HISTORICAL FEATURE: The Korean War — a war of counter-revolution



The Korean War: a war of counter-revolution

SEOUL — Fifty years after the outbreak of the Korean War, it is still seen as a war to defend peaceful South Korea against the aggressive ambitions of "totalitarian" North Korea. This theme dominated the 50th anniversary memorial speeches here last month, soon after the summit meeting in Pyongyang between the South's Kim Dae Jung and the North's Kim Jong Il.

The extremity of North Korea's Stalinist distortions make even the most sympathetic leftist believe that such a bizarre regime is capable of anything, with the result that the view spread by Seoul and Washington that the root of the Korean War was the North's "invasion" has not been vigorously contested by the left outside Korea.

In 1950, the division between north and south had been recently imposed from without. It had no legitimacy in the eyes of most Korean people.

A five-year revolution and counter-revolution escalated into the Korean War — the final and most savage step in the crushing of a workers' and peasants' revolution that followed the defeat of the Japanese in World War II.


The Korean population extended into Manchuria and Siberia. After Japan annexed the Korean peninsula in 1910, an armed resistance took root in these areas and waged attacks on occupied Korea. Until 1945, this region-wide dynamic played a vital part in the revolutionary struggle.

After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Japanese imperialism assisted the counter-revolution in Siberia, using its Korean colony as a base. A Japanese victory over revolutionary Russia would have led to greater subjugation for the Korean people.

The Korean resistance found a natural ally in Russia's revolutionary movement and a joint fight against Japan was waged. To politically assist this alliance, the Bolshevik leadership dispatched Alexandra Kim, a Bolshevik of Korean origin, to Siberia.

During the struggle, many Siberian Koreans were won to socialism. A sizable number joined the Russian Communist Party and many others established separate organisations. The most significant was the Korean People's Socialist Party, formed by resistance leader Yi Dong-Wi at Khabarovk in June 1918.

In August 1919, after a major offensive by Tsarist forces, Yi and other resistance fighters retreated to China alongside a wave of Korean refugees.

Meanwhile, within Korea, a liberal bourgeois independence movement gathered momentum. On March 1, 1919, mass marches to proclaim a US-style declaration of independence were held. Over subsequent months, the March 1st Movement mobilised 2 million Koreans in more than 1500 demonstrations.

The movement appealed to the imperialists who were conferring in Versailles on how to carve up the globe and share the loot of victory. As a victor, Japan's free hand in the Far East went unchallenged.

The Japanese viciously crushed the March 1st Movement. Troops fired into the mass marches, beheaded children, crucified Christians and carried out scores of other atrocities. More than 7500 people were killed and 16,000 were injured.

Several leaders fled to China and helped establish the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai in April 1919. Yi Dong-Wi and some other socialists joined the KPG shortly afterwards. Some of the liberal bourgeoisie in this alliance, dismayed at the West's silence about the crushing of the March 1st Movement, turned to the Bolsheviks for assistance. Two of them accompanied Yi as delegates to the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Soviet Baku in 1920.

The KPG did not last long. A section, based around Rhee Syngman, later South Korea's repressive first president, continued to see lobbying the US as the ultimate solution. After Yi's arrival in Shanghai in 1920, factional strife erupted over the issue of financial aid from the Soviet Union.

Yi returned to Siberia to reorganise the guerillas. The effort collapsed amidst a violent conflict with the Soviet Red Army, the "free city incident". Yi died in Siberia in 1924.

In 1925, Rhee Syngman was expelled from the KPG for embezzlement and returned to the US. The KPG had been torn apart and the remaining figures sought support from Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang.

A generation gap emerged. Those who remained in China increasingly became irrelevant as the renewing movement inside Korea moved leftward and a new generation of guerillas regrouped in Manchuria. A new unity with the Chinese Communists' struggle and continued assistance from the Soviet Union gave the new guerilla movement momentum.

Within Korea, the labour movement became more important. After the 1910 annexation, the Japanese evicted many Korean peasants and forced them into the factories. The struggles of this new working class readily took an anti-imperialist character.

In the 1920s, due to a rapid boost in Japanese investment, the working class expanded considerably in size and class consciousness. Between 1926 and 1931, the number of industrial clashes more than doubled and the number of workers participating in them rose from 5984 to 21,180.

Inspired by the workers' struggles and the Russian Revolution, and sobered by the lessons of the March 1st Movement, communist circles sprang up throughout Korea and began fusing with the workers' movement. This changed balance of class forces put the politically conscious workers at the centre of the independence movement.

However, throughout the 1920s, repeated crackdowns and internal divisions hampered the development of a national communist organisation. National coordination was to be found only in the wider independence movement. In 1927, a broad national liberation front, the Sin-gan-heh, was formed and quickly established more than 100 branches outside Seoul, its membership reaching about 30,000. A parallel women's organisation, the Gu-nu-heh, was also formed.


The Korean communist movement consolidated into two geographically separate tendencies in the 1930s. In 1932, the Chinese Communist Party in Manchuria combined Korean and Chinese partisans into the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. Kim Il-Sung, who had joined the guerilla movement in 1930, was made commander of the sixth division.

In the late 1930s, Kim Il-Sung's division scored a number of spectacular successes against Japanese forces, earning him widespread respect among Koreans in Manchuria and north-eastern Korea.

In the greater part of the Korean peninsula, the scattering of underground communist groups began to come together around the leadership of revolutionary worker Park Hun-Young, based in Kwangju. Facing direct Japanese occupation and lacking the international assistance received by the Manchurian tendency, the "Peninsular tendency" faced greater obstacles. It carried out much of its work through its leadership of the National Council of Trade Unions (Jun-pyoung).

Turning point

A turning point was reached in 1937 when the Sino-Japanese War erupted. The majority of right-wing Korean nationalists went over to the Japanese, openly accepting their rule.

In contrast, the revolutionary workers and peasants intensified the struggle. While Park Hun-Young's group consolidated as the major left force, it was unable to fully weld together the peninsula-wide movement. As well, many of the movement's leaders were arrested and killed.

At the outbreak of the World War II in 1939, the Japanese manoeuvred to further divide the Korean independence movement by bribing and neutralising the remaining bourgeois nationalists. This was in preparation for Japan's later entry into the war. As the bridgehead into the north Asian landmass, the Korean peninsula was pivotal for Japanese imperialism.

Moreover, at the start of 1941, the fortunes of the guerilla war began turning against the Koreans. Many leaders were killed in combat or executed after capture. By March, Kim Il-Sung was among just a handful of surviving partisan leaders with authority and experience.

Kim and his remaining soldiers fled to Siberia and became integrated into a guerilla unit of the Soviet Red Army that carried out incursions into Manchuria. Many others fled further south-west to Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists' headquarters at Yenan and became more directly involved in the Chinese movement.


By August 1945, with Japan on its knees, Korea's workers and peasants rose in revolution. Democratic people's committees mushroomed and took sweeping control of industry and the land. This momentous revolution in its democratic stage forged an alliance of all pro-independence forces.

In addition to Park Hun-Young's group, the other major force in this alliance was the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI). Set up by the Japanese to ensure its troops a safe withdrawal from Korea, the CPKI was composed of left liberals who, while amenable to negotiating with the retreating Japanese, had retained popular legitimacy for not having previously gone over to the colonial rulers. Its head was Yo Un-Hyong, a KPG leader in China who had been brought back to Korea by Japanese agents in 1927 to serve a prison term.

Exiled groups began to return from China, Siberia and the US. Kim Il-Sung's partisans marched from Siberia as a liberating army alongside Soviet troops. These exiles, too, were integrated into the emerging revolutionary government.

On September 6, 1945, these disparate forces and representatives of the people's committees proclaimed a Korean People's Republic (KPR) in Seoul on the basis of a 27-point program. The key points related to land redistribution, nationalisation of major industries, rent control, an eight-hour day and a minimum wage.

On September 8, Park Hun-Young's group established itself in Seoul and became the Korean Communist Party (KCP) and the US military began arriving to occupy Korea south of the 38th parallel.

The US and the Soviet Union were to jointly oversee Korea's "decolonisation" on either side of the "temporary" border at the 38th. The revolution's contrasting paths in the North and South were shaped by the fundamentally different nature of the US and Soviet occupations.

In the North, Kim Il-Sung's forces established their centre in Pyongyang and became the northern branch of the KCP. Through a separate congress of people's committees from the five northern provinces, it began implementing the KPR program.


In the South, the KCP initially welcomed the US as an ally and sought its assistance for the KPR government. However, US General John Hodge immediately began recruiting Japanese collaborators to the US Military Government in Korea (USMGIK) formed on September 9.

Under USMGIK protection, the forces around Rhee Syngman launched a counter-revolution. Rhee conducted a ruthless terror campaign, assisted by thousands of members of the landlord class and Japanese collaborators fleeing the revolution in the North. Northern reactionaries formed a network of extreme right-wing youth groups, of which the most infamous — the Sobuk (north-west) Youth — astounded even the US military with its barbarity.

On December 8, the USMGIK banned strikes. On December 12, the revolutionary government was outlawed and the people's committees ordered to disband. On December 18, Hodge created a southern army led by Koreans who had fought with the Japanese military.

Later in December, the US, Soviet Union and Britain met to decide the future of Korea. In an attempt to appease imperialism, Joseph Stalin agreed to put Korea under the joint trusteeship of the US and USSR for five years, thereby abandoning the revolution in the South.

By February 1946, the KPR government was thoroughly polarised. The two most prominent centrists, Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-Shik, had joined Rhee in an anticommunist coalition called the Representative Democratic Council (RDC). At the other pole, the southern KCP had quickly shed its illusions in the US and moved underground to build a struggle against the USMGIK. Above ground, the KCP, Yo Un-Hyoung and other leftists formed the Democratic National Front.

In March, the anticommunist Korean Labor Federation for the Promotion of Independence (No-chong) was formed. With assistance from the RDC, the bosses, police, right-wing terror gangs and the US, No-chong launched a campaign of thuggery and harassment against the Jun-pyoung. In May, Rhee ordered the offices of several popular newspapers to be smashed up. Hodge arrested key KCP and other leftist leaders on the pretext of a counterfeit ring.

The leaders, including Park Hun-Young, who managed to evade the crackdown, fled to Haeju, just north of the 38th parallel, where they attempted to foster the increasingly militant mass opposition movement.

On September 23, a strike by 8000 railway workers in Pusan quickly grew into a general strike of workers and students in all the South's major cities. The US military arrested strike leaders en masse.

In Taegu, on October 1, huge riots occurred after police smashed picket lines and fired into a crowd of student demonstrators, killing three and wounding scores. The enraged workers killed 38 police.

In Yongchon, on October 3, 10,000 people attacked the police station and killed more than 40 police, including the county chief. Some 20 landlords and pro-Japanese officials were also killed.


A few days later, the US military declared martial law to crush the uprising. They fired into large crowds of demonstrators in numerous cities and towns, killing and wounding an unknown number of people.

The director of the US Department of Transportation described the US military's role in Taegu: "We were out to break that thing up and we didn't have time to worry too much if a few innocent people got hurt. We set up concentration camps outside of town and held strikers there when the jails got too full. It was war."

By the end of October, the Jun-pyoung lay in ruins and an enormous amount of revolutionary energy and confidence had been destroyed. The tragic defeat revealed the weakness of the KCP in the South. The leadership in Haeju had been unable to concentrate the uprising into a well-coordinated revolution. The October struggles had been essentially local and spontaneous, and lacked effective political leadership.

In the North, the position of Park Hun-Young vis-a-vis Kim Il-Sung was severely weakened and a heated debate about how to restore the revolution in the South began. The view took hold that the southern movement did not have the capacity to do this without a military initiative from the north.

In the South, Rhee dispensed with his "left" allies. He had Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-Shik assassinated. By the end of 1947, Rhee's regime was strong enough for the US to push for United Nations-sponsored May 1948 elections to ratify a capitalist republic in the South.

The prospect of a permanent division of Korea sparked renewed upheaval. When mass demonstrations failed to stop the sham election, some workers and peasants began localised guerilla battles in early 1948.


The fiercest fighting took place on the southern island of Cheju, where the people's committees were deeply rooted. During the colonial JOperiod, the majority of Cheju people left the island to work in the industrial centres of Manchuria and the northern-most part of Korea where they became deeply involved in the workers' and independence movements. In 1945, filled with hope by the revolution, they returned to Cheju.

On April 3, 1948, Cheju's KCP and people's committees initiated a sweeping counter-offensive. By early June 1948, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) — operating from caves, bunkers and tunnels and armed with weapons left behind by the Japanese — had liberated most villages in the interior of the island.

Meanwhile, the sham election had gone ahead on May 10, run by the ultra-rightist National Police on a restricted franchise and boycotted by most parties. Rhee was swept to power and on August 15 formally established the Republic of Korea (ROK).

Rhee's response to the Cheju uprising was single-minded. Under US command, the ROK military, police and terror gangs unleashed one of the most vicious episodes in the counter-revolution.

By April 1949, 20,000 homes had been destroyed and about 100,000 people (one-third of the population) had been removed to coastal areas under ROK-US control. Torture, mutilation, gang rape and arbitrary execution were rife.

By the end, about a quarter of the Cheju population had been massacred. The US embassy happily reported: "The all-out guerilla extermination campaign came to a virtual end in April with order restored and most rebels and sympathizers killed, captured, or converted".

However, sections of the PLA survived and regrouped in Halla Mountain in the island's centre. There they continued their struggle after the start of the Korean War and were not vanquished until 1952. Survivors of the PLA remained hidden in the caves until 1959.


On October 19, dissident ROK soldiers in the port city of Yosu rose in opposition to being mobilised for the war in Cheju. About 2000 insurgent soldiers took control of the city. By October 20, a number of nearby towns had also been liberated.

Yosu's citizens paraded with red flags and shouted slogans. At a mass meeting on October 20, the people's committee was reinstated as the governing body. People's courts were established to try police officers, landlords, regime officials and other supporters of the Rhee dictatorship.

In the suppression that followed, the Rhee regime was hell-bent on weeding out all rebel elements in the army. The bloodletting was planned and directed by the US military.

The Korean War

Despite the defeats in 1946 and 1948-9, the struggle to complete the revolution did not subside until after the counter-revolution had escalated into all-out war in 1950-3.

In those horrific years, the US — still smarting from the "loss" of China — led 16 other countries to defeat the Korean revolution once and for all. The US saw as the "enemy" the mass of Korean working people, and committed and condoned enormous atrocities.

The US occupation had from the very start been characterised by mass cruelty legitimised by racism. As a French journalist poignantly summed it up at the time, "[The Koreans] were not even communists, they were gooks".

The commanding officer of the invading forces at the time, Douglas MacArthur, stated later: "I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs, strung across the neck of Manchuria, spread behind us — from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea — a belt of radioactive cobalt". The US did not go that far, but it used napalm, germ warfare, carpet-bombing, massacres of civilians of all ages and concentration camps even for children.

When the US occupied the North, it unleashed a barbaric revenge. The extent of the atrocities was revealed by the discovery of mass graves in the North long after 1953.

So massive was the destruction that Korea would still be in ruins had it not been for the worker-led reconstruction of the North, and the massive US funding to rebuild the South as an anticommunist bulwark.

Industrialisation in the South

After the forces of North in the early part of the war helped southern workers again liberate the peninsula, the reestablished people's committees carried out sweeping land redistribution to poor peasants.

When the US regained control of the South, its class relations had changed substantially and the invaders saw the political dangers in reversing measures which were, on the whole, not critical for imperialism.

The land redistribution broke the landlord class, aiding the rapid growth and dominance of an industrial capitalist class in the South. After the war, this class did all it could to ensure no repeat of the 1945 revolution or its expansion from the north. The ROK was subjected to massive anticommunist scare campaigns, fervent indoctrination of its citizens from childhood and a distorted official history of the war and its origins.

This was backed by physical repression by a large US-trained and commanded security apparatus. Anyone suspected of being a "Red" was immediately set upon, interrogated, maybe tortured and blacklisted. The security forces were greatly aided by Rhee's union federation, which politically policed the labour movement. In April 1960, No-chong became the conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions.

The counter-revolution also helped to fossilise the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (North Korea) Stalinist party bureaucracy. During the war, Kim Il-Sung had opposition factions suppressed and their leaders killed, and democracy within the state and party was severely curtailed. After 1953, the heavily militarised standoff between the North and South continued to give Kim's autocracy a measure of legitimacy.

In such a hostile and war-weary climate, the revolutionary movement was not to revive on a significant scale until the 1980s.