With the celebrations at the weekend of the 60th year since the end of the Korean War, if one considers it over, the West has forgotten that the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South the day after nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. It was intended to be a temporary scenario, Kim Il-sung was installed in the North by the Soviet Union and the United States put Syngman Rhee in charge of the South (the first many military dictators). There were frequent border skirmishes from the start, but it would go all the way in 1950. It would have huge implications for the Cold War and for the world today.
The cause of a united and independent Korea had huge support on the peninsula for obvious reasons. From 1910 to 1945 Korea had been the private play toy of the Japanese Empire. Although the Japanese generals worked to abolish the caste system in Korea they were eager to suppress Korea’s linguistic, cultural and religious heritage. Korea would be plundered to fuel the Japanese war machine, everything from its natural resources to its inhabitants were utilised. In their thousands Koreans found themselves subjected to forced labour and sexual slavery. Koreans were among the victims of Unit 73 where the Japanese Fascists carried out experiments on human beings. Some 20,000 Koreans were killed in the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was against this backdrop that the Korean peninsula was held apart by foreign powers.
A few years later came the end of Chiang Kai-Shek’s scandalously corrupt reign in China. Mao Zedong soon cut a deal with Stalin while the Kuomintang was driven to running its opium ring out of Taiwan. It was perceived as an enormous loss for the fledgling hegemon. As Oliver Stone noted in his book, The New York Times called it a “vast tragedy of unforeseeable consequences for the Western World.” When Kim Il-sung sent his troops down into the southern half of the peninsula The New York Times would urge Truman to act now or risk “los[ing] half the world.” The Times, in many respects the voice of history in US media, had set the Korean War in comparison to the loss of China a year earlier. The implications should be clear for anyone to see. As Chomsky notes “The tacit assumption was that the U.S. owned China, by right, along with most of the rest of the world, much as post-war planners assumed.”
It’s often described as though the Russians carried out a proxy-invasion which required a counteraction. Actually the Soviet Union was barely involved, aside from the green light that Stalin gave to Kim Il-sung who was eager for war and had promised a swift victory. Stalin had refused Kim permission in 1949 fearing a protracted war with the Americans, who had been beefing up Japan as a military outpost. By 1950 the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb and a new ally in China, so Stalin could give his blessing under the understanding that Russian forces would have a very limited role. In the whole conflict only 26,000 Russians died, a figure dwarfed by the piles and piles of Koreans and Chinese slain. Chairman Mao had agreed to support the invasion to appease the Soviet Union, but also wanted to keep China out of the war.
Upon the US intervention Truman said "A return to the rule of force in international affairs would have far-reaching effects. The United States will continue to uphold the rule of law." The US intervened through the UN in what Truman described, in typical cynicism, as a ‘police action’ rather than call it what it was – an undeclared war – where the UN played a nominal role with half the ground troops composed of Americans. The US went far beyond what the UN resolution stipulated, going as far as to push deep into North Korea eventually reaching the Chinese border and provoking a Chinese intervention. As Howard Zinn notes, the UN had only sanctioned actions to repel the North’s forces and to restore peace and security within the area. The American intervention would not be shy of war crimes in its bombing campaign to level the Korean peninsula. Zinn refers us to the words of a BBC journalist on the effects of napalm:
In front of us a curious figure was standing, a little crouched, legs straddled, arms held out from his sides. He had no eyes, and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus. . . . He had to stand because he was no longer covered with a skin, but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily. . . . I thought of the hundreds of villages reduced to ash which I personally had seen and realized the sort of casualty list which must be mounting up along the Korean front.
Although, Stalin saw the war partly as an opportunity to get back at the United States for its decision to form NATO after the war had been under way for a year Stalin pushed for negotiations. The table-talks would drag on for two years while the US continued in its firebombing campaign and ultimately forcing Koreans to seek refuge in caves. The campaign’s reach was not limited to the Communist forces in the North. Around this time the British armed forces yearbook observed “The war was fought without regard for the South Koreans, and their unfortunate country was regarded as an arena rather than a country to be liberated. As a consequence, fighting was quite ruthless, and it is no exaggeration to state that South Korea no longer exists as a country.”
The war was a disaster for Harry Truman, who enjoyed an approval rating low of 22% as support for the war dipped to 39% in 1951. Once Eisenhower had succeeded Truman and Stalin had died the US proceeded to bomb the dams near Pyongyang – having ran out of other targets – killing thousands of peasants and destroying crops for a population facing starvation. It was a crime with precedence in Nazi-occupied Holland, as Chomsky notes. The war would end at an armistice which upheld the partition on the 38th Parallel where the war had begun three years earlier. It was the first of America’s wars to be backed by establishment liberals. Not just The New York Times, but The Nation and even Henry Wallace capitulated to social chauvinism. It would not be the last time a progressive coalition would emerge on the side of US intervention.
We would see this re-emerge for Kennedy’s shameless aggression towards Cuba and Vietnam, let alone the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan decades later. The herd of independent minds has included such venerated creatures as Isaiah Berlin and most recently journalists like Christopher Hitchens. The few voices of dissent will continue to be vilified for their non-conformism. Like many later adventures the war was not a perceived victory because 37,000 Americans lay dead and the outcome had not established any significant gains for the South. Even though 3 million Koreans and 1 million Chinese had died in the war it wasn’t enough. It was total victory, or nothing. The original cold warrior Winston Churchill had the foresight to comprehend the significance of the Korean War when he said “Korea does not really matter now… Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.”
Gore Vidal estimates the full price of the national security state at $7.1 trillion from 1949 to 1999. The peninsula remains divided to this day, in a permanent stand-off of hundreds of thousands of troops at the ‘demilitarized zone’: a strange name for a place where there are nuclear mines in the ground. The war may have ended in a stalemate at the 38th Parallel where it had begun, but it was a victory for the military-industrial complex. The prevailing interests seem to convergence with this stalemate being continued for years to come. China doesn’t want the immigration fallout, nor does the US want to shell-out any cash for a reunification. Yet war remains a possibility. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson has speculated that the South would win out in any outbreak of war, but it’s likely that there would be 100,000 dead (a low estimate) in the first week and Seoul may be devastated by North Korean artillery.
Korea is still waiting for reunification and now it seems more unlikely than ever. Perhaps if the US had stayed out of the war Korea might have been reunited – albeit under the red flag – and this perpetual stand-off could have been averted. Likely such a Korea would have given into the same forces as its neighbours and opened up its economy. It’s possible that the military-party state would have saved itself in this way, as seen in China and elsewhere. The militarisation of the economy and society may not have arose had it not been for the six decades of deadlocked posturing. The prospect of a less gentle re-run of the first war may have been avoided completely. Indeed, it remains to be demonstrated whether or not this possibility would have been worse than the outcomes we face today.
This article was also posted on the Third Estate.
 Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.222-223
 Ibid. pg.236
 Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.245
 Ibid. pg.245-246
 Stone, O; Kuznick, P; The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Press, 2013) pg.251
 Vidal, G; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Clairview Books, 2002) pg.152