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From The Socialist newspaper, 23 June 2000

Korean war 1950-1953: When the cold war caught fire

FIFTY YEARS ago, on 25 June 1950, the Korean War officially started. It was a "small war" and practically forgotten though it was much closer to instigating World War Three than anyone admits. It lasted three years and killed three million Koreans out of a population of 30 million.

Geoff Jones

Korea had been a unified, independent nation for nearly 1,000 years. But when imperialism expanded in Asia at the end of the nineteenth century, its independence ended. Japan invaded and colonised Korea in 1910.

Koreans resisted Japanese rule from the first, including an uprising in 1919 in which 7,000 Koreans were killed. As normal in colonial states, the small upper class of landlords and bureaucrats worked along with the Japanese rulers. The opposition was left wing and included a Communist guerrilla army from 1932.

The collapse of Japanese imperialism in 1945 left a vacuum. The Russian Army entered Korea from the north and the US from the south. Arbitrarily, the US and USSR divided up the country along the 38th parallel of latitude.

After World War Two, a 'cold war' developed worldwide, reflecting the antagonism between capitalist states, led by US imperialism and those with state-owned economies, especially the bureaucratic Stalinist Soviet Union.

Under the Russian army's wing, a Communist government was set up under Kim Il Sung, who had led the guerrilla war against Japan. The Communists took control with popular support but began building a bureaucratic state in the image of Stalin's Russia.

But Kim Il Sung was not prepared at that stage to be Moscow's puppet. A guerrilla leader like Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh or Yugoslavia's Tito, this Korean patriot aimed to play off Mao against Stalin, especially after the victory of the Chinese revolution. Russian troops trained the Korean People's Army (KPA) but were withdrawn in 1948.

In the south the US faced a problem. The old ruling landlord class had collaborated with the Japanese and were generally hated. All over the country left-wing 'peoples committees' had sprung up, aiming to expropriate the landlords.

The capitalist class had to rely on dictatorship to defend their system. The US had to ship in Syngman Rhee, a 'safe' leader who'd lived in the USA for 40 years. Nevertheless, uprisings against landlordism took place continually in the south.

These were put down by the police force who'd collaborated with the Japanese, the US-trained Republic of Korea (ROK) Army with US army 'advisers' and fascist gangs who came south to escape the Communists. Any opposition was put down with the utmost brutality, even sickening some US advisors.

Both left and right were united on one thing - hatred of partition. The ROK army leaders talked continuously about invading the North, but Kim Il Sung's army struck first.

ON 25 June, the KPA drove south, welcomed by most Koreans. The ROK Army collapsed and US soldiers and marines found themselves retreating desperately to the south-east.

Finally, having captured four-fifths of the South, the KPA ran out of steam and US forces managed to stabilise themselves around the port of Pusan, in an area less than 100 kilometres square.

The invasion came at a useful time for US capitalism. A section of the capitalist class had not come to terms with the Chinese Red Army's victory and the summary ejection of their puppet Chiang Kai-shek from China in 1949.

The attack could be portrayed as another step in Stalin's master plan to conquer South-east Asia (In fact, Kim Il Sung probably moved without Stalin's knowledge or even against his wishes). It was possible to whip up an anti-Communist witch-hunt in the USA and push through military expansion which meant lucrative contracts.

And they had their man in place. General Douglas MacArthur saw himself as US imperialism's viceroy in South East Asia. Installed in Tokyo as the power behind the Japanese Emperor, he had impeccable anti-left credentials, first seeing 'action' using tanks and machine guns to crush unemployed ex-soldiers marching in Washington.

MacArthur demanded action. A massive US task force was assembled. The United Nations was completely under the control of the US State Department, so the task force fought under the UN flag with small forces from Britain, France and other states (all paid for by the USA).

A breakout from Pusan in September, coupled with a huge landing at Inchon on the west coast, pushed back the exhausted, over-stretched KPA.

US politicians suggested halting at the 38th parallel, but MacArthur's forces swept up the peninsula, over the 38th parallel and overran most of the People's Republic as far as the Chinese border.

In their wake a 'civil administration' was set up comprising the most vicious Korean anti-communists. Mass murder and torture were commonplace atrocities, ignored by the US.

MacArthur believed the war was won and the KPA destroyed. In fact, most of the army had vanished into the hills, guerrilla fashion. But MacArthur insisted on pushing right up to the Yalu river, the border with China, aiming to create a wasteland up to the border destroying 'every installation, factory, city and village' over thousands of square kilometres.

NOW THE Chinese government, which had remained neutral, entered the war. And the Soviet Union moved fighter aircraft into north-east China to defend North Korea and China from massive US air bombardments.

Late in November 1950 the Chinese and KPA attacked, chopping the US and their allies to pieces and forcing them to run southwards again. Would the June events be repeated with the US forces thrown into the sea this time?

The US government panicked and started to talk about using nuclear weapons. Atomic bombs were shipped to aircraft carriers off the Korean coast and MacArthur demanded the right to use them whenever he thought fit. He wanted all-out war with China, including invasion from Taiwan and using nuclear weapons on the Chinese mainland. In spring 1951, nuclear weapons were ready in Okinawa.

Finally, US President Truman, balancing US capitalism's short-term and long term interests, decided that MacArthur had to go. Not only was the man desperate to spread the war to China, he might start a crusade against 'World Communism' on his own.

An invasion of China using nuclear weapons would have made it impossible for the USSR to stand aside. Truman didn't want the responsibility of starting World War Three. MacArthur was sacked, returning to a hero's welcome in the USA.

Of course MacArthur's removal did not signify a softening of the US attitude. The new army commander, Van Fleet got the job because he'd just crushed the partisans in Greece. The fighting see-sawed across the 38th parallel.

North Korean and Chinese forces captured Seoul in May. An army based on workers' democracy could have mobilised workers and peasants to defend their gains. The Stalinists by contrast lost Seoul again in June.

By July, the front had solidified back close to the 38th parallel to become a static trench battleground like World War One with massive offensives losing thousands of lives for tiny gains. Armistice negotiations started in July.

Fighting continued for two more years while the US carpet-bombed North Korea. An armistice was finally signed in July 1953 - 60,000 US and Allied troops had been killed, possibly a million Chinese, but also a tenth of Korea's population (as great a proportion as the USSR lost in World War Two).

THE KOREAN war demonstrated many of US imperialism's ugliest sides. There was endemic racism, with Koreans on both sides considered sub-human 'slopes' or 'geeks'. Though ironically, the intervention in Korea saw the abolition of the colour bar in the US Army.

There was a belief that the KPA and Chinese Red Army were so primitive that they could only succeed by 'human wave' attacks. They made the unpleasant discovery that the USSR made tanks and fighter planes as good as, or better than, those made in the 'free world'.

US forces casually accepted massacres and atrocities committed by their own side; they blacklisted and smeared journalists courageous enough to expose them. Any lessons learned had to be relearned in the blood of Vietnamese civilians and US soldiers 20 years later in Vietnam.

After three years of bloodletting, Korea's arbitrary division into two states was frozen. In the north, US bombing created a state of desperate poverty, which strengthened the hold of the Communist Party under Kim Il Sung to produce a bureaucratised state without a vestige of democracy.

In the South, an equally vicious, undemocratic regime, first under the US-backed Syngman Rhee, later under a succession of generals, was bolstered by massive subsidies and other aid from US capitalism. Eventually one of the world's more powerful capitalist states emerged, the home of multinational firms like Hyundai.

After nearly two decades of phenomenal economic growth - and a generation of bloody totalitarian dictatorship, South Korea's working class began to raise its head. Demanding basic democratic rights, working-class trade unions begun to shake the cosy 'client' state.

Especially after the economic collapse and crisis of 1997-98, the social issues came to the fore again in the south. But 50 years after the Korean war started, the slogan of 'unification' still has power, north and south.

BRITAIN SENT some 12,000 badly equipped troops to fight for the USA, including conscripts. Nearly 700 were killed. One veteran remembered: "When replacements arrived, the first thing we told them was to find a dead GI, to get his boots."

But the major effect on Britain was to give the death blow to the 1945 Labour government. Cabinet right-wingers demanded a massive rearmament programme, cutting back spending on social services and imposing charges on NHS users, causing leading left-winger Aneurin Bevan to resign as Minister for Health.

The broken-backed Labour government was defeated in 1951, ushering in 13 years of Tory rule.

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In The Socialist 23 June 2000:

Victims of the Capitalist System

Asylum seekers: "We're not asking for charity"

Stand up to the Fascists

Labour's sell-off madness

Korean war 1950-1953: When the cold war caught fire

Korea today: Heading for reunification?


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