of heavy mortars and machine guns, was a foretaste of World War I, though no one in the
West seemed to notice these new techniques at the time. The Russian losses were very heavy.
Furthermore, the modern Japanese navy, led by Admiral Togo, and modeled on the British
navy (Japan had an alliance with Great Britain, concluded in 1902), was far superior to the
Russian one. Thus, Russian warships sailed half-way around the world, only to be blown out
of the water by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima Straits on May 27-29, 1904.
The brilliant Japanese victory over Russia had far-reaching consequences:
(a) Japan became the leading power in the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea,
and a power in the Pacific Ocean as well;
(b) This victory marked the first time that an Asian power had defeated a European power;
this had a great impact on the emerging national-independence movements of all colonial
peoples, especially those in East Asia;
(c) Russia's defeat led to the Russian revolution of 1905, which was a dress rehearsal for 1917
(see ch. 2);
(d) Japan established its domination over Korea and maintained it until its defeat in World
War II, i.e., August 1945.
Foreign domination led educated Koreans to work for independence. They began by
opposing Russian influence in 1896-98. The Independence Club was formed in 1896 by
Caep'il (Philip Jason), when he returned from the United States and set out to organize a
democratic movement. The club had its own paper, the Independent, and even forced the
resignation of the pro-Russian Korean cabinet in mid-October 1898. However, it was
suppressed in November and disbanded itself in 1899. One of the members of the
Independence Club was Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), who obtained an American university
education at Princeton.. He tried, but failed, to interest President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) in Korean independence, when Roosevelt was mediating the Russo-Japanese
negotiations which led to the Treaty of Portsmouth, New Hampshire (September 5, 1905),
that ended the war. Sygnman Rhee never gave up and became the President of South Korea
after World War II.
2. Korea under Japanese Rule, and Korean Independence Movements, 1910-1945.
Although Japan ruled Korea as a result of the Treaty of Portsmouth, the official
annexation of the country came after the signing of the Russo-Japanese Treaty of August 22,
1910. This treaty united Korea with Japan and gave it a new name: Chosen. Here we should
note that a Korean organization, favoring close association with Japan, had been formed ln
1907. Its name was Ilchinhoe, and it was subsidized by Tokyo.
The Japanese treated Korea as a colony. This treatment provoked outbursts of
resistance, the strongest of which was a non-violent demonstration in March 1919. At this
time, Korean patriots hoped to influence the Western statesmen meeting at the Paris Peace
Conference in favor of granting Korea independence from Japan. However, these statesmen
refused to consider Korean demands, just as they refused to consider Chinese protests against
Japanese gains at their expense - and Vietnamese requests for home rule under French
sovereignty. Japan had been on the side of the Western allies in the First World War and now
collected its reward. The Korean protest demonstration of March 1919 was brutally crushed
by the Japanese; this fuelled Korean national and communist movements.
Korean Independence Movements.
On April 10, 1919, a Korean Provisional Government (KPG) was formed in Shanghai;
its cabinet included Syngman Rhee. However, the KPG failed to unite all Koreans, especially
those who were in Siberia and Manchuria. Rhee returned to the United States in 1921.
Ten years later, in 1931, a Korean Independence Party was formed in Shanghai under
KPG leadership. Kim ku trained and organized Korean terrorists. Four years later, in 1935,
a Korean Revolutionary Party was formed in Nanking. It was dominated by Kim Wonbong
and his leftist faction. Kim ku formed a new party around the KPG.
Meanwhile, a Korean faction of the Russian Communist Party was established in
Russia in January 1918. The Irkutsk faction of Siberian Koreans was under direct Soviet
supervision. In the early 1920s, it sent some members into Korea. They formed the Tuesday
Association, whose leading members were Kim Chae-bong, Pak Hon-Yong, Kin Yak-su, and
Cho Pongam. On April 17, 1925, the Korean Communist Party was formed. It was led by
Kim Chae-bong, but he was arrested shortly thereafter. At the turn of 1925-26, a second
Korean Communist Party was formed, led by Kang Tal-yong, but he was arrested too.
A socialist Korean party was also formed by Korean exiles in Siberia in June 1918.
It was led by Yi Tong-hui. He moved to Shanghai to join the KPG, but soon broke with it.
In 1921, he renamed his faction the Korean Communist Party. Some of its members moved
to Korea and formed the Seoul Faction under Kim Sa-guk and Yi Yong. They advocated a
Korean-based communism, while the Tuesday Club advocated association with the
Comintern, based in Moscow.
In December 1926, a third communist party was formed, followed by a fourth one in
1928. Finally, in early 1939, members of the above groups formed the Communist Group led
by Pak Hon-yong. This party existed until 1941.
The future Communist leader of Korea, Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), gained his first
communist experience in the 1930's in the Chinese Communist Party. He arrived in the USSR
in 1939 or 1940 and attended the Khabarovsk (Soviet Far East) Infantry School. In summer
1942, the Soviet General Staff ordered the establishment of the 88th Brigade consisting of
four battalions: Chinese, local peoples of the Soviet Far East, one Russian and one Korean.
Kim Il Sung was given the rank of captain and was the commander of the Korean Battalion.
He talked to his comrades about the unification of Korea. In October 1945, he nad 66 of his
officers were shipped by the Soviet to North Korea. (1)
Japanese Rule in Korea.
Japanese domination over Korea was harsh, but had some beneficial results. It
established a strong, centralized, administration which, even though staffed mainly by the
Japanese, did give access and training to some Koreans toward the end of the period. Also,
some Koreans served in the Japanese army, thus gaining military experience. More important
was the fact that the Japanese began to build modern heavy industry in North Korea, along
with a modern communications network.
However, these advantages were balanced by disadvantages. Korea's economy became
tightly bound to the Japanese economy. The system worked to the benefit of the Japanese,
while only a few Koreans could share the benefits. Therefore, the Koreans who cooperated
with the Japanese were seen as traitors by the majority and this would lead to bloody
reprisals at the end of World War II. Finally, most of the military-political leaders of South
Korea who came after Syngman Rhee, were trained in Japanese armies, which gave the North
Koreans a pretext for labelling them as "fascists."
The Japanese aimed to assimilate the Koreans so they tried to root out the Korean
language and culture. They even forced Koreans to take Japanese names. From a comparative
point of view, this policy resembled the Germanization policy toward the Poles of Prussian
Poland, and the Russificatio n policy in Russian Poland, both in the period 1864-1914.
Indeed, Korea is sometimes called the Poland of East Asia, because it suffered prolonged and
brutal foreign domination, while its people never gave up their desire for independence. Of
course, other Third World peoples suffered a similar fate, with similar effects.
II. The Korean Question in 1943 - 1950.
1. The Origins of Joint U.S. - Soviet Occupation.
At the Cairo Conference of December 1943 (following the Big Three Conference at
Tehran), President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Winston S. Churchill and Generalissimo
Chiang kai-Shek. They agreed that Korea would be independent, but this was a long-term
goal in March 1943, FDR had proposed to the British, and at the end of that year to Stalin,
that Korea first go through a stage of multilateral trusteeship. He justified this status in several
other cases by the need of preparing colonial peoples for independence. However, this did not
really fit Korea, which had been an independent state for over 1,000 years before its
annexation by Japan in 1910.
FDR's real motive for proposing the trusteeship system for Korea was his desire to
avoid any clash with the Russians, while also providing for an American footing there. Indeed,
State Department planners defined the security of the Korean peninsula as important for U.S.
security in the Pacific. As Bruce Cumings states, this new U.S. interest in Korea underpinned
the decision to send American troops there in 1945. (1a)
On August 14, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender, when Soviet troops were
moving into North Korea in a series of battles with the retreating Japanese Kwantung army,
an important decision was made in Washington, D.C. There was a meeting of the
State/War/Navy Committee (SWINK) to discuss the future of Korea. At the same time, two
young colonels worked through the night to draw up a demarcation line between Soviet and
U.S. zones of occupation. The two colonels were Charles "Tic" Bonesteel and Dean Rusk.
Rusk described this episode many years later, and added a commentary:
Working in haste and under great pressure, we had a formidable task: to pick
a zone for the American occupation. Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert,
but it seemed to us that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American sector.
We also knew that the U.S. Army opposed an extensive zone of occupation.
Using a National Geographic map, we looked just north of Seoul for a
convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographical line. We saw
instead the thirty-eighth parallel and decided to recommend that.
SWINK accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the
Soviets. I had thought they might insist on a line farther south in view of our
respective military positions. No one present at our meeting, including two
young American colonels, was aware that at the turn of the century the
Russians and Japanese had discussed spheres of influence in Korea, divided
along the thirty-eighth parallel. Had we known that, we almost surely would
have chosen another line of demarcation. Remembering those earlier
discussions, the Russians might have interpreted our action as
acknowledgement of their sphere of influence in Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel. Any future talk about the agreed-upon unification of Korea
would be seen as mere show. But we were ignorant of this, and SWINK's
choice of the thirty-eighth parallel by two tired colonels working late at night,
proved fateful. (2)
Of course, South Korea was important to the United States because Soviet control
or influence over the whole country could develop into a threat to the U.S. control of Japan.
We may also assume that Stalin was interested in controlling at least North Korea not just
because he continued the imperial Russian policy of seeking dominance there, but also
because he wished to prepare a Soviet challenge to the U.S. domination over Japan and with
it, domination of the eastern Pacific Ocean.
2. The United States and South Korea, 1945-48.
The nearest available U.S. force was under Gen. John R. Hodge in Okinawa, so it was
ordered to South Korea and landed at Inchon on September 8th. In the meanwhile, several
Korean groups had come into existence. In Seoul, a left-wing group led by the communist,
Lyuh, expected the establishment of preponderant Soviet influence. Acting on this
assumption, Lyuh formed the "Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence."
Pak Hong-yong, the leader of the communist group that existed between 1939-41,
and who had been a communist guerrilla leader in the fight against the Japanese, also arrived
in Seoul. 11 days later, he made himself the head of the government. Also, the "People's
Committees," - some communist, some not - were established all over South Korea. On
September 6th, a "Congress of People's Representatives" met in Seoul. Its members appointed
the right-wing Syngman Rhee - then in the United States - as president, and the communist
Lyuh as vice-president. This government of the People's Republic of Korea (PRK) emerged
in chaotic circumstances and it is fairly clear that the communists aimed to control it.
When Gen. Hodge arrived with his staff, neither he nor they had any knowledge of
Korea. However, Hodge had instructions not to recognize any existing Korean government,
but to organize U.N. supervised elections. Thus, when the government of the newly-established People's Republic of Korea sent three U.S.-educated Koreans to greet him, he
refused to meet with them. Instead, his staff talked with some Korean Christians and U.S.-educated politicians, who told them of communist influence on the government of the PRK.
While this influence was undeniable, it is hard to say how strong it actually was. In any case,
Gen. Hodge outlawed the PRK government on December 12, 1945.
Meanwhile, Syngman Rhee had arrived on October 16th. It seems he was brought in
by the CIA, but he would have come anyway. He flew in on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's
personal plane. What is more, he had obtained a passport from the chief of the U.S. Passport
Division in Washington without the knowledge of the U.S. State Department, which was
unwilling to have him travel to Korea at this time for fear he might provoke a clash with the
Soviets. Indeed, at a rally in his honor in Seoul, he violently attacked communism and the
Soviet Union. He also attacked the U.S.-Soviet agreement on "trusteeship" over Korea.
Furthermore, at the end of November, Kim-ku and other right-wing politicians arrived from
Chiang kai-Shek's capital in Chungking and gave their support to Rhee.
Gen. Hodge began consultations with various organized groups in order to establish
a new government. But the Koreans, having no experience of democratic government, had
organized several hundred political groups. Thus, the first Democratic Council of Korea was
made up of about 463 parties and broke down.
We should bear in mind that in July 1947 there was also a breakdown of the U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission for Korea; the U.S. rejected Soviet proposals for elections to be
held as soon as possible under Soviet supervision in the north and U.S. supervision in the
south. The Soviets, for their part, rejected the U.S. proposal to hold nationwide elections
under the supervision of a United Nations' commission. At this time, elections held on the
lines proposed by the Soviets would certainly have led to a communist victory in the north,
where the communists were in power, and they might also have yielded a communist victory
in the south. This was due to the economic chaos in South Korea, and the great resentment
of the people against the division of Korea under the trusteeship of the two great powers.
Finally, on May 10, 1948, elections for a new National Assembly were held under
U.N. supervision in South Korea. On May 28, the National Assembly invited delegates from
North Korea to attend. When the latter ignored the invitation, the Republic of Korea (ROK)
was proclaimed on August 15, 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president.
3. U.S. Policy 1948.
Faced with the task of containing communism in Europe, the U.S. government felt
that while it could not abandon South Korea, it could not commit great resources there either.
It was for this reason that the U.S. government decided to seek U.N. backing for U.S. policy
in Korea, and to hold elections under U.N. supervision.
The U.S. government planned to withdraw its troops from South Korea, but prepared
for this by first giving strong backing to Syngman Rhee, and in building up a small Korean
army. However, in order to restrain Rhee - whose stated goal was the reunification of Korea
under his rule - this army was not to have any tanks, or anti-tank weapons, and no air force.
In the constitution of 1948, Syngman Rhee obtained great powers for himself as
president. At the same time, there was great unrest in South Korea due to galloping inflation,
which resulted from the loss of economic ties to Japan, and also from delays in carrying out
land reform. This reform was not signed into law until 1950. There was, of course, also much
discontent because of the division of the country. Nevertheless, U.S. troops withdrew in
4. Soviet Policy in North Korea, 1945-48.
We know that imperial Russia had fought Japan over Korea in 1904-05, and that
earlier Japanese-Russian talks had envisaged a division along the 38th parallel. Also, as
mentioned earlier, a Korean Battalion was formed in the 88th Red Army division in the Far
East in 1942, and its Commander and 66 of its officers were shipped by the Soviets to North
Korea in October 1945. This evidence plus Soviet occupation of North Korea points to
Stalin's interest in the country. He most likely saw Korea both as a Soviet outpost buttressing
his gains in the Far East (Kurile Islands and South Sakhalin) and as a means of challenging
U.S. domination over Japan. Therefore, while he wanted to avoid a confrontation with the
United States, he wanted a united, communist Korea under Soviet domination.
When the Soviets occupied Korea down to the 38th parallel, they brought with them
their Koreans, though Kim Il Sung did not appear there until October 1945. However, from
August 1945 to February 1946, the Soviets worked with a coalition made up of both
communists and nationalists, led by the Christian teacher Cho Man-Sik. Thus, they were
acting in a way smiliar to that in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, where they allowed
coalition governments dominated by communists in the years 1944/45 - 1947 (see ch. 6).
In February 1946, an Interim People's Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first
central government of North Korea. In March, it carried out a land reform, dispossessing the
landlords without compensation. It distributed the land to the peasants and thus gained their
support. However, collectivization followed soon therafter.
In August 1946, the North Korean Workers' Party, i.e., the communists, emerged as
the dominant political force in North Korea. Major industries, previously owned by the
Japanese, were nationalized; the economy was centralized, and a two year economic
reconstruction plan was implemented on the Soviet model, i.e., with priority for heavy
industry. Cho Man-sik and other non-communist leaders were arrested. Kim Il Sung and his
allies took over control of the press and eliminated all opposition papers. Meanwhile, the
Soviets exploited North Korea economically by forcing it to export raw materials, such as
tungsten and gold, to the USSR in exchange for Soviet manufactured goods. They also tried
to keep Korea out of communist Chinese influence.
The Soviets withdrew from North Korea in December 1948, but left some "advisers."
At the same time, thousands of Korean soldiers who had fought in the Chinese civil war,
returned home. In particular, in 1949, crack troops who had fought in Mao Zedong's People's
Liberation Army returned to join the Korean People's Army. They provided a core of tough,
Kim Il Sung established himself as the "Supreme Leader" in 1949. In the meanwhile,
the Korean People's Democratic Republic (KPR) was proclaimed on September 9, 1948; like
Rhee's Republic of Korea (ROK), it claimed sovereignty over the whole country.
5. North and South Korean Plans for Unification.
In mid-1949, the communist leader Pak Hon-yong formed a "United Democratic
Fatherland Front" (UDFF). On June 7, 1950, this front proposed that nationwide elections
take place on August 4-5th. On June 19th, the same proposal was made by the government
of North Korea.
We should note that Syngman Rhee was having great difficulties because of the
economic problems mentioned earlier. Indeed, the elections of May 30, 1950 to the National
Assembly, gave his party only 47 out of 210 seats. What is more, he was preparing for war,
which he apparently expected to break out following an attack from the north.
It seems that at this time Pak Hon-yong believed the situation in South Korea was ripe
for a successful communist rising and convinced Kim Il Sung that he could send in his troops
and unify the country without encountering much opposition. This assumption seems to be
confirmed by the charges that the North Korean government made against Pak in 1953, i.e.,
that he had spread "false reports" claiming that 500,000 underground forces were ready to
help the North Korean troops in South Korea.
In contrast to North Korea, which had a strong, Soviet-equipped army, the South
Korean army had no artillery or tanks, let alone planes, and no effective anti-tank weapons.
In fact, it was more of a police force than an army. However, we should note that in March
1950, in keeping with the directives of National Security Paper No. 68, which called for U.S.
rearmament to counter the Soviet threat, the U.S. Congress voted almost $11 million in
additional aid for South Korea. Thus, we may assume that from the Soviet and North Korean
point of view, a stronger southern army was only a matter of time. If so, this may have been
an important element in Kim's decision to attack South Korea.
II. The Outbreak of the Korean War. June 1950.
1. Who attacked whom?
The South Koreans, the United State and most Western nations claimed the north had
attacked the south, while the north claimed it was attacked by the south. This issue was long
debated by historians, though even at the time most of the circumstantial evidence pointed to
an attack by the North Koreans. The following factors existed at the time::
(a) unrest in South Korea;
(b) Pak Hon-yong's activities in South Korea;
(c) the North Korean call for nationwide elections to take place in August 1950;
(d) U.S. commitment in Western Europe through NATO;
(e) U.S.-Japanese negotiations for an alliance;
(f) Foreign Secretary Dean Acheson's omission of South Korea from the U.S. sphere of
interest in northeast Asia in a speech to the Washington Press Club in January 1950.*
(g) the military superiority of North Korea over South Korea.
* (This omission may have been meant to restrain Syngman Rhee, but it was probably viewed
by Kim Il Sung and by Stalin as a lack of U.S. interest in the existence of South Korea.
However, as Dean Rusk points out, though Acheson named Japan, the Philippines and other
places, where American forces were stationed, as of interest to the United States, he also
commented that the defense of other areas in this part of the world would rest primarily on
the international community and the United Nations). 
2. Soviet Policy.
The Soviet role was not at all clear at the time.. There seem to have been only a few
Soviet advisers in North Korea at the time. It could be argued that a war in Korea was in the
Soviet interest, since it would force the U.S. to divert troops from Europe to the Far East;
indeed, it was interpreted this way in the U.S and in Western Europe at the time. It could also
be argued that a North Korean victory would strengthen Soviet influence in northeast Asia
and allow the Soviet Union to prevent, or at least balance, the U.S.-Japanese alliance that was
being negotiated in summer 1950.
Nikita S. Khrushchev claimed in his memoirs that Stalin was caught by surprise and
felt obliged to support North Korea. However, in July 1990, Li San Cho, the former North
Korean ambassador to Moscow and then (i.e., during the war) Deputy Chief of Staff of the
North Korean armed forces (he was later given asylum in the USSR on being recalled as
ambassador from Moscow) told a different story. He said that during his visit to Moscow in
1949, Kim Il Sung had discussed with Stalin his plans to seize South Korea and had obtained
his approval in advance. Li San Cho also said that Kim Il Sung took the initiative in this
The whole issue was clarified by Russian documents declassified after the collapse of
the USSR in August 1991 and found by an American scholar in April 1993, showing that
Stalin had approved Kim Il Sung's plan to attack South Korea. In a document on the Korean
War dated August 9, 1966, it is stated that:
Calculating that the USA would not enter a war over South Korea, Kim Il
Sung persistently pressed for agreement from Stalin and Mao Zedong to
reunify the country by military means...
Stalin at first treated the persistent appeals of Kim Il Sung with reserve, noting
that "such a large affair in relation to South Korea ... needs much
preparation," but he did not object in principle. The final agreement to support
the plans of the Koreans was given by Stalin at the time of Kim Il Sung's visit
to Moscow in March-April 1950. Following this, in May, Kim Il Sung visited
Beijing and secured the support of Mao. (4a)
However, documents released by Yeltsin in July 1994, show that even before Kim's
visit to Moscow, Stalin had agreed to sell arms to North Korea in order to fully equip its army
in 1950. Kim asked for part of the Soviet credit allocated for 1951 to be used for this
purpose. He also offered Stalin the sum of 133,050, 500 rubles, in gold, silver, and monazite
concentrate. The proposal on Soviet credits was accepted, and it is likely that the offer to pay
was accepted as well, though there is nor record of this. (4b) We also know that during Kim
Il Sung's earlier Moscow visit in 1949, Stalin had sold the North Koreans some World War
II equipment, especially some of the famous Soviet T-34 tanks - which were delivered in early
The new Russian and Chinese documents also show that Stalin pushed Mao Zedong
to commit himself to support a North Korean attack on South Korea. Stalin did not believe
the U.S. would fight for South Korea, but if it did, he preferred war with the U.S. by proxy.
He was afraid of, and perhaps even expected a war in Europe. In any case, with the outbreak
of the Korean War in late June 1950, the five year plans of Poland and Hungary were geared
to war production and students were forced to undergo intensive military training. Also,
Czechoslovakia, which already had an established military industry, especially in Pilsen,
increased its arms production.
Once war broke out, Stalin sent more Soviet advisers, engineers, and about 5,000
troops as well as pilots to North Korea. While most of the military help for North Korea came
from Communist China, (who had to pay for Soviet equipment), the Soviets maintained
ultimate control over the course of the war.
3. Red China and the Early Phase of the Korean War.
The Chinese Communist Party offered "moral support" at first, but then decided to
give military aid. American historians generally believed that Mao decided to intervene in
October 1950 because he feared a U.S. invasion of China - which was, indeed, advocated by
Gen. MacArthur. However, a Chinese-American historian found sources showing that, while
this fear certainly was a factor in Beijing's decision to enter the war, "Mao and his associates
aimed to win a glorious victory by driving the Americans off the Korean Peninsula".(4c) Here
we should note that Chinese military aid to North Korea forced a diversion of funds from
rebuilding the domestic economy. Also, the war seems to have contributed to, or even caused,
Mao's decision to implement radical economic reforms in 1950 (see chapter 10).
4. Why Was the U.S. Reaction so Strong?
We must bear in mind the great shock to U.S. opinion of the communist victory in
China, which came on top of the brutal Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the
perceived Soviet threat to Greece and Turkey, to which the U.S. reacted with the Truman
Doctrine (March 1947). There was also the perceived communist threat to Western Europe
(possibility of French and Italian communist parties' victory at the polls due to economic
chaos), to which the U.S. reacted with the Marshall Plan (June 1947). Then there was the
communist coup in Czechoslovakia of February 1948, and the Berlin Blockade, 1948-49,
which was followed by the establishment of NATO and of the West German Federal
Republic. Furthermore, the French were fighting the North Vietnamese communists in
Indochina since 1946. Last, but not least, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in
Underpinning the U.S. perception of what seemed to be a worldwide expansion of
communism directed from Moscow was the conviction of Harry S. Truman and his key
advisers that French and British appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s had led to the
outbreak of the Second World War in Europe - a war which became worldwide when the
United States entered it on December 8, 1941. The conviction that aggression had to be
resisted in order to prevent another world war led to the Truman Doctrine in March 1947.
It also led to the decision that the United States and other members of the United Nations
must oppose communist aggression in Korea. Of course, U.S. public opinion supported these
policies. Thus , when North Korea attacked South Korea, the immediate U.S. reaction was
to turn to the United Nations and send American troops to Korea. The U.N. Security Council
voted for military action because the Soviet representative was absent. Also, President Harry
S. Truman had enough public support to reinstate the draft.
U.S. troops were sent both to Europe and to Korea. As noted above, the United
States was not alone, for the United Nations Security Council supported military action. The
council could do so, because the Soviets were boycotting it over the issue of seating Red
China in the U.N., so they could not cast their veto to stop the U.N. action. Indeed, Dean
Rusk, who was then the Assistant Secretary for the Far East (and later Secretary of State for
Foreign Affairs under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson), writes that a
high-ranking Soviet official told him years later that, when the Korean war broke out, Joseph
Stalin personally telephoned the Soviet ambassador to the U.N., Yakov Malik, telling him not
to return to the Security Council. Stalin saw the Chinese issue as more important than Korea.
We also know that he did not expect the United States and United Nations to react strongly
to the North Korean aggression against South Korea. (5) This was another of his mistakes.
Not only the United States, but 15 other members of the U.N. sent troops to Korea, though
the brunt of the fighting was borne by U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) troops.
As mentioned earlier, the Truman administration's reaction to the perceived threat
of communist world domination, as well as to the successful explosion of the first Soviet
atomic bomb (1949), had been formulated four months earlier in the National Security Paper
68 (NSC-68) of March 1950. The key assumption here was that the Soviets would outstrip
the U. S. nuclear capacity in 4 years. The alternatives for the U.S. were seen as either
passivity - showing weakness - or a massive rebuilding of Western defenses. To this end, it
was decided that the U.S. defense budget should be increased from $13.5 billion to $50
billion. However, as Dean Acheson, then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, said later, this
increase in the defense budget would not have been implemented but for the "stupid
instigation" of the North Korean attack on South Korea and the beginning of the "hate
America" campaign in the USSR. (6)
1. June 1950 - June 1951.
Bruce Cumings, the author of the most detailed study on the background to the war
(he did not have access to recently declassified Russian and Chinese documents), points out
that the North Koreans adopted a "Blitzkrieg" strategy. The Republic of Korea troops
(ROKs) could not withstand them, not only because they were vastly outnumbered but also
because they lacked the necessary weapons.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur flew from Tokyo to the front on June 28th, and decided to
bluff the enemy with a show of strength. He was helped by the second U.N. Resolution on
Korea, passed on June 28th, with the Soviet delegation still absent, which sanctioned
collective U.N. military action.
MacArthur sent U.S. planes from Japan to attack the North Koreans, but air power
alone could not stop them. Therefore, he asked President Truman for permission to send in
U.S. troops. Truman gave it, and MacArthur sent 500 soldiers from the U.S. occupation
forces in Japan as the first U.S contingent to Korea. They were unfit, inexperienced, and
shocked at finding themselves in a fire fight. MacArthur may have hoped that the very sight
of U.S. troops would make the enemy pause, but they kept on coming.
Soon, four divisions of U.S. troops came over from Japan. In early July, they dug in
at Osan, south of Seoul. However, they could not hold their ground against the powerful
Soviet-made T-34 tanks used by the North Koreans. The U.S. positions were overrun and the
North Koreans took U.S. prisoners. The U.S. and ROK forces began to retreat south, as did
masses of South Korean civilians. The North Koreans found some personnel records and
massacred many Koreans who either served, or were alleged to have served, under the Rhee
government and/or U.S. forces and officials.
At this point, Gen. MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the U.N. forces
in the Far East and Korea, while Gen. William F. Dean commanded the troops in the field. On
July 21, 1950, President Truman gave a speech in which he mentioned the fateful lesson of
the 1930s, i.e., that appeasement failed to prevent war. He said the United States and other
members of the United Nations must undertake a "police action" in Korea.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and ROK troops were still retreating. Indeed, at Taejon, where
the North Koreans had infiltrated the Allied lines, Gen. Dean himself handled a bazooka and
was taken prisoner (see his memoirs). Also, the further south the Allies retreated, the more
support the North Koreans seemed to have from the local population. At the same time, the
North Koreans began killing some of their POWs, including U.S. soldiers when they did not
give them military information.
The Allied forces, now led by Gen. Walton "Bulldog" Walker, found themselves
boxed in, in the Pusan perimeter in southwest Korea. Walker now called on the troops to
"stand and die." At the same time, the U.S. fleet sailed into the Formosa straits to warn the
Red Chinese against invading Formosa/Taiwan. Gen. MacArthur visited Chiang kai-Shek and
talked of making Formosa a U.S. base. However, President Truman, who did not want to
provoke Red China, made him withdraw this statement. This was an omen of more serious
differences to come. At this time, U.S. B-29 bombers, flying from bases in Japan, devastated
the North Korean forces. This halted their momentum, so the Allied forces in the Pusan
perimeter had a slight respite.
MacArthur was now drawing up a daring plan to land U.S. Marines behind enemy
lines at the port of Inchon, some 30 miles west of Seoul. He had this idea already in late June,
during his visit to the front. He outlined the plan to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-July.
They had grave reservations because of the dangerous tides and mud flats at Inchon, but they
finally agreed in late August and gave him the First Marine Division to do the job. Of course,
MacArthur was already a living legend because of his leadership of U.S. forces in the Pacific
in World War II, so the Chiefs of Staff did not feel they could oppose him. Still, just in case
they changed their minds, he set sail with the U.S. forces and notified the Chiefs of Staff when
it was too late to turn back.
On September 15, 1950, U.S. warships began to bombard Inchon. Then minesweepers
went in; they had Japanese officers on board, who knew the coastal waters. The Marines
landed without encountering much resistance, and they had the weapons to destroy the T-34
tanks. At this time, too, the Allied forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter. The North
Koreans, shocked and exhausted, surrendered everywhere in droves. The U.S. Marines took
Seoul after heavy fighting. MacArthur installed Syngman Rhee as president.
Twelve days after the landing at Inchon, the Allied forces joined up, but they failed
to destroy the North Korean army, which retreated to the north. The Allies found hundreds
of corpses of South Koreans massacred by the North Koreans at Osan, on suspicion that they
had served Rhee. There were also corpses of U.S. POWs whom the North Koreans killed
either beofore on in the course of evacuation.
At this time, ROK troops reached the 38th parallel, and the 3rd ROK division crossed
it on October 1st. Here we should note that while Rhee made no secret of his goal to reunite
both Koreas, the Truman administration also supported action north of the 38th parallel.
Indeed, Gen. Marshall urged MacArthur to proceed there and he gave the order to the troops
on October 9th. This was a sound course of action from the military point of view, since it
would prevent the North Koreans from reforming their forces there. Furthermore, on October
27, the United Nations also sanctioned the reunification of Korea. Finally, Gen. MacArthur
and the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not expect Red China to intervene.
According to Dean Rusk, the Truman administration did not expect the Chinese to
intervene either. It was thought that Mao Zedong had enough to do in China without entering
the Korean war. Only the Indian ambassador in Beijing, K. M. Pannikar, was warned by
Zhou Enlai. Pannikar told the U.S. government that the Chinese would react if U.S./U.N.
troops continued to press toward the Chinese-North Korean border on the Yalu River.
However, even Pannikar doubted the Chinese would do anything. (7)
On October 19th, Allied troops, led by the ROKs, occupied the North Korean capital
of Pyongyang. Here they liberated some U.S. POWs, who had survived the North Korean
shootings. Also, bodies of North Korean civilians were found; they had been murdered on
suspicion of opposing Kim Il Sung.
Meanwhile, President Truman and Gen. MacArthur met on Wake Island on October
15. Truman gave MacArthur a medal, and they discussed the possibility of Red Chinese
intervention in the war. MacArthur was convinced this would not happen and, if it did, that
he could handle it. He also said the war would be over by Thanksgiving and the troops would
be home by Christmas.
At this time, however, Chinese troops began to cross the Yalu River into northeast
Korea. They moved at night, hid in the hills, and so they were not spotted by U.S.
reconnaissance planes. At this time, too, U.S. and ROK troops landed at Wonsan (Sea of
Japan) to cut off the North Korean retreat, but they were too late. The overconfident
MacArthur divided his forces in two parts, separated by mountains. This turned out to be a
great blunder for they did not manage to join up. At this point, MacArthur moved U.S. troops
toward the Yalu River bridges in the northwest, although he had been told to send only ROK
Suddenly, masses of Chinese troops, who had crossed the Yalu and hidden in the
hills, launched an attack on the U.N. forces. MacArthur at first reassured Washington that
these were just Chinese "volunteers" and not a major force. (Their offiicial Chinese name was
"Volunteers," but they were part of the PLA). However, he soon changed his mind and
ordered the bombing of the Korean side of the Yalu bridges. President Truman's instructions
stated that there was to be no action within five miles of the Chinese border, unless U.S.
forces were in immediate danger. Since they obviously were in danger, the Chiefs of Staff
sanctioned the bombing.
Now Soviet-made MiGs, with Chinese pilots, attacked U.S. troops. MacArthur
wanted U.S. planes to pursue them into China, but President Truman did not want a war with
Red China and/or the USSR, so he forbade it. MacArthur cabled Washington that he must
be allowed to go on to complete victory. On November 6th, the Chinese suddenly melted
away into the mountains.U.N. forces continued marching north and an advance party reached
the Yalu River on November 21th. Then U.S. troops stopped to celebrate Thanksgiving; they
had turkeys flown in with all the trimmings. MacArthur was sure the war was over. On
November 24th, U.N. forces resumed their march forward.
On November 26th, masses of Chinese troops attacked the U.N. troops in the
northwest. This was mountainous terrain and the Chinese, who occupied the high ground,
ambushed the U.N. units. There was panic and a headlong retreat. MacArthur said: "We face
an entirely new war." Some U.S. historians believe that President Truman contemplated using
the atomic bomb to stop the Chinese onslaught. Indeed, he said as much at a news
conference, but a denial was issued immediately thereafter. Dean Rusk denies that he ever
heard that Truman considered using the bomb. (8) [The President kept the bomb in reserve
for possible use, if the U.N. forces were threatened with extinction]. The West Europeans
were concerned; British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flew to Washington to warn Truman
against using the bomb..
Meanwhile, U.N. troops were surrounded by Chinese and North Koreans at Chosen,
on the Yalu River. It was a bitterly cold winter, which made the fighting very difficult for both
sides. The Marines flew out their wounded, but decided to fight their out. Pyongyang was
abandoned on December 5th, while the Marines evacuated themselves and many South
Korean civilians from the port of Hungnam, which they blew up as they left. Seoul fell to the
communists on January 4, 1951. Dean Acheson said the U.S. had suffered its worst military
defeat in a century.
Gen. Walker was killed in a car crash; he was replaced by Gen. Matthew Ridgeway,
who adopted new tactics. Instead of "standing and dying," he ordered his troops to "roll with
the punches," and then counterattack. He also made excellent use of artillery, which was
called "the meat grinder." Finally, Ridgeway was in the front lines and soon raised the morale
of the troops. By early March 1951, U.N. forces, were back at the Han River, south of Seoul,
which they recaptured on March 15th. At this point, the Chinese commander, Marshal Peng
Dehuai was reported to have told Mao Zedong that a communist victory in Korea was most
Meanwhile, Gen. MacArthur became increasingly displeased with the U.S.
administration's "war of containment." He wanted the U.N. forces to invade China, and even
told a French journalist that the U.S. should drop atomic bombs on Chinese cities.
Furthermore, he countered a peace move by President Truman by announcing the war must
be fought until the Chinese agreed to unconditional surrender. Finally, he wrote an open letter
to Republican Congressman, Joseph W. Martin Jr., in which he criticized administration
policy, and which Martin read on the floor of the House. This was the last straw for President
Truman; he decided to dismiss MacArthur from his post as Commander-in-Chief in the Far
East; he did so on April 10, 1951, with the support of the Chiefs of Staff. MacArthur was
succeeded as Commander-in-Chief in the Far East by Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, who was
already commander in Korea. Ridgeway was succeeded there by Gen. James Van Fleet. (9)
On June 22, 1951, the Chinese launched an offensive on Seoul, but Van Fleet decided
to hold it and fight, doing so against the advice of Gen. Ridgeway. Now, the Soviet
Ambassador to the U.N., Yakov Malik, suddenly called for negotiations in a speech he made
on June 23, 1951. This seems to have come as a surprise to the North Korean government.
2. June 1951 - July 1953.
Peace talks now began between the U.S on the one side and the Chinese and North
Koreans on the other. However, the talks dragged on for almost two years, while fighting
went on. The two issues which delayed the peace and led to the continuation of the war were
(a) the North Koreans wanted the armistice line to follow the 38th parallel, but the South
Koreans, supported by the United States, wanted it to follow the line held by U.N. forces;
therefore, fighting went on as each side tried to secure the best position it could;
(b) the North Koreans and Chinese wanted all their prisoners returned. However, the U.S.
government - mindful of the tragedy of the 2 million Soviet prisoners and collaborators with
the Germans who were returned to the USSR to prison and death at the end of World War
II - insisted on "voluntary repatriation."
Thus, the war went on. Soldiers continued to die on both sides, while U.S. bombing
devastated North Korea. This was operation "Strangle," designed to force the North Koreans
to accept peace. Thus, some 600,000 tons of bombs were dropped, destroying every town
and many villages in North Korea. However, just as with Allied saturation bombing of
Germany in World War II, so in North Korea, it did not stop war production or break the
people's morale. On the contrary, the North Koreans put their factories underground, also
and living-working quarters for government leaders and their staffs.They rallied around Kim
Il Sung, who now became the symbol of North Korean resistance to the wicked, "imperialist,"
After a break between June and October 1951, peace talks resumed, this time at
Panmunjon, where they were to continue until final agreement was reached in July 1953. In
the meanwhile, fighting and bombing continued. U.S. military leaders even considered
dropping small A-bombs on North Korea, but decided against it.
The other issue, that of the return of prisoners, developed into a battle for their minds.
On the one hand, were the U.S. prisoners held by the communists, and one the other, the
North Korean and Chinese prisoners in Allied hands. The North Koreans treated Allied
prisoners with great brutality. They were marched north; those who fell due to wounds or
exhaustion were often shot. When they reached the camps, they were kept in terrible
conditions; they had no medical care and suffered malnutrition. About one-third of the U.S.
Then the Chinese took the prisoners into their care. They resettled them in camps
just south of the Yalu River, where conditions were better. Then they set about "re-educating" the prisoners. They indoctrinated them, concentrating on selected officers and
men in order to break them. The objective was to make them say the United States was a
criminal power, and that Marxism was the only correct philosophical, social and economic
system. They were then recorded on radio or film for propaganda purposes.
Meanwhile, the North Korean and Chinese prisoners taken by the Allies were kept in
camps in the south. Among them were many trained communist cadres who threatened those
wishing to accept voluntary repatriation (VR - this meant a choice for the prisoners to go
back home or not). They even threatened to skin those who had tattoos favoring VR, i.e., at
least 50% of the prisoners. The communist cadres accused the U.S. and U.N. officers of
using coercion to make prisoners choose VR, which was a lie. The communist prisoners even
captured Gen. Francis T. Dodd, commander of the Koje-do Island POW camp, and then
revolted. U.S. troops had to launch a regular military action to put them.down.
The next communist ploy, evidently launched by the Chinese, was the charge that U.S.
planes were dropping infected insects - flies and beetles - to poison the crops in North Korea.
Thus, the United States was accused of waging bacteriological warfare. Perhaps the
communists needed an explanation of various epidemics, especially among the cattle in North
Korea, but it is more likely they aimed to turn world opinion against the U.S. and thus divide
the Allies. Whatever the case may be, the accusation was developed into a propaganda
campaign, including films of the alleged "evidence" and of U.S. prisoners "admitting" they
had participated in germ warfare.
A Hungarian observer, Tibor Meray - who defected to the West after the Hungarian
revolution of October-November 1956 - told of being shown "infected" flies allegedly
dropped on a North Korean village. However, another observer, who spoke some Korean,
told Meray the villagers said no planes had been heard over the village, but that Chinese
soldiers had come in during the night and released the flies. (They could not have lived very
long anyway, because, as a Chinese-North Korean propaganda film shows, the ground was
covered with snow).
A pro-communist Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett, helped spread the
propaganda on alleged U.S. germ warfare. He helped the Chinese write up U.S. fliers'
"confessions" to this effect. Thus, one of the pilots, Lt. Kenneth Enoch, "confessed," but told
a French journalist named Roy - whom he met in the toilet, where there were no guards - that
it was a lie he had told in order to go home. He was sure Burchett helped write the
confession. Enoch later testified about the pressure put on him and others to sign these
In 1952, an international scientific commission made up of scientists sympathetic to
North Korea and China, examined the "evidence" and concluded it was genuine. However,
a British scientist in London said this charge was scientifically absurd. In particular, he
claimed that if there had, indeed, been anthrax contamination, the soil would be contaminated
until the end of the century. (No evidence has turned up since to show that it was). It is worth
noting that Polish communist propaganda accused the U.S. of dropping poisoned beetles
along the Polish Baltic Coast, and people were mobilized to collect them. There is no
evidence of this, although swarms of beetles did, for some reason, land on the coast and were
collected by the people.
By late 1952, U.S. public opinion was turning against the war. Indeed, General
Dwight David Eisenhower was elected President in November 1952, largely on the strength
of his pledge to go to Korea and end the war. However, he had to contend not only with the
Chinese and North Koreans but also with Syngman Rhee, who still spoke of marching north
and thus reunifying Korea under his rule. Eisenhower hinted at using A-bombs, but it seems
he did this as a form of pressure on the North Koreans and did not seriously contemplate it.
Meanwhile, U.S. pilots were fighting dogfights with Soviet pilots in Soviet MiGs over North
Soviet policy took a new turn after the death of Stalin in early March 1953. V.M.
Molotov returned to his post as Foreign Minister and showed interest in peace talks, as did
the Chinese Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai. At the end of March, the communists agreed to an
exchange of sick and wounded prisoners; some 6-7,000 Chinese and North Koreans were
exchanged for 600 U.S. prisoners. Some of the U.S. military had been so effectively
indoctrinated that they kept on spouting communist propaganda even when they were
Nevertheless, fighting resumed in spring and summer 1953. The Chinese launched an
offensive against the U.S. lst Corps on June 15, and against Seoul on June 22nd. They
attacked ROK troops, probably aiming to force Rhee to accept peace with a larger North
Korea..However, they were unsuccessful and the Soviet ambassador to the U.N., Yakov
Malik, proposed peace talks. We should also note that though peace talks had resumed in
May, U.S. planes bombed some of the biggest dams in North Korea, causing terrible floods.
Then Rhee tried to sabotage the peace talks in early June by causing the release of thousands
of North Korean prisoners, who melted into the South Korean countryside, thus angering the
North Korean government. Eisenhower was furious, fearing a breakdown of the peace talks;
however, the communists showed a desire to conclude peace.
Finally, on July 27 1953, peace was signed at Panmunjon - though without Syngman
Rhee, who still refused to accept a divided Korea . The issue of voluntary repatriation was
solved by a compromise. Representatives of China and North Korea were allowed to
"explain" to their countrymen, who were prisoners, why they should go home. Despite this,
two-thirds of the Chinese prisoners chose to go to Taiwan, while many North Koreans chose
to stay in South Korea.
22 U.N. prisoners, mostly British and Americans, chose to stay in North Korea or
went to China. These men stayed because they had earlier served communist propaganda
aims. In the course of time, most returned home.
(1) If there had been no U.S/U.N. involvement in South Korea, the whole country would have
re-emerged as one state in 1945, though most likely as a communist state under predominant
(2) The North Koreans attacked South Korea with Stalin's blessing and support, also with
Chinese support beginning in fall 1950. On the Western side, the Korean War was a collective
action fought by the United Nations, though the U.S. provided the largest contingent.
(3) It was the first "limited war" to be fought by the U.S. It was limited because Presidents
Truman and Eisenhower wanted to avoid war with China and/or the USSR; in particular, they
wanted to avoid a nuclear war.
(4) The limited war divided Korea roughly along the 38th Parallel. This provided a
precedent for the division of Vietnam in 1954 along the 17th Parallel, also for U.S. support
of South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam.
(5) U.S. public opinion at first supported the war as a war against communism. However,
the military stalemate led to frustration and Gen. Eisenhower was elected President in
November 1952, in large part because of his promise to bring peace. (Compare Richard M.
Nixon's election as President in November 1968 on the basis of his commitment to end the
1. North Korea.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea developed on the Soviet-Chinese model,
i.e., it had a centralized, planned, economy, which stressed the development of heavy industry;
also, agriculture was collectivized. The political system was modelled on the Soviet Union.
Finally, Kim Il-Sung built up a personality cult even greater than that of Stalin and Mao tse-Tung. He also groomed his son to succeed him.
The country was saddled with a typical Stalinist command economy, developed in
sequential long-term plans, with emphasis on heavy industry. The industrial base, inherited
from the Japanese, was expanded rapidly in the period 1948-60, with claimed growth rates
of 20-30% per year. However, it slowed down in the 1960s when technological obsolescence
appeared. The North Korean government tried to catch up by importing whole plants from
the Western world and Japan in the 1970s. Nevertheless, its key exports continued to be raw
materials and when prices fell, North Korea defaulted on some $1 billion of debts. In the
1980s, the creditors seemed satisfied and the economy apparently recovered..
Agriculture was said to be a success. It was - and is - based on cooperative farms, said
to correspond to the old villages. A CIA study published in 1978, stated that North Korean
agriculture was significantly mechanized with extensive use of fertilizers. Two years later,
World Health Organization (WHO) officials visiting North Korea reported that "miracle
strains" of rice were widely used. Indeed, North Korea claimed to have the largest rice
production per acre in the world. (10)
According to official data, in mid-1990, North Korea had a population of 21,300,000.
In 1988, the Gross National Product was $20 billion, and average per capita income was $910
per year. 52% of the labor force worked outside of agriculture. The major trading partners
of the country were the USSR, China, and Japan. This compared with South Korea as
follows: population, 42,100,000 as of mid-1990; GNP, 1988: $171 billion; per capita income,
$4,945 per year.
Kim Il Sung decided to open the country, but only to a very limited extent, i.e., to
welcome some selected Western visitors in 1987-88. This was probably due to the selection
of Seoul as the site of the 1988 Olympic Games. After fighting this decision tooth and nail,
the North Koreans finally put in bids to have some of the events held in their capital of
Pyongyang. Nothing came of this, however, and the games were held entirely in Seoul. This,
in turn, led to violent student demonstrations there calling for the unification of the two
Koreas. The talks between the North and South Korean prime ministers in 1990-91 did not
yield any significant results. However, members of some divided families were allowed to
visit each other in 1990 for the first time in forty years. (For later developments, see the
2. South Korea.
This country experienced dynamic economic growth, especially in the 1970s, but at
the same time, the governments were predominantly right-wing and authoritarian. One short-lived exception to this rule was the democratic government of 1960-61. It came into power
after student revolts in April 1960, known as the "April Revolution," toppled Syngman Rhee.
He retired to Hawaii and died there in 1965 at the age of 90. However, the coalition of
moderate democratic parties, which came to power in 1960 and established the Second
Republic, lasted only one year. It was toppled in 1961 by a military coup.
This opened the so-called Park Period, which lasted from 1961 until 1979. It took its
name from Gen. Park Chung-Hee, who had received his military training first from the
Japanese, and then the Americans. In 1963, under pressure from President John F. Kennedy
and his government, Park put on civilian clothes and ran for president. But his political party,
the Democratic Republican Party, became a political machine to keep him in power. He also
organized the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), as an instrument to control the
population. In the 1970s the National Assembly became a rubber stamp for Park. Dissidents
were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. This state of affairs became an embarrassment to the
U.S. At the same time, economic, especially industrial development, raised the South Korean
per capita income from $200 per head to about $800 a year in 1978.
However, an economic crisis began in 1979, which led to new disturbances. The
opposition leader Kim Dae-Jung received the support of textile workers, small businessmen,
students and intellectuals. In August, there were many strikes and urban revolts. In October
1979, the head of the KCIA, Kim Jae-Kyu, shot Gen. Park. He was arrested, but the regime
By mid-1980, there were protest demonstrations all over the country, demanding a
new constitution. In May, there were mass demonstrations in Seoul and a rebellion in
Kwangju was put down by the War Minister, Chun Doo-Hwan. He had controlled the military
since 1979, and became president. He had Kim Dae-Jung arrested, but spared his life because
of U.S. pressure. In October 1983, Chun and some of his ministers visited Rangoon, Burma.
A bomb blast there killed several South Korean dignitaries, but missed Chun. As a trial in
Rangoon proved later, the assassination attempt was organized by North Korea.
Student-led demonstrations in 1986-87 led to clashes with police in Seoul, and finally
pressured Chun to step down and promise a new constitution. Chun's second-in-command,
Roh Te Woo announced he would run for president in the next elections, and he was elected.
However, he faced constant opposition, mainly from the students, who staged frequent fire
fights with the police, demanded the unification of Korea, and opposed the U.S. presence in
the south. At the same time, the pro-democracy opposition continued to be divided and
politically weak, while the ruling Democratic Republican Party was a powerful political
machine supported by the army.
In the1993 edition of this textbook I wrote:
One thing seems clear: the students and many other people in South Korea want to have a more democratic government. Whether or not they will manage to get it seems to depend not only on the ability of the opposition to organize itself, but also on the attitude of the South Korean army which may play the decisive role as it has done in the past. Unification of the two Koreas appears unlikely in the near future.
However, no one predicted the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989
and the swift unification of Germany in 1990, so it is risky to predict the
course of events in Korea. (p. 505).
Since this was written, the long-time opposition leader Kim Dae Jung came to power
in late 1992. The new government put the former Presidents, Chun Doo -Hwan and Roh Te
Woo on trial and they were condemned to death in fall 1996. (They are appealing their
North Korea remains one of the few surviving communist states in the world today.
It is experiencing all the economic woes of former communist states, i.e., economic stagnation
resulting from the old, Stalinist-type command economy, aggravated as elsewhere by the loss
of old trading partners and markets. North Korea used to have both in the former USSR and
in the People's Republic of China. But the first collapsed in August 1991, while the second
has been doing more business with capitalist South Korea than with communist North Korea
For the last five years, North Korea has been suffering from food shortages due to
bad harvests, which have led to hunger and malnutrition. In fall 1992, even people in the
capital, Pyongyang, failed to get their ration of 4.4 lbs. meat and chicken per month, and the
slogan was "Let's Eat Two Meals a Day." At the same time, North Korean propaganda
continued to deify Kim Il Sung and his son. (11 )
. Kim Il Sung died in 1994, at the age of 82. His son, Kim Chong (or Jong) II (b. 1942), is a mystery to the West because there is very little information about him, and what there is can be interpreted in different ways. He is said to be obsessed with opera and the theater, and there were doubts that he would have the support of the army when his father died. Since that time, the North Korean government has adopted the policy of making the port of Najin, near the Russian border, into another Hong Kong. It has also been trying to sell its signature of the nuclear weapons ban for aid to its people. An American reported who visited the country in September 1996, wrote that he did not see a chicken or a cat anywhere in North Korea. (12) In September-October 1997, press reports speak of N.Koreans fleeing over the border to China.
Another indication of crisis is the flight of two senior N.Korean officials.in 1997. The
chief party ideologue is now in S.Korea, and a diplomat defected in the U.S.
Difficult negotiations have been going on in New York between North and South Korean officials on food relief supplies from the South. The N. Korean insistence on the wording of the agreement to be signed (questions of prestige), has delayed ood supplies from reaching the starving N.Korean people.
1. On Kim Il Sung as commander of the Korean Battalion in the Khabarovsk region, and his
return, with his officers, to Wonsan aboard a Soviet ship, see: Sergei N. Goncharov, John W.
Lewis, and Xue Litai, UNCERTAIN PARTNERS. Stalin, Mao, and the Korean
War,Stanford, Ca., 1993. (The authors did not have access to the Russian documents cited
in notes 4a and 4 b below).
1a. See Bruce Cumings, The Two Koreas, Foreign Policy Association Headline Series, no.
169, New York, 1984. For the most detailed account of developments in Korea and of U.S.
policy in the five years between the end of World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War,
see Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War. Liberation and the Emergence of
Separate Regimes, 1945-47, Princeton, N. J. 1981, and v. II, The Origins of the Korean War.
The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947-1950, Princeton, N. J. 1990 (published before Russian
documents revealed in 1994 that Stalin had approved Kim Il Sung's plan to attack S.Korean
in late June 1950, see note 4b. below).
2. See As I Saw It, by Dean Rusk as told to Richard Rusk, edited by Daniel Papp, New York,
1990, p. 124.
3. See Ibid., p. 164.
4. See Strobe Talbott, trans. ed., Khrushchev Remembers, Boston, 1970, p. 368. For
statements by on Li San Cho, see New York Sunday Times, July 6, 1990, A-5.
4a . See Kathryn Weathersby, "New Findings on the Korean War," Cold War International
History Project BULLETIN, Issue 3, Washington, D.C., Fall 1993, p. 1, 15-16.
4b. See "New Russian Documents on the Korean War," Inroduction and Translation by
Kathryn Weathersby, CWIHP BULLETIN, issues 6-7, Washington, D.C., Winter 1995-1996,
pp. 30 ff.
4c. See Chen Jian, "China's Road to the Korean War," ibid.,p.41.
5. See Rusk, As I Saw It, p. 163.
6. See Dean Acheson, The Struggle for a Free Europe, New York, 1971, pp. 106, 331.
7. See Rusk, As I Saw It, p. 168.
8. See Ibid., p. 170.
9. On the Korean War, see Dean Acheson, The Korean War, New York, 1969, 1971; Gen.
Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War, New York, 1960; Joseph C. Goulden, Korea. The
Untold Story of the War, New York, 1982 (somewhat sensational book by a journalist, but
valuable for its use of previously classified U. S. documents); John Toland, In Mortal Combat.
Korea 1950-1953, New York, William Morrow, 1991, (a well-written account, with maps
and photographs, based on published sources, also interviews with participants, including
those who experienced Korean and Chinese POW treatment); Charles M. Dobbs, The
Unwanted Symbol. American Foreign Policy, The Cold War, and Korea, 1945-1950, Kent,
Ohio, 1981; and Max Hastings, The Korean War, New York, 1987 (military).
See also the excellent 6 part series Korea: The Unknown War, produced by the BBC, Great
Britain, and shown in the U.S. on PBS channels, Nov. 12-14, 1990. This is largely based on
the work of Bruce Cumings, who was the key consultant and serves as commentator..
10. A concise account of North Korean development -- in so far as it is known -- is to be
found in Bruce Cumings, The Two Koreas,. Foreign Affairs, New York, (1985?)
11. See: David Sanger, "Journey to Isolation," New York Times Magazine, November 15, 1992, pp. 28 ff)
12. On Najin, see Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 2, 1996, p.6; Walter Russell Mead, "More
Method than Madness in North Korea," The New York Times Magazine, Setp. 15, 1996, pp.
49-52. The map accompanying the article has a typographical error: Najin is rendered as
1. History of Korea.
William E. Henthorn, History of Korea. New York, 1971 (covers traditional Korea up to
Carter J. Eckert, et al., Korea Old and New. A History, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ilchokak
Publishers, Korea Institute, Harvard University, 1990 (chaps. 1-12, cover Korean
history to early 1900s; chaps. 13-18, cover history through World War II; chaps. 19-20 cover the period 1948-1990; there is no bibliography).
2. The United States and Korea.
Claude A. Buss, The United States and the Republic of Korea. Background for Policy,
Stanford, California, Hoover Institution Press, 1982.
Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, v. I., Liberation and the Emergence of
Separate Regimes, 1945-1947, Princeton, N.J. 1981; v. II, The Roaring of the
Cataract, 1947-1950, Princeton, N.J. 1990.
Charles M. Dobbs, The Unwanted Symbol. American Foreign Policy, The Cold War, and
Korea, 1945-1950, Kent, Ohio, 1981.
3. China, USSR and Korea.
Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai, UNCERTAIN PARTNERS. Stalin,
Mao, and the Korean War, Stanford, Ca., 1993. (The authors did not have access to the
Russian documents listed below).
Chen Jian, "China's Road to the Korean War," Cold War International History Project
BULLETIN, issues 6-7, Washington D. C., winter 1995-1996, p. 41 and ff.
Kathryn Weathersby, "New Findings on the Korean War," CWIHP Bulletin issue 3, Fall
1993, p. 1 ff.
Same, "New Documents on the Korean War," CWHIP Bulletin, issues 6-7, 1995-96, p. 30
4. The Korean War.
William F. Dean, General Dean's Story, New York, 1954.
Anthony Farrar-Hockley, The British Part in the Korean War, v. I, A Distant Obligation,
London, HMSO, 1990.
James A. Field, History of U. S. Naval Operations, Korea, Washington, D.C., Naval History
George F. Futtrell, The United States Air Force in the Korean War, Washington, D.C., Office of Air Force History, 1983.
Alexander L. George, The Chinese Communist Army in Action, New York, 1967.
John Gittings, The Role of the Chinese Army, Oxford, 1967.
Joseph C. Goulden, Korea: The Untold Story, New York, 1982.
Max Hastings, The Korean War, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
Walter G. Hermes, Truce Tent and Fightinq Front, Washington, D.C., U. S. Government Printing Office, 1966.
Marguerite Higgins, The War in Korea, New York, 1951 (by a prominent U. S. war reporter, who was often in the front line).
Trumbull Higgins, Korea and the Fall of MacArthur, Oxford, 1960.
Edwin P. Hoyt, Pusan Perimeter, Stein and Day, 1983.
same, On the Yalu, Stein and Day, 1984 (Hoyt is a popular, but reliable, author of works on military history).
same, On the Bloody Road to Panmunjon, Stein and Day, 1985.
Admiral C. Turner Joy, How Communists Negotiate, New York, 1955 (by the chief of the U. S. delegation at Panmunjon).
Eugene Kinkhead, Why They Collaborated, London, 1960 (on U. N. prisoners of the Chinese and North Koreans).
Donald Knox, The Korean War, An Oral History: Pusan to Chosin, New York, 1985.
Richard H. Kohn and Joseph P. Harahan, eds., Air Superiority ln World War II and Korea, USAF Warrior Studies, 1983.
Michael Langley, Inchon: MacArthur's Last Triumph, Batsford, 1979.
Peter Lowe, The Origins of the Korean War, London and New York, 1986.
Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, London, 1965.
Callum MacDonald, Britain and the Korean War, Oxford, Blackwell, 1990.
William Manchester, MacArthur: American Caesar, London, 1978.
Lynn Montross and Nicholas A. Canzona, U.S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-53, vols. I-V, Washington, D.C., Historical Branch, U.S. Marine Corps, 1957.
David Rees, Korea: The Limited War, London, 1964.
David Rees, The Korean War: History and Tactics, Orbis, 1984.
Matthew B. Ridgway, The Korean War, New York, 1967.
Richard H. Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The MacArthur Controversy and American Foreign Policy, Noonday Press, 1965.
James F. Schnabel, The U.S. Army in the Korean War, vols. I, II, Washington, D.C., Office of the Chief of Military History, 1972, 1984.
William Stueck, The Road to Conflict: U. S. Policy Towards China and Korea, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
Captain John Thornton, Believed to Be Alive, Eriksson, 1981 (on prisoners).
Harry S. Truman, Years of Trial and Hope, New York, 1956.
Richard Whelan, Drawing the Line. The Korean War, 1950-1953, London, Faber, 1990.
Allan Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, University of California Press, 1970.
Charles A. Willoughby and John Chamberlain, MacArthur, 1941-1951, New York, 1968.
(see also memoirs of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk).
5. North Korea.
Kim Il Sung, For the Independent Peaceful Reunification of Korea, New York, International
Publishers, 1975 (by the leader of Korea, 1946-94).
Tai Sung Au, North Korea. A Political Notebook, Wilmington, Delaware, 1983 (by a South
6. The Two Koreas.
Sung Chul Yang, Korea and Two Regimes. Kim Il Sung and Park Chung Hee, Cambridge, Masschusetts, 1981 (by a South Korean).
William J. Barnds, ed., The Two Koreas in East Asian Affairs, New York, 1976.