For most Korea conjures up images of war and the ongoing conflict that resulted; video snippets showing thousands of North Korean troops goose stepping in massive parade, the Dear Leader, mass gatherings, and the DMZ. Many recall the harsh rhetoric unleashed by both sides in years past or, recently, the headlines full of news about the North’s rocket attack on a South Korean fishing island and the supposed sinking of a South Korean man-of-war by a Northern torpedo.
It’s ironic that the conflict and imagery which have so defined Korea for outsiders are so truly misunderstood, it is alarming how little the general populace knows about how and why the conflict that has shaped the present day political climate in the divided country came about. The headlines are full of catch phrases and sound bites that conveniently roll off the tongue and are easily and instantly committed to the memory of the news consumer, “Axis of Evil” “Rogue State” and “communist Dictator” just to name a few . Most are aware of the conflict but don’t truly understand the roots causes or they subscribe to the over simplified idea that it was the opening battle in the war between communism and democracy, or capitalism, that would shape the politics of the world over the next fifty years, that the communist North lead an unprovoked attack against the south in order to snuff out capitalism and install a communist government, all the while Joseph Stalin the grand puppet master furiously worked the strings behind the scene.
In order to better understand the divided nation we have to go much further back than 1950 for it was much more than a conflict between two ideological systems, it was a conflict rooted deep in the past of Korea, as far back as the 1592 invasion by the Japanese, who invaded with 158,700 troops in hopes of establishing a base in Korea which would allow them to launch an offensive against the Ming dynasty in China, and then eventually India. The Japanese swept over the peninsula at will but were rebuffed by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and his Turtle Ships, the world’s first armor clad warships. The Ming dynasty sent 22,000 troops to assist the Koreans and together they pushed the Japanese into a small area up against the sea in the south eastern part of the country and forced them to terms.
Japan stalled in treaty negotiations and launched a second invasion in 1597, which was quickly rebuffed by Admiral Yi and the Ming forces, but this attack was different from the first in goal, its aim wasn’t to gain a strong hold to take the rest of Asia but to punish Korea for defeating Japan on their first invasion attempt. Japanese soldiers killed, raped, and tortured civilians, bringing over ten thousand noses and ears back to Japan. The invasion left a legacy of anti Japanese sentiment among Koreans that lasted up until the 20th century.
In 1904 war broke out between Russia and Japan over their spheres of influence in Korea, and Japan came out the victor. Under the peace treaty, brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, Japan gained paramount rights to Korea and established a protectorate at the point of a gun, taking control of Korean diplomacy, deploying police forces and taking over industry. By 1910 Japan had annexed the peninsula and made Korea a colony.
The Japanese were oppressive and put down all forms of rebellion and dissent with blade and bullet. Over ten thousand Korean women, known as “comfort women” were kidnapped and made sex slaves to the Japanese army. They were raped dozens of times daily by soldiers who believed the practice would make them victorious in battle. Rebellions threatened the Japanese government in Korea several times before the colonizers changed their tactics from brute force and repression to a divide and conquer mentality, taking loyal Koreans under their wing, giving them Japanese names, and installing them in positions of power. It was mostly the old landed class, or Yangban, that benefited while the rest of the Korean people starved in misery under Japanese rule.
In China tens of thousands of Korean rebels were engaging the Japanese army in guerilla style warfare, successfully enough in fact that the Japanese created special units, headed up by Koreans who were loyal to the Japanese, to track and destroy these guerilla leaders. One of the most well known and feared guerilla fighters was none other than Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea.
Here can be seen the root of the conflict, it wasn’t about communism or capitalism; it was about collaborator against nationalist. After Japan surrendered in 1945 the Soviet Union swept into Korea and then allowed the United States to occupy the lower half of the country. The Americans immediately began making mistakes, they refused to turn Korea over to the Koreans instead they wanted only to create an anticommunist South Korean state, just as they would in Greece, Indochina, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. It didn’t matter that many of the Koreans supported by the United States were seen as traitors and Japanese sympathists, it mattered only that they called themselves “anticommunist”.
There was a government set up by Koreans for Koreans in Seoul in 1945 called the Korean People’s Republic. General Hodge, the commanding American officer in Korea, “declared war” on the KPR on December 12th 1945 and later said “, one of our missions was to break down this communist government outside of any directives and without the backing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the State Department.” Here we can see one crucial problem of American cold war policy, there was no differentiation between communism, nationalism, and democratic socialism, as would later been seen in such places as Chile and Vietnam. It was a nationalistic movement in Korea, not a communist movement, Koreans wanted their country back they wanted to rule themselves after suffering at the hands of the Japanese for the first half of the century. They asked the United States for help but, instead of helping Korea achieve independence the US installed the very people into power who had worked for the Japanese, terrorizing their own countrymen in order to keep the Japanese in power, people who labeled everyone not in their small elite class as communists.
We can look at the Korean Nation Police force as an example. In 1946 eighty-five percent of the police force had served in the Japanese police force, the Americans put into power the same people that tracked down leaders of the Korean resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. The group the United States chose to support was, at the time
” A numerically small class which virtually monopolizes the native wealth and education of the country…Since this class could not acquired and maintained its favorable position under Japanese rule without a certain minimum of “collaboration”….the forced alliance of the police with the Right has been reflected in the cooperation of the police with Rightist youth for the purpose of completely suppressing Leftist activity. This alignment has had the effect of forcing the Left to operate as an underground organization since it could not effectively compete in a parliamentarysense even if it should so desire.”
And in referring to the structure of the southern bureaucracy the CIA said it was “substantially the old Japanese machinery” (National Records Center, CIA “The Current Situation in Korea,” ORE 15-48, March 18, 1948; and CIA, Communist Capabilities in Korea,” ORE 32-48, Feb. 21, 1948
In late 1948 the Soviets withdrew their troops and left North Korea to the Koreans and a little over a year later the war broke out. The North didn’t just invade the South, there were provocations on side; posturing, threats, border skirmishes and fire fights. The South was egging the North on in hopes of an invasion so they could call for international support and the North was waiting for a reason to invade. After the war started the story is pretty familiar to most but the often overlooked or ignored fact is it wasn’t a communist North wanting to spread their ideas southward, the DKPR felt themselves, and still does, to be the true Korea, a representation of the Korean people, they felt their governement was the one picked and supported by the people , the government whose members fought against the Japanese while they occupied Korea and China, while the leaders in power in the south had fattened under Japanese rule, hunted down and killed their own countrymen who opposed the Japanese.
During the American Civil War , France and England were in favor of the South, while Czarist Russia favored the North. How would the United States look today if the British and French threw their full weight behind the Confederates and Czarist Russia supported the North, what if a stalemate had been declared in that war? There wasn’t a stalemate, the States were left alone to determine for themselves what they would become. There were many lives lost and much bloodshed but it was a process that needed to happen in order for the country to move forward, there was a clear winner and a clear loser, the winners wrote history and the country moved toward repairing itself. Korea was given no such opportunity for self determination. It wasn’t the Chinese or Russians who invaded the South, let us remember, it was the Koreans. The only reason the Chinese later joined the war was because the U.S. had taken sides with the South and was advancing toward the Chinese border with MacArthur at the helm, who left to his own devices would have invaded China. China wanted to keep the U.S., with its hostile policies toward Communism and self determination for countries of the “third world”, off of its doorstep and it owed Korea a favor for their support in fighting the Japanese in China. As a side note it is also interesting that the United States supported not a democracy in South Korea, but a military dictatorship that terrorized its own citizenry right up until 1988.
Both the North and the South have been active participants in revisionist history,as this is how history is written by the victor and when there is no clear victor we have two opposing stories. In hopes of reconciling a divided country the two Koreas, as well as the rest of the world, must to take an honest look at the root cause of the conflict, as damning as that might be to national pride or sense of righteousness, it needs to happen in order for the country to move forward. No side can claim innocence in a war that snuffed out the lives of millions of people, in having participated in the creation of two opposing systems that have turned brother against brother and led to the oppression and silencing of countless more millions on both sides. If one claims to be more just than the other there will be no way out but for one side to be destroyed, be it by war or famine. The mistakes that have been made must be admitted, the South must admit the role they played in repressing the majority and welcoming yet another colonizer into their country and the North has to realize just because it has suffered at the hands of imperial powers and in some way been demonized it doesn’t make their behavior, or what their country has become, any more tolerable or acceptable.
For further reading: The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer, Koreas Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cummings. *These two books are a great place to start and they include a long list of other books for further reading. I would like to include a small cautionary warning about any book, especially first hand accounts of events such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang, published by a South or North Korean. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t great resources but you have to remember the citizens of both countries have been shielded from anything that isn’t state approved history, the South does have freedom but with the spectre of a repressive miltary dictatorship looming in the recent past. The point is have your propaganda filters tuned to a high pitch.