Korea: From its liberation as a colony to plunging into war and division

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Two wars had already been fought for the control over the Korean peninsula at the turn of the 19/20th century. In the first one China and Japan clashed in 1894; and in 1904 Russia and Japan had gone to war over hegemony in Korea and Manchuria. Stalin, at the Yalta Conference in 1945, insisted on a division of Korea along the 38th parallel, i.e. a division into north and south, which Russia had already claimed in 1904 before being driven out of the area by Japanese imperialism.

Previously, in August 1945, Russia had occupied Korea down to the 38th parallel just north of Seoul. This constellation lasted from 1945 – 1950, i.e. during the period of the war in China. However, the formation of the Chinese People’s Republic added a new element to the imperialist crab basket. After receiving the Russian go-ahead, Kim Il Sung, who had fought for the Russians during World War II, started an offensive beyond the 38th parallel with the hope of driving off the US forces in a blitz from Korean territory.

The war went through four phases:

  • In a “blitz-offensive” North-Korean troops marched on Seoul on 25th June 1950. By September 1950 the whole of South Korea was conquered by North Korea, only the area around the city of Pusan resisted the North Korean offensive in a bloody siege and remained in South-Korean hands.

  • In a second phase – following the massive mobilisation of US led troops – Seoul was recaptured on September 27th.. The US led UN troops continued their offensive towards the north, and at the end of November 1950 they occupied Pyongyang and reached the Yalu, the border between China and Korea.

  • In a third phase, Chinese and North Korean soldiers started a counter attack. On 4th January 1951 Seoul was recaptured by Chinese North Korean troops (with a mobilisation of 400,000 Chinese and 100,000 North Korean soldiers).

  • In yet another counter attack Seoul fell back into US hands in March 1951. Between spring 1951 and the end of the truce (July 27th, 1953) the front line hardly moved. The war quickly got “dead-locked” and no major gains were made for 2 years.

The war was a horrendous confrontation between the two superpowers and it became one of the most murderous, destructive ones in the period of the cold war.

During the war the USA tested all sorts of weapons (e.g. they used the chemical weapons Anthrax and Napalm). The intensity of the destructions was so big that almost all towns that were attacked were bombed to the ground, for example the two capitals Seoul and Pyongyang were both flattened under US bombs. The US commander said “we can no longer think of any North Korean town to be bombed, there is hardly any house left standing”. The air force had orders to “destroy every means of communication and every installation, factory, city and village”. The civilian population was taken hostage and fire bombed – in some cases cities were 95% destroyed by fire bombs. Within a year almost the whole country had been bombed to ruins. Neither side managed to impose its military goals. The war “unleashed” rapidly, but it took years to come to a truce. On a military level, the war ended where it started, the border line (as established before the unleashing of the war) did not move.

It is estimated that about two million people died in North Korea, and around one million people in the South. General Curtis LeMay, who directed the bombing of Tokyo in 1945, drew this balance sheet: “We burned down every town in North Korea anyway and some in South Korea too. Over a period of three years or so we killed off 20% of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure” 1

North Korea lost 11% of its population, with a very high death toll amongst the civilian population. The North Korean army lost some 500,000 soldiers (dead, wounded and missing), the Chinese army suffered some 900,000 casualties, the South Korean army some 300,000, and the USA suffered the fourth largest number of casualties in US history; 142,000 soldiers died altogether.

The war was the first massive military appearance of Chinese imperialism. China, which had been dependent on Russian arms sales, at the same time tried to compensate its limited arsenal of weapons by the almost unlimited use of human cannon-fodder. Mao did not hide the ruthless and reckless military ambitions of his regime, when he declared in 1952: “The war has been a great learning experience for us… These exercises are better than any military academy. If we continue fighting another year then we will have rotated all our troops to become acquainted with war”. 2 Even when the war was drawing to a close in 1953 China was preparing its sixth offensive with the largest number of soldiers ever mobilised for an offensive against the USA. Already by October 1951 China had mobilised 1.5 million soldiers, and the country was pulverising half of its state budget for the war.

In October 1951 the USA had to quadruple their defence spending to cover the spiralling costs of the war.

Both sides were ready to throw in all their military and economic weight. Stalin, Mao, Chiang and Truman had all formed one front against the Japanese only 6 years beforehand, at the time of World War II. During the Korean war they were searching for possible ways of annihilating each other. The military authorities envisaged the nuclear bombing of 24 Chinese cities, amongst the planned targets of nuclear attacks were Shanghai, Nanking, Beijing, Mukden.

Ever since, the country has been a permanent zone of conflicts with the highest level of militarization. South Korea is supported by the USA, for whom the country is an important bridgehead. Much like Japan, South Korea was quickly reconstructed with US help.

The North which is both a vital buffer zone but also an important bridgehead for threatening Japan is a crucial key for China’s and Russia’s imperialist strategies. Reconstructed following the Stalinist model, the Northern part shows many parallels with the former Eastern European regimes. Although more developed economically than the South before 1945 and more equipped in raw materials and energy resources, the North developed a similar backwardness –typical of regimes suffocated by militarism and run by a Stalinist clique. In the same way as the Soviet Union was unable to survive through economic competitiveness on the world market but only through military means and the permanent threat of the use of its army, North Korea is unable to compete with economic means on the world market. Its major export product are weapons.

The end of World War II and of the Korean war had left the whole of mainland China, Japan and the Korean peninsula in ruins. War had ravaged large areas of Asia. Moreover, one of the consequences of the new imperialist constellation of the cold war was that two countries, China and Korea were divided into two parts, (the People’s Republic and Taiwan, North and South Korea) each side being an ally of one of the blocks. Both Japan and South Korean, which had been flattened by war, quickly received US funds to speed up their reconstruction in order to turn them into strong economic and military supporters of the USA in their confrontation with the Russian rival and its allies.

1 (Jörg Friedrich, Yalu, p. 516).

2 (Jörg Friedrich, Yalu, p. 425)