Liberation and the Aftermath
On August 15th, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced on the radio that Japan had surrendered and that the long war in the Pacific was finally over. The news came as a shock that rocked the very core of the Japanese nation. In contrast, the news of the Japanese capitulation was welcomed with a great deal of relief and joy in Korea. The Japanese surrender to the Allies meant that forty years of harsh colonial rule would come to an end. The 15th of August, the day that WW II was officially over, was also the Day of Liberation in Korea.
Unfortunately, liberation from the Japanese would not spell the end for Korea's misfortunes. The division of Korea into two separate states loomed just beyond the horizon. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, the Korean War, lingered not too far behind. The events that would occur between Liberation Day and August 25th (the da y that there were two official governments in the Korean peninsula) would set the stage for the tragedy of the Korean War.
Origins of the Korean War
The surrender of Japan was inevitable after the United States dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in August of 1945. Stalin was waiting for just such an opportunity where the Soviets could enter the war against Japan while incurring minimal loss, and so it was no surprise when he declared war against Japan after the U.S. dropped the second atom bomb. Upon Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, Soviet military forces swept through Manchuria and North Korea taking over Japanese control over these provinces. The United States reacted in alarm when she realized the potential danger of having the strategic Korean peninsula controlled by communist forces. President Truman proposed a joint occupation of Korea by the two powers where the Soviets would occupied the territory north of the 38 parallel, while the U.S. would controle the area south of the line.
Initially, it was the intention of both sides to establish a stable and unified Korea in order to withdraw their military forces from the area. However, neither the Soviet Union or the U.S. wanted the peninsula to fall into the other's hand. In short, the Soviets and the U.S. desired to withdraw their military and resources out of Korea, but they also wanted to leave behind a nation that was favorable to each's ideology; the Soviets desired a Communist Korea whereas the U.S. wanted a democratic nation to be established. And so the roots of division were laid from the very onset of Korea's liberation.
Communist elements in the north were present during the Japanese colonial period, but with the north now under Soviet tutelage the leftist factions were able to seize power. During the period of civil turmoil of 1945- 1946, there were many different leftist factions vying for power. It was during this time that the Soviets helped establish Kim Il Sung, a product of the Soviet military machine, as the leading political figure in the north.
In the south an entirely different story unfolded. The KPR (Koreans People's Republic), which was very leftist in nature, attested that they were the political voice of the korean people. However, General Hodge's primary aims at the time was to prevent communist takeover of south korea, and so he banned the KPR. During this time, a korean patriot named Syngman Rhee began to acquire political power among the conservative elitists in South Korea. His dogmatic advocacy for Korea's full independ ence often caused friction between him and U.S. officials. But due to Rhee's strong stance against communism, and because of his commitment to maintaining civil order during these turbulent times, General Hodge had no other choice but to give his support to Rhee. Therefore, with U.S. support and the use of strong arm tactics, Syngman Rhee eventually positioned himself has the dominant political leader in South Korea by 1947.
Although two different political governments had emerged in Korea by 1947, the fact that they were still only provisional governments gave the korean people hope for a possible unification. Up untill this time, nationalists from both the North and South continued their efforts to negotiate a unification treaty, however, unreconcilable differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union prevented any such goal. Eventually, the U.S. concluded that the chasm that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Unio n in establishing a unified Korea was insurmountable and so they pressured the United Nations to allow for a general election in Korea. Suspicious of foul play by the U.S., the Soviets refused to allow the election to be held in North Korea. Neverthele ss, the U.S. advocated that voting should still be carried out in the south in order to establish some sort of legitimate government, and so in May 1948 South Korea held its first general elections. Soon thereafter, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was establ ished and was promptly recognized by the United Nations as the legitemate government of Korea. Up until and through these elections there were heavy protests by Korean leftists who feared that th ese election would kill all chances for unification. During the same time the north followed with similar actions by holding its own elections. When the votes were tabulated, Kim Il Sung was declared president of the new Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPKR) which was immediately recognized by the Soviet Union and other communist countries as the legetimate government of North Korea. By winter of 1948 the worst fears of Korean Mationalist were confirmed as korea became permanently divided at the 38th parallel.
The elections of 1948 and the division of Korea that ensued set the stage for a civil war. And by 1950, both North and South Korea sensed that war was inevitable. Not only were their armies getting prepared for war, but both Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung declared on several occasions that military force would be necessary to unify Korea. However, in terms of being prepared for war, North Korea had a clear advantage over the south. Not only did North Korea possess a larger army, it also had many experi enced veterans who had fought in China's Civil War. In addition North Korea by this time were manufacturing some of their own weapons as well possessing many Soviet made weapons. South Korea on the other hand had soldiers who had not even attended basic training. Finally, North Korea had the support of the Chinese Military Therefore, in light of North Korea's military advantage on the eve of the war, it is reasonable to assume that it was North Korea that fired the first shot on June 25, 1950 that started the Korean War.
Events of the Korean War
From the day when North Koreans attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950 to the day of the armistice on July 27, 1953, the events of the Korean war revealed the mass destruction, pain, and suffering Koreans had to endure. At the end of the war, more than 3 million Koreans died while millions of refugees remained homeless and distraught. About 1 million Chinese died in this battle a nd American casualties numbered 54,246 people. This section will explore and follow the events, strategies, and atrocities of the Korean war.
The Korean war can be divided into three phases.
· The first phase began on June 25, 1950 and ended on the day United Nations (U.N) forces thrusted into North Korea's territory.
· The second phase of the Korean war was essentially the Southern unit's attack and retreat from North Korea.
· The last phase of the war consisted of the "see-saw" fighting on the thirty-eighth parallel, stalemate, and negotiation talks.
On June 25, 1950 at 4 a.m., 70,000 North Korean troops with Russian T-34 tanks crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. President Truman appea led to the United Nations to take "police action" against the "unwarranted" attack. Hence, under the "name of the United Nations", the United States was able to send troops and forces.
On June 29, the North Korean Army, Korean People's Army (KPA), p ressed southward and captured Seoul. By August, KPA forces were on their drive toward the Pusan perimeter, which consisted of the northern area of Pohang, southern area of Chinju-Masan region, and Taegu as the major center city.
The U.N forces were on the defensive side until September 15 when the American forces, under the command of General MacArthur successfully landed on Inchon. The landing allowed the U.N forces to break through the Pusan perimeter, to retake Seoul, and to cross the thirty-eighth parallel by September 30. By the end of the first phase of the Korean war, 111,000 South Koreans died and 57,000 were missing.
In the second phase of the Korean war, KPA forces were in retreat. In two days, the Southern forces were approximately 25 miles north of the parallel. Within a week, they captured Wonson, located on the eastern side of North Korea. Thereafter, they marched toward the Yalu River with almost no resistance from the Northern units.
The unexpectant decision of China's entry into the war in early October turned the tide of the war. The Northern units, consisting of Sino-Korean troops, sent the U.N forces retreati ng again. On December 6, the Communist forces retook Pyongyang. And by the end of December, they recrossed the parallel and retook Seoul.
But Northern forces were not as successful as their first attack because by the end of January 1951, the U.N forces were back on the Han river and by March 14, they were able to retake Seoul from North Korea's hands. The conditions in Korea during this time was one of desparation. One can only imagine the chaos not only in Seoul, whic h exchanged hands 4 times, but in every city in both North and South Korea. Koreans frantically fled their homes in search for refugee camps, safety, shelter, and food.
During the months of May a nd April of 1951, there was a sort of "see-saw" fighting along the thirty-eighth parallel with neither units really advancing beyond the parallel. By summer of 1951, talks for an armistice began.
Throughout mid-1951 to 1953, negotiation for peace treaty stalled and reopened. A major issue that stalled negotiations was whether POWs should be repatriated on voluntary basis or not. In addition, accusations about war crimes committed by United States stall ed negotiations.
Fighting continued with intensified guerilla warfare during the armistice talk. "Operation Ratkiller" was designed to counter guerilla warfare. Also, aerial bombing in North Korea also intensified as the negotiation continued. In fact, to intimate North Korea and in order to end the war quickly, the use of nuclear weapons were considered.
By June 8, 1953, the basic agreement over the POW issu e was settled. Both sides agreed on the principle of voluntary repatriation. And by June 17, agreement on the final truce-demarcation line became finalized. Nevertheless, everyone but Syngman Rhee was pleased with the negotiations. He jeopardized the negotiations allowing the release and escape of 27,000 Korean POWs on June 18. This angered North Koreans who wanted United States to take the responsibility to make certain that the negotiations would be carried out by Sygnman Rhee. In one final offensive attack where 7,400 South Koreans were killed and United States forces endangered, United States agreed to take responsibility in enforcing the agreement of the armistice. The armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953.
Consequences of the Korean War
The Korean War was the first battle in the decades long Cold War. The aftermath of the war left long-lasting effects on military, political and personal levels. A result of the end of the Korean War was that the emerging purpose of being for both Koreas was to oppose the other. The effects were also far-reaching as they signalled a new atmosphere in global relationships beyond the borders of Asia.
The "Winners" and The "Losers"
The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953. The victory was not clearly defined and, in fact, the armistice was negotiated over the course of months between the two sides. So, who won the war? As John Halliday and Bruce Cumings wrote in their book "Korea: The Unknown War" (Pantheon Books, 1988): "Each side proclaims that it won, yet each actually seems to feel that it lost."
North Korea's Claim to Victory
The North Korean view, as proclaimed by the late Kim Il-Sung, looks at the end of the Korean War as a surrender by the United States. Kim Il-Sung said, "In the Korean War, the U.S. imperialists suffered an ignominious military defeat for the first time i n the history of the U.S.; this meant the beginning of a downward path for U.S. imperialism." North Korea gained political strength from the apparent surrender of a great superpower.
South Korea and Syngman Rhee
Syngman Rhee was saved and retained his power through U.S. intervention in the unstable world of Korean politics. U.S. officials did not completely support Rhee, and many found him to be disagreeable, but they helped him maintain his p ower base. Rhee helped set the foundations for the future of South Korean politics, a shaky foundation but one that has endured.
The United States and Korean War Issues
The Korean War was the United States' first "unpopular war." Neither the public nor the military completely supported or understood the mission. It is also claimed to be America's first defeat in major battle and some feel that MacArthur should have bee n allowed to win the war. The uncertainty that ensued lead to McCarthyism and a tense atmosphere of intolerance and political persecution in the U.S. itself.
Effects in the West
The consequences of the Korean War in Western Europe had much the same effects as in America. As a result of the indeterminate finale, military build-up and the arms race became the norm from the 1950s to the 1990s. Winston Churchill commented about the Korean War and its aftereffects on the West, "Korea does not really matter now. I'd never heard of the bloody place until I was seventy-four. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America."
China's Take on the Korean War
The Chinese saw the end of the Korean War as a minor triumph. The results confirmed the strength of the Chinese forces because it seemed that no matter how hard the Americans tried, they ultimately failed to conquer Korea and encroach on Chinese territor y. China's leadership in East Asia was re-confirmed by their strong performance in the Korean War.
War and The USSR
The Korean War was a disaster for the USSR. The uncertain ending disrupted the delicate balance between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The Soviets were certain that the indecisive end would be enough for the United States to convince their Western allies to embark on a program of rearmament. Also, the Sino-Soviet relationship split as a result of the Korean War.
Japan Benefits and Security Issues
Japan appears to be the biggest winner of the Korean War. Japan transformed from enemy to important ally in East Asian strategy. By cooperating with Western efforts and serving as a logistics base, Japan had her economic and military capabilities enhanc ed. Japan was able to negotiate a peace treaty with Occupation forces and gain back independence. The country experienced an economic boom as a result of the need for military technology. Japan became a pivotal area for United Nations concerns.
The Numbers behind the Korean War
Beyond the historical facts and the important dates, every war is fueled by the casualties. The Korean War is no exception. In fact, the Korean War was particularly bloody and costly in terms of human lives. Besides the political and economic effects, the human toll has greater impact in telling the tale of the Korean War.
The Korean Casualties
Before the war began, the estimated Korean population (combined north and south) was 40 million people. There are many figures that try to lessen the impact of the war on human lives by giving conservative numbers on casualties. One of the more accepted estimates states that there were about 4 million casualties out of those 40 million people. Most of the war dead were North Koreans with only 1 million South Korean casualties. Of the 4 million casualties, most - 2 million of them - were civilians. Ab out 500,000 were soldiers. There are still many unaccounted for.
The Foreign Casualties
Countries that sent forces to participate in the military activities also collected sizeable sums of casualties. There were 1 million Chinese soldiers lost. 55,000 Americans lost their lives in Korea. In addition, there were about 4000 other casualties recorded. Of that 4000, over 700 were British.
The Geneva Conference
There were two Geneva Conferences conducted in 1953. From April 26 to June 15, there was a meeting to try and negotiate an armistice between the fighting Koreas. However, from May 8 to July 21, the proceedings concerning Indochina overshadowed the Korean problem. The issues brought forward during the Geneva Conference were the problem of post-war elections assuming there was going to be reunification and how to withdraw military forces from the area. Syngman Rhee remained opposed to the ending of the war without a complete reunification of Korea throughout the Geneva Conference. The United States delegation sided with Rhee's views and prevented reunification.
The Unknown War
The Korean War is mainly an "Unknown War." Korea was not considered a political or military hot spot until the 1950s. There were hardly any government officials in any country who were knowledgeable on Korean culture. For many Americans who stayed home, it was difficult to support the war when one did not know the purpose. Recognition of the war outside of Korea and the immediate Asian area is very sparse. In fact, acknowledging and researching the war is a recent phenomenon. The most popular presentation on the Korean War comes not from a history text, but rather, the television series "M.A.S.H." But even this program shows characters who are participating in a war they themselves do not understand. It was only in 1987 that Great Britain erected a memorial in honor of those who fought in the Korean War. Despite this recent interest in the memory of the war, still not enough is known by the general public. Many people still have not heard about the Korean War, for it is overshadowed by the World Wars that preceded it and the Vietnam war that followed immediately after it.
Army Code of Conduct
One of the issues discussed at length at the Geneva Conferences and for a long time afterwards was the repatriation of prisoners-of-war. For Korean and Chinese prisoners the question was how to repatriate and who to repatriate to the respective sides. The question remained unresolved as to an appropriate manner in which to carry out this operation. For Western prisoners-of-war, they returned under suspicion of being brainwashed or collaborators as their activity in captivity could not be documented. The accusations and fears led the U.S. Army to compose and enforce a uniform Code of Conduct for all prisoners-of war. It states that under no circumstances can a captured soldier volunteer any information other than name, rank, and number.