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“The forgotten war”, 60 years later

“The forgotten war”, 60 years later

Exactly 60 years ago, the Korean War, one of the worst conflicts since World War II, started after North Korean troops invaded their southern neighbours. And while the Vietnam War remains America's worst nightmare, the Korean war was no less bloody.

On Friday, The New York Times reminded its readers of the 60th anniversary of what has sometimes been called, except by the Koreans perhaps, “the forgotten war”.

The Times’ article begins by explaining: “Sixty years ago today, units of the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea and starting the Korean War — which grew into a cold war clash between the United States and China. Although more than two million soldiers and civilians died over the next three years, including more than 54,000 Americans, the war is now an overlooked part of United States history.”

How and why did this conflict come about? By the close of World War II, the Allies decided that, after having been a Japanese colony since 1910, the victorious allies would take temporary charge of Korea. North of the 38th parallel the Soviet Union would take the Japanese surrender. South of that line, General Douglas MacArthur would take control on behalf of the US. 

Almost from the beginning, the Soviet Union backed the formation of a Stalinist-type regime under Kim Il-Sung, complete with a Russian-style, standard-issue army replete with heavy tanks and massed artillery. Kim had been with the communist Chinese army during the war, but North Korean mythology portrayed him as the leader of a major guerrilla force patriotically opposing the Japanese. As his cult of personality grew, even mystic powers were ascribed to him. It was said of him that Kim was born on the peak of a traditionally sacred mountain, and that birth came accompanied by the inevitable eagles and rays of sunlight direct from the heavens.

Photo: Kim Il Sung in 1946. (Wikimedia)

In the South, meanwhile, a rather more chaotic political situation led to an American-backed administration under the religious fundamentalist and increasingly authoritarian figure of Syngman Rhee. Paralleling Kim’s vision for Korea, Rhee’s goal was also national unity – by force if necessary. As a result of his increasingly militant stance, the American-trained South Korean army had been restricted to a more lightly armed militia to prevent Rhee from sending it northward to carry out his mission.

Following rising tensions and military feints along the 38th parallel, the North Korean Peoples’ Army launched their invasion of the south on 25 June 1950. Following the opening of Soviet archives, there are now indications that Stalin encouraged the North Koreans to make their attack. In part, this was because American secretary of state Dean Acheson, describing the American defence perimeter in East Asia following the fall of Chaing Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government, had inadvertently failed to include Korea in a speech.

In addition, it seems Stalin wanted to make a point to the west following the failure of the Berlin blockade as well as send a message to the independent-minded Yugoslav leadership under Josip Broz Tito. In addition, Stalin appears to have wanted to use the assertion of North Korean power to box in the new communist leaders in China as they strove to achieve influence in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

Photo: General Douglas MacArthur (Wikimedia)

As the North Korean forces moved quickly south, the US called on the UN Security Council to invoke the collective security clause of the United Nations Charter for the first time and brand the North Koreans as aggressors. Fortuitously for the US (and South Korea), the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council’s sessions, protesting against the fact that China’s seat on the council had not yet been transferred to the new communist government. As a result, the Security Council took its vote without the Russians and called on member states to send urgent military assistance.

However, the North Koreans were advancing so quickly that the first American troops sent into the conflict were also pushed back to the far south-eastern corner of the peninsula around the port of Pusan. Despite furious North Korean efforts, the Pusan bridgehead held and reinforcements from the US, the British Commonwealth and other nations arrived in time to stabilise the situation on that front.

Three months later, General Douglas MacArthur’s command designed a masterstroke of military strategy and surprise with an amphibious landing at Inchon, on the west coast near Seoul. The successful landing cut North Korean supply and communications lines, broke their advance and the landing forces and those from Pusan pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and on into the mountainous northern reaches of the peninsula. As this was taking place, the Chinese warned that they would intervene if the advancing UN forces threatened Chinese territory.

Heedless of the gathering danger from the Chinese warnings, MacArthur directed his UN forces to begin a final push towards the Yalu River and the border with China. The Chinese responded with a massive military intervention of their own, pushing the UN forces back down the peninsula to positions south of the now-nearly destroyed Seoul. This time, UN forces now under General Matthew Ridgway, after MacArthur had been cashiered, gradually fought their way back to the 38th parallel. A front line gradually stabilised, turning the next two years of fighting into a hi-tech version of World War I trench warfare.

MacArthur had been relieved of command in an event with startling contemporary resonances following General Stanley McChrystal’s comments in Rolling Stone about the Obama administration. In MacArthur’s case, in direct opposition to president Truman’s (and the UN’s) objective of restoring South Korea’s status, rather than uniting the peninsula through military force, MacArthur had publicly called for unlimited, full-scale war, bombing Chinese airfields – and even the use of nuclear weapons to stop the advancing armies. These acts of insubordination forced Truman’s hand and he fired MacArthur as part of the strongest confrontation between military and civilian authority in American history.

In common with World War II, air power played a decisive role in Korea, in massed, high-speed dogfights, air support for ground operations, and strategic bombing of supply lines and communications. The conflict also inspired rapid innovation in advanced jet fighter tactics to gain control of the skies by UN forces, once the US’ F-86 Sabre jet fighters rolled off production lines.

As the land battle reached stalemate, the opposing sides began armistice talks that dragged on for two more years. A key issue then was the future of thousands of North Korean army prisoners that had been captured earlier, but had refused to be repatriated north. Eventually the formula that returned those who wished to go back and allowed those who wished to stay to do so was agreed to and the ceasefire established the Demilitarised Zone or DMZ.

Because of the chaos of this vicious, close-quarter warfare, the actual number of people who died during the conflict remains uncertain even today. Nearly 40,000 US troops were killed, thousands still remain listed as missing in action and several thousand more civilians died as well. UK combat deaths surpassed a thousand. Estimates are that some 46,000 South Korean soldiers were killed, that the Chinese lost more than 400,000 (including Mao Tse-tung’s son), while North Korean forces lost some 215,000.

As foreign soldiers returned to their respective nations, they brought back memories of the appalling fighting, the astounding cold in winter and the near total destruction of the infrastructure of the entire peninsula.

Photo: North Korean soldiers (facing camera) march as South Korean and U.S. soldiers look on at the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, in this picture taken from the South Korean side of the truce village on March 6, 2009. REUTERS/Ahn Young-joon

Despite this, by dint of enormous effort, in the decades since, South Korea has become one of the so-called “little tigers of Asia”, creating an economy that took per capita income from the levels of a typical African colony in the 1950s to Western European levels now. North Korea, meanwhile, has become an isolated hermit state with an economy near collapse, but it also has a really bad bellicose attitude, nuclear weapons and some increasingly accurate missiles. Not a good mix, that.

It can come as a shock for Americans to realise that that country’s casualties in the Korean conflict very nearly drew even with those in the Vietnam War. Of course, Korean deaths – north and south – far outweighed American casualties by orders of magnitude. And, unlike the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War splintered the national sensibility, nearly destroyed the American military and ushered in a era of deep suspicion of the government and any of its actions.

But despite this bitter experience, it remains true that the Korean War exists outside the historical narrative for many Americans. Perhaps this is true because it “ended” without a final conclusion. After three years of inconclusive warfare, Americans were prepared to elect as their president (admittedly the country’s uber-war hero from World War II), Ike Eisenhower who had famously pledged, “If elected, I will go to Korea” to bring the war to an end – with or without a clear-cut victory. Just any end.

World War II had ended with a handy collection of ultimate winners and losers. That inspired a generation’s worth of extraordinary literature, as well as an unending roll call of films worthy of the magnitude of the global struggle. 

But the Korean conflict’s novels and films, at least from American hands, usually speak of confusion and disillusionment instead. Sort of like marching up the hill, fighting like crazy and then marching back down again. And then repeating the process again and again. “MASH” may be the ultimate expression of despair from the pointlessness, futility and absurdity of war, even if, in terms of its zeitgeist, it spoke to the futility and pointlessness of the Vietnam War as well.

Regardless of the mental landscape, “MASH” (and the TV series based on it) helped trigger a rethink of the Korean War that led to a campaign, generations after the cease-fire, to build a memorial to the victims and veterans of that war in Washington before the last veteran had passed away.

South Korean stories of the war, perhaps unsurprisingly, focus on the reality of enormous physical destruction, the division of families and communities and their sundered connections – as well as the lack of an obvious way forward from a divided peninsula to a unified nation.

The larger lessons of the Korean conflict were crucial, even as the final result of the war remains elusive and uncertain. For the world as a whole, for the first time nuclear weapons would not be part of an automatic escalation of force in any future conflict in the realisation that nuclear weapons could not be unleashed without subjecting the world to the real risk of atomic apocalypse. That meant, in turn, that limited warfare would often be a feature of global violence in the last half of the 20th  century, bringing wars to an end without that satisfying resolution of smashing an enemy to kingdom come.

A further lesson for both the Soviet Union and the US was that their interests, and those of their allies, were not always identical. Instead, it was in the mutual interest of the two superpowers to find some way to reach accommodations between themselves. Or, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis in “The Cold War – A New History” could quote anonymous Soviet officials as saying, “In the interest of our common tasks, we must sometimes overlook their stupidities.”

Gaddis added: “Both Washington and Moscow, therefore, wound up supporting Korean allies who were embarrassments to them. It was a curious outcome to the Korean War, and another reminder of the extent to which the weak, during the Cold War, managed to obtain power over the strong.”

And perhaps most important of all, the Cold War, that long twilight struggle  – with occasional hot war outbreaks where the Soviet Union and its allies and satellites, bumped into the interests of the US and its allies in the west and in East Asia – was here to stay for decades to come.

By J Brooks Spector

For more, read the BBC history series, Olive drab, Google’s time line of the conflict, the PBS’s “The American Experience”, the homepage for the Washington, DC, Korean War memorial.

Main photo: Wikimedia


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