The Korean War: A Pacifist History

"Massacre in Korea" was painted by Pablo Picasso in January, 1951.

A Lost Chance

In 1945, as the Second World War finally reached its grisly end, the land of Korea was liberated from Japanese occupation for the first time in 35 years. The repressed Korean nation was suddenly free to define a new future.

But this window closed fast. The geographically prominent peninsula was immediately sucked up into a power struggle between the the Soviet Union and the United States of America, the two major victors of World War Two, and a new Korean tragedy was about to begin.

The brief history that follows is an attempt to understand how the opportunity for a free and unified Korea was lost, and how the mistakes were made that led to millions of horrifying deaths and untraceable episodes of destruction, heartbreak and loss. This is a pacifist history, which means that we will not call one side "good" and another side "evil", but will instead try to understand the logic that led leaders on all sides of this disaster to believe that they were making good decisions when they were not.

A Whole Land

The history of the Korean War of 1950-1953 begins with the occupation in 1945 of the entire Korean peninsula by Soviet and American forces. This cooperative joint occupation was generally seen at the time as a benevolent effort to nurture and restore the lost whole nation of Korea, which was known to have a long and proud history. but which had fallen into subjugation and decline, and which had no current tradition or structure at all for self-government. The lack of a governing bureaucracy was so complete that American occupying forces had to reach out to departing Japanese authorities to maintain continuity, infuriating Koreans in ways the occupiers did not at the time comprehend.

Hasty decisions often have to be made as a war-torn region shakes off its shock. Another hasty decision would prove the most fateful of all. A line was suddenly drawn between the southern and northern halves of the country to mark the division between the Soviet-occupied and US-occupied zones of post-war Korea. This was the the 38th parallel, a cartographical line with no real-world presence at all. The dividing line was proposed to Russia by American strategists in 1945. In this atmosphere of presumed trust between the two powers, Russia accepted the American proposal. The Korean people were not consulted, of course, and so without even a word of explanation to the people of this ancient and proud nation, Korea was suddenly sliced in two.

Unbeknownst to all, then, the effort to nurture and restore Korea back to nationhood was now in trouble, because the Soviets began orienting their zone towards a Communist-friendly government, and the Americans began orienting their zone towards Western-style government. It does not appear that anybody in USA or Russia anticipated that the establishment of a division at the 38th parallel would have this result (though it seems obvious in retrospect). Looking back at the careless way this important decision was made, it seems to stand as a classic example of a common trope: a well-intentioned but poor decision made within the fog of war that would have immense consequences.

At the time of the establishment of the 38th parallel there were no ethnic, cultural, linguistic or sociopolitical differences at all between the north and south halves of Korea. And, unlike Germany (which was also sliced in half, East and West, after World War Two), Korea had committed no offenses that could possibly merit such a punishment.

The North would eventually become fully and deeply "Communist" and the South would become fully and deeply "Capitalist". But before the country was sliced in half there was no preponderance of leftists up top or rightists down below in Korea. There were many active Marxist organizations and revolutionary-minded activists in the southern zone, just as there were many conservative or western-oriented citizens in the northern zone, and these segments of the populations remained active and visible (with, we shall soon see, terrible eventual consequences) even after 1948 when South and North Korea both announced their independence as sovereign nations. Their nationhood would endure, but their independence would not.

Why Did Kim Il-sung Rise to Power in North Korea?

It may not have really mattered much what the Korean people thought about Communism, because the rise of Soviet-supported Communist regimes all over the world after 1945 was motivated more by necessity than by ideology.

It's helpful to consider the situations of China and Korea together, because the two societies had a lot in common after World War Two. China and Korea were both proud ancient nations that had lost their independence to Japan. Now that Japan's empire was destroyed, China and Korea looked for support to Russia, which had been Japan's most powerful historical enemy. Two leaders rose to power in each of these countries primarily by forming personal relationships with Joseph Stalin and sealing up Russia's support.

Jung Chang's important book Mao: The Unknown Story emphasizes one single factor that most empowered Mao Zedong's individual rise to power as the leader of China: he had built a strong and exclusive personal relationship with Joseph Stalin. Stalin's secret support and financial assistance would significantly increase Mao's chances as he fought various power struggles within China's rising Communist party, and emerged as the leader of the party and thus of the one-party nation formed in 1949.

Likewise, it was Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union who would size up various candidates for the role of Korea's revolutionary leader and choose a a young and little-known Korean anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter who called himself Kim Il-sung. The Soviet Union's choice created the Kim dynasty that still rules North Korea today.

Why did China and North Korea embrace Communism at all? We often mistakenly think in ideological or class-struggle terms about historical questions like this, as ideology and class struggle had obviously informed the revolutionary Marxist mindset that led to the 1917 revolution in Russia. But the most practical explanation for China and North Korea's tight embrace of Soviet-style Communism is simply that Soviet Russia was the prominent world power in East Asia after the fall of Japan, and that Russia's help was badly needed in both China and Korea. There was much fervent ideological Marxism in China and Korea, but it's not clear whether the regime that would emerge in North Korea was motivated by ideology or opportunism. Like China, post-war Korea was simply desperate for help, and Communist Russia was able to provide this help.

It's also important to realize that Soviet influence helped Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung at both a macro and micro level. On the macro level, Soviet support helped to fortify the nations both dictators were building with both humanitarian and military aid. On the lesser-known micro level, Soviet support allowed both dictators to prevail in their power struggles against other would-be revolutionary leaders and war heroes and Communists who competed with Mao and Kim for power. (Just as Jung Chang's book paints a vivid picture of Mao's power struggles against other Chinese Communists, it seems likely that Kim had to fight similar power struggles against other Korean Communists in order to prevail as the country's sole leader, and that Stalin's support helped him as well.)

Why Did Kim Il-sung Begin The War?

It's commonplace today to treat all of tiny North Korea's blustering military pronouncements as foolish exercises in self-flattery, completely disconnected from reality. But it would be a mistake to think there was anything vain, foolish or unrealistic about Kim Il-sung's plan to unify Korea in 1950. In the context of the time, there was plenty of reason in 1950 to think that Korea would inevitably "go Red", and this had a lot to do with the stunning success Mao Zedong's Communist army had in unifying China, and defeating the American-backed Chinese anti-Communists (who fled to Taiwan) in 1949.

Kim Il-sung would begin the Korean War because he was following the template laid out by Mao Zedong's fabulously successful unification of China. It seemed like a natural move for Kim Il-Song in follow Mao's lead and unify Korea.

As Kim's Soviet-equipped Army prepared to invade South Korea, this dictator must have estimated that everything was in place for a historic victory that would equal Mao's. Just as Mao had been better equipped and prepared for military action than his Nationalist enemies, Kim was better equipped and prepared than South Korea. Just as the nations of the world did not resist Mao's unification of China, so the nations of the world would not resist Kim's unification of Korea. This was the logic behind the decision to suddenly breach the line at the 38th parallel with a massive invading force on June 25, 1950.

At this point, the disaster began, and Kim's plan began to slowly swirl into surreal tragedy.

Death Squads

South Korea had not been aware of the massive military strength North Korea had amassed for the invasion, and was not prepared to defend itself on the military front. The capital city Seoul quickly fell to the Communists, and so did almost all of the great peninsula except for a corner of the southeast that became known as the Pusan perimeter.

But South Korea was more prepared for a political war than for a military war. Even before the invasion, concerned South Korean government and police forces had begun to arrest and execute South Korean citizens who appeared to be interested in Marxist revolution. They had also amassed lists of Communist sympathizers all over South Korea. Now, stunned at the sudden invasion and terrified by the prospect of North Korean retribution and atrocities, South Korean officials began rounding up and immediately killing South Korean citizens who might collaborate with North Korea, or who had any known inclination towards Communism, or even anyone with economic, social or family ties to North Korea.

Death squads began to kill indiscriminately, and soon the slaughter began to develop such momentum that countless innocent civilians were thrown into the churning bloodbath. As the war progressed, the slaughter of South Koreans suspected of potential disloyalty by other South Koreans would claim 100,000 lives.

The mass slaughter of innocent civilians who might become disloyal in time of war is unfortunately a common trope of 20th Century history. The mass murders that took place in South Korea are well documented, and it can be presumed that the same kind of slaughter was occurring at the same time in North Korea, though it's harder to penetrate this country's historical records to find out how many North Koreans were killed by North Koreans on grounds of potential disloyalty from 1950 to 1953.

When analyzing the human cost of the Korean War, though, it is helpful to remember that three separate virtual wars sprung to life at the moment the national civil war began:

  • North Koreans and South Koreans killing each other
  • South Koreans killing South Koreans
  • North Koreans killing North Koreans

In other words: a lot of bad karma was unleashed on June 25, 1950. But we're just getting started. The United States and China haven't entered the battle yet, and the global power moves that would soon follow would radically change the nature, scope and size of the newly born Korean War.

A Global Cluster: Why Did USA Enter The War?

In 1949, no Western nations rose up to combat Mao's Communist takeover of the entire mainland. But Kim's logical presumption that he would get the same free pass from the rest of the world in 1950 turned out to be incorrect. A simple regional war was about to turn into the worst kind of global cluster.

There had been tremendous anguish in Europe and the United States of America following Mao's gigantic success against the Nationalists in China. Key strategists in the USA like Secretary of State Dean Acheson and General Douglas MacArthur engaged with President Harry S. Truman in an intensive discussion of military options, as red-baiting news outlets cried out for American intervention. President Truman deliberated and soon made a decision: the USA would not allow South Korea to be overrun without a fight. Troops were immediately sent, without a declaration of war, to begin a "police action". At the same time, the USA drafted an appeal to the newly formed United Nations for a military coalition that would turn North Korea back.

Why did USA choose to stand firm on Korea when it had not stood firm for China a year earlier? It may be that one Communist victory in Asia was okay but two were too much. The public outrage over the loss of China had been so great that a sequel could not be endured.

Another answer is simply that Korea was small and winnable, and Red China wasn't. It was easier for President Truman to commit to a war he thought he could easily contain and win then a war he knew he couldn't. (His presumption here, of course, was that China would not enter the war to support North Korea. Few of his advisors seemed to consider the possibility of a Chinese counter-invasion at this time, and this was another obvious mistake that can be credited to the "fog of war".)

Kim Il-sung's armies had prevailed all over Korea, but when Kim received the shocking news that America and the United Nations would fight to win Korea back for the South, he appears to have instantly understood how bad this news would be for him and his war. His success was transformed into a likely disaster, because the army of North Korea could not defeat the army that had just defeated Japan. Kim's armies had been brilliantly successful, and yet a single diplomatic message from halfway across the planet meant that he was suddenly likely to lose the war, as well as his control over his own fate.

With the entrance of the USA and the United Nations into the Korean War, Kim's only hope could be to invite direct intervention from Russia or China. But this would provide only a questionable chance at complete victory, and any victory that would be obtained would belong to Russia or China, not to Korea. It was also now possible that all of North Korea might be quickly overrun by the enemy South.

We have explained a few of the obvious early mistakes above to the fog of war. The sudden reversal of Kim's great success points to a different quality: the mercurial nature of military victory. It is often at the moment that a leader is at the peak of victory that a change in global alliance or disposition can turn the victory into defeat. Kim's predicament when he understood that he would be facing an invasion by the United States and United Nations calls to mind Hitler's predicament when he realized that his brilliant victories in France and Poland would be challenged by England, and that this was a war he could not win. These examples provide two valuable takeaways for the method of pacifist analysis that are worth noting for future use. First, war seems to often inspire smart leaders to make poor decisions. Second, a great military victory that is not accompanied by an equally great political or diplomatic victory is likely to devolve into defeat.

A Global Cluster: Why Did The United Nations Go To War?

It was an unusual and interesting diplomatic maneuver for the United States of America to call on a United Nations coalition to defend North Korea. Russia and China were two of five nations with veto power in the United Nations, and the USA's diplomatic maneuver only succeeded because of a weirdly circular situation: Russia was currently boycotting the United Nations over the UN's refusal to admit the new government of Communist China into the United Nations (the UN still recognized the former government of Chaing Kai-shek, now exiled to Taiwan, in China's seat).

Thus, it was only because Russia was boycotting the United Nations over China that a major UN decision affecting Russia and China was able to pass without a Russian or Chinese veto. This was an obviously inauspicious and even dishonest way for the world's new governing body to operate, as the UN Security Council was built wholly upon the principle of unanimous consent among the major world powers, and it is clearly against the spirit if not the letter of the principle of unanimity to make a decision of great import while one of the major world powers is boycotting its seat. Because Russia and "Red China" were not represented in the five-seat Security Council, the decision by the remaining Western powers to endorse the USA move towards war as a United Nations decision appears to be a serious misuse of the new and urgently needed world body. Thus, another tragic result of the invasion that began the Korean War was to embroil the United Nations in a murky definition of unanimity, thus setting a pattern for other UN failures to follow.

With the UN's decision made, a military coalition was assembled to turn back North Korea's invasion of South Korea, and in September 1950 American general Douglas MacArthur pulled off a brilliant landing of coalition forces at Inchon, near Seoul. The city of Seoul was liberated from its recent North Korean occupation, and North Korean forces were chased out of the southern lands. The invading forces now began moving into North Korea.

At this point, there were four facets to this war:

  • North Koreans and South Koreans killing each other
  • South Koreans killing South Koreans
  • North Koreans killing North Koreans
  • USA and United Nations forces killing and getting killed by North Koreans

With his initial victories in September and October 1950, General Douglas MacArthur was riding high. After China's infuriating fall to Communism, his invasion force had just turned back the Communist takeover of Korea. Like Kim Il-sung before him, MacArthur must have believed himself to be at a pinnacle of success at this moment, and was looking forward to an easy completion of his victory in Korea, after which he would probably be popular to enough to get elected President of the United States.

And then ... Douglas MacArthur got the news that China was committing forces — soon revealed to be massive forces — to turn back the American advance.

And now Douglas MacArthur instantly knew that his battle plan was now a disaster, and that his easy war was about to enter a harsh terrible new dimension. In Washington DC, President Truman was equally surprised and dismayed. He had chosen to enter Korea rather than China because Korea could be defeated more easily than China. Now the USA would have to fight China in Korea, and it was too late for the President to turn back.

A Global Cluster: Why Did China Enter The War?

Mao Zedong was reluctant at first to enter the Korean War in support of his fellow Soviet client Kim Il-sung. He and his military leaders deliberated and finally decided to make a massive commitment of forces. In one sense this was a painless decision, because many of the soldiers China sent to Korea were captured former Nationalists or other percieved enemies of Mao's regime. These soldiers were literally armies of slaves, forced to fight or face execution for desertion.

Another motivating factor was North Korea's friendship with Mao's China, and the fact that North Korea had sent armies that significantly helped China fight to victory in 1949. Kim's request for China to help was justified on the grounds of reciprocation, and this appears to have helped to inspire China's decision to enter the war.

Mao had lots of human cannon fodder to expend in 1950, and North Korea was a friendly neighbor to whom Mao owed a debt. Beyond these reasons, it is not known to history exactly what motivated Mao's to commit to a massive counterstrike against the UN coalition in Korea. It is clear, though, that in doing so Mao made a stunning decision that proved his willingness to take great risks, and established China as a world power capable of changing history on its own.

Like a monster, the Korean war kept morphing into something new. First it was a civil war between North and South Korea. Then it became a war between the United Nations and North Korea. Then it became a war between China and the United Nations. By this time, of course, the well-being and prosperity (and even the precious freedom) of the poor Korean people had been completely forgotten as the original motivation for the war. Now the war became what previous wars on this sad peninsula had been: a stomping ground upon which world powers fight each other.

With China's massive entrance into the Korean War, a pattern of bloody and grim stalemate began to emerge. Neither side could defeat the other. At this point, the war was a five-faceted beast:

  • North Koreans and South Koreans killing each other
  • South Koreans killing South Koreans
  • North Koreans killing North Koreans
  • USA and United Nations forces killing and getting killed by North Koreans and Chinese forces
  • Chinese forces killing and getting killed by USA and UN forces and South Koreans

Battles and atrocities and refugee crises and prisoner-of-war calamities and civilian outrages abounded. Aerial bombing of North Korea was a constant terror, as uncountable numbers of villages, towns and cities were vaporized. Antique treasures reflecting thousands of years of Korean history were forever lost. New hatreds were born; only five years ago many Koreans hated the Japanese for 35 years of brutal occupation. Now, for the first time in modern history, Koreans began to hate each other with the same raging passion.

It all amounted to nothing. Eventually the dividing line between North Korea and South Korea wound its way back to nearly where it had begun: the 38th parallel.

Who Won The Korean War?

It's too trite a cliche to say that nobody won the Korean war, and so our pacifist history will not serve up this cliche. We will declare, though, that no Koreans won the Korean war.

The Soviet Union did not benefit from the war, which Kim Il-sung had begun with its secret approval, and which the Soviets supported actively and consistently though indirectly. Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, a few months before the armistice was signed, and his death may have expedited the end of the war. In any case, the tumult in Moscow that followed Stalin's death appears to have impacted the future direction of Soviet Russia more than any result of Korea's convoluted mess.

The United States of America did not benefit from the war, but was transformed by it. Before the start of the Korean War, the USA was attempting to reduce its military spending, was hoping for a long era of world peace under the newly born United Nations. This hopeful climate was destroyed by the starting convulsions of the Korean War, and by the wave of bitter anti-Communism that swept the USA as a result. American military spending began to sharply increase every year after the end of the Korean War.

China did benefit from the Korean War. Indeed, the war was a bonanza for Mao, and he dined off the glory for the rest of his life. He had stood up to the United States and the United Nations, and battled them to a draw. The entrance into the Korean War would turn out to be the first of several Maoist misadventures that would shock the world. Next would come the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1961, which would have an even greater death toll (by self-induced famine) than the Korean War, and then by the violent Cultural Revolution. By the time of his death, Mao Zedong was one of the most powerful and successful world leaders of the 20th Century.

Who Lost The Korean War?

Here's Wikipedia's summary of the casualties and losses in the Korean War:

North Korea Alliance:
178,426 dead
32,925 missing
566,434 wounded

South Korea Alliance:
367,283–750,282 dead
(Including 36,574 USA)
686,500–789,000 wounded

2,500,000 (estimated) dead
South Korea: 990,968 dead
North Korea: 1,550,000 (estimated) dead

Two and a half million civilians. One in ten Koreans were killed in the Korean War. More civilians than military personnel were killed.

How did they die? Every way we can imagine: they were bombed with napalm from above, shelled from artillery batteries, overrun by tanks, drowned in floods unleashed by exploding dams. They were rounded up and shot or clubbed to death or tortured to death. During the escape from Seoul in the first days of the war, another depressing example of the "fog of war" occurred: military strategists were instructed to blow up a bridge in the middle of Seoul, but nobody bothered to inform the refugees who were amassed on the bridge that it was about to explode.

In one depressing massacre after another, groups of innocent refugees were slaughtered — strafed, shot, starved to death — because North or South Korean commanders were unsure whether or not the refugees might include hidden enemy fighters or spies. It was easier to kill them all — women and children too, of course — than to take a chance and let any enemies sneak through.

Sadly, American and United Nations forces were often complicit in the massacres, though foreign combat forces that engaged in aerial bombing might not even have understood the nature of the human destruction they were wreaking. As Bruce Cumings emphasizes in his perceptive The Korean War: A History, the greatest destruction was the often little-known aerial bombing of North Korea, which was unspeakably violent. From Cumings's A Place in the Sun:

By 1952 just about everything in northern and central Korea was completely leveled. What was left of the population survived in caves, the North Koreans creating an entire life underground, in complexes of dwellings, schools, hospitals and factories. In spite of World War II bombing studies showing that such attacks against civilian populations only stiffened enemy resistance, American officials sought to use aerial bombing as a type of psychological and social warfare.

The fact that North Korea remains a sickened and severe society today, sixty years later, indicates a macabre truth. The Korean War was a failure of diplomacy, and a failure of military management. The psychological and social warfare, however, hit its target like a bulls-eye.