By William S. Geimer
A number of important matters are being ignored in the latest furor over North Korea. One of the most consequential is the fact that the U.S. created North Korea and South Korea, and then rejected the only democratic option for unification. This, as we will see, was accomplished in flagrant disregard for the wishes of the Korean people, at the cost of an unnecessary war, and at the sacrifice of just over a million lives.1 To date, it has been clear that Korea is no more than a playing field for foreign interests, with the U.S. playing a dominant and deadly role. Koreans themselves don’t count. One wonders if they will be considered this time around.
The lives of Koreans today depend upon adoption of a relatively simple solution to the current standoff: negotiation. The principal parties should begin talks, without preconditions. All parties, that is all parties, should assess what they are willing to give, and then proceed from there. Anyone seen a list yet of what the U.S. might be willing to give up? More importantly, while there are others with legitimate interests in the confrontation, primacy should be accorded to the wishes of Koreans—all Koreans. The logistical problems with determining the wishes of the North Koreans is beyond the scope of this short article, but given good faith on all sides, this problem should not be insurmountable.2
Listening to Koreans involves heeding both the government and the people. Giving the lead to Korea is the best negotiation model. At the government level, that is the only approach with any history of progress. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in buckled to the U.S. a bit in announcing that South Korea may have to revamp its military, but he has thought through the issue of negotiation far more than has his bellicose U.S. counterpart. And as his spokesman recently observed, resumption of dialogue with North Korea may need to be pursued with close cooperation and consultation with the United States, but South Korea does not need to be allowed by the U.S. to do so.3
As for the Korean people, every indication for years is that they not only support negotiating with their brothers and sisters in the north, they also clearly do not suffer from the rampant paranoia that periodically strikes the West. Many suggest that what North Korea most resembles is Texans strutting around with their guns.
The problem is difficult but not insoluble and the issues suggest that the approach outlined by Moon’s representative is probably the better one. It apparently breaks down like this: South Korea is willing to talk. The U.S. says it is willing but imposes preconditions it knows North Korea will never accept.4 There is intelligent opinion to the effect that North Korea is currently averse to continuing talks with South Korea because its primary goal is an end to joint U.S./South Korean military exercises and ultimately an end to the 67-year-old war on terms that would include withdrawal of U.S. troops.5 If that is true, it raises a point that is being almost universally ignored at the present moment. If negotiations led by Koreans should result in concessions by both regimes, is it not open to South Korea to agree to end the military exercises and set a timetable for U.S. troops to leave? If not, why not?
A compelling reason for leaving this matter primarily to Koreans is the sorry history of U.S. involvement in Korea. Few in the West remember much about post-WWII Korea, aside from Cold War propaganda. A brief review of that record should highlight the importance of taking another path today.
The Korean shooting war was long ago, but its story is much the same as that of later U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan—make a mess that includes tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and then claim the need for further intervention to clean it up.
At the close of WWII, Korea became a pawn in the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviets over the spoils of war. Except that, notwithstanding U.S. propaganda, it turned out that the Soviets had little interest in Korea.
On August 8, 1945, almost as the war was ending, the Russians entered the war against Japan and began to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria and Korea. This triggered action by the Americans, who had also previously been uninterested. Two American officers, one of whom was Dean Rusk (who would later cause further damage to the people of Vietnam6) drew an arbitrary line at the 38th parallel, designating the best agricultural land, industry, and more than half the population for occupation by their forces. The advancing Soviets, of course, did not have to accept this division, but they voluntarily halted at the arbitrary line. At the end of 1945, they accepted a U.S. proposal that all of Korea be governed for five years by a four-power commission and then become a unified independent state. The U.S. reneged on this agreement in 1947. The Russians then proposed that occupying forces simultaneously withdraw and leave the fate of Korea to Koreans. That did not happen, but Russian troops went home anyway, leaving the U.S. to continue clinging to Korea as part of the confrontation with a non-existent “world wide communist conspiracy.”7
In their area in the south, the Americans, working to set up a client government “in harmony with U.S. policies,” excluded Korean nationalists, leftists and communists, who, as a group, had been prominent members of the guerrilla forces fighting the occupying Japanese. This faction was largely free of corruption. Apparently, their major sin was opposing the American occupation. Instead, the U.S. opted for “stability” and administrative efficiency and employed Japanese, including war criminals, to be in charge of law and order. Eventually, most of the Japanese were sent home but not before warning the new occupiers of the danger of communist influence in the newly forming Korean political parties. The Americans took their advice.8
The U.S. rejected the idea of an election. Leaving Koreans to decide about Korea was unthinkable because they knew those excluded nationalists would probably prevail, bringing a democratically elected, communist-leaning government to power over the entire Korea peninsula. Instead, manipulating the fledgling UN, as they would later do to provide cover for their war, the U.S. got approval for a UN-supervised election. All countries allied with the Soviets made it clear that they would reject the idea. In those circumstances, going ahead with an election only in the South meant the end of prospects for a united Korea, chosen by Koreans.
Instead, what the Korean people got were two dictators. Before leaving, the Russians set up Kim Il Sung and his family. Hereditary succession brought us today’s despot Kim Jung Un, whose governing skills and rhetorical flourishes are roughly equivalent to those of his current U.S. counterpart. Below the 38th, having rejected legitimate nationalists who supported reassembling the nation, the U.S. chose instead an egotistical Harvard-educated dilettante, Syngman Rhee. He had not fought the Japanese and in fact had been absent from Korea for decades, but he talked a great anti-communist game. He met the only two requirements for dictators allied with the U.S., opposition to communism and a willingness to do business with the Americans.
Aided by the U.S., Rhee’s faction saw to it that the election was conducted in an atmosphere of violent repression. His goon squads terrorized anyone who opposed him, detaining 10,000 people in the run-up to the election and killing hundreds more. An American diplomat pronounced the predictable election result a magnificent demonstration of the capacity of the Korean people to establish a representative and responsible government.9 Ordinary Koreans doubtless had little interest in which of the two imposed dictators was worse. They would soon learn that things could get much worse.
Over in Japan, there was another major player, the egomaniacal Pacific Commander in Chief, General Douglas MacArthur. He was in many respects like the current U.S. Commander in Chief. The difference is that MacArthur’s Commander in Chief eventually got rid of him. The U.S. Commander in Chief today is firing a lot of people but many of his generals see him as the problem with respect to resolving the current crisis in the two Koreas.
Rhee, Sung and MacArthur had in common the absence of any intent to accept Rusk’s 38th parallel as an international border. Incursions by both sides continued into 1949. Sung went to Russia and China seeking support for his plan to unify by force. The Soviets eventually acquiesced in principle, but with important caveats; their forces would not participate in hostilities and they would not bail the North Koreans out if they failed. Sung also needed approval from China. The Chinese were surprised, but acquiesced. This war belonged to Pyongyang, not Moscow or Bejing. Similar to the danger we face today, there were numerous miscalculations on both sides. Sung, like the misguided Americans later in Iraq, assumed his forces would be greeted as liberators. China and Russia were unaware that the U.S. was spoiling for a fight anywhere, including intervening in a civil war in a place where none of the major powers had expressed much interest.10
North Korea invaded on June 25, 1950 and soon controlled the entire peninsula save the port of Pusan (now Busan). With Russia boycotting the Security Council over its refusal to recognize the real government of China, the U.S. managed to get a United Nations fig leaf authorization for its war in Korea. Importantly, however, the authorizing resolution permitted member states to render such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security to the area.11
As a military leader, MacArthur was sometimes a genius, sometimes a fool. His WWII record in the Philippines was less than stellar. In Korea, he was slow to realize that the attack from the north was more than an incursion, and even slower to recognize that South Korean forces could not repel it. Once he got his bearings however, he overcame staff objections and ordered a daring landing at Inchon on September 15th. It was a complete success. The North Korean forces quickly retreated north of the 38th parallel. The UN mandate had been fulfilled. If repel means drive back, and restore means put back, the Korean War was over.
But another MacArthur characteristic later shared by Donald Trump was the belief that rules made for others did not apply to him. MacArthur decided that this was the time for a decisive battle to rid the world of the evils of communism, and he would be the great leader who brought that about.12 The most dangerous aspect of the rogue general’s delusion about this apocalyptic struggle, was that his plan included using nuclear weapons. In the U.S., Americans were fine with using nukes. Truman would later fire MacArthur for his insolence and hubris in dragging the U.S. into a wider and bloodier war, but not for the insane war plan itself.
Before that happened, however, MacArthur got a lot of people killed and came close to having his nuclear war. For months, he ignored China’s warnings that it would stand neither for an American-led army on her border nor a unified Korea under the West’s preferred dictator rather than hers. MacArthur invaded the north and pushed all the way to the Chinese border. The Chinese intervened and absolutely routed the U.S. 8th Army, driving it in a headlong retreat back down the peninsula to the Hahn river, south of Seoul. MacArthur was now ready to use nuclear weapons.
Faced with a retreating and dispirited 8th Army, and the death of its general, Lieutenant General Walton Walker, MacArthur appointed Matthew Ridgway to command. This coincidental change of command on the battlefield may have kept nuclear weapons out of the war. Forces under General Ridgeway managed to halt the retreat.13 Of this, an American historian who still supported the war wrote: “The men who reversed the fortunes of the UN on the battlefield in Korea in the first week of 1951 may also have saved the world from the nightmare of a new Hiroshima in Asia.”14 There is no guarantee that such a serendipitous event will avert disaster in 2017.
The war evolved into a stalemate, but the sides were too stupid to stop fighting. Armistice talks continued until 1953. The death toll during this period exceeded that of the period of active fighting. Rhee billed the UN $90 million for rent of land used by the forces that saved his beleaguered regime. South Korea suffered autocratic rule for 35 years. North Korea got even more repressive.15 That is where we sit today. The 38th parallel bristles with weaponry. There are some 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. The insecure rulers of North Korea and the U.S. scream childish threats at one another.
The point of this historical review is twofold. First, the U.S. made a mess of the Korean peninsula and bears a special responsibility to rectify past errors. Second, the original sin revolved around failure to listen to and respect the will of the Korean people. Where do the Korean people fit into all this? So far, their job has largely been to be victimized and ignored. During the war, millions of civilians were killed. The U.S contribution included bombings that left no building in the north higher than two stories, as well as bombing and strafing of refugees fleeing the conflict. It also included a massive display of cultural ignorance and racism. To the U.S., the “gooks” didn’t matter.16
So how does the world today find its way out of a mess that history shows to be so reminiscent of the earlier fiasco? If you ask me, a good starting point would be to begin negotiating a non-aggression pact among all parties in the area. But that’s the point—don’t ask me. Ask the Koreans this time.
- Bethany Lacina & Nils Petter Gleditsch, Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths, 21 Eur. J. Pop., 145, 154 (2005).
- One can imagine, for example, this being carried out by a special rapporteur of the United Nations selected by consent of all parties.
3 “South Korea Does Not Need U.S. Permission to Engage in Policy Dialogue With North Korea. ROK Presidential Office” Yohap News Agency, 21 Jun. 2017.
- JohnPrice, OrientingCanada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press 2014), 123.
- Max Hastings, The KoreanWar (London: Michael Joseph Ltd. 1987) (hereinafter Hastings, Korea) It should be noted that Hastings, who laid out the U.S. motives and South Korean corruption in great detail, remained a supporter of the war—a testament to the power of Cold War propaganda.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 13-16; Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2011), 648 (hereafter Hastings, Inferno).
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 33.
- Hastings, Korea, 33-36; Pierre Berton, Marchingas to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years 1899-1953 (Toronto: Random House 2001) 539 (herafter Berton, Marching); Price, 211-213.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 56.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 60-63; Berton, Marching, 532-539.
- Berton, Marching, supra note 11 at 548.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 226.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 272-275; 352-356.
- Hastings, Korea, supra note 8 at 279-285;290; Price, supra note 6 at 261-262; Berton, Marching, 552, 556-557, 575-576; Pierre Berton, My Times, LivingWith History 69,75, 79, 83 (Toronto: Doubleday Canada Ltd. 1995). Berton was a war correspondent in Korea.