It looks like peace is breaking out in Korea. The Koreans themselves are moving fast to mend their nation. When paradigm shifts happen they often happen quickly. In just a little over a year the South Korean people demanded the ouster of the corrupt rightwing Park Geun-hye as their president, and a new election replaced her with the liberal human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in.
Moon brought in a new era with the overwhelming support of the South Korean people. Kim Jong-un of North Korea responded likewise. Since the beginning of this year the normalization of relations between the North and the South have been moving fast. U.S. diplomats cannot keep up with it. So let us look into the deep roots of the Korean War and what would help the peace process.
We can start by answering what caused the Korean War. The conventional wisdom is that the war was started by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (i.e. North Korea) on June 25, 1950 when it invaded the Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korea). But the conventional wisdom is wrong. It is like saying that the Vietnam War started when North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam; or asking when did the American Revolution start.
Scholars are coming around to recognizing that the Korean War was a civil war. Bruce Cumings in his book, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History”, explains it this way:
“The Korean War did not begin on June 25, 1950, much special pleading and argument to the contrary. If it did not begin then, Kim iI Sung could not have ‘started’ it then, either, but only at some earlier point. As we search backward for that point, we slowly grope toward the truth that civil wars do not start: they come. They originate in multiple causes, with blame enough to go around for everyone—and blame enough to include Americans who thoughtlessly divided Korea and then reestablished the colonial government machinery and the Koreans who served it.”
The Korean War has its roots in the mid 1800’s. There was a scramble for colonies, subjugation and influence in East Asia. The driving force of colonialism was trade. It was a scramble for booty, cheap labor, and markets. The Industrial Revolution and the instability of capitalism caused an excess of production; requiring new markets, and the need for more raw materials to feed the machines. Capitalism must constantly expand trade or growth stops, and the system collapses.
Fortunes were made in trade with Asia: tea, silk, spices, tobacco, sugar, rum, porcelain, cotton, coal, timber, gold and opium. The big powers in Asia were England, France, Dutch, Czarist Russia and the United States of America. Japan got into the game after the U.S. forcefully opened it for trade with the black gunboats of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854.
The Japanese were quick learners in the ways of Western imperialism. Theodore Roosevelt admired them greatly, and considered them to be a “superior” race of Asians. Racial stereotyping was then common and many Westerners considered Asians to be inferior heathens. It was not uncommon for Asians to view rightly foreigners and Christian missionaries as subversives, and wanted to keep them out.
In 1866 the U.S. armed merchant ship the General Sherman tried to force its way into a Korean port despite protests from Korea that it was not open for business. The Koreans attacked the ship, and when it got stuck on a sandbar they killed all the crew and burned the ship.
In 1871 the U.S. used the General Sherman incident as an excuse to launch an invasion of Koreawith the aim of getting an apology and establishing trading relations. The U.S. invasion was a success, it taught the Koreans a lesson, but they still refused to establish trading relations.
Later, fearing subjugation by one colonial power or another, Korea decided to make a deal with what it thought would be the lesser evil, and entered into the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation with the U.S. in 1882. Koreans took some comfort that the U.S. was on the other side of the ocean, unlike Japan. In exchange for giving the U.S. unequal trading rights, the Koreans got a signed treaty of U.S. protection.
The U.S. broke its promise of protection and delivered Korea into the colonial hands of the Japanese with the Taft–Katsura agreement in 1905. Theodore Roosevelt made a secret pact with the Japanese during his mediation of the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War. The secret deal was that Japan got Korea, and the U.S. got a Japanese guarantee of non-interference with its colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, even though he secretly and cynically double crossed the Koreans.
After World War Two the U.S. denied Korea a chance for independence again. Instead of liberating Korea, the U.S. was responsible for the division of Korea at the 38th parallel. Russia agreed, and while the Russians ushered in a government of Korean freedom fighters in the North, the U.S. in the South put in place a puppet government of Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese, and the hated right-wing Korean aristocrats known as Yangban.
In both the north and the south Koreans were ready for self-government. In anticipation of the defeat of the Japanese and liberation, they had set up the Korean People’s Republic with grassroots committees all over the country. The head of the KPR in the South was Yo Un-hyong. Yo was a popular left-leaning nationalist and land reformer. He was assassinated 2 years later by the U.S. backed rightwing puppet government of Syngman Rhee
Even though the Korean people had governed themselves for over a thousand years, the U.S. did not consider them ready for self-government. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed that Korea be placed in a trusteeship. He said it would take 40 years before Korea would be ready for self-government.
When U.S. troops docked at the Port of Incheon Korea on September 8, 1945 Roosevelt was dead, and Harry Truman was president. Under Truman the ruse of a trusteeship was dropped. The spoils of war go to the victor and the U.S. set about establishing the southern half of Korea as if it was a new U.S. colony.
The Koreans did not even get to celebrate their first night of liberation in 1945. The U.S. military declared martial law and ordered a curfew for all Koreans. The Japanese colonial administrators were kept in place, and American and Japanese officers partied at the Chosen Hotel in Seoul for several drunken days.
The Japanese administrators, military and police simply put on U.S. Army Military Government (AMG) armbands, kept their rifles and patrolled the streets with fixed bayonets until 1946. Similar scenes were taking place in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia “liberated” from the Japanese. It was the beginning of the renewal of the U.S. “special relationship” with Japan that Theodore Roosevelt had established in 1905.
The U.S. befriended the enemy Japan and turned on their former Korean allies who had been fighting the Japanese for over 12 years. The U.S. military occupation government commanded by General John R. Hodge would be the military occupation government for the next 3 years.
In 1946 the Japanese administering southern Korea were replaced mostly with Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese, and the yangban kept their lands. The U.S. feared that communism would take hold in liberated countries. It was the communists who had put up the biggest armed resistance in Asia against the Japanese during World War Two. The U.S. no longer needed or wanted them.
The scene in northern Korea was quite different. The Korean People’s Republic and their grassroots committees took over the government functions. The Japanese war criminals, collaborators, and yangban fled south where the U.S. welcomed them with open arms.
Within 3 years the Russians had pulled out all of their armed forces. The Russians had their own devastated country to rebuild, and they were more concerned about Eastern Europe, which was the historical invasion route to Russia.
The U.S.’s own intelligence had identified the desires of the Korean people. They wanted independence, self-government and land reform. Those were the antithesis of what the U.S. wanted for the Korean people. It was the U.S. that was scrambling all over the world to stem the tidal wave of anti-colonialism.
Kim il Sung was a national patriotic hero that had been fighting Japanese colonialism since the early 1930’s. If the U.S. had not blocked nationwide elections in Korea, he or another leftist reformer would have overwhelmingly won a fair election.
In the Moscow Conference of December, 1945 the U.S. and Russia agreed that Korea would be independent within 5 years after nationwide elections and that all foreign troops would withdraw. Russia kept its end of the bargain. The U.S. broke its promise.
Instead the U.S. rigged an election in the South, in which the Communist Party and leftist were not allowed to participate. Later the U.S. would use the same trick in South Vietnam, in order to keep that country divided too. Like Kim il Sung in Korea, Ho Chi Minh was a national hero and would have won in a fair nationwide election in Vietnam.
Turn to 1950. Military clashes had been a regular occurrence along Korea’s 38th parallel for 2 years, many of them initiated by the South. The 38th parallel was not recognized as an international border by either the U.S. puppet government in South Korea or the anti-colonial government in North Korea.
Korea was one country, and each side claimed to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. Therefore, the Korean War was not a war of aggression. There was no invasion of Korea by Koreans. The invaders were the U.S. which was subjugating the South, and backed a little-known transplant named Syngman Rhee, who had lived in the U.S. for forty years.
The Rhee dictatorship went on an anti-communist witch hunt that killed, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared hundreds of thousands of patriotic left-leaning Koreans in the South. Repressive dictatorships continued the persecution of dissidents for the next 40 years.
No one knows exactly what happened on the night of June 25, 1950; both sides said that the other side started the clash. The scenario that has become official U.S. legend raised many questions, most notably by the investigative journalist I. F. Stone in his book “The Hidden History of the Korean War (1950-1951)”.
For Kim il Sung and his compatriots the Korean War was an anti-colonial war. First he fought against the Japanese, just as Vietnam was fighting then against the French and their puppet government. To Kim il Sung, South Korea was a colonial puppet government of the US. The U.S. can be seen as the aggressor in both Vietnam and Korea.
The legal fig leaf of U.S. subjugation and the establishment of a puppet government in South Korea was a U.S. dominated United Nations-backed rigged election in the South. Communists were not allowed to participate so they boycotted it.
For the next 40 years South Korea was ruled by U.S. backed dictators Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. If one wants to know who controls a country, then look at who controls the country’s military. South Korea’s military is still today under the wartime command of the US military.
Korea and Vietnam have many similarities. Both were invaded by colonial powers in the 1800’s. Would any historian today write something like: The Vietnam War started when the North Vietnamese attacked their French colonial occupiers? Would anybody say that The Vietnam War started in 1957 when Ho Chi Minh’s forces crossed the 17th parallel? South Vietnam, as was South Korea was ruled by a puppet government of the US.
Ho Chi Minh was a freedom fighter just as Kim il Sung was against the Japanese during World War Two. Both were fighting colonialism. The Vietnam War and the Korean War were wars against U.S. occupiers that had replaced colonial rule.
Neither North Korea nor South Korea recognized the 38th parallel as a border. As General MacArthur said when his armed forces crossed the 38th parallel on October 9, 1950, it was just an imaginary line. MacArthur’s UN mandate was originally to repel the North Korean forces from South Korea. But MacArthur argued that the 38th parallel had no meaning and he ordered his army into one of the worst disaster in U.S. military history.
The Chinese had repeatedly warned that they would intervene if MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel. Had MacArthur heeded that warning it may have saved millions of lives, including tens of thousands of American lives.
When MacArthur’s forces reached the Yalu River separating Korea and China there were 300,000 Chinese volunteers and Koreans waiting in ambush. MacArthur’s forces had to run a bloody gauntlet at the Chosen Reservoir as they retreated back across the 38th parallel. The U.S. forces suffered over 15,000 casualties in that single battle.
The reunification of Vietnam, like Korea, were agreed to be settled by nationwide elections. As in Korea, the U.S. staged a phony election in South Vietnam and established the government of the Republic of Vietnam, under the puppet president Ngo Dinh Diem. Just as in Korea, the U.S. knew that if there were fair elections in Vietnam, then the Communist Party would win. So like in Korea, the U.S. staged a phony election in the south in which communists were not permitted to participate.
Article V, item 60 of the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 recommended that within 3 months a conference would be held by all sides of the Korean War. All sides were to “settle through negotiation the question of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc. [sic]”.
The conference on Korea was held at the same Geneva Conference of 1954 that temporarily divided Vietnam. Nationwide elections in Vietnam were agreed to be held in 1956. No further agreement was reached on the “peaceful settlement of the Korean question”.
It was the US invasion of Korea in 1871, and Theodore Roosevelt’s betrayal that resulted in Korea being subjugated by Japan in 1905, and annexed in 1910. The U.S. caused much of the suffering, death and destruction of Korea for over a century, and a never ending war.
We cannot turn the clock back to March 1, 1919 when Woodrow Wilson made his 14 points speech that colonial people have a right to self-determination. Nor can we turn it back to 1948, and the promised independence for Korea.
What would help the peace process now in Korea is for the U.S. to get out of the way. All U.S. armed forces should be withdrawn from Korea, as they were supposed to have been in 1948. The US should stop bullying Koreans, stop meddling in the internal affairs of Korea, and let the Korean people settle their own destiny.