Cold War HistoryBACK TO LANDING PAGE
Korean War IntroductionGregg Brazinsky
The Korean War was a complex and multifaceted event that played a determining role in the evolution of the Cold War in Asia.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Korea in 1945
- The Occupation of the Korean Peninsula
- The Outbreak of the Korean War
- The Course of the Korean War
- Everyday Life and Culture in Wartime Korea
- The End of the Korean War
- Korea after the War
- About the Author
The Korean War was a complex and multifaceted event that played a determining role in the evolution of the Cold War in Asia. For many years, history textbooks misunderstood the origins and nature of this conflict. They began their coverage of the war with the events of June, 1950 when North Korea (also called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) launched a full scale invasion of South Korea (also called the Republic of Korea or ROK). They did not pay as much attention to the conditions that prevailed on the Korean peninsula during the years between 1945 and 1950. Any effort to fully understand the nature and impact of the Korean War must begin in 1945 when a nation rife with unresolved civil conflicts was divided by the world’s two new superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union. The conflicting agendas pursued by Americans, Soviets and different groups of Koreans during the subsequent five years made the Korean peninsula ripe for military conflict by 1950.
Korea in 1945
In 1945 Korea was a nation with deep political, social and economic divisions. Many of these divisions had been created during the previous thirty-five years when the country had been colonized and governed by Japan. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Japan had been determined to emulate the Great Powers of Europe by creating its own empire. The Japanese had long maintained that they had a special interest in Korea because of its geographical proximity to Japan. With much of the rest of the world already carved up by Europe and the United States, Japan annexed Korea in 1910. Thus, a nation which had existed independently for centuries fell under the control of a foreign power. For Koreans who had been slowly awakening to the need to reform their government and strengthen their nation against foreign influence, Japan’s annexation of their homeland was a tragedy.
Although Japanese colonialism destroyed Korea’s sovereignty, it created new opportunities for Koreans who were willing to collaborate with the Japanese empire. The Japanese government had sought to accelerate the processes of economic growth and industrialization in the Korean peninsula in ways that would strengthen Japan. In this context, a small number of wealthy Korean landlords who were able to invest their profits into industry and commerce were able to benefit enormously from Japan’s economic policies. Japan also needed Koreans who could serve as judges, administrators, and police in its colonial system. With few other life chances available, some Koreans made pragmatic decisions to assume these roles, even if it meant supporting Japanese imperialism either directly or indirectly. While some Koreans benefited in large and small ways under Japanese imperialism, however, other groups of Koreans suffered enormously. This was especially true during the years between 1938 and 1945 when Japan attempted to mobilize Korean society to support Japanese involvement in World War II. The Japanese imperial government forced hundreds of thousands of Korean peasants to labor in war related industries. This included 1.4 million Koreans who were drafted and forced to labor in Japanese mines and factories. Somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Korean women had been forced into sexual slavery as “comfort women” for the Japanese military.
When Japan surrendered its empire at the end of World War II the Koreans who had born the heaviest burdens during the Japanese colonial period naturally looked to create a more equitable socio-economic order. The majority of Koreans were in favor of dramatic change. They wanted land to be seized from large land-holders and redistributed to the peasants. They wanted an eight-hour work day and they wanted a new more democratic government that would enable both men and women to vote. But Korean landlords, merchants and other Koreans who had cooperated with the Japanese were opposed to this kind of social change. As soon as the Japanese left the peninsula both proponents and opponents of these changes formed their own political parties and began to compete for the right to govern their newly liberated nation.
Initially, leftists who supported land reforms and improved working conditions seemed to be gaining the upper hand in this conflict. When the Japanese surrendered they appointed a man by the name of Yŏ Ŭn-hyŏng as Korea’s interim president. The Japanese appeared to have chosen Yŏ because he had genuine nationalist credentials that could earn him the support of the majority of the Korean people but at the same time promised not to exact revenge on Japanese colonial administrators, who needed to remain in Korea for a short time before they could be returned safely to their native country. In the brief period of time after Japan surrendered, Yŏ began the task of setting up a new government on the Korean peninsula. Yŏ was a skilled statesman who was devoted to creating a government that was representative of the Korean people. In a short period of time he managed to create a government that possessed a surprising degree of legitimacy and popularity. He set up a new organization known as the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI) that was based in Seoul, the traditional Korean capitol. Local branches of the CPKI known as People’s Committees sprung up throughout the entire country and began to set up local governments in smaller cities and villages. In September 1945, the CPKI convened a nationwide people’s assembly. At this assembly, several hundred representatives from around the country announced the formation of a new Korean government that would be known as the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). The Korean left played a far greater role than the Korean right in shaping the KPR’s agenda. Upon its formation, the KPR put forward a twenty-seven point platform that included sweeping land reform and many of the other items that Korean leftists had longed to see implemented. Although the KPR made an effort to include Korean conservatives, the radical nature of its programs and the potential implications for such programs on wealthy Korean landlords and businessmen assured that opposition to the KPR would emerge. The most significant opponent of the KPR was the Korean Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP was a stronghold for wealthy Korean landlords and businessmen, some of whom had profited greatly under Japanese colonialism.
The historian Bruce Cumings’s work on the origins of the Korean War was the first work in the English language to explicate these dynamics of Korean politics after liberation. Based on his analysis of these events, Cumings has argued that even if the United States and Soviet Union had never decided to occupy the Korean peninsula, it is likely that a civil war would have occurred in Korea between leftist forces supporting the KPR and conservative supporters of the KDP. Given the broad support that the KPR possessed among wide sectors of the Korean population, it also seems likely that the KPR would have prevailed in this conflict and created a new social order that would have reflected Korean popular aspirations. But the two Cold War powers did choose to occupy Korea and their decision to do so irrevocably altered the course of Korean history.
The Occupation of the Korean Peninsula
At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, the Soviet and American allies agreed that when the Soviet armed forces entered the war against Japan the following month, they would be responsible for all ground actions in Korea. However, as the Japanese Army collapsed unexpectedly rapidly following the Soviet entry into the war on August 9, the U.S. government became worried that Soviet control over Korea would endanger its position in Japan. Consequently, late at night on August 10, the Americans hastily drafted a proposal to divide the Korean peninsula into two zones for the purpose of accepting the Japanese surrender. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accepted this proposal with no comment and ordered Soviet forces to stop at the proposed dividing line, the 38th parallel. A month later, American troops arrived to take up positions in the South. For the Soviet Union, Korea would serve as a buffer against attack from Japan and for the United States, Korea would serve as a buffer against Soviet pressure on Japan. For Koreans, however, the division and occupation of their homeland was unjustified, as they were a liberated people, not a former enemy. The division also had no logic, as the 38th parallel had no historical or geographical significance for Koreans and had been chosen by the Americans simply because it would place the Korean capitol Seoul into their occupation zone. But, partly because there was no Korean government in place, the Americans and the Soviets had made the decision to divide the peninsula without consulting any Koreans.
The occupation of Korea did not make a lot of sense to the American forces who assumed control of the peninsula in 1945 either. General John R. Hodge, the commander of the United States XXIV Corps, which was responsible for the American occupation of southern Korea, recalled his initial reaction to American plans to occupy the peninsula. “I didn’t understand it,” he explained, “it didn’t make sense to me, particularly the 38[th parallel] division line. And I went to MacArthur’s headquarters in Manila, and it didn’t seem to make sense to them either.” In contrast to the occupation of Japan, which was carefully planned by a cadre of Americans with administrative experience, the occupation of Korea was carried out by military personnel who had little training and no experience in establishing a government.
Although they possessed almost no understanding of the conditions that existed in Korea, Hodge and other American officers in charge of the occupation were suspicious of the indigenous KPR because they had received reports that it was backed by the Soviet Union. Summarizing his early encounters with Korea in an interview in 1947, Hodge explained that the occupation did not recognize the KPR as a government because “it became apparent very soon that it was the Communist regime set up before our arrival.” He claimed that the organization made “every subversive effort to discredit the Americans” and derail U.S. endeavors “toward democratic development.” Having linked the KPR to the global threat of Communism General Hodge and American occupation forces not only refused to recognize the KPR, but were unwilling to meet with its elected leaders
Unwilling to recognize the KPR, American occupying forces decided to establish a military government in the southern zone. This meant that the American military rather than Korean citizens would govern Korea south of the thirty-eight parallel. The occupation did fill many of the administrative positions in the new military government with Koreans but the vast majority of the Koreans that they chose were conservatives who had been affiliated with the KDP. In the following months, American occupying forces endeavored to seek out political leaders in Korea that would vigorously oppose Communist influence and support the establishment of a democratic government. Unfortunately, few liberal democrats of the type that Americans were looking for existed in Korea. During the period between the fall of 1945 and the spring of 1947 the U.S. Military Government made several failed attempts to create Korean councils or committees that could prepare Korea for the creation of an independent government. The problem for the United States was that for such nascent political institutions to acquire popular legitimacy, they needed to make an effort to include leftists who remained popular in many segments of Korean society. At the same time, however, the United States worried that allowing leftists to influence these committees would enable Communists to gain control over all of Korea. As a result American policy attempted to allow some leftists to be fairly elected to these councils while trying to ensure that conservatives maintained the upper hand. Ultimately, however, the conflicts between left and right proved irreconcilable and every American effort to create a preparatory political institution failed.
In this context, Syngman Rhee swiftly rose to political prominence in the American occupied zone. Rhee had spent most of the previous four decades in the United States attempting to lead an international movement for Korean independence from Japanese colonialism. While in the United States he earned a BA from the George Washington University and a Ph.D. from Princeton, but he nonetheless never seemed to embrace the precepts of liberal democracy. His politics were staunchly right-wing and when the Military Government authorized his return to Korea, Rhee immediately aligned himself with the Korean right. Americans had no illusions about the nature of his leadership. One State Department report claimed that it was “difficult to imagine how a political leader with such a small quantity of actual ability and substance to offer his following has been able to attain such great popularity.” Nevertheless, Rhee was tolerable to Americans because he was staunchly anti-Communist. The fact that he had remained in exile during the colonial period and campaigned for national independence rather than remaining in Korea and cooperating with the Japanese colonizers gave him a genuine nationalist credential and a degree of prestige among his fellow Koreans that other Korean conservatives lacked. Rhee was also extremely adept at manipulating the American Military Government. As American efforts to find more moderate leaders foundered, Rhee bided his time and looked for issues that could strengthen his popular support.
In the meantime, events in the Soviet occupied north were taking a very different direction. The Soviets sought to ensure that the political system they put in place would be friendly toward the Soviet Union and would enable them to benefit economically from Korean industrial resources.
But because the left was already predominant in Korean politics, achieving this objective was easier than for the Americans. The Soviets did not eliminate the People’s Committees as the Americans did in the south, but instead reorganized these organizations to increase the representation of communists. They also quickly established a centralized administration for their zone, staffed with Koreans and supervised by Soviet officials, who had the ultimate authority. To head the new government for their zone, the Soviets selected a young guerilla fighter, Kim Il Sung, who had taken refuge in Manchuria during the colonial period and had fled to the Soviet Union in 1941. At the time, Manchuria had been colonized by Japan but a wide spread resistance movement against Japanese colonialism had sprung up. Kim had been one of the most well-known guerilla leaders in this anti-Japanese struggle. By February of 1946, Kim had consolidated his position as the most powerful Korean political figure in the north, and by the fall of 1946, Kim had created the North Korean Workers’ Party (NKWP), a powerful new political organization that he used to eliminate rival parties.
Initially, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had intended the division of the Korean peninsula to result in the establishment of separate states. At the Yalta conference of February 1945, Stalin had accepted Roosevelt’s proposal to place Korea under trusteeship for several years while a permanent government was created. At the Moscow conference of December 1945 the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union reached an agreement on the Korean trusteeship whereby a U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission would convene the following spring to create a single provisional government for the whole country. But the sharp ideological differences between the Korean political leaders that emerged in the northern and southern zones combined with the irreconcilable differences between Americans and Soviets made it impossible for the Joint Commission to reach agreement. In response, in September 1947 the United States turned to the United Nations to create a government for Korea. The United Nations Temporary Committee on Korea (UNTCOK) was created and assigned the task of supervising elections for the entire Korean peninsula. When the Soviets and the nascent Korean regime in the north refused to allow UNTCOK access to their zone, the United States persuaded the U.N. to support separate elections in the south. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was formally inaugurated in Seoul in August 1948 while the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north was declared three weeks later. Syngman Rhee became the first President of the Republic of Korea and Kim Il Sung became Premier in the DPRK.
The division of the Korean people into two adversarial states was a tragedy in many ways. The division made impossible the long cherished aspirations of many Korean patriots to form an independent Korean nation state. Moreover the creation of two different states resulted in the permanent separation of family members, as the thirty-eight parallel became a tightly sealed border. Neither of the two new regimes that emerged on the peninsula fulfilled the aspirations of the Korean people for a more just and democratic government. Although the ROK had formally democratic institutions, Syngman Rhee had deeply autocratic tendencies and he used his position as president to suppress and intimidate those who opposed his regime. In the DPRK, Kim Il-Sung and the Soviets had carried out popular reforms, but these were accompanied by highly authoritarian politics. Kim Il Sung put in place an elaborate system of surveillance that enabled his regime to monitor nearly all sectors of society, and those that dissented against the regime. Freedom of the press had long ceased to exist in northern Korea even before the creation of the DPRK and potential rivals to the regime were eliminated. North Korea was probably superior to South Korea in terms of social justice, as the land of wealthy Koreans had been redistributed to poor peasants. At the same time, South Korea was probably superior to North Korea in terms of human freedom. The Rhee regime did resort to extremely repressive tactics to control his opposition but a greater degree of freedom of expression and freedom of the press generally existed in the south. Ultimately, however, both of these regimes were deeply flawed and both committed grievous atrocities against their own citizens. This added to the suffering that Koreans had already endured under Japanese colonialism. Perhaps most tragic of all was the fact that the irreconcilable political differences that existed between these regimes ensured that still greater hardships, including war itself, were in store.
The Outbreak of the Korean War
The two new Korean states were hostile toward each other from the time that they were created. The political leaders of the two new states viewed each other as illegitimate and representative of ideas that they had struggled to oppose since the Japanese colonial period. Although a full-scale war did not break out on the Korean peninsula until June 25, 1950, the two states began taking some of the steps that would lead to war almost as soon as they were inaugurated. Armies had begun to develop on both sides of the thirty-eight parallel even before separate states were established. The United States had helped to create a “constabulary” in the south in December, 1945. After 1948 this constabulary became the basis of the ROK Army. Once the Republic of Korea was inaugurated the Army rapidly enlisted thousands of new recruits so that it had nearly 100,000 men by the time the war broke out. The United States continued to play a powerful role in training and equipping this new army. It not only sent material support but also deployed military advisors who helped to train the army. Well before the war broke out the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) had already begun to establish new military schools to introduce American combat techniques and strategies to Korean soldiers. Kim Il Sung had begun creating his own military in 1946. He appointed his close political allies to the highest ranking military posts. Much as the United States supplied equipment and advice o the ROK military, the Soviet Union supplied weapons and guidance to the military in North Korea. Soviet military advisors remained on the Korean peninsula after the DPRK was formally inaugurated in 1948, while some of the DPRK’s military leaders traveled to the Soviet Union for training. Within months of the inauguration of the two states, they both had significant military establishments and military conflict between the two sides was starting to appear more and more likely.
The two new armies began to engage each other in small scale conflicts during the spring of 1949. Particularly fierce battles occurred in May 1949 near at the border city of Kaesŏng and in August 1949, when DPRK forces attacked ROK Army units occupying a small mountain north of the thirty-eight parallel. During the first conflict at Kaesŏng, 400 North Korean and 22 South Korean soldiers were killed. The second conflict in August dragged on for months and southern forces were completely routed. Two ROK divisions were defeated and hundreds of South Korean soldiers died in battle. Ultimately, DPRK forces regained complete control of the mountain. Despite the tensions that prevailed on the Korean peninsula and the fierce nature of these battles, however, they did not immediately produce the all out conflict that would begin just months later. The key reason was that while Korean leaders on both sides agitated for war, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted such a conflict to break out. Both demanded that their respective Korean client states show restraint or risk losing the military and economic assistance that they were receiving. For eight months after the August conflict a tense atmosphere prevailed on the peninsula with both sides preparing for a much larger conflict.
Historians have debated when and how the Korean War actually broke out. For many years, documentary evidence seemed to indicate that the Korean War began with a North Korean attack on Ongjin, a small peninsular area that was south of the thirty-eighth parallel but cut off by water from the rest of South Korea. Historians such as Bruce Cumings had argued that the DPRK likely planned to launch only a limited invasion to take the Ongjin peninsula and that it was impossible to tell whether the DPRK or the ROK started the Korean War. Other historians such as Kathryn Weathersby utilized records of meetings and telegrams between Stalin and Kim Il Sung to argue that the June 25th attack was part of a larger premeditated invasion of the south. Recently Kathryn Weathersby has found new materials that, she argues, conclusively demonstrate that the DPRK and the Soviet Union started the Korean War. These documents reveal that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decided to support Kim Il Sung’s request to invade the South in January, 1950 and that Mao Tse-tung, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, also agreed with Kim’s request. According to Weathersby, Soviet documents demonstrate that initial plans drawn up by Kim and Stalin called for the DPRK to initiate the invasion with an attack on Ongjin but that three days before the scheduled date of attack reports reached Kim Il Sung that the South Koreans had learned of the KPA plans and were reinforcing their positions on Ongjin. Stalin then fatefully agreed with Kim’s recommendation to change the plan so that they would instead open with a full-scale invasion all across the 38th parallel. Weathersby marshals powerful evidence that the war was initiated with Stalin’s approval and planned jointly by Soviet and North Korean military officers. But not all scholars are likely to be convinced that these documents are the final word. Cumings has written recently that “even when we have every document that the Soviets ever produced, we still need the South Korean archives, the North Korean archives, the Chinese archives on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, and the American intelligence signals, cryptography and archives before we will be able to argue on truly solid ground the question we ought all try to forget, namely, ‘Who started the Korean civil war?”
The Course of the Korean War
The Korean War was not the brief campaign anticipated by the Soviets and promised by the North Koreans. Instead, it lasted for three years, involved troops from 17 other countries, and cost millions of lives. The Truman administration viewed the invasion as an act of Soviet aggression that must be stopped lest, like Nazi piecemeal aggression of the 1930’s, it lead to another world war. Truman turned to the U.N. to authorize the intervention to defend South Korea, partly in order to strengthen the newly created organization and partly in order to ensure domestic support. By going to the U.N. and having the organization recommend “police action” in Korea, the Truman administration could fight an “undeclared war” in Korea. The United Nations Committee on Korea decided swiftly that the DPRK had been at fault for the outbreak of the conflict, the U.N. swiftly ratified American plans and fifteen countries committed their forces to fight under the UN flag.
In the first weeks of the war, DPRK forces proved far more formidable than the ROK army. By the beginning of August, American and South Korean forces had been driven back to the “Pusan perimeter,” a small area in southeastern Korea that encompassed the cities of Pusan and Taegu. Between early August and mid-September, 1950 DPRK forces controlled most of the Korean peninsula. During that time DPRK forces attempted to change political and social conditions in the southern half of the Korean peninsula. They sought to resurrect the people’s committees that had been dissolved by the American military government and to carry out land reform. Such reforms were not always welcomed by civilians, however, and in some cases DPRK forces had to resort to coercion and violence to accomplish them. Ultimately, however, DPRK forces controlled the southern portion of the peninsula for only a short period of time, as a dramatic reversal in the combat situation occurred in September.
On September 15 General Douglas MacArthur succeeded in making a daring amphibious landing at the port of Inch’ŏn. The harbor at Inch’ŏn was known for its dangerous tides that at their worst could destroy entire flotillas of ships. But MacArthur managed to land a fleet of 261 ships and 80,000 marines at this port while hardly sustaining any losses of either troops or ships. The DPRK lines were thus cut in two and quickly disintegrated. Within two weeks of the Inch’ŏn landing all of South Korea had been liberated from DPRK control. But neither the United States nor South Korea was content with repulsing the North Korean invasion. The Truman administration decided that Communism should not only be contained on the Korean peninsula but also rolled back.
On September 30, 1950 American and South Korean forces crossed the thirty-eight parallel, in an effort to destroy the North Korean regime. DPRK forces continued to retreat quickly and within another month, nearly the entire Korean peninsula was under ROK control. Much as DPRK forces had sought to implement political and economic changes in South Korea when it fallen under their control, the United States and the ROK now sought to impose reforms on North Korea. The ROK sent Korean National Police units to take control of northern cities, where they hunted down communists and initiated political indoctrination campaigns. The actions of the ROK forces sometimes echoed the atrocities that North Koreans had committed in the South. But like the DPRK occupation of the south, the ROK occupation of the north proved to be extremely short lived. In November 1950 another dramatic shift in the course of the war occurred when Chinese troops entered the war on behalf of North Korea.
China’s entry into the Korean War came as a shock to Americans, who had believed that the Chinese would not dare to fight the United States and moreover, that Beijing would not view the American advance as a security threat. The motives of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse Tung for entering the conflict appear to have been ideological rather than strategic. Mao believed that China had an obligation to come to the aid of the DPRK because Korean troops had fought alongside Chinese Communist forces in China’s civil war and in the war of resistance against Japan. He also believed that entering the war in Korea would revive the flagging momentum of the Chinese revolution. Unprepared for the sudden Chinese onslaught, American and South Korean forces were forced to retreat rapidly.
Within two weeks Chinese and DPRK forces had driven their adversaries out of North Korea and then began to move into the territory south of the parallel. On January 4, 1951 Seoul fell under Communist control once again. These were days of panic for American foreign policy makers in Washington. American officials and commanders considered the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against Chinese forces during the early months of January 1951. General MacArthur continuously asked the Truman administration to grant him a commander’s discretion to use atomic weapons and criticized Truman when he did not agree to the request. Ultimately, however, the Truman administration decided not to use weapons of mass destruction, as they doubted the effectiveness of such weapons in terrain such as Korea, with armies in such close proximity. Perhaps as importantly, American and ROK forces under the command of General Matthew Ridgway were able to push Chinese and North Korean forces back to the thirty-eighth parallel during the spring of 1951. A stalemate then developed along the very same line that had been drawn at the end of World War II.
During this period, disagreements flared between General MacArthur and President Truman. After the Chinese entered the war, Truman wanted to keep the conflict confined to the Korean peninsula. MacArhur, on the other hand, wanted to wage an all out war against China that would include allowing Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan to attack the Chinese mainland and bombing industrial targets in China. When Truman refused to run the risk of turning the Korean War into a global conflict, MacArthur continued to criticize the Administration. Despite the dramatic success that he had scored through his command of the Inch’ŏn landing, MacArthur was dismissed for insubordination in April, 1951. After MacArthur’s dismissal both sides seemed content to contain each other and preserve the thirty-eight parallel as a dividing zone. The war continued for two more years but most of the battles that occurred during this period resulted in only minor gains and losses in territories. There were no more dramatic shifts along the lines of those that had occurred during the last seven months of 1950. Although the situation on the Korean peninsula became somewhat more stable after the spring of 1951 a great number of lives continued to be lost in battle and the impact of the war continued to be felt deeply in Korean society.
Everyday Life and Culture in Wartime Korea
Often forgotten in historical debates over the origins and politics of the Korean War is the impact that the war had on everyday life in Korea. The war was a very intense one, joined by two of the world’s greatest superpowers, and occurring within the relatively small geographical confines of the Korean peninsula. These dynamics of the war assured that the Korean peninsula and its people would be devastated by the conflict. The war also brought large foreign armies onto the Korean peninsula and soldiers fighting in these armies brought with them different cultures and ways of life. Interactions between foreign armies and Koreans produced a wide array of cultural changes in Korea, especially in the south where American influence suddenly became much more pervasive than it ever had been before. For different groups of Koreans, the war and its consequences took on very different meanings.
For many Koreans, the war simply meant death. Roughly two million Koreans lost their lives during the conflict and the majority of those who died during the war were civilians. These deaths left hundreds of thousands of other Koreans as widows and orphans. In South Korea alone the war widowed 300,000 women and orphaned more than 100,000 children. The plight of these victims was often desperate because the number of social institutions to assist individuals who had lost their husbands or parents in was woefully inadequate. By 1952, one observer had noted the presence of thousands of homeless children “who roam the crowded downtown areas, live on what they can cadge, [and] sleep in pubic buildings, railway stations or in the streets.” Koreans who survived during the war were often left homeless or impoverished. In South Korea the war destroyed 600,000 homes and thousands of other homes had become unsuitable for human inhabitance. In all, 5 million South Koreans — roughly a quarter of the country’s population — had been forced to leave their homes during the course of the war. The influx of 4 million refugees from North Korea that had occurred prior to and during the war had turned the lack of housing in South Korea into a major crisis by 1953. Although less precise statistical information is available about the extent of war damage to North Korea, the devastation and destruction that occurred there exceeded that which occurred in the south because the United States leveled the northern part of the Korean peninsula through saturation bombing. Many of the country’s cities and villages were completely destroyed by American air raids. Toward the end of the war, U.N Forces also utilized air power to destroy dams, causing massive flooding in North Korea and widespread food shortages. Much of North Korea’s population survived the war in caves and an underground complex of schools, dwellings and factories. On both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel the destruction caused by the war was immense and it would take both the ROK and the DPRK the better part of a decade to repair all of the material damage that was done.
In the course of the war, Korea not only suffered a great deal of destruction but also underwent a significant degree of social and cultural change. This was particularly true in South Korea, which suddenly found itself in a new, intimate relationship with the United States. The hundreds of thousands of American troops who fought in the war brought Koreans into contact with American culture and social mores in ways that could not have been imagined, even during the years between 1945 and 1950 when American forces occupied the southern half of the Korean peninsula. The war necessitated both the quartering of American troops in South Korean cities and the construction of military bases. Koreans living in proximity to American bases often seized the opportunity to serve or entertain comparatively wealthy American soldiers. To take advantage of the economic opportunity provided by American servicemen, thousands of Koreans learned how to cook American foods, perform American music and speak some English. Both a brighter and darker side existed to the cultural transactions that occurred between Americans and Koreans during the war. On the brighter side some savvy Koreans learned to adapt their own ambitions to the harsh circumstances that prevailed during the war. In particular, many Korean singers and musicians survived during the war by performing for American troops. Often they were paid in American money or candy bars which they traded for food and clothing. For some Korean musicians, performing for the American GI’s eventually provided a tremendous career boost. Several South Korean singers rose to fame during the fifties through performing American songs for GI’s and later adapting them for Korean audiences. Some of these performers literally went from rags to riches.
But a seamier underside to U.S.-Korean cultural interactions during the war existed as well. Koreans who had access to American bases often acquired American medicines, foods and other products either legally in exchange for their services or illegally. Black markets where American goods were illicitly bought, sold and traded for basic necessities developed in Seoul and other Korean cities. The social impact of military prostitution was perhaps even greater. Thousands of impoverished women from both urban and rural areas were drawn to “camp towns” where they often worked as prostitutes, bar-girls or mistresses for American soldiers. These “special entertainers” or Yanggongju (Western princess) rapidly became acquainted with American styles of food, clothing and personal relationships through the intimate nature of their contacts with clients. Moreover, they often received uniquely American gifts that their clients purchased in military exchange posts (PX s) such as chewing gum, combs, and American brands of alcohol and cigarettes. Often they earned sums of money and attained standards of living that were far beyond the grasp of the average South Korean. Several thousand South Korean women married American servicemen during the fifties and emigrated to the United States. During an era when Korean immigration to the United States was still only a trickle, these women constituted the largest group of Korean migrants to the United States and could in some instance provide information about American life and culture to their families or other South Koreans. Perhaps most importantly, these women became highly visible symbols of the influx of American ideas and culture into South Korea. They drew both sympathy and resentment from their fellow Koreans who recognized the fact that they had no other means of supporting themselves but envied their living standards and resented their blatant subordination to Americans.
On the battlefield, South Korean soldiers also gained intensive exposure to American culture through a variety of different means. Hundreds of thousands of young Korean men recruited by the ROK Army were socialized in new forms of military discipline through basic training programs devised by American officers. Training installations for South Korean soldiers were modeled after those that existed in the United States and thus introduced aspects of American military culture to Korean troops. American commanders also set up special schools that trained Korean soldiers in specific technical skills that were needed for combat. Through attending these schools, Korean recruits acquired a familiarity with American vehicles, weapons and communications technologies. Koreans who joined or were conscripted into the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army Program (KATUSA) probably gained a more intensive exposure to American culture and ways of life than any other group in the Korean military. In contrast to most South Korea soldiers who served in ROK regiments KATUSA soldiers were drafted directly into American combat regiments that had an urgent need for manpower replacements. KATUSAs, as they were sometimes called, lived, fought and ate with American combat units. They often acquired a taste for American food and wore American clothing. Because Korean troops received direct exposure to American culture and social norms while fighting alongside American soldiers, the combat experience ultimately had a transformative impact on Korean culture and society.
Of course, not all Koreans viewed the sudden influx of American culture favorably. A lot of the work produced by Korean writers and artists during and immediately after the war was deeply ambivalent about American influence on Korean society. Negative characterizations of American military personnel and life around the military bases became a salient theme in South Korean literature. A genre of literature known as the camp town novel (giji ch’on sosŏl) was flourishing in South Korea by the late fifties. These novels and short stories drew popular attention to both the poverty brought about by the Korean War and the conditions that prevailed in South Korean towns bordering on military bases. Often, they criticized the breakdown of moral decency or the abandonment of Korean customs that occurred in these areas. Many of these novels emphasized the conflicts that often occurred between wealthy, powerful American military personnel and Korean civilians. Korean music also expressed the ways that the war shattered lives, separated families and exerted its tragic influence on so many different dimensions of Korean life. Few popular singers expressed the sense of loss and grief that hung over South Korea more poignantly than Nam Insu. The lyrics to one of his most well-known songs “Love First Love” contained suggestions of both the hardships created by national division and the stoic resolve with which many Koreans greeted these circumstances. Both of these sentiments were easily discernible from the song’s first stanza:
You can kick me, if you wish. You can twist my heart, if you wish. It was fate not to be together. It was fate not to be together. Oh, Oh, broken love of mine.
Although the song was most directly about romantic love, its lyrics struck a deep chord with audiences struggling to come to terms with separation from their families. Such Korean representations of the division of the peninsula and the subsequent war as, above all else, a tragedy would persist not only during the war but long after the war had finally ended.
The End of the Korean War
The negotiations for an armistice that opened in Kaesŏng in July 1951 proved tortuous. Both sides showed some willingness to begin peace talks after U.N. forces managed to push Sino-North Korean troops back to the north of the thirty-eighth parallel. The two sides began what was to be a long, arduous process of negotiating an end to the war in Kaesŏng in July, 1951. At the time both sides expressed optimism that an agreement could quickly be reached but within weeks, the PRC decided to suspend the negotiations. Armistice talks resumed in October, 1951.
At the time, The United States was more inclined to negotiate than the Communists were, as the war was becoming increasingly unpopular at home and was causing divisions between the United States and some of its allies. Believing that the continuation of the war was in the Soviet Union’s advantage as it tied US forces down in Asia, weakened America’s relationships with its European allies and provided an excellent opportunity to gather intelligence on US military equipment, Stalin encouraged Mao and Kim to take a hard-line in the negotiations. By 1952, both the Chinese and North Koreans were tiring of the severe losses they were suffering from the war, but, for different reasons, they continued fighting. Because Soviet prisoners of war (POW’s) forcefully repatriated from Europe at the end of World War II had been immediately sent to prison or shot as traitors, the US was determined to avoid repeating that mistake in Korea. It therefore insisted that POWs should be given the opportunity to state whether they wished to return to communist China or Korea, and if not, be repatriated to Taiwan or South Korea, instead. Such an arrangement was politically unacceptable to China, who was thus unwilling to accept the American demands.
After Eisenhower’s election, the Communist side became increasingly willing to negotiate. Mao feared that Eisenhower would escalate the conflict, perhaps into an all out war against the PRC. Eisenhower himself had promised that he would resolve the stalemate in Korea with “deeds” rather than “words” and the Chinese took him seriously. They feared that the United States would initiate new attacks on Korea’s east and west coasts and perhaps attack coasts of the Chinese mainland. Moreover, Eisenhower announced several weeks after his inauguration that the United States would not restrain Chinese Nationalist forces in Taiwan from attacking the Chinese mainland as the Truman administration had done. Mao seemed to have been genuinely concerned about the shifts in American military strategy that might occur over the course of Eisenhower’s tenure in office. The tough new stances on Korea adopted by the Eisenhower administration seemed to create a new willingness on the part of the Chinese to resume armistice negotiations in early 1953, but Mao was still being pressured by Stalin to take a tough stance in dealing with the United States. In March, 1953, however, Stalin’s death would dramatically change the Communist strategy in the Korean War.
After Stalin’s death the Communist camp demonstrated a new willingness to negotiate. On February 22, 1953 General Mark Clark, who had assumed command of U.N. forces in Korea had sent a letter to Kim Il Sung and Chinese commander Peng Dehuai that included a new proposal on the issue of POWs. The Communist camp had not immediately responded but two weeks after Stalin’s death the new leadership in Moscow, worried about holding onto power at home and in Eastern Europe, took steps to end the war in Korea. The Soviet Council of Ministers passed a resolution in favor of a positive response to Clark’s letter. The council also sent letters to both Mao Tse Tung and Kim Il-Sung encouraging them to respond. The Soviets now began calling for the PRC to look for ways to bring an end to the conflict. On April 26 Armistice talks were resumed and the two sides continued to negotiate the contentious POW issue. On June 4 a major breakthrough was reached when the Communists accepted a U.N. proposal on the POW issue. The two sides agreed that POW’s would be released within 120 days of an armistice agreement and that a Neutral Nations Reparations Commission would interview individual POW’s to see which side they wanted to be released to.
Momentum towards the final conclusion of an armistice agreement had begun to build by June, 1953. But not all parties involved favored a swift end to the conflict. Syngman Rhee, the President of South Korea, now became a major thorn in the side of American and U.N. negotiators. Rhee did not want the war to end without the reunification of the Korean peninsula and his provocative behavior during the final months of the war nearly derailed the armistice talks on more than one occasion. On June 18 Rhee released twenty-five thousand Korean POWs who said that they did not want to be repatriated to North Korea. This was in violation of the terms that had been agreed to during armistice negotiations and infuriated the Communist camp. Fortunately, Chinese propaganda placed the blame for the incident where it belonged – on the shoulders of Syngman Rhee and did not criticize the U.N. for this action. But Rhee continued to create problems for the negotiators. Although he agreed not to obstruct the armistice he sometimes dropped hints that the ROK might use force if reunification was not achieved in a political conference between North and South Korea to be held after the signing of the armistice. The Eisenhower Administration, however, pledged that it would not support any military offenses ordered by the Rhee government after the armistice had been concluded. America’s promise not to support Rhee if he unilaterally renewed hostilities eliminated one of the last major hurdles to the conclusion of an agreement. Exhausted by the duration and intensity of the war effort both sides finally signed an armistice agreement on July 27, 1953.
The conclusion of the armistice agreement stopped the brutal military conflict that had prevailed for three years on the Korean peninsula.
But it by no means meant an end to the feelings of enmity that existed between the two sides. The end of the war occurred primarily because a continuation of military combat was no longer in the interests of any of the nations involved. The U.S. and China would remain rivals for the next two decades. The issues that created such bitter enmity between North and South Korea during the war have continued to plague the Korean peninsula for the last five decades.
Korea after the War
Although military conflict in Korea ended for the most part in July 1953, this cessation of hostilities was brought about by an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty. A formal peace treaty ending the Korean War has never been negotiated and the two sides remain technically at war to this day. After the military conflict between the two sides came to an end, other forms of competition between North and South Korea began and lasted through much of the Cold War. The division of the Korean peninsula into mutually hostile Communist and “Free World” states gave Korea a symbolic significance during the Cold War. Nations in both the Free World and Communist camps viewed Korea as a proving for the virtues of their economic and political systems. For the duration of the Cold War, the United States attempted to assure that South Korea would be more prosperous than the DPRK while China and the Soviet Union attempted to assure greater prosperity in the north. Partially dependent on their Great Power allies, the Korean states became deeply entrenched in the Free World and Communist camps and remained bitter rivals.
During the decade after the Korean War, North Korea was far more successful than South Korea in overcoming the economic devastation caused by the war. With massive assistance from its allies in the Soviet bloc, Kim Il Sung’s regime carried out a program of economic reconstruction and industrialization that achieved an extremely high rate of economic growth. By contrast, the South Korean economy crept forward at a very slow pace during the seven years after the Korean War ended. The United States poured billions of dollars in aid into the ROK economy during these years but such assistance was rarely used efficiently by the Syngman Rhee government. This situation began to reverse itself during the 1960s, however. Syngman Rhee was overthrown by a student revolution in April, 1960 and a new democratic government was created in South Korea. This new democratic government only lasted thirteen months before it in turn was toppled by a military coup. The military coup was led by Park Chung Hee who would dominate Korean politics until he was assassinated in 1979. Park also deeply committed to promoting the economic development and modernization of the Republic of Korea. With continuing U.S. assistance, the South Korean economy began to achieve high economic growth rates and emerge as one of the world’s most dynamic economies by the 1980’s. Although the DPRK remained on par with its southern rival economically at least through the late 1970’s, its economy was clearly falling behind that of the south by the 1980’s. During the 1990’s the collapse of the Communist bloc deprived the DPRK of its longstanding benefactors and trading partners. In this context, the North Korean economy began to decline rapidly. The country’s economic decline was exacerbated by a series of floods and bad harvests that devastated agricultural production and had produced a widespread famine by the turn of the century.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s when the DPRK economy raced ahead of the south’s, North Korean leaders had hoped that South Koreans would eventually be convinced of the superiority of the northern system and seek reunification with the north. By the 1990’s North Korean leaders seem to have abandoned these hopes not only because of the dramatic rise of the South Korean economy but also because of political changes that had occurred within the ROK. After Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979, another military dictator, Chun Doo Hwan had gained power in South Korea. But by the mid-eighties protests by students and laborers against Chun’s autocratic rule became increasingly widespread. When Chun attempted to turn the reigns of government in South Korea over to his appointed successor Roh Tae Woo rather than allowing debates over constitutional revision as he had promised, protests erupted in nearly every major South Korean city. With an increasing amount of global attention focused on the events that were unfolding in major Korean cities, the ROK government worried about the impact that utilizing military force would have on international opinion. Finally, the regime threw in the towel. On June 29, Roh announced an eight-point reform program including direct presidential elections that Chun eventually signed. Elections were scheduled for December 1987 and protests began to abate. South Korea continued to take strides toward democratization during the 1990’s with the elections of former opposition politicians Kim Yong Sam and Kim Dae Jung to the presidency in 1992 and 1997. With South Korea increasingly stable politically and prosperous economically and the DPRK increasingly unable to compete with the ROK economically or militarily, reunification of the peninsula on terms dictated by the north seemed virtually unimaginable.
During the last decade, while the two Koreas have remained technically at war, relations between the two have given cause for both hope and alarm. With the demise of its Cold War partnerships with China and Russia and the severe problems faced by its economy, the DPRK has come to fear for its very existence. Especially through threatening to develop nuclear weapons, North Korea has sought in recent years to extract economic assistance from long-time adversaries such as the United States and Japan. These efforts have created repeated crises on the Korean peninsula. In 1993-1994 North Korea’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) coupled with its decision not to allow inspections of suspected nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency brought the Korean peninsula closer to war than it had been at any time since the signing of the armistice agreement. The DPRK declared that if the U.N. imposed sanctions for its violations of the NPT it would consider it an act of war. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter then mad an emergency visit to North Korea in June, 1994 and managed to defuse tensions and renew talks regarding the DPRK’s nuclear programs. These talks led to the Agreed Framework signed by the U.S. and North Korea in October, 1994. According to the terms of the framework, a consortium of nations would help the DPRK to build light water reactors to solve its energy problems if the DPRK agreed to abide by the NPT. Yet another crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program erupted at the end of 2002, roughly one year after President George W. Bush had labeled North Korea part of the “axis of evil” in a State of the Union Address. In October 2002 when the Bush Administration accused North Korea of running a secret nuclear weapons program, the DPRK raised the ante by admitting to it and withdrawing from the Non Proliferation treaty.
But while the last decade had seen the occasional flaring of tensions on the Korean peninsula, it has also seen an unprecedented degree of cooperation and reconciliation between the two Koreas. In June 2000 South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and DPRK head of state held a historic summit in Pyongyang. The two governments issued a joint statement proclaiming that neither side would harbor “hostile intent” toward the other. Some truly significant steps toward reconciliation on the Korean peninsula took place in the wake of the summit. For the first time, the DPRK allowed a small number of reunions for families that had been separated by the division of the peninsula. The DPRK also allowed South Korean investment and several significant development projects were planned. In the months after the summit North Korea demonstrated a new willingness to improve its relations with the rest of the world. It normalized relations with many European democracies including Great Britain, Italy and Germany. Despite these hopeful signs, however, dangers still persist. Vast military establishments with the capacity to wreak enormous destruction continue to face each other across the thirty-eighth parallel. Conflict between them would have drastic implications not only for Korea but for the entire globe. Many of the issues over which the Korean War was fought are still unresolved and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Perhaps more than any other Cold War conflict, the Korean War is still with us.
This text draws on the following historical works. Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War Volumes I and II (Princeton, 1984 and 1991), Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun (Norton, 1997), Charles Armstrong, The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Ithaca, 2002), Chen Jian, China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (Columbia University Press, 1994); William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, 1995), Kathryn Weathersby, “To Attack or Not to Attack? Stalin, Kim Il Sung and the Prelude to War,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 5 (Spring 1995); Kathryn Weathersby, “ ‘Should We Fear This?’ Stalin and the Danger of War with America,” Working Paper No. 39, Cold War International History Project (July 2002); Kathryn Weathersby, “Stalin, Mao and the End of the Korean War,” in Odd Arne Westad, ed. Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 1998): 90-116; Gregg Brazinsky, “The Ambivalent Embrace: Koreans, Americans and Cold War Nation Building in South Korea, 1953-1968,” Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University, 2002.