Any time that a book appears by Bruce Cumings, one of our foremost scholars on Korea, it merits attention. His latest book, The Korean War, is particularly welcome given the recent sharp increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The past informs the present, and perhaps nowhere is that more so than in the case of the two Koreas. While South Korea has changed dramatically since the advent of democracy, it is still the case that relations between the two Koreas continue to be influenced by the war.
The Korean War is not a straight narrative history. That function is crisply handled in the book’s first chapter. Subsequent chapters are each organized around various themes. As Cumings points out in his introduction, his book “is about a forgotten or never-known war,” and therefore it “is also about history and memory.” What one takes away from a reading of the book is that the war is not so much unknown by the general Western public as misunderstood.
The second and third chapters deal with the North Korean and South Korean sides. In a broad sense, the beginning of the Korean War, Cumings argues, began in 1931-2 when the Japanese invaded the northeast provinces of China and established a puppet state they named Manchukuo. The Japanese Imperial Army faced a fierce guerrilla struggle there, in which Koreans constituted the great majority of fighters. Among the guerrilla leaders was Kim Il Sung, who would later become the first leader of North Korea. Japanese colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945 was the most painful period in Korean history, and the resistance against Japanese occupation in China was regarded as interconnected with that on the Korean Peninsula.
The Japanese succeeded in finding a few Korean collaborators during the period of colonial rule. Park Chung Hee, for example, who took power in South Korea in 1961 through a military coup, served during the war as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. Following the defeat of Japan, many of the officials in the newly established South Korean administration of Syngman Rhee were former collaborators with the Japanese, whereas many of the leaders in North Korea had earned their place through participation in the guerrilla struggle. According to Cumings, the North Koreans “essentially saw the war in 1950 as a way to settle the hash of the top command of the South Korean Army, nearly all of whom had served the Japanese.” The one essential thing to understand about the war was that it was first a civil war, “a war fought primarily by Koreans from conflicting social systems, for Korean goals. It did not last three years, but had a beginning in 1932, and has never ended.”
After World War II, U.S. forces set out to build a new government in South Korea. Colonel Cecil Nist recommended “several hundred conservatives” who he felt might make good leaders. Most of them had collaborated with the Japanese, but he felt that this fact would soon be forgotten. “This pool of people,” Cumings writes, “held most of the leaders who would subsequently shape South Korean politics.” Window dressing was needed to obscure the collaborationist nature of the leadership, so Syngman Rhee was handpicked as South Korea’s first president. As an exile during the period of Japanese occupation, he could not be accused of collaboration. The right man had been picked for the job. “Rhee understood Americans and their reflexive, unthinking, and uninformed anticommunism, and made that his stock-in-trade.”
Left-wing People’s Committees arose in the South following the end of World War II, grassroots organizations dedicated to undoing the system of privilege and oppression that had been implemented under Japanese rule. Intense political struggle was underway over South Korea’s political future. According to a CIA report written in the late 1940s, “extreme Rightists control the overt political system,” primarily through the Japanese-built National Police, which were “ruthlessly brutal in suppressing disorder.” The government bureaucracy, it added, “was substantially the old Japanese machinery.”
The entire Rhee regime, in fact, was characterized by ferocious lawlessness and repressiveness, and brooked no dissent. The South Korean National Police, Cumings reports, “ran rackets, procured destitute girls for brothels, blackmailed people by threatening to call them communists, and executed thousands of political prisoners.”
Having looked forward to liberation from Japanese Imperial rule, many people were angered to see the same system of privilege, inequality, and repression continue under independence. Spontaneous uprisings by People’s Committees mushroomed across the southern provinces. Rhee was determined to crush resistance. Cheju Island, where uprisings were particularly spirited, was declared an enemy zone. The police forcibly relocated many residents to the coast. “More than half of all villages on the mountain slopes were burned and destroyed, and civilians thought to be aiding the insurgents were massacred.” The National Police were assisted by right-wing youth squads. “Women, children and the elderly who were left behind were tortured to gain information on the insurgents, and then killed.”
American advisors accompanied South Korean units engaged in repression. U.S. advisor James Hausman helped organized the defeat of the uprising in the port city of Yosu. Privately, he felt that the National Police were “brutal bastards” and “worse than the Japanese.” But that was to be encouraged and, Cumings writes, “he sought to make their brutality more efficient by showing them, for example, how to douse corpses of executed people with gasoline, thus to hide the method of execution or blame it on communists.” By the spring of 1950, Rhee had imposed his will on the southern provinces at the cost of some 100,000 dead.
During the Korean War, the U.S. air campaign was unrelenting. “If we keep on tearing the place apart,” Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett said, “we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North Koreans. We ought to go right ahead.” Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray witnessed “complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital,” and there were simply “no more cities in North Korea.” The U.S. Air Force estimated that urban destruction in North Korea exceeded that of Germany and Japan in World War II.
Many Americans in Korea were oblivious to the culture and complexities in what they regarded as a strange land. Journalist Reginald Thompson wrote, “There were few who dared to write the truth of things as they saw them.” American soldiers “never spoke of the enemy as though they were people, but as one might speak of apes.” Among his fellow journalists, “every man’s dearest wish was to kill a Korean.” Such attitudes made massacres of civilians, such as at Nogun-Ri, possible.
Once South Korean and American troops crossed the border, the Rhee regime imposed its own sense of order on the North. In July 1950, South Korean police massacred 7,000 political prisoners whom they had trucked into the village of Taejon. Witnesses reported that two jeeps with American officers observed the executions. This was by no means an isolated event, and mass executions were carried out wherever Rhee’s National Police operated in the North. Meanwhile, repression continued in the South. In July 1950, a CIA officer helplessly witnessed the killing of prisoners in Suwon. “Trucks loaded with the condemned arrived. Their hands were already tied behind them. They were hastily pushed into a big line along the edge of the newly opened grave. They were quickly shot in the head and pushed into the grave.” The Truman Administration knew that the South Korean National Police were running amok, committing atrocities. Rather than doing anything to deter the course of events, U.S. officials capitalized on it and created propaganda by falsely blaming the North Koreans for the massacres.
If the Korean War has had a significant impact on both South and North Korea, it has also changed the U.S. “The Korean conflict was the occasion for transforming the United States into a very different country than it had ever been before,” observes Cumings, “one with hundreds of permanent military bases abroad, a large standing army and a permanent national security state at home.” As Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Truman, put it, the Korean War “came along and saved us.” It made possible the quadrupling of the defense budget under Truman, and brought about final approval of National Security Council Report 68, which triggered the Cold War and militarized American policy. Echoes of the Korean War continue to influence events on the Korean Peninsula to the present day, and the concept that the role of the U.S. should be policeman of the world has never gone away.
The Korean War is a brisk read, with its clear and concise text. It is not intended to provide a detailed accounting of the war, but should be regarded more as reflections on the nature and meaning of the conflict. The author’s aim is to impart a greater understanding of the complexities of the subject, a goal he brilliantly achieves in this often eye-opening work.
Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Korea Truth Commission. He is the author of the book Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit.