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  Global Views
The Real History of the Korean War
US Prof. Comments on Prof. Kang's Remarks
By Jeremi Suri
Special Contribution
N. Korean Refugees Risk Life for Freedom — North Korean civilians are fleeing toward South from Pyongyang over Taedong River's broken Steel Bridge bombed by airstrikes Dec. 4, 1950. AP photo journalist Max Desfor won a Putlitzer Prize with this photo in 1951. Out of fear for Chinese forces who corssed Yallu River to North Korea's aid, Hundreds of North Korean refugees were risking their lives in climbing on the perilous bridge, the only path to the freedom. Courtesy NARA

Oct. 18, 2005 — Sixty years ago the defeat of Imperial Japan left the Korean peninsula divided into two antagonistic states one dominated by the Soviet Union, the other dominated by the United States. Both Korean states, and their foreign patrons, hoped to unite the nation behind their respective regimes. The devastating war of 1950-53 failed to fulfill this promise, prolonging the suffering and the division of the Korean people. To this day, Koreans grieve for their loss and long for unification.

Future peace requires an honest and open grappling with the past. Simplistic and politicized judgments about the Korean War will only contribute to more misunderstanding, conflict, and suffering. Accurate histories of the Korean War are needed to avoid future conflict and accelerate progress toward unification.

Dongguk University Prof. Kang Jung-Koo's recent accusations that the United States "blocked" Korean unification and made "slaves" of the Korean people are irresponsible and inaccurate. He ignores clear evidence to the contrary and distorts the legacies of the war.

Most troubling, he excuses a criminal regime in North Korea, one that continues to starve its own people, pursue Quixotic projects, and, most significant, threaten war against its neighbors. If uncorrected, Prof. Kang Jung-Koo's historical inaccuracies will undermine the true interests of the Korean people, North and South. A short factual examination of the historical record is necessary.

Nakid North Korean POWs in Busan — A group of nakid North Korean POWs (prisoner of war) are led by South Korean soldiers in Busan during Korean War (1950-53). This photo was taken by AP photo journalist Max Desfor.

High-level government records from Russia and China, released in the 1990s, reveal three indisputable facts about the Korean War. First, the leaders of North Korea, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China coordinated their plans in 1950 to launch a surprise attack on South Korea.

They aimed to spread communist influence, dominated by Moscow, throughout Northeast Asia. Kim Il-Sung, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong did not conceptualize the invasion of 25 June 1950 as a civil war for Korean liberation. In their discussions and planning meetings they spoke of communist expansion, regardless of what the Korean people desired. The communist powers fought a clear war of aggression.

Second, Kim, Stalin, and Mao did not expect a strong American response. Following the U.S. military withdrawal from the peninsula and Secretary of State Dean Acheson's exclusion of South Korea from the American "defensive perimeter" in January 1950, the communist powers perceived weakness in their enemies. They saw an opportunity to seize territory at little cost.

They were not deterred from attacking South Korea, as they were elsewhere. In the light of this evidence, it appears that the United States was not too interventionist, as Prof. Kang contends. Instead, Washington failed to show enough force before 25 June 1950 to deter aggression. U.S. military weakness encouraged communist belligerence. As the first weeks of the war indicated, U.S. weakness also made a repulsion of communist advances almost impossible.

North Korean Tanks in Seoul — North Korean tanks — North Korean tanks head to Namdaemun on June 28, 1950. In the back is Joongangcheong or main government office building.

The American military presence near the Korean peninsula was, in fact, very light and it was much too slow to react. Gen. Douglas MacArthur remains a controversial figure in South Korea and the United States, but he deserves credit for the heroic counter-offensive that he organized. The landing of allied forces at Inchon in September 1950 saved South Korea from communist domination and it provided the resources for the society to defend itself against the invaders from the North.

Third, during the three years of war Soviet leader Josef Stalin exerted significant influence over North Korean strategy. He encouraged Kim Il-Sung to continue fighting, at grave cost to the Korean people, in order to bloody the United States and aid communist advances worldwide. Stalin, along with Mao, offered extensive military assistance to keep the war going. At Soviet and Chinese urging, Pyongyang prolonged the suffering of the war to protect Moscow and Beijing's prestige.

In the process, North Korea descended into ever darker circumstances of poverty, isolation, and self-delusion. Kim Il-Sung continued the war out of communist solidarity, not a commitment to Korean well-being. These insights about communist aggression are readily accessible in formerly secret government documents posted on the worldwide web by the Cold War International History Project:

South Korea and the United States were not without blame during the war. Prof. Kang is inaccurate when he asserts that "the people of Korea liked communism much more than they liked capitalism." He is, however, correct to argue that the South Korean regime of Syngman Rhee was repressive and unpopular. The United States supported Rhee's government, but it was not happy with his dictatorial conduct.

In fact, before the outbreak of war Secretary of State Acheson and other U.S. officials were pushing Rhee to institute serious reforms. If anything, the communist attack brought Rhee and the U.S. closer together and lifted the pressure for the South Korean leader to adopt democratic changes.

Prof. Kang Jeong-Koo of Donggook University

The American intervention in Korea during 1950-1953 surely deserves critical analysis, but not in the irresponsible and inaccurate terms employed by Prof. Kang. He echoes a revisionist perspective on the war, and the Cold War in general, that was popularized by a group of distinguished historians in the 1960s and 1970s, some of whom taught at my own university, where Prof. Kang studied for his Ph.D. The revisionists challenged the United States for exaggerating the communist threat and pursuing militaristic policies out of economic self-interest.

Although this argument was valuable in highlighting the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy, it never undermined the basic legitimacy of initial American and South Korean responses to what was a war of communist aggression. Newly available evidence confirms the nature of this aggression. "Post-revisionist" historians recognize the defensive role of American activities during the Korean War.

In a world where North Korea, now in possession of nuclear technology, remains isolated, belligerent, and unpredictable, an accurate understanding of the Korean War is imperative. As the South Korean government, its citizens, and its allies work toward peaceful reunification, they must recognize the reality of Pyongyang's aggression, the dangers of appearing weak, and the necessary role for the United States as a stabilizing force in the region.

Ever since 25 June 1950, the United States has insured that North Korea will never again come so close to spreading its murderous regime across the entire peninsula. South Koreans should criticize American shortcomings, but they should not forget that the real threat comes from Pyongyang.

Prof. Jeremi Suri of the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Dr. Jeremi Suri is an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin in the United States. He is the author of a widely acclaimed book "Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (Harvard University Press, 2003).






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