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Setting the Record Straight on the Korean War

Martin Hart-Landsberg teaches economics at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Korea: Division, Reunification and U.S. Foreign Policy (1998) and Rush to Development: Economic Change and Political Struggle in South Korea (1993).

Deane, Hugh, The Korean War, 1945-1953 (San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals, Inc., 1999), 246 pp., $14.95, paperback.

Hugh Deane has written a concise, political, and engaging history of the Korean war. One reason this book is special is that Deane was in southern Korea during the late 1940s as a reporter, and his experiences there enable him to provide a more immediate and personal perspective on events than one normally finds in histories of the Korean war.

In The Korean War, 1945-1953, Deane challenges conventional understandings of the war. Most importantly, he argues that it began in 1945, not 1950; that primary responsibility for the war lies with the U.S. government, which actively and intentionally divided Korea to further its imperialist ambitions; and finally, that the fighting between 1950 and 1953 is best characterized as a civil war rather than an unprovoked invasion of one nation by another.

Although Deane makes little attempt to explain the contemporary relevance of his work, it is an easy task. A peace treaty ending the Korean war has never been signed. Technically, the United States and North Korea remain in a state of war; the United States has rebuffed numerous North Korean attempts to negotiate its end. In fact, the United States and Japan still refuse to recognize North Korea. This continuing state of hostilities (intensified by the ongoing presence of U.S. military personnel in South Korea) has the potential to trigger a new, and potentially nuclear, Korean war. It has also provided useful cover for rightists in Japan to pursue remilitarization and for the military-industrial complex in the United States to sustain high levels of military spending. Finally, this situation, along with the tensions generated by Korea’s division, has also provided justification for the governments of both North and South Korea to distort and limit progressive political and social possibilities on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel.1

While the events surrounding the Korean war cannot fully explain all of the above, the taproot of current tensions and struggles does lie in the period between 1945 and 1953. And, because the carefully managed conventional history of the Korean war has helped U.S. policymakers maintain popular support for their foreign policy, it is necessary to challenge that history if we are to build support for a new U.S. policy towards Korea and meaningful solidarity with the Korean people.

Cracks in the conventional history are slowly becoming visible. In September 1999, the U.S. government was finally forced to admit that the U.S. army might have committed an atrocity during the Korean war—specifically, that U.S. soldiers murdered several hundred Korean civilians near Nogun village in late July 1950.2

While the U.S. government acknowledges that atrocities were committed during the war, it previously blamed them all on North Korea, not itself or South Korea. However, as Deane shows, the opposite is closer to the truth. For example, the Syngman Rhee regime “ordered a blood bath in the southern regions retaken from the north after Inchon in the fall of 1950…Gregory Henderson [a U.S. official stationed in Seoul] estimated…that probably more than 100,000 were killed without any trial whatsoever when soldiers and the Counter-Intelligence Corps recaptured areas where the left was known to be strong” (96). Deane also highlights the normally overlooked period from October through November 1950, when U.S. and South Korean forces occupied North Korea. The result was a reign of terror. “After reoccupying Pyongyang, the North Koreans claimed that 15,000 people had been massacred there—the bodies filled the courtyard of the main prison and 26 air raid shelters” (101).

The True Start of the Korean War

Deane’s book is divided into five sections (with the middle sections dominating): History That Shapes the Present, The True Start of the Korean War, The 1950 War in the Making, Armies at War, and Armistice and Aftermath. While mainstream accounts of the start of the Korean war normally begin with North Korean forces “invading” South Korea, Deane’s aim in section two is to show that the war started in 1945 as a result of U.S. policy. He therefore begins his analysis with the 1945 arrival of U.S. troops in southern Korea.

Although American troops were allegedly sent to oversee the surrender of Japanese forces, their mission was much bigger. Significantly, even before U.S. forces had landed in Korea, they were told by their commanding officer that the Korean people were to be considered enemies of the United States. The United States sought domination over as much of Korea as possible because of its strategic proximity to Japan, China, and the Soviet Union. Because the great majority of Koreans had their own vision of a democratic, independent, and socialist country, they stood in the way of U.S. plans.

The logic of the situation quickly led the United States to ally with the existing Japanese colonial administration in Korea and with rightwing Koreans against the popularly supported Korean People’s Republic and its associated mass organizations. Deane describes in some detail how the U.S. occupation proceeded to smash any and all opposition to its rule over the south.

Deane also explains the decision to formally divide the country as an American one. The U.S. government, recognizing that it could not exert its will in the north, eventually decided that a divided Korea, with the south under U.S. control, was the best outcome it could achieve. Thus, in September 1947, it pressured the United Nations (UN) to agree to oversee separate elections in the south (which had the greatest population) and the north to create a Korean government. The Soviets and North Koreans opposed the U.S.-orchestrated voting plan (given the repression of the left in the south) and refused to allow the UN access to the north.

The overwhelming majority of southerners also opposed the election. As a result, even the head of the delegated UN Commission, K. P. S. Menon (the chief delegate from India), expressed doubts about proceeding. However, one month later, Menon agreed to support the election. Deane reports the reason for this change of heart as follows: “In March I was informed by an upset member of the Indian embassy that the State Department virtually blackmailed India…The American ambassador in New Delhi informed Nehru that the Indian action on Korea would affect the U.S. attitude toward the Kashmir dispute. Nehru cabled orders to India’s commission delegation to refrain from criticizing American policies in South Korea and to vote with the U.S.” (64). The vote went ahead; South Korea became a country and Rhee became its first president.

The United States succeeded in splitting the nation but it could not provide legitimacy for the new government. Armed struggle against the newly created southern regime began. Thus, even before the June 25 “start” of the Korean War fighting, a civil war raged in South Korea. This war, in essence a war over the future political, social, and economic orientation of the south and by extension all of Korea, was the direct result of U.S. actions. And it was impossible that the question of Korea’s future could be decided in only one-half of the country.

The 1950 War in the Making

Deane seeks to explain two important issues in this brief section: U.S. foreign policy considerations, which encouraged its intervention in the fighting, and the events triggering the 1950 Korean War fighting. In terms of the latter, Deane describes how, in 1949, Rhee was eager for a march north, hoping to ride the wave of U.S. support for his regime. In fact, the South launched several attacks across the parallel in the spring and summer. All were on the Onjin peninsula which, if seized, would secure southern forces a relatively direct and rapid route to Pyongyang.

While South Korea seemed to enjoy the military advantage early in the year, that advantage shifted north by late 1949, with the return of North Korean units that had fought in China’s civil war. This shift now made Kim Il Sung eager to strike south. It remains unclear whether Kim thought in terms of a quick strike to seize Seoul or a full-scale invasion of the south. Regardless, what is clear is that both sides were eager for battle.

Deane reports that Kim failed to win Stalin’s support for a strike until May 1950. Still, Stalin was cautious and let Kim know that he would not support an unprovoked attack. Deane notes that the North “asserted on June 26, 1950, that the South had started the war by a general assault across the 38th parallel.” While there is no evidence of a general assault, there are good reasons for believing that the South struck first, attacking the key northern city of Haeju. The South actually claimed to have taken the city, although it presented its victory as part of a counterattack against the northern offensive. However, the overall military situation makes such a counterattack highly unlikely.

It is more likely that the South launched a first strike across the border, hoping to trigger a northern attack so as to enlist U.S. forces in a march north. The North, having waited for just such a provocation, obliged by sending its troops south. And the United States, eager for an incident to further its own aims, was quick to intervene in what was clearly a civil war between Koreans.

Armies at War

In this, the longest section of the book, Deane lays out the basic dynamics of the fighting, with significant attention to the role of the Chinese (a role North Korea now downplays). But his major challenge to conventional histories of this period is found in a series of short chapters dealing with the armistice negotiations, air war, biological warfare, and treatment of prisoners of war.

By mid-1951, both sides were close in number of fighters and holding territory roughly in the location of the thirty-eighth parallel. Although it seemed likely that the two sides would quickly find a way to end the fighting, the war lasted another two years, mainly because the United States demanded a fully negotiated armistice agreement before it would agree to stop fighting. And as Deane reveals, the United States was in no hurry to conclude an agreement. Two issues dominated the negotiations: the location of the truce line and reparations of prisoners.

The United States initially argued for making the actual battle line the truce line, while the North Koreans and Chinese argued for the original thirty-eighth parallel. When the communist side finally agreed to the U.S. position, the United States changed its position, demanding that the truce line be advanced some thirty-two miles into the north. At the same time, the United States publicly accused the communist side of delaying the negotiations because of its refusal to accept the battle line as the truce line. American reporters were kept in the dark on this and many other things concerning the war.3 As Deane reports, the deception was finally exposed thanks to the efforts of Wilfred Burchett and Alan Winnington, who were reporting on the communist side.

After agreement was reached on the truce line, the two sides took up the issue of prisoner repatriation. The United States refused to abide by the Geneva Convention, which mandated that all prisoners be repatriated at the end of the fighting. Instead, they argued that Korean and Chinese prisoners should be allowed to decide where they wanted to be released. Deane presents powerful evidence that as the two sides argued the issue, Korean and Chinese prisoners were brutally tortured in an effort to get them to defect. One chapter documents how wounded Chinese and Korean prisoners were used as guinea pigs for medical training and scientific experiments.

While the negotiations dragged on, the United States kept up an intense air war on the north. Cities and civilians were bombed; napalm was the weapon of choice. As for North Korean and Chinese charges that the United States used biological warfare in Korea and Manchuria, Deane concludes his survey of relevant studies saying that “in later years what appears to be corroborative evidence has persuaded some in the U.S. and elsewhere that the germ warfare accusations may well have been true” (158).

The armistice was finally signed on July 27, 1953, bringing the fighting to a close. In April 1954, there was a follow-up peace conference in Geneva to settle the political future of Korea. North Korea called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and an all-Korea election to establish a unified government. South Korea opposed this. With U.S. support, it called for elections only in North Korea and under UN supervision.

The United States and Rhee wanted the conference to fail; they were content with the status quo. Deane quotes Chester Ronning, acting head of the Canadian delegation: “I was appalled by the great differences in position being taken by the United States and South Korea on the one hand and by most of the rest of us on the other. I thought I had come to participate in a peace conference…Instead the emphasis was entirely on preventing a settlement from being realized” (190-191). As the United States wanted, the conference ended with no final declaration or commitment to future action and Korea divided.

A Korean war memorial was inaugurated in Washington, D.C., in 1995. Its inscription reads: “Our nation honors her uniformed sons and daughters who answered their country’s call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” It is true that most Americans knew little about Korea at the time of the Korean war. Tragically, the real history of the Korean war remains largely unknown even today. As a result, most Americans continue to have a distorted understanding of the aims and consequences of U.S. foreign policy toward Korea. Deane’s book is a good resource for those who want to change that.


  1. See my book, Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), for an extended discussion of the U.S. role in maintaining the division of Korea, the ongoing impact of division on both North and South Korea, and strategies for promoting a progressive reunification process.
  2. Associated Press, “Pentagon to look at U.S. Killing,” New York Times, September 30, 1999.
  3. In addition to wartime censorship, the U.S. media was itself reluctant to publish anything critical of the war. A case in point: twenty-eight American publishers rejected I. F. Stone’s book, The Hidden History of the Korean War. Monthly Review Press eventually published it.

2000, Volume 52, Issue 05 (October)
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