Often called the “forgotten war”, the Korean War (1950-53) holds the dubious honour of being the first armed conflict of the Cold War. It was born out of the division imposed on the Korea peninsula from without – a division that had no legitimacy in the eyes of most Koreans.
Varying estimates put the number of dead, injured and missing at more than 4 million people, including 3.3 million Koreans (approximately 1.3 million in the south and 2 million in the north).
US imperialism had tried forcibly to establish trade agreements with Korea’s Joseon Dynasty through gunboat diplomacy in 1871. But after Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, successive US governments had shown little interest in the country or the fate of its people.
Not until 1943 did the US express any concern for “the enslavement of the Koreans” by Japan, promising to support Korea becoming a free and independent nation in “due course”. This sudden interest had little to do with helping to facilitate a genuinely independent nation. Instead, the USA’s primary concern was to gain control of Japan’s former colonies to expand US imperial outreach in Asia.
When Soviet troops entered Korea in the last days of World War Two, one month before US troops, the USA proposed the division of the peninsula at the 38th parallel. Ostensibly, this was to oversee the surrender of Japanese forces, the US and the Soviet Union jointly facilitating Korea’s “decolonisation” on either side of this “temporary” border. The selection of the 38th parallel, however, was not arbitrary.
In a 1950 memorandum, published 17 days after the start of the Korean War, future US secretary of state Dean Rusk explained that it had been chosen to “harmonise the political desire to have US forces receive the surrender [of Japanese troops] as far north as possible and the obvious limitation of the ability of US forces to reach the area”.
In other the words, the 38th parallel was chosen to facilitate US control of as much Korean territory as possible.
The nearly four-year US military occupation of Korea formally began on 8 September 1945, when general John Reed Hodge arrived in the country. Historian James Matray notes that Hodge, like the soldiers under his command, was “arrogant and contemptuous of everything Korean”.
Virulently anti-communist and viewing the US-controlled territory as an “enemy zone”, Hodge established an imperious, autocratic, exploitative and politically repressive military regime. According to Matray, for many Koreans, Hodge and the US Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) had simply replaced the hated Japanese governor general at the top of “a pyramid of suppressive power”.
Two days before Hodge’s arrival, hundreds of Korean independence activists who had fought Japanese colonialism established the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). Among the 55 selected to form a new Korean government were Kim Il-Sung and Syngman Rhee, who later became the respective leaders of a divided north and south Korea.
While the left leaning KPR was not communist, it called for radical reforms. On the same day that Hodge arrived in Korea, the KPR’s newspaper issued a call for “a social revolution as a second liberation”, including the complete emancipation of women, an eight-hour working day and minimum wage, land redistribution, nationalisation of major industries and banks, rent control, freedom of speech, assembly and religion and an end to illiteracy. The KPR also promised to cooperate with the USA, USSR and other powers.
Both the Korean People’s Republic and the ideas it espoused had widespread support among the Korean population. According to George Katsiaficas, in his book Unknown Uprisings, a US poll of 8,500 Koreans in August 1946 revealed that 70 percent supported socialism, 7 percent supported communism, 14 percent supported capitalism and 8 percent were noncommittal.
In the last days of World War Two, with Japan on its knees, Koreans established grassroots People’s Committees across the country. By December 1945, more than 2,500 were operating as de facto village, district, county, city and provincial governments. More than 1,000 new labour unions were also established, the National Council of Korean Labour Unions forming in November 1945 and representing more than half a million workers south of the 38th parallel.
However, the USAMGIK refused to work with the popularly supported KPR and the People’s Committees, instead recruiting right wing businessmen and landlords, many of whom had collaborated with the Japanese. According to journalist John Gunther, Hodge and the USAMGIK installed “a motley assortment of expatriates, collaborators, fascist reactionaries, professional assassins and confused intellectuals”.
On 12 December, just three months after arriving in Korea, Hodge outlawed the KPR and the People’s Committees, declaring them “public enemies”, and had the leaders of both arrested. Four days earlier, he banned strikes and on 18 December created a new police constabulary, more than 80 percent of its recruits being former collaborators with the Japanese.
Under USAMGIK protection, Syngman Rhee – the USA’s chosen candidate to become permanent leader of the new South Korea – used the new police force to crush the left. Arbitrary arrests, extortion, torture and the repression of political demonstrations became commonplace.
In response to the USAMGIK and Rhee’s repressive actions, half a million Koreans took to Seoul’s streets on 1 March 1946. Seven months later, Koreans staged an uprising against the USA’s colonial military occupation, beginning with railway workers launching a general strike in the city of Busan. The strike soon spread to Daegu and other regions.
According to journalist Mark Gayn, it was “a full-scale revolution, which must have involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people”. The US military declared martial law and opened fire on the demonstrations, killing more than 1,000 protesters (some reports put the figure as high as 7,000) and wounding more than 20,000. Between 20,000 and 30,000 were arrested and jailed
The US facilitated the election of Rhee in May 1948, despite widespread objections by Koreans to elections being held while the peninsula remained divided. One month before the UN-sanctioned election, Koreans on Jeju Island staged mass protests in opposition, attacking polling centres and police stations. Rhee and the USAMGIK sent troops to the island to repress the uprising brutally, killing up to 30,000 people.
In October 1949, horrified by the massacre in Jeju, up to 2,000 left wing soldiers – joined by students and workers – in South Jeolla province also launched an uprising against Rhee and the USAMGIK. Again backed by US troops, Rhee declared martial law and crushed the rebellion.
With their chosen candidate firmly in power, the US formally ended its military occupation in June 1949. However, one year later the first armed conflict of the Cold War erupted when Kim Il-Sung launched an offensive to reunite the two Koreas.
The US responded with brutal force, dropping more napalm and bombs on cities north of the 38th parallel than had been used during the entire Pacific campaign in World War Two. The war, which affected every Korean family in both the north and south, eventually ended in a stalemate, with millions dead.
Although an armistice was signed in 1953, there was never a peace treaty. So the war has never officially ended. Sixty-five years later, the US continues to threaten North Korea with invasion or obliteration.