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KOREA AMID WAR; No Longer United


KOREA AMID WAR; No Longer United


This week and next I will be trying to explain an enduring Asian reality – how was it that Korea became a bitterly divided nation and an intractable international problem


The Korean War remains a momentous event in Asian history which still casts a dark shadow over peace and security in the region and in the world.


On the night of June 24th/25th 1950 90,000 North Korean troops, using weapons and tanks supplied by the Soviet Union, and acting according to an operational plan authored by Russian generals, invaded South Korea, thereby starting an intense 3-year conflict and a war which, ended only by an armistice, technically and also actually continues until today, as indicated by the torpedoing of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan in 2010. 


One historian of the period carefully described what happened 65 years ago:


QUOTE "In the predawn darkness of Sunday June 25 1950. at..about 4 am North Korean artillery and mortar barrages began hitting South Korean positions along the 150-mile width of the peninsula, shortly followed by invasion forces totalling 90,000 troops and 150 Soviet-built tanks that struck, in smoothly coordinated assaults, into South Korea.  The main North Korean thrust, including most of the tanks, was aimed at the South Korean capital, Seoul.  Amphibious landings were made meanwhile at points along the east coast up to 40 miles below the 38th parallel.  Caught by surprise, in lightly held defences, the South Korean soldiers fell back, some after valiant resistance, but others in total disarray.  With the daylight hours the North Korean Air Force went into action, bombing and strafing chiefly in and around Seoul"    UNQUOTE


Ever since July 25th 1950 the world has been continually bombarded with the endlessly repeated communist-asserted Big Lie regarding the start of the war.  At 11 am on July 25th, North Korea's Radio Pyongyang announced that the North had declared war since the South Koreans had launched their forces across the parallel first, before being hurled back.  From the moment they invaded South Korea, until today, North Korea, plus its witting and unwitting allies at home and abroad, have been asserting that its invasion was a counter-attack, not an invasion.  The Soviet advisers who prepared the top-secret "Preemptive Strike Operations Plan" referred to it as a "counterattack plan" even though it also included a plan to conceal the preparations for a southern invasion disguised as military exercises. As one former North Korean general candidly admitted subsequently, "Even after Kim Il Sung dies, you won't be able to find any legal document about a North Korean attack -- it was a counter offensive.....South Korea was attacking us.....it was disinformation to cover ourselves". 


To be sure, there had been border skirmishes between North Korea and South Korean troops in the two years since both countries were formally established in August and September 1948.  Both Koreas had often talked loosely about attacking the other.  The bitter acrimony between the two Koreas was very obvious.  But this is not evidence of South Korea invading the North, even if some naive historians think it is.  Over the years, the North Koreans have expanded the Big Lie to also alleging an American attack on the North --- even though all US troops had been withdrawn from Korea by 1949 and were only hurriedly returned to South Korea in 1950 when the North Korean attack looked like succeeding.  One UN official I met in 1952 sarcastically summarised the communist attempt to reverse the truth.  "It would be the only time in history" he said, "when the aggressor was many miles within his own border within minutes of committing his alleged aggression".


As it has happened, the reality of the Big Lie being carefully promoted right at the start of the Korean War has become clearer, following the release of documents from Soviet archives consequent upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.     But the prior question remains -- why were there two Koreas in the first place?  What were the essential developments which led to traditional Korean unity becoming bitter division?


There are three ways of looking at the creation of the two Koreas.


First, it was the result of the abrupt end of the Japanese colonial Empire.


Second, it was also the result of the abrupt end of World War Two, after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Third it was, and remains, a reminder, just like the never ending impasse in Russo-Japanese relations, that in some ways World War Two created enduring international problems rather than solving them.


First and last, as every Korean knows, the division into North and South Korea was not a natural development, not an historical inheritance, not even a colonial imposition.  In the dim and distant past, there were three Korean kingdoms, but from 668 AD onwards Korea was a unified state with a single administration and a single language.


But at the end of the 19th Century foreign pressures began to hint at division.  The Japanese were increasingly seeing Korea as part of their sphere of interest. The Russians were expanding their influence and presence in Manchuria and then in northern Korea.


As Don Oberdorfer reveals in his superb 1997 book "The Two Koreas", at the turn of the century, aiming to inhibit the growth of Russo-Japanese conflict, Japan suggested demarcating Korea into two spheres of influence, Russia to the north, Japan to the south, with the dividing line roughly halfway up the peninsula, at the 38th parallel.  The Russians refused the compromise, the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war ensued,.   It ended with Japan's surprise victory.  Japanese forces occupied Korea in 1905.  Tokyo annexed Korea as its colony in 1910.  Crucially, the United States then recognized Japanese hegemony in Korea, in return for which Japan recognized American hegemony in the Philippines -- at least, they did until 1941-42, when Japan briefly conquered the Philippine archipelago until it was defeated there by General Douglas MacArthur in 1944-45.


But the Japanese were never defeated in Korea.  The Americans took very little interest in Korea both before the Second World War -- and also while that War was being fought.  They might, belatedly, have taken greater interest in Korea had the war been extended by the need to conquer nearby territory, prior to conquering Japan.  But when the Japanese quickly surrendered after the two atom bombs were dropped, it found the Americans quite unprepared to handle the Korean problem.


The 1943 Cairo Declaration by the US, China and Britain had promised that "Korea shall become free and independent" but little thought was dedicated to implementing this laudable aim.  The Americans had been quick to support numerous groups fighting to restore Philippine freedom, but none of the several Korean exiled groups, some resident in the United States, were recognized, let alone supported.  Oberdorfer reports that, by 1945,  2,000 civil affairs officers had been trained for staffing the military government that was to be imposed by America upon Japan.  No such preparations had been made for a future government of Korea to replace Japanese colonial rule.  Meanwhile, the Americans had finally managed to prod the Russians into entering the war against Japan, and the Russians, after their blitzkreig had defeated the Japanese Kwantung Army, immediately set about once again extending Russian influence into Manchuria and northern Korea.


Had the Second World War turned out to be more protracted, it is faintly conceivable that there would have been some US effort to install a temporary occupation government in Korea capable of moving the former colony to independence.  Partition of Korea might, might have been avoided. As events turned out, with only five days to go before the Japanese finally surrendered in Tokyo, the Americans finally got around to deciding how the Japanese surrender was to be accepted in Korea and elsewhere, and incorporating these decisions in General Order Number One which was to be sent out to the Supreme Commander Allied Powers, General Douglas Macarthur as soon as possible.   Forestalling the Russians was now the priority.  Enhancing the prospects for pan-Korean self-rule was not even considered.  Oberdorfer describes the quaint way in which, at a late-night meeting in Washington DC, the critical decision regarding the surrender of the Japanese in Korea was reached:


QUOTE "Around midnight two young officers were sent into an adjoining room to carve out a US occupation zone in Korea lest the Soviets occupy the entire peninsula and move quickly toward Japan......Working in haste and under great pressure, and using a National Geographic map for reference, they proposed that US troops occupy the area south of the 38th parallel, which was approximately half way up the peninsular and north of the capital city of Seoul, and that the Soviet troops occupy the area north of the parallel.  No Korea experts were involved in the decision.....UNQUOTE


The two young officers making this decision were Lieutenant Colonels Charles Bonesteel, who later became a commander of US forces in Korea, and Dean Rusk who was Secretary of State for Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  Neither of them knew that Russia and Japan had discussed dividing Korea into spheres of influence at the 38th parallel at the turn of the century.  QUOTE Had we known that, we almost surely would have chosen another line of demarcation UNQUOTE Rusk wrote many years later.  Whether or not the Russians reacted to the 1945 38th parallel decision by assuming the US had finally accepted the former Japanese position on splitting Korea in two is not known. Whether the Americans, at the height of their power in 1945 could have insisted -- even at that late stage -- on taking over the whole of Korea with a transitional government in which the Russians would have had influence but not control is simply unknowable.  The point is --- no one suggested this option -- perhaps no one even thought of it.


Yet at the Yalta summit conference early in 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt had proposed a US-Soviet-Chinese trusteeship for Korea.  As far as can be seen, that idea, too, was never taken up and seriously considered.


Even if the Americans had been pushing for a pan-Korean transitional government as part of the surrender package, they were in no position to enforce it.  The speedy and sudden end to the war brought about by the atomic bombs, had left US armed forces widely dispersed, and not yet near to any Korean deployment.  Increasing the occupation forces in Japan, the former enemy in WW2, was the top priority.  Rapidly increasing the Korean garrison was not.  With hindsight one can say that Korea, with its ability to focus great power rivaries, should have been much more of a priority but, at that time, it simply wasn't.


Sizeable US forces in Korea, which might have inhibited Soviet expansionism in 1945, only started arriving in Korea after the Korean war had been started by that Soviet expansionism in June 1950.  But, in 1945, the Soviet forces were careful not to go too far. Once the 38th parallel was stipulated as the border between the two Korean zones, the Russians took care to respect it --- at least, for the next five years.



Reflections From Asia

Radio 3's award winning weekly in depth analysis of Asian issues from one of Hong Kong's leading journalists.

After 18 years of weekly broadcasts, Reflections from Asia, written and presented by Harvey Stockwin, and produced by Phil Whelan, is taking an indefinite rest. Over the years, Harvey has informed listeners with his sharp and profound analysis of the major events and movements in our region, drawing on his extensive knowledge of politics and history, and his expertise as a narrator coupled with his distinctive delivery.

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