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Uncovering the Hidden History of the Korean War

The Korean War, which began 70 years ago today, inflicted unimaginable horrors upon the people of Korea, north and south of the 38th parallel. From carpet-bombing to mass executions, the US and its South Korean allies were responsible for some of the worst atrocities.

Korean War refugees in Haengju, Korea, on June 9, 1951. National Archives and Records Administration

June 25 marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. We should take this opportunity to recover the memory of both what this war meant for the Korean people and its place in twentieth-century history. Mainstream commentary in the United States has often described Korea as a “forgotten war,” overshadowed by Vietnam and the social upheavals it helped foment.

Meanwhile, in the two Koreas, official discourse has for decades subjected the war to various forms of historical amnesia — the “historiography of oblivion,” to borrow Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s term — diverting knowledge and understanding into narrow channels, in a way that often runs counter to the experience of those who were caught up in the conflict.

For its part, the international left has tended to view the war in simplistic terms, when it has bothered to take notice of it at all. Depending on their attitude toward the Soviet Union, socialists have either seen the Korean War as a fight for freedom by a plucky, independence-minded people against the might of US imperialism, or as a great power struggle between Washington and Moscow, shorn of the complexities of social upheaval and civil war that accompanied the end of empire and the beginning of partition in Korea itself in 1945.

In what follows, I will consider first the experience of the war itself for the Korean people, and then the ways in which the war has been interpreted.

A War on Civilians

Let us first consider the Korean War as a war on civilians, which killed as many noncombatants as it did combatants — around 2 million, according to various estimates. It also turned millions more into refugees, and left hundreds of thousands of Korean families divided until the present day, many never knowing whether their relatives were alive or dead.

To understand why the war was so devastating for the Korean people, it is useful to divide its horrors into three overlapping phases: the anti-communist politicide during the lead-up to war and its opening stages; the mobile front lines and successive occupations of the first eight months; and the aerial bombing of North Korea that lasted until the armistice in 1953.

Observers noted the civilian toll at the time, in particular communist reporters like Australia’s Wilfred Burchett and Britain’s Alan Winnington — both of whom were stripped of their passports by their respective governments. Civilian massacres were sufficiently well known that Pablo Picasso painted his famous work Massacre in Korea in 1951, depicting women and children being shot by unspecified anti-communist forces.

However, these accounts did not provoke the same kind of public outcry as similar reports from Vietnam almost two decades later. It is only in the last twenty years that researchers in South Korea have begun to uncover and catalogue this “war on the Korean people” in detail, and English-language scholarship has taken even longer to start catching up.

We know now that civil war had already come to South Korea before the formal establishment of the Republic of Korea in August 1948. It began with a major uprising on the island of Jeju in April of that year, leading to a brutal US-backed counterinsurgency campaign over the course of the following winter. A truth commission in the early 2000s revealed that the suppression of this communist-led rebellion caused the deaths of at least thirty thousand islanders and involved the use of scorched-earth tactics — a precursor of the “strategic hamlet” approach to counterinsurgency that was later employed by the US Army in Vietnam.

After the massacres in Jeju, Rhee Syngman’s US-sponsored government in South Korea embarked on a plan to eliminate communists from the country. It passed stringent national-security legislation and used the old Japanese colonial technique of “conversion,” whereby the authorities forced swaths of the population considered suspect to join an organization of converts called the National Guidance League. When the war between North and South began in earnest in the summer of 1950, agents of the South Korean regime rounded up members of the League, along with many thousands of political prisoners, and proceeded to massacre them and bury them in mass graves.

To this day, mass graves are still being excavated around the country, often by private organizations or local administrations, in the absence of proper backing from the national government. All in all, this “politicidal” phase of the Korean War — encompassing counterinsurgency campaigns, ad hoc civilian massacres, and the premeditated mass killings of political prisoners — claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, on a scale to rival even the Indonesian anti-communist genocide of 1965–66.

Counting the Cost

The next horror of the Korean War came during the first eight months of fighting, as the front lines shifted rapidly up and down the peninsula, sweeping waves of refugees before them, with the southern capital, Seoul, changing hands on four occasions. In addition to the great numbers of civilian casualties caused by this intense and mobile warfare, the experience of occupation and re-occupation by rival forces placed a particular burden on Koreans in many parts of the peninsula, as recounted by Kim Dong-Choon in his book The Unending Korean War.

When North Korean forces occupied much of southern Korea in the summer of 1950, there were many reprisals against those who had aided Rhee’s government. But after US and South Korean soldiers retook those areas in autumn 1950 and again in spring 1951, the forces of the Rhee government also pursued brutal retribution against anyone deemed to have collaborated with the occupation by the Korean People’s Army.

The displacement of people during this phase was vast, with millions on the move: more than half a million refugees from the north ended up settling permanently in the south, along with an unknown number making the reverse journey to the north. There were also many atrocities and aerial attacks against those fleeing, including the infamous No Gun Ri massacre perpetrated by the US Army in July 1950.

The third horror of the Korean War for civilians was the seemingly limitless aerial bombardment of North Korea by the US Air Force (USAF) and the accompanying depredations of hunger and disease. From an early stage, the USAF enjoyed air supremacy in Korea. It used this advantage to wreak havoc, not only on Chinese and North Korean military targets, but also on Korean cities, towns, industrial facilities, transport infrastructure, and — infamously — dams, both hydroelectric and irrigation.

The United States dropped more bombs — 635,000 tons — on North Korea than in the whole Pacific Theater during World War II, including large quantities of its new incendiary weapon, napalm. Most cities suffered between 75 percent and 90 percent destruction from the bombardment. As many as 1.5 million North Korean civilians may have died, many from bombing or its consequences.

North Korea’s largely triumphal narrative of the Korean War — known officially as the Fatherland Liberation War — does not emphasize its vulnerability to aerial bombardment and the razing of its cities very much. But that experience must have left deep psychological as well as physical scars on the country that reverberated through millions of lives.

Legacy

The deeply traumatic, socially damaging legacy of this war for the Korean people has echoed through multiple generations. As vividly depicted in the 2007 documentary Grandmother’s Flower, it sowed hatred, mistrust ,and deep enmities within rural communities that were still festering in the twenty-first century. Families were afflicted by the problems of mental health, alcoholism, and domestic abuse that resulted from the trauma of the war itself and from the imperative to hide one’s past in postwar South Korea, for fear of being tainted with communism.

The war has cast a long political shadow, too. It ultimately reinforced the authoritarian state machinery in both North and South. The states that held power on either side of the demilitarized zone created in 1953 decided what could and could not be remembered about the war — which of its victims were to be permitted a voice, and which were not. Two deeply militarized societies, locked in perpetual conflict, emerged from the rubble.

The North is still a garrison state, where young men give a decade of their lives to the People’s Army and war rhetoric is a constant feature of everyday life. On the other hand, while South Koreans did fight for and win formal democracy in the late 1980s, their society cannot escape completely from the anti-communist straitjacket of the Cold War. A deeply embedded militarism continues to shape it, along with the heavily gendered social norms that accompany that culture.

What brought this cataclysm on the Korean people, coming almost immediately after four decades of brutal Japanese colonial rule? In the United States and South Korea, traditional interpretations of the war’s causes claimed that it was a product of Soviet expansionism and Moscow’s intent to “communize” Asia. The biggest challenge to this view came in the 1980s with the publication of Bruce Cumings’s book The Origins of the Korean War.

Cumings traced the roots of the conflict to Japanese colonial rule, partition in 1945, and the suppression of left-wing movements by the US occupation government in the southern zone. The US historian presented the war itself as both a civil war and a postcolonial revolutionary war, which had been diverted by US intervention into the form of an international conflict that has left Korea’s colonial legacy unresolved.

Since the opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s, a newer wave of scholarship has once again emphasized the agency of the Soviet Union in enabling and supporting North Korea’s pursuit of unification through war. Thus, the historiographical debate appears to hinge on whether the war was primarily a civil war or an international conflict between competing blocs. In reality, it is impossible to disentangle these two sides of the conflict, so closely are they interwoven.

Two Proxy States

The understanding of the Korean War’s “revolutionary” aspect developed by Bruce Cumings relies on a premise of asymmetrical political development: according to this perspective, while the United States and its Korean proxy, Rhee, crushed burgeoning popular movements in the South between 1945 and 1949, the political context in the North allowed these social-revolutionary impulses much greater play, making the construction of an authentically postcolonial state possible. However, this overlooks some crucial facts.

From the very beginning in August 1945, the Soviet Army suppressed independent actions by Korean workers, crushed expressions of popular dissent, and began to establish a Soviet-style apparatus of security and control, with a leader of their choosing. Alongside the people’s committees that sprang up to govern Korea immediately after the fall of Japan, mass social movements of peasants, women, youth, and workers did emerge in 1945 and 1946. But the new regime rapidly co-opted those organizations and placed them under the control of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which ultimately answered to the Soviet occupation authorities.

Speedy land reforms and nationalization of industry in 1946 established the basis for efficient capital accumulation under the control of the emerging Soviet-style state, while the mass organizations — including the WPK itself — quickly became tools for control of the population rather than channels for revolutionary self-organization. Although the process was very different and far more peaceful in the North than in the South, the outcome of Soviet military rule was ultimately not so different from that of US occupation: the establishment of a deeply dependent “friendly” state, built in the image of its suzerain.

In the post–World War II period, there were other countries that suffered horrifically violent processes of decolonization, and other nations that were dragged as proxies into the inter-imperialist rivalry of the Cold War. The Korean peninsula had the great misfortune to experience both of these afflictions at the same time. The Korean War lay at the nexus between two phases of imperialism, marking the shift from an age of classical imperialism — when European nations had ruled the world, mostly through direct colonies — to a new phase of Cold War imperialism.

The two global hegemons, the United States and the Soviet Union, governed their respective empires through proxies and newly emerging forms of political, ideological, and cultural hegemony. In other words, the Korean War was a decisive moment in the transition to the Cold War system that dominated the world until the end of the 1980s.

In Their Own Image

In June 1950, before the death of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech, and the Hungarian Revolution, it was a foregone conclusion that the great majority of the global revolutionary left would support the North Korean side and their Chinese allies in their war with the American imperialists. But even at the time, there were some communists — primarily those in the Trotskyist movement — who saw the war as part of a new inter-imperialist struggle between forces that, despite their rhetoric, had no interest in democracy, decolonization, or socialism.

They understood that the Soviets had established an authoritarian regime in their own image in the northern half of the Korean peninsula, and that they had done this not by aiding a postcolonial revolution from below, but through military occupation and the imposition of their favored leader, Kim Il-Sung.

It is important to note in this context that Kim Il-Sung himself was not a well-known or particularly central figure in Korean anti-colonial movements, communist or otherwise. In fact, he was a relatively obscure anti-Japanese partisan and a member of the Chinese Communist Party. His advantage was that he was familiar to the Russians, having spent the latter part of World War II in the Russian far east as a major in a special unit of the Red Army.

Once Mao and his allies had established the Chinese People’s Republic in October 1949, the Soviet and Chinese communists were both prepared to invest considerable resources in maintaining a friendly buffer state on the Korean peninsula, standing between themselves and the expanding influence of US imperialism in East Asia. In pursuit of that endeavor, they were even willing to support Kim Il-Sung’s plan to reunify his country by force, although Stalin always eschewed any direct Soviet involvement in the conflict, fearing that it would lead to a new world war for which the USSR was not yet prepared.

Ending the War

It has become a cliché to say that the Korean War is not over. Of course, the fighting finished a long time ago, yet in a number of fundamental ways, the war’s unfinished business is still part of daily experience for millions of Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone. The lack of closure means that the Cold War is preserved on the peninsula. All of the surrounding powers — China, Russia, and the United States — prefer it that way, because a real resolution could prove too costly for them and would occasion a major geopolitical upheaval.

In looking back on the Korean War seventy years later, it would be tragic for today’s left to fall once again into the Cold War logic of choosing sides between two sets of imperialists and their proxies. Now, we should be clear: the only side socialists could be on, then or now, was that of the Korean people, whose right to self-determination had been so abruptly stolen by the two superpowers when they partitioned the country in August 1945.

The call made already in the summer of 1950 by the anti-Stalinist left still stands today: let the Korean people decide their own future. The first steps in achieving that ambition must be a formal end to the Korean War, the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula, and decisive steps toward justice for the surviving victims and divided families of the war in both Koreas.