Recently Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had this to say about Korean war games that 10,000 U.S. soldiers have participated in. “We have security issues here that we have to protect.” A basic question that might be asked to Hagel is: Who’s security are you talking about?
Today in the United States about one out of every six people do not have enough food to eat. So, how are Korean war-games aiding in the security of the 50 million people in this country who would like nothing more than a decent meal?
How are these war games protecting the security of the Korean people, or the 28,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in southern Korea? How are the U.S. submarines armed with hundreds of nuclear weapons that now surround Korea aiding to the security of anyone?
In order to begin to understand the issues in the current conflict in Korea we need to take a brief look at history.
The history of Korea
Foreign powers have attempted to dominate Korea ever since the late 1500’s. Korean independence movements struggled against invasions from Japan, China, and the United States. In 1895 Japan forced China to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki that gave Japan political control of Taiwan and China gave up all claims to Korea.
In the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 Britain and the United States recognized Japanese hegemony in Korea in exchange for Japanese recognition of British and US interests in China. In 1905 in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum the US recognized Japan’s interests in Korea in exchange for Japanese recognition of the US colonies in Hawaii and the Philippines. The defeat of Russia by the Japanese in 1905 and the repression of Korean independence forces allowed Japan to take political control of Korea in 1910.
Resistance to these invasions by foreign powers has been a part of the Korean identity. After the United States Asiatic Squadron attacked Korea in 1871 the Korean King Taewon placed stone markers in several locations that read: “Western barbarians invade our land. If we do not fight, we must then appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray the nation.”
The Tonghak religion became popular in Korea and in many ways was similar to the Taiping movement in China. The Tonghak called for and end to foreign intervention, including the expulsion of all foreigners; better treatment for peasants including equitable distribution of farmland, fair taxes, and cancellation of existing debts; and administrative reforms including the firing of corrupt officials.
The Japanese occupation
The Japanese occupation of Korea was similar to its occupation of China. The occupation forces instituted horrendous repression while provoking a sustained resistance. Political prisoners in Korea increased from 6,200 in 1910 to 140,000 in 1918. The Japanese took control of 40 percent of Korean farmland and made life for the peasantry increasingly difficult. The Korean industrial labor force increased from 385,000 workers in 1932 to 1.3 million workers in 1943.
The Korean Communist Party was first organized in 1921 and by the 1930’s began to gain support in the worker, peasant, and student movements. In 1923 strikes organized by women rubber workers led to the formation of the Korean Labor federation. While wages declined by 50 percent from 1927-1935, the average number of working hours per day increased from twelve to sixteen. These conditions led to a strike wave in 1929-1930 that coincided with the 1927 revolutionary movement in China.
One aspect of Japanese rule was the forcible recruitment of “comfort women” who were virtual sex slaves. Many of these Korean women opposed Japanese occupation and were forced to have sex with as many as 30 to 40 men per day.
During the war against the Japanese, the Korean Communist Party organized the resistance movement in Korea and also fought against the Japanese in China. After the war a new Korean government came to power and attempted to form a broad coalition. However, this government only lasted a few days. The United States government continued its imperialist drive in Asia and invaded southern Korea, placing Syngman Rhee in power.
The United States replaces Japan in Korea
Rhee had received several degrees in the United States, including a PhD from Princeton University. He became President of Southern Korea largely because he was the most recognizable figure to the U.S. occupation forces. Rhee’s hostility to the communist forces was similar to Chiang Kai-shek’s point of view in China.
Because there was widespread support for a united Korea with a government that would prioritize the interests of the Korean people, there was significant opposition to Rhee’s policies. In 1946 there were several uprisings of workers and farmers throughout southern Korea that opposed the austerity policies of the Rhee government.
Rhee, with the aid of the US armed forces responded to this political climate by carrying out several massacres in an attempt to destroy any opposition to his rule. He also made several provocative raids against the communist dominated North Korea. Ultimately, he argued that the United States needed to use its atomic bomb to subdue China.
The North Korean government demanded elections to determine which government would rule all Korea. Rhee declined this offer but staged his own rigged elections.* Faced with a determined effort to prevent the formation of a united Korea and several military provocations from the south, the North Korean government responded to these provocations with a military effort to unite the nation on June 25, 1950.
Because there was little support for the repressive rule of Syngman Rhee in the south, the armies from the north had little problem in taking control of most of the nation in a very short period of time. Only the city of Pusan in the south was able to hold out because of sustained US military support.
What the United States could not achieve on the battlefield, they attempted to achieve in the U.S. dominated United Nations. The Truman Administration was more confident in the support they had in the United Nations than in the US Congress. In fact, while the UN voted to send troops to invade Korea, the US congress never voted to declare the Korean conflict a war.
The U.S. prevented the KPR (Korean People’s Republic) from addressing the U.N. and explain why they were taking military action to reunify their country. The U.S. didn’t allow any discussion of the fact that the conflict in Korea was a civil war that did not affect other nations.* The U.S. introduced resolutions calling for a UN sponsored army to invade Korea and to prevent the formation of the Korean People’s Republic.
We might consider that when the United States had its Civil War, Washington opposed any foreign involvement by Britain that would have supported the confederate forces. This was just one more argument that was never presented in the discussion by the United Nations to invade Korea.
At this time the Peoples Republic of China was not recognized by the United Nations and therefore the largest nation in the world had no say in this so-called debate. The government of the Soviet Union was supposed to be allied with the Korean communists and had the power to veto this proposal. The Soviet Union failed to take this step and thereby aided in the UN invasion of Korea.
The argument of the United States was that the conflict in Korea was not a battle between different forces in Korea, but an example of Soviet expansionism. In fact, while the Soviet Union gave military aid to the north, Joseph Stalin opposed the attempts by the KPR to unify the Korea.
The United Nations forces invaded Korea in the port city of Inchon on September 15, 1950 with 260 ships. Faced with this tremendous military onslaught, the KPR forces retreated to the north.
At this point the new government in China that had recently taken power in the 1949 revolution became concerned. They knew that the United States had consistently advanced imperialist policies with respect to China since the Opium Wars of the 1840’s. They also understood that the Japanese had invaded China through Korea. Chinese and Korean forces had already fought together against Japanese occupation. Faced with this history, the Chinese government made it clear to the Truman Administration that if the US invaded North Korea, China would oppose that invasion.
However, General MacArthur and the Truman Administration felt that the US forces were invincible and that they had an opportunity weaken the Chinese revolutionary government. The U.S. forces drove through northern Korea with very little opposition all the way to the Yaloo River which borders China. Then, in late November the U.S. dominated forces were attacked by hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Korean troops. The United States army proceeded to abandon an entire battalion of soldiers and make the longest military retreat in U.S. history.
General Douglass MacArthur asked for authorization to use twenty-six atomic weapons to be used on cities that included Beijing and Vladivostok. Faced with the defeat of US forces in the field, President Truman fired General MacArthur. President Truman was ultimately fired by the US electorate and replaced by General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
While the U.S. did not use atomic weapons, much of North Korea was destroyed due to bombing raids. The naval bombardment of the northern city of Wonsan lasted for 861 days ending one minute before the cease fire on July 27, 1953.
According to Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings in their book, Korea, The Unknown War the following is the human death toll of the Korean War. “More than 4 million people died, including some 2 million North Korean civilians, 500,000 North Korean soldiers, 1 million Chinese soldiers, 1 million South Korean civilians, 10,000 South Korean soldiers and 95,000 UN soldiers, of whom 54,000 were Americans.
To place these figures in perspective, North Korea lost more then 20 percent of its prewar population. That is a higher percentage than either the Soviet Union or Poland lost during the Second World War. Japan suffered a total of 2 million civilian and military deaths during the Second World War, but that represented only 3 percent of its population.”
After the Korean War the Soviet Union gave a significant amount of aid to the KPR. In fact, for several years North Korea was significantly more developed than South Korea. Because of this development the United States began to make significant investments in the south. Many of the capitalists who emerged in the south were collaborators with the Japanese occupation forces. These were the reasons why South Korea became the only underdeveloped nation in the world that became industrialized due to US economic aid. However, working conditions in South Korea continue to be horrendous.
Soviet investments in North Korea tapered off due to conflicts between the KPR and the Soviet Union. One object of contention was the KPR’s stance that opposed the “peaceful coexistence” policies of the Soviet Union. The KPR Premier Kim Il Sung argued that these policies had little meaning for Vietnam, China, and Korea and were in reality racist. Another point of disagreement was the Soviet government’s growing hostility to China. The KPR refused to criticize the nation that helped Korea defend itself against a US led invasion.
One of the arguments of the United States for going to war in Korea was that the KPR was just a satellite of the Soviet Union. The real history of Korea indicates that the KPR played a clearly independent role of both the Soviet Union and China. However, the south Korean government has rarely if ever broken from the foreign policy objectives of the United States.
The United States government has never signed a peace treaty with the North Korean government. U.S. hostilities against that nation have continued for over half of a century.
James P. Cannon’s letter to President Truman
When we look at this history we can understand why the late James P. Cannon, who was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a letter to President Truman and the Congress in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War. Cannon served eighteen months in prison for the Socialist Workers Party’s opposition to the U.S. participation in the Second World War. The following are excerpts from those letters:
“The Korean people have a mortal hatred of the Wall Street ‘liberator’. They despise unto death the bestial, corrupt, U.S.-sponsored dictatorship that made South Korea a prison camp of misery, torture, and exploitation.”
“The right in this struggle is all on the side of the Korean people. Like the colonial peoples everywhere in Asia, they want no part of U.S. or even U.N. ‘liberation’. They want the American troops to get out of Korea. They want freedom from all foreign domination. They want to decide their own fate.”
This is the perspective that continues to be relevant today. The cause of the problems on the Korean peninsula have always been imperialist domination by foreign powers. Working people and farmers have nothing to gain from U.S. forces stationed in Korea or in the more than 800 U.S. military bases all over the world.
When I was active in the movement against Washington’s war in Vietnam, we had one simple demand. That was for immediate, unconditional, and total withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. That demand was simplified with the words, Out Now! When Washington as well as the press beat the war drums to escalate the hostilities against Korea, we need to have a clear answer. That is to bring all the U.S. troops in and around Korea home now.