Korea — the Unknown War: an Illustrated History
By Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings
Penguin Books, 1990
REVIEWED BY CHRIS SLEE
The 1950-53 Korean War of was one of the bloodiest in history. Between 3 million and 4 million Koreans were killed, out of a population of 30 million. US President George Bush's recent declaration that North Korea is part of an "axis of evil" contains an implied threat of a new war.
Anti-war activists need to be prepared for this. They need to arm themselves with as much accurate information about Korea as possible. A first step would be to read Korea — the Unknown War, by Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings. Even though it was published 15 years ago, and is currently out of print, you might be lucky enough to find a copy in a second-hand bookshop or on the internet (readers should also write to Penguin and suggest it be reprinted).
Korea was a Japanese colony until 1945. The Korean Communist Party led an armed resistance to the Japanese occupation. Following the defeat of Japan in World War II, the CP-led Korean People's Republic was proclaimed in Seoul in September 1945. It was supported by a network of people's committees throughout the country.
But the United States government had other plans. In 1945, US officials drew a line on the map, dividing Korea in two along the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union accepted this.
US troops moved into the area south of the 38th parallel and tried to dismantle the people's committees. This led to a rebellion in October 1946, which was suppressed with extreme brutality.
Soviet troops entered the area north of the 38th parallel, but remained in the background. The new northern government, led by veterans of the anti-Japanese resistance struggle, carried out a land reform that benefited the peasants at the expense of the landlord class. It also implemented measures to respect women's rights. In 1948, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops, leaving behind some advisers.
In the south, the US set up a government led by Syngman Rhee, who had spent nearly 40 years of his life in the USA, and an army led by officers who had served the Japanese occupiers. This government was highly repressive and killed thousands of alleged communists.
The northern government was also repressive, targeting former collaborators of the Japanese and the landlord class. According to Halliday and Cumings: "Neither North nor South had qualms about using violence towards political ends, but the North tended to be more discriminating, in part because its enemies were numerically small classes and groups, and also because of a political practice ... of seeking to re-educate and reform political recalcitrants."
Outbreaks of fighting on the border occurred during 1949. According to Halliday and Cumings, "both sides were at fault", but "the south started more of the battles than did the north".
Full-scale war broke out in June 1950. Who started it is debatable. There are indications that extreme right-wing elements in the southern army may have attempted an incursion into the north. But once the fighting started, the northern army went on the offensive and rapidly seized control of almost the whole Korean peninsula. A massive US invasion turned the tide and US troops came close to the Chinese border. This prompted the intervention of Chinese troops on the side of the North Koreans.
Eventually, a stalemate was reached along a line close to the 38th parallel. The war ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953.
The US invasion was carried out in the name of the United Nations. The pretext was that the north had committed aggression by invading the south. In fact, southern forces probably fired the first shots. But in any case, as Halliday and Cumings point out: "The question ... 'Who started the Korean War?' is surely the wrong question... Like Vietnam, Korea was a civil and revolutionary war."
The Soviet Union failed to use its veto to prevent UN endorsement of the US war. Halliday and Cumings speculate that Stalin may have wanted to suck the US into a war, or that he may have wanted to discredit and destroy the UN by allowing it to endorse a war.
I think it is more likely that Stalin, who had accepted the division of Korea in 1945, disapproved of North Korean efforts to reunify their country, and hoped that the North Korean government could be pressured by the UN to quickly withdraw its troops behind the 38th parallel. This would explain the initial failure of the Soviet media to express support for North Korea, as well as the apparent decrease in Soviet military supplies to North Korea and the pulling back of Soviet military advisers immediately after the outbreak of war.
China was much quicker to express support for North Korea. Subsequently, the Soviet Union did give increased military assistance, but this was limited. Soviet fighter aircraft were sent, but were only allowed to be used north of the 38th parallel.
The war caused massive devastation, particularly in the north where US bombing left scarcely a building standing. Five big dams were bombed, causing "untold numbers" of deaths through flooding and starvation. Halliday and Cumings estimate that during the war, more than 2 million North Korean civilians and 500,000 North Korean soldiers died.
The US also threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea and China. The North Koreans and Chinese claimed that the US used biological weapons. The US denied this. Halliday and Cumings say the evidence on this question is inconclusive.
Economically, South Korea was rebuilt with US assistance and became a capitalist "success story". Politically, South Korea was ruled by a succession of dictators, who were periodically threatened by mass popular revolts which were brutally crushed. Eventually, the people of South Korea won formal democratic rights, but 37,000 US troops remain in the country.
North Korea remained under the control of the Communist Party, which had become increasingly bureaucratic. All dissent was repressed, and party leader Kim Il Sung became the centre of a bizarre leadership cult. (Since the book was written, Kim Il Sung has died and been replaced by his son Kim Jong Il.)
North Korea was rebuilt. At the time the book was written, Halliday and Cumings were quite positive about North Korea's economic prospects: "The North is a more successful socialist economy than is generally recognised... The regime has been fairly successful in delivering social and economic gains to its population, even with very large military budgets and armed forces."
However, since the book was written, North Korea's economic situation has deteriorated dramatically, with reports of widespread starvation. While natural disasters played a role, the loss of Soviet aid and disruption to trade following the demise of the Soviet Union had a big impact. This accentuated the strain that already existed on the economy due to high levels of military spending and the bureaucratic waste of resources.
The North Korean regime responded to these problems by trying to attract investment by South Korean and foreign capitalists. This does not seem to have significantly improved the situation. A major obstacle is the continuing economic blockade by the US and Washington's veto of North Korea's membership of international financial institutions.
The grotesque extremes of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il leadership cults make it easy to portray the North Korean leadership as totally irrational. Apologists for US imperialism cite North Korea's development of long-range missiles and its alleged development of nuclear weapons as "proof" that its regime is a threat to other countries, and as a reason for a possible US invasion.
However, North Korea's resort to developing missiles and nuclear weapons is not surprising. It is a country that was invaded by the greatest military power on Earth, has been threatened with nuclear weapons, and is again being threatened with invasion. There are nuclear weapons targeted at it. In Iraq, North Korea's leaders witnessed how Washington's high-tech conventional weaponry can decimate a Third World country's armed forces. We should defend North Korea's right to develop whatever weapons it feels it needs to defend itself against the very real threat it faces.
But nuclear weapons alone cannot guarantee North Korea's safety, given Washington's overwhelming superiority in this field; military spending diverts North Korea's precious resources from its huge economic and social problems.
What is needed is a strong international solidarity movement which can deter the US from attacking North Korea. Particularly crucial will be solidarity inside the US and in South Korea.
The Stalinist character of North Korea's government does not make the building of such a movement easy. But doing so is crucial to preventing a new tragedy being inflicted on the people of Korea.
From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
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