On June 25 1950 North Korea crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, officially invading South Korea, and marking what has been recorded historically as the beginning of the Korean War. Traditionally, many have viewed this war as democracy versus communism, the United States against Russia, and as the fight to stop the flow of the “Red Tide”. Much of the information regarding the origins of the Korean War is obscure, cloudy, and vague at best, but many scholars have recently begun to draw different conclusions and hypotheses based on their research. This different stance argues that the Korean War was more of a Korean civil war, which has its roots in circumstances on the Korean Peninsula that began at least five years before the official dates that the conflict began. Many facts and much evidence seem to point that this is in fact the case, but the truth may not be discovered until more of the confidential information on the war is released to the public. One such piece of evidence comes from a letter from Syngman Rhee, an exiled Korean conservative, written in the summer of 1945 to President Truman. The letter is a warning that there “…is a possibility of a civil war developing between the communist and nationalist factions in Korea (Lee 2001:6).
In this light, the factors that helped lead to the Korean War are: First, the division of North and South Korea post World War II along the thirty-eighth parallel with Russia overseeing the North and the United States overseeing the South. Second, the development of Korean People’s Committees following their liberation from Japanese rule, and the different treatment of these committees in the North and in the South. Third, the National Assembly elections in May 1948 in South Korea that led to the establishment of a Republic of Korea and the election of Syngman Rhee as president; followed by a countermove in North Korea with the establishment of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and the appointment of Kim Il Sung as premier. Fourth, the period of political violence, skirmishes, and guerilla warfare that followed soon after the establishment of the ROK, and peaked during the winter of 1949-50. Finally, a lull in the fighting as each side attempted to gain the support of their international counterparts, and the invasion by the DPRK in June 1950 (Cumings 1983:41, 138-139).
According to Bruce Cumings, “The first formal Korean policy-commitment to a multilateral trusteeship, from late 1943 until early 1947 sought to resolve security with capability by enrolling the Soviets into a four-power consortium that the United States would dominate” (Cumings 1983:4). But American foreign policy suffered a major setback in April 1945 when President Theodore Roosevelt died and President Harry S. Truman was forced to re-evaluate the future of the corporative relationship with Russia (Cumings 1983:68). The verbal agreements that Roosevelt and Stalin had come to were vague, and the new administration was forced to wait for future negotiations to sort the mess out. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 there was no clear cut manner to adopt trusteeship in Korea, so on August 11, 1945 Korea was split into two separate occupied zones along the thirty-eighth parallel (Lee 2001:21). The United States chose this line as the boundary so that they could control as much of Korea as they possibly could, including Seoul. This confusion over what to do with Korea and how to involve the Soviets would become an issue in the period leading up to the Korean War. The split of the Korean Peninsula in 1945 foreshadows the events yet to come. “If Korea had not been divided, its postwar history would have been very different; indeed, it is likely that the war would not have occurred” (Lee 2001:22).
When the Russian army moved into North Korea, the Koreans in Pyongyang welcomed them enthusiastically. The people of Korea had suffered extreme duress and hardships while the Japanese had occupied their country. The North especially suffered as it had been “…economically, politically, and socially the marginal part of Korea for centuries” (Armstrong 2003:13). The North Koreans had bad land on which to grow crops, had been largely excluded from holding higher offices, and were known for their “unruliness, violence, and independence” (Armstrong 2003:14). When the Japanese tightened their rule in the 1920’s, the people began to migrate into Manchuria, China, and the U.S.S.R. These Koreans began to strike out against the Japanese through guerilla warfare and peasant uprisings, the beginnings of strong feelings of anti-colonialism and fierce nationalism amongst the majority of the Korean people. These resistance groups were largely wiped out by the Japanese in the brutal “annihilation campaigns” of the 1930’s (Armstrong 2003:21). These events sparked in the Korean a strong desire for independence and laid the framework for communism to take hold due to the large number of peasants and workers who had suffered and desired reform.
When the American army moved in to occupy South Korea eight days after the Soviets had moved into the North, they were also welcomed with much fanfare. However, the United States “…made a major blunder almost at once that cost it the confidence and cooperation of the Korean people: It confirmed in office the despised Japanese administrative officials” (Ridgway 1967:7). John R. Hodge, the commanding general of the American military government in Korea, was assigned to “…remove Japanese imperialism, maintain order, and prepare the Koreans for eventual self governance” (Cumings 1983:107). Hodge’s other option was to work with the Korean People’s Republic, which was composed of staunch anti-Japanese Koreans who desired independence and self-governance immediately. “Worse still, in Hodge’s eyes was the presence of Communists in some of the KPR’s key positions” (Cumings 1983:107). This left a number of Koreans in office who were hated because they were seen by many as traitors, and also created a large amount of tension in South Korea.
“Within Korea in 1946-1946 a revolutionary situation and experience existed” (Lowe 1986:20). It also was a period of political organization; Korean leftists emerged from the underground and began to rebuild their communist parties. Immediately following their liberation, the people of Korea began to arrange their own political organizations, “…both at the center and in the regions”, widely called People’s Committees (Armstrong 2003:48).
In South Korea, the Americans systematically dismantled the People’s Committees because they would not acknowledge any of the preexisting Korean political authorities and because they had a strong leftist or communist presence, which had the possibility of taking the committees over (Lowe 1986:20). Syngman Rhee returned to Korea from exile, and works were put in motion in the South to merge Rhee and another exiles including Kim Ku, with the remnants of the colonial government. The entity that emerged became the political basis for the ROK regime in 1948 (Cumings 1983:15). The occupying American forces suppressed opponents to this regime, which often resulted in bloodshed.
In North Korea however, the Soviets did not do anything to remove the People’s Committees; instead they attempted only to make them more pro-Soviet. In 1946, the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee formed, and these People’s Committees became the official government of the North with much Soviet reshaping. “While internecine squabbling and conflict both with southern rightists and the American military government preoccupied communists in the South and the politics of the occupation inhibited North-South contact, the northern communists began to consolidate a unified organization” (Armstrong 2003:58). Kim Il Sung came into power during this period, utilizing the influence that he obtained while he was a general during the anti-colonial guerilla warfare during the Japanese occupation. He quickly became one of the main leaders of the North, and was elected to be the head of several different political organizations (Lee 2001:34-35).
Therefore, in North Korea the people began to unite under themes of anti-colonial nationalism and Soviet style socialism, whereas South Korea was divided between rightist conservatives, leftist communists, and the American military. The leftist north began to see the United States occupation of South Korea in the same light as they viewed the earlier Japanese colonization; they began to despise Americans and those sympathetic to them (Lowe 1986:55). Many North Koreans who did not agree with the party lines that formed during these years typically moved south and many South Koreans with leftist views headed north. The ways that these People’s Committees were handled seem to have made the unification of the peninsula even more unattainable as people began to group on the side of the thirty-eighth parallel that they agreed with. According to Peter Lowe, “The people of North Korea were happy and contented; the people of South Korea in reality supported the north but were prevented by the Americans and Rhee’s cronies from expressing their real opinions” (Lowe 1986:50).
If it seemed like the unification of the peninsula was becoming more and more unlikely, the situation was only to become more difficult. A key event occurred when the United States went to the United Nations for support of their Korean plan and pushed a resolution through the United Nations Commission on Korea. Through this resolution the United Nations was to allow elections in South Korea only, not throughout the whole continent, as was the original plan, and to give United Nations recognition only to the southern government (Lowe 1986:43). This decision was only advocated by Syngman Rhee, most of the other Korean leaders did not approve of only having elections in the South. “The Commission’s presence in the South prompted an opposition campaign by the SKLP (South Korean Labor Party) that escalated from demonstrations to sabotage to a major popular rebellion on Cheju-do” (Cumings 1983:139). This rebellion turned into a bloody was that lasted for over a year and led to the death of many thousands of Koreans (Halliday and Cumings 1988:37-38).
Syngman Rhee, the handpicked leader of the United States for South Korea, was elected president during the National Assembly elections. The Republic of Korea was formed on August 15 1948, and Seoul became the capital of the newly formed country (Halliday and Cumings 1988:33). The United States had planted yet another of its personally groomed governments in the world. North Korea responded in September 1948 by declaring the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Kim Il Sung was elected premier.
Legitimacy has been an enormous issue throughout the history of Korea. Beginning when the Koryo dynasty was overthrown in usurpation and the Choson dynasty labeled the Koryo dynasty as evil to justify the new regime. Arising again in 1455 when King Sejo took the throne by murdering the successor to the throne, and numerous other controversial events. Thus, when the peninsula was split in 1948 into two different countries with two different governments and leaders, each one claimed to be the only legitimate source of power, and thus they struggled to establish their rule over the entire peninsula. Each of the governments attempted to discredit the other and each began to prepare to defend itself in case the other attacked.
Syngman Rhee had been advocating that there be a northern invasion to kick out the communist elements that existed there. His cry became even more boisterous after the United Nations resolution that recognized his government as the only legitimate one on the Korean Peninsula. Many South Koreans had dreams of pushing even past North Korea and uniting with the Nationalist Chinese to dispel permanently communism in their region (Cumings 1983:27). Rightist South Koreans saw themselves as legitimate as they had a free election and also, since most of the world effectively recognized them as the only legitimate government in Korea, then the North Korean government must be illegitimate.
North Korea also did much to discredit the South Korean government. They termed it a puppet government, set up by the imperialistic United States, which needed American forces to protect it (Armstrong 2003:219-2200). When Kim Il Sung gave his opening address he stated that Syngman Rhee was an “American lackey”, and also that the United States was trying to colonize Korea and that if they did not defeat the Americans then “…we will be in perpetual slavery to American imperialism.” (Armstrong 2003:216). North Korea had also been experiencing success with the reforms they had been implementing since the spread of communism in their country. The DPRK began to think that since they were so successful in their revolution that their reforms and ideas would begin to move south because they were doing so great (Lowe 1986:54-55). Since each government felt that they were legitimate and the other one was not, they began to develop ideas that they should forcefully make the other adhere to their rule. The DPRK began to form an army so that they could defend themselves from attack if the South decided to do so, and in February 1948 the Korean People’s Army was formed. There were also many South Korean guerrillas who were pro-North who were also called upon to aid the North in the event that war broke out and also to “extend the revolution” if the regime of South Korea was to falter or crumble (Armstrong 2003:217).
In late 1948 the ROK faltered and almost crumbled when the Yosu Rebellion broke out. Fighting had broken out once again in Cheju-do and the Fourteenth Regiment from Yosu was sent to reinforce the constabulary already on the island. The regiment mutinied because they did not want to fight and kill their own people because imperialists told them to (Lee 2001:32). South Korean Labor Party cells aided in the rebellion and many rightist Koreans were searched out and killed. This event caused a major crisis for the ROK government. They were unsure if the communists had the ability to incite similar rebellions in other units, and many South Koreans began to doubt their security. The United Nations also began to question if the Rhee government would be able to survive on its own, and the United States slowed down the withdrawal of troops. Finally, Rhee pushed legislation through the government to put tighter reigns on the press to limit free speech and also weeded through the constabulary to rid itself of potentially troublesome individuals (Cumings 1983:145).
Late 1948-1950 marked the intensification of the conflict between the two Koreas. The southern government tried to consolidate its power against the northern communist groups, and the northern government strengthened its economy and prepared its stronger industrial base for war (Lee 2001:31). Syngman Rhee and the South Korean government began to grow cocky after they weathered the Yosu Rebellion, and began to feel that it was their turn to attack the communists who had been oppressing them. Rhee began to call for a push northward and also engaged in some diplomatic efforts to get support for such an action, such as lobbying congressmen. Fighting broke out along the thirty-eighth parallel that was unlike any previous engagements that had occurred. These battles were not simply sporadic, but it seems that the commanders of the outfits initiated some and the government itself may have authorized some (Cumings 1983:146). Some of these outbursts occurred when American troops were withdrawing, and most likely were attempts to induce the United States not to leave. South Koreans began a general consolidation of the parallel and engaged the North Korean forces several times.
North Korea retaliated by invading nearly ten kilometers below the parallel before being repulsed. The fighting continued with minor skirmishes through June with both sides probing the parallel, but heavy fighting resumed in August at Kaesong where the North Koreans showed their superiority with artillery. Major skirmishes became virtually non-existent, guerrilla warfare ensued in the South, and many atrocities were committed (Halliday and Cumings 1988:43). There is little or no evidence that the Soviets or North Korea had anything to do with the guerrillas, but that they were South Koreans that supported the north. In response to the increase in guerrilla warfare the ROK government initiated a major offensive that succeeded in breaking the back of the movement.
Despite this success, the ROK government was experiencing some traumatic problems in their relationship with the United States. Secretary of State Acheson made a speech in which he essentially left Korea off of the list of the United States defense perimeter in Asia (Cumings 1983:155). Complicating matters for Rhee were American sentiments that his government was likely to go the way of the Nationalist movement in China, and that the Korean aid bill did not make it through congress. The United States told Rhee on August 25 that if he did not hold the National Assembly elections on time or curb the rampant inflation in South Korea they would cut off assistance (Lowe, 61-64).
Meanwhile, the military of the DPRK was quickly becoming stronger. They were receiving ammunition, arms, artillery, and tanks from the Soviet Union. Adding to their strength was the release of many Korean soldiers who had been fighting on the side of the Chinese Communists against the Chinese Nationals. These soldiers were battle hardened and experienced, which gave the North a serious advantage over the South, which had limited soldiers with any sort of experience (Cumings 1983:155).
The fighting virtually ground to a halt in the spring of 1950. Except for one instance where a group of guerrillas headed to rejoin the North was decimated by the ROK army, there was almost no fighting. This seems to be the lull before the storm. The United States had removed most of their troops from the Korean Peninsula by 1949, and the Soviets had been gone (Halliday and Cumings 1988:60-61). Kim Il Sung petitioned for Soviet approval for his proposed invasion of the South and reunification of the peninsula, and received the ok from Stalin on January 17 1950. Both Kim Il Sung and Joseph Stalin thought that the war would be a quick one and that the peninsula would be reunified before the United States could become involved. They almost succeeded. The North Koreans crossed the thirty-eighth parallel on June 25 1950, and in a period of only three months they had conquered almost all of South Korea. However, the United States acted faster than either Kim or Stalin had expected, and General MacArthur pulled off one of the best military moves in history with the Inchon Landing. He effectively cut off the North Korean People’s Army from their source of supply when he circled around behind the northern forces in a daring high tide landing that could have been disastrous. The NKPA was quickly driven back behind the thirty-eighth parallel, and the United States attempted to invade North Korea according to a policy of rollback. The Chinese intervened on behalf of their North Korean neighbors, and they drove the American forces back behind the parallel again. The war ended in 1953 when an armistice agreement was signed, but the war was just a standoff after1951.
In all, the Korean War seems to be more of a civil war than an international war, or a war of democracy against communism. The roots of communism came from the harsh treatment of Koreans under Japanese occupation and their reaction to that oppression. As Bruce Cumings wrote, the Japanese colonial period had the biggest effect on Korea this century (Halliday and Cumings 1988:15). When World War II ended and Korea was split into two different zones to be occupied, the future was foretold of events to come. Because of the importance of legitimacy in Korean history and culture, this separation was made to be much more volatile when the United Nations allowed only for elections in South Korea, and recognized only that regime. The Soviets fostered communism in North Korea and the North Koreans embraced it. The United States fought the leftist viewpoint, and was fought for it. If the peninsula had not been divided in 1945, there is a good possibility that there would have been no war at all. However, it was divided, and laid the foundation for what was to come. It would be ignorant to say that the Korean War was solely a civil war, but its origins were as a civil war; the two Koreas interacted and forced the international community to react, and the international community acted and the Korean people had to react. The only fact that seems to be truly concrete is that the division of Korea into North and South started the snowball of the Korean War bounding down the Turak mountain range.
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