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Ian Birchall

The Korean War

When the cold war heated up

(June 1980)

From Socialist Review, 16 September-16 October 1980: 8, pp.9-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The uprising in Kwangju has pushed South Korea into the news just as the 30th anniversary of the Korean war has come up. The regime sustained by American – and British – bayonets in that war has proved to be just as brutal now as it was then. 20 years of economic ‘development’ may have created large scale industry. But it has not wiped out poverty and oppression, which is why when students took to the streets they were joined by miners armed with dynamite.

South Korea’s rulers will be looking at the future with trepidation. Kwangju has occurred just as the world economic crisis is beginning to affect them and as they face intensified competition from other Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, across the 38th parallel in North Korea, any glee at the events in South Korea will be dampened by an awareness that their own industrialisation has depended upon loans from Western banks which are becoming more difficult to repay. Such difficulties led to the last five year plan being abandoned and must be worrying to North Korea’s rulers as they review the new world crisis.

But where did the two Koreas come from? And what was the war that was fought over the country 30 years ago? Ian Birchall looks at this murky episode in the first Cold War.

It is thirty years this month since the outbreak of the Korean War. The Korean War marked the most intense phase of the Cold War, and helped to launch the long post-war boom. It also produced McCarthyism in the linked States and the final rightward lurch of the 1945 British Labour government. Last but not quite least it precipitated a crisis in the depleted ranks of British Trotskyism which gave birth to the Socialist Review group, ancestor of the SWP. (Indeed, many Socialist Review readers have doubtless been harangued about their position on Korea, generally by youthful cadres who were not born until some years after the cease-fire). [1] As we enter a new phase of Cold War, an attempt to retrace the course of the Korean War may have some lessons for the present and the future. [2]

After many centuries of national independence, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and remained under Japanese occupation until the end of the Second World War. Unlike China or Vietnam, Korea did not have a strong Communist tradition in the twenties and thirties. A Korean Communist Party was founded in 1921 by émigrés in Moscow, but by the following year it was in disarray; at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 Eberlein reported that four Koreans had arrived, but dissensions in the Party were so great that it was impossible to discover who were the delegates; two were admitted as guests and two turned away. A new Korean CP was founded in 1925, but by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928 its status was so unsure that its delegates received only guest tickets. The party was again revived in the 1930s, and Kim Il-Sung began to make his name as a guerrilla leader; however, Kim appears to have gone to Russia at some time between 1938 and 1942.

The Division of Korea

On August 14th, 1945, five days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. The question of what was to be done with Japanese-occupied territories was now urgent. The main ‘spheres of influence’ into which the post-war world was to be divided had been settled at Yalta, but a number of loose ends remained. Korea was one; the USA had been angling for an international trusteeship (under US domination), and since this scheme had fallen through no clear alternative had been cobbled up. So, on August 4th, the US president, Harry Truman, issued General Order Number One, which specified that Japanese troops south of the 38th Parallel should surrender to the Americans, and those north of the line should surrender to the Russians. A copy of General Order Number One was sent to J.V. Stalin, for information. Stalin in fact seems to have been quite happy with the carve-up, for Russian troops had already entered Korea two days earlier, and US troops arrived in the country only on September 8th. For the time being Stalin was glad to play along with the West.

Thus the two Korean states came into existence; in the North, Kim Il-sung arrived wearing Russian uniform to head the government. Incidentally, the man who was sent away with a ruler and a pile of old maps to work out the best dividing line, and came back with the decision that it should be the 38th Parallel, was a bright young rising star called Dean Rusk, subsequently to be a hawkish US Secretary of State during the Vietnam War. (Those comrades who insist that ‘workers’ states’ can come into existence without the self-activity of the working class are prone to run into difficulties; but it is hard to think of a more grotesque notion than attributing the paternity of a ‘workers’ state’ to Dean Rusk).

At no point along the line were the Korean people actually consulted as to whether they wanted one or two states, let alone what form such states should take. In the South the US gave short shrift to the revolutionary committees which had emerged out of the anti-Japanese resistance; where necessary Japanese forces were used against them.

In the North the resistance was incorporated into a pro-Russian regime, which was consolidated by a land reform from which 700,000 families benefited; the land, however, remained state property; the peasants rented it from the state and paid it tax in kind. The North contained the major industry of Korea (mines, chemicals, power stations) with a working class estimated at quarter of a million in ,1945; there is no evidence of it being mobilised. By 1947 Kim had established his political control after a faction fight with pro-Chinese elements in the Party.

In the South, the US military government established, in 1946, the quaintly named ‘Representative Democratic Council’, headed by Syngman Rhee, a seventy-year-old who had lived for thirty-seven years in the United States. His regime was based on landlords and other conservative groups, and delayed the progress of the land reform begun by the US Military government. Rhee’s government rapidly became unpopular; thousands of his opponents were jailed, and at one point a quarter of the country was under martial law. By 1947 a US-commissioned opinion poll showed that a majority of South Koreans thought they had been better off under the Japanese.

In 1947 the United Nations resolved that all foreign troops should withdraw from Korea. Russian forces had left by the end of 1948, but the US forces were asked to stay longer because of disturbances in the South Korean Constabulary, and they did not depart until June 1949. However, neither regime could be described as independent in any meaningful sense. Both originated, not from any popular movement or democratic process, but from the military intervention of the two leading world powers. Both continued to be armed by their superpower sponsors, and both owed their political credibility and their political loyalty to those same sponsors. Therefore in order to understand the outbreak of hostilities in June 1950 it is necessary to take a look at the overall picture of international relations at that date.

The Outbreak of War

The Cold War, which had begun in the spring of 1947, had reached something of a stalemate. The long-drawn-out Berlin blockade, from June 1948 to May 1949, had ended in a costly draw; further confrontation in Europe seemed futile. In the autumn of 1949 Russia had exploded its first atomic bomb, an important step towards the establishment of a nuclear balance of terror. In April 1950 US president Truman initialled a National Security Council paper which urged America to ‘undertake a massive rebuilding of its own and the free world’s defensive capabilities and adopt an unflinching "will to fight" posture towards its enemies.’ The proposed conclusion was a quadrupling of arms expenditure.

So, the post-war honeymoon between America and Russia had totally collapsed; neither side was capable or desirous of a total abandonment of the post-war ‘spheres of influence’, but both sides were ready to nibble around the edges, and if necessary to risk a trial of strength to see how far the other side would go. Obviously the Third World provided the most expendable territory and forces for such a trial of strength. It was in this context that both sides responded to the opportunities offered by Korea.

It is a disputed question as to how the Korean War actually began. While the US claim was that North Korea launched an unprovoked invasion of the South, pro-Russian sources claim the opposite. Certainly Rhee had made many threats to invade the North over the preceding two years, and he acquired a strong incentive for war by the catastrophic defeat of his supporters in the elections held at the end of May. However, the rapid military advantage gained by the North (which occupied almost the whole of the South within two months) suggests that the North was well-prepared for war, and that if the South did take the initiative, it was an inept and ill-advised one. From a revolutionary socialist point of view, however, the question as to who fired the first shot is a relatively minor one. What is at stake is the social nature of the regimes at war, and the way in which the major powers took up the issue.

The pro-Russian interpretation of the war has always been that, if Rhee did start the war, he did so in close collusion with the United States. The facts suggest that this is unlikely. The United States had not given great priority to Korea in the preceding period. Between 1948 and 1950 General Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had put South Korea seventh on his priority list, with Europe at the head of the list. Nor was the US particularly well-prepared in military terms for the outbreak of war. As one pro-American historian records:

‘Apart from the disintegrating South Korean Army, the only forces immediately available to MacArthur lay in the four skeletonized American divisions garrisoning nearby Japan ... In the United States itself only one army division and part of one marine division were ready for immediate service, and these could not be shipped to Korea for some weeks.’ [3]

The aims of West and East

Yet the United States did see the war as demanding immediate and massive intervention. Part of the American motivation was the so-called ‘domino theory’ to be much cited during the Vietnam War. President Truman’s daughter recalls:

‘My father walked over to the globe in front of the fireplace and gave it a spin. "I’m more worried about other parts of the world," he said. "The Middle East, for instance." He put his finger on Iran, and said, "Here is where they will start trouble if we aren’t careful."’ [4]

More important was the concern to retain the control over the Pacific won in the Second World War. The Chinese Revolution had obviously been a major set-back for the US in the Far East. But Chiang Kai-shek’s pre-revolutionary regime had been so corrupt and indefensible, and the terrain so vast, that no intervention had been possible. In both social and geographical terms, Korea seemed a better bet. The United States rapidly and fraudulently disguised itself as the United Nations, with token forces from Britain and other UN member-states in tow, and launched itself into the war.

Russia likewise seems to have been initially surprised by the outbreak of war. Russia was currently boycotting the UN Security Council in protest at the seating of the Chiang Kai-shek regime as the representative of China; it was this absence of Russia which allowed the US to get UN cover for its intervention in Korea, constituting at least a propaganda setback for Russia. Russia decided to keep out of direct involvement in the war, but gave unambiguous political and military backing to the North Korean regime.

In broader terms the Korean involvement fitted Russian strategy. Between 1948 and 1950 Communist Parties throughout the Far East – Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, India – had launched armed guerrilla struggles, often on an ill-prepared basis. Isaac Deutscher (who can scarcely be accused of being soft on the ‘state capitalist’ analysis) gives an account of what he sees as Stalin’s motivation for involvement:

‘In June 1950 Kim Il-Sung, the head of the Communist administration, charged Synghman Rhee’s government of the South with aggression and ordered a general offensive across the 38th Parallel. The rapid initial success of the Northern troops indicated that the blow had been well prepared, so well, indeed, that it seemed plausible that Stalin and Mao had been consulted about it beforehand or that they had even issued the marching orders. That Mao should have favoured the venture was not surprising. To him the Communist attempt to obtain control over the whole of Korea must have looked like a natural sequel to the Chinese revolution ... Stalin’s motives were less clear. He was anxious to avoid armed conflict with the West; and his strategic interest in Korea was only slight. (Korea has a ten-mile frontier with the USSR, whereas her frontier with Chinese Manchuria stretches over 500 miles.) Yet Stalin acted with an eye to his latest rivalry with Mao. Having so recently and so scandalously misjudged the chances of the revolution in China, he was anxious to dispel the impression of political timidity he had given, and wanted to prove himself as daring a strategist of revolution as Mao.’ [5]

The cause of the war

The contradictions in the situation meant that the early course of the war was dramatic and horrifying. Under the corrupt Rhee dictatorship, South Korean morale collapsed disastrously; many soldiers and civilians went over to the North Korean forces. Two months after the outbreak of war, by the end of August, North Korean forces controlled virtually the entire peninsula. Then the United States staged the bold landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean lines. With vastly superior forces they swept northwards, and by the end of October the remnants of the North Korean army were pushed back to the Chinese border. Indeed, the North Korean army was virtually destroyed; perhaps only one tenth of the original 325,000-strong army escaped back to the North.

The massive US thrust into North Korea was clearly a direct threat to China, and the Chinese response was to send large forces of ‘volunteers’ into Korea. (The disguise of the Chinese as ‘volunteers’ was as fictitious as the American disguise as ‘UN forces’. The involvement in Korea had a massive effect on Chinese development, leading to much greater state centralisation of the economy).

The whole character of the war was now transformed. The armed forces of both South and North Korea had been largely smashed; the war was now a conflict between the United States and China being fought on Korean soil. Originally the war had been – partially – a national liberation struggle. When North Korean forces came into the South workers and students rose in their support. But this aspect of the war had always been secondary; after the first few months it became non-existent. The use of guerrilla warfare was always subordinated to more conventional tactics; as the importance of Russian military aid to China and North Korea increased, pressure was more and more put on Russia’s allies to drop the use of guerrilla warfare. This is in striking contrast to the Vietnam war, where in almost all phases guerrilla warfare dominated, showing that here the dominant aspect was that of a genuine mass-based popular struggle.

By the end of 1950 the fighting was again bogged down around the 38th Parallel. Both sides had tested the situation; it was time to cut their losses. For neither side has anything to gain from further escalation. Even the bellicose US commander, MacArthur, admitted that nuclear war was a ‘form of mutual suicide.’ [6] Hence the US propagated the concept of ‘limited war’, conflict within coexistence.

The concept of limited war was all the more real for the United States in that it provoked a severe faction fight within the American ruling class. Throughout the war, and especially after the Chinese intervention, there was deep conflict between the political leadership of the United States and General Douglas MacArthur, the US commander in Korea. This came to a head when MacArthur wrote to a Republican congressman, publicly criticising US political strategy in Korea, and concluding, ‘There is no substitute for victory’. He was then sacked in April 1951. This victory of political over military considerations showed clearly that the dominant strategy of the US ruling class was for a limited conflict within a continued acceptance of the Yalta carve-up.

The war dragged on for two more years, with military stalemate accompanied by desultory peace negotiations. But it took political changes in both Washington and Moscow to liquidate the whole sorry affair. In 1953 Eisenhower, a Republican, replaced Truman as president. Eisenhower was the representative of significant business groups that wanted an end to the war; moreover, it was easier for the traditionally right-wing Republicans to make peace than Democrats, who always ran the risk of being labelled ‘soft on Communism’. In Russia Stalin died and was replaced by the Malenkov-Beria duo, which set about liquidating some of the foreign problems bequeathed to them.

With these changes an armistice was fairly rapidly agreed in July 1953. The way in which the war was switched off is one more confirmation that it was in essence a confrontation between the great powers, in which the Korean people were only the victims. Once again a contrast with Vietnam is instructive.

The Outcome

There were no victors in this barbarous war. One estimate puts the total casualties as high as four million. Korean agriculture and industry were laid waste. If the US hawks were denied the chance of using atomic weapons, they did get the opportunity of experimenting with a new and hideous weapon – napalm.

Korea remains divided, with ritual negotiations permanently trapped on the level of discussing what form negotiations should take. South Korea has achieved, in the quarter century since the war ended, an economic boom. But it was a boom bought by the massive superexploitation of Korean workers. And low wages can be maintained only by crude authoritarianism. In the fraudulent democracy of South Korea, the president preserves a majority by appointing a third of the members of parliament. Inflation, riot and repression remains the normal pattern of life.

The so-called socialism of North Korea offers no more appealing a prospect. While North Korea has massive debts to Japan and the West, democracy is replaced by the grotesque personality cult of the megalomaniac and nepotistic Kim Il-Sung. (In 1977 the Central African Emperor Bokassa sent an emissary to North Korea to study how to organise a personality cult.)

The Korean War was not a revolution, not a national liberation struggle, not even a fight between the relatively more and less ‘progressive’. It was a squalid trial of strength between two symmetrical power blocs, carefully limited to the territory of an Asian people far from their own heartlands. The only response that revolutionary socialists could make was to denounce the fraud and to start looking elsewhere for the real potential for revolutionary change.


1. This article will not deal with the repercussions of the Korean War on British and world Trotskyism. For this see The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists (Pluto, 1971) especially pp.11, 76-8, 96-8, 103-4.

2. The main sources for this article are: T. Higgins, Korea and the Fall of MacArthur (OUP, 1960); A.B. Ulam, The Rivals (Allen Lane, 1971); G. Kolko, The Politics of War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968); D. Horowitz, From Yalta to Vietnam (Penguin, 1967); I. Deutscher, Stalin (Penguin, 1966); D-N- Pritt, Brasshats and Bureaucrats (Lawrence & Wishart, 1966); E. O’Ballance, Korea: 1950-1953 (Faber & Faber 1969); P. Naville, La Guerre et la Révolution I. (EDI Paris, 1967); M. Truman, Harry S. Truman (Hamish Hamilton 1973). As will be seen, these sources range from openly pro-American, through liberal-critical, to Stalinist and Trotskyist. I have tried as far as possible to give an account of events based on the common ground between radically differing interpretations.

3. Higgins, op. cit., pp.33-4.

4. Truman, op. cit., p.461.

5. Deutscher, op. cit., p.584.

6. Higgins, op. cit., p.148.

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