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Labor Action, 18 July 1949


Jack Brad

Civil War in Korea

Police Terror Stalks a Land Trapped in Global Conflict


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 29, 18 July 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the week or so since the article that follows was written the crisis that seems determined to engulf Korea in a new bloodbath has gathered momentum. A large pitched battle was reported last week to have taken place on On-jin peninsula, which is separated from the rest of South Korea by water. This seems to be the chief dueling ground between the contending forces.

A new political purge has been inaugurated by Syngman Rhee, president of the republic, against his political opponents of the right.

A clear split has developed between the Legislative Assembly and the president as a result of numerous arrests of assemblymen, who have no legal immunity to voice opposition.

Secretary of State Acheson has stated, at hearings for Korean aid, that the South Korean government would not last three months without U.S. assistance. Whereupon Congress voted the requested $150 millions.

The most recent event of importance has been the declaration of political warfare by the Stalinist North Korean state a few days ago with the setting of a date for a “national” election to elect an all-Korean government. This is a major step to establish legal rights of the Stalinists over the entire country.


There is a growing danger of civil war in Korea. Every day fresh incidents raise the possibility of a new “Greece” on a larger and more hazardous scale. Korea is a country split in half between Russia and the United States. August 15 will mark four years of this artificial division during which North and South have developed into hostile armed political camps waiting the propitious moment for each other’s destruction. The interests of the U.S. and Russia are so much more direct in Korea than in Greece that the situation is a tinder-box for world peace.

Hardly a day passes without border incidents at the 38th parallel. During the last two weeks of May, North Koreans made three stabs below the boundary, fought several pitched battles and installed themselves in the hills at Oshin in the West. On January 31, 400 northern soldiers invaded the south. On the same day southern troops captured several northern villages. Ousted from their January gains, Stalinist northern armies returned in early February with 1,000 men. These are daily occurrences. Border villages live in constant fear, where the population has not fled.

Police Terror in South Korea

Both sides talk of war quite openly. The South Korean Prime Minister accused “the North Korean Communist regime (of) testing the strength of our defenses with the object of mounting an invasion of South Korea.” Another member of the Cabinet declared: “We regard Communist-controlled North Korea as lost territory to be regained at any cost ... if the people of North Korea resist the authority of the lawful government then we must conquer them.” In both areas the military forces are growing, consuming ever larger quantities of the very limited produce. It is estimated that there are 150,000 to 250,000 troops in the north out of a population of nine million. Southern plans call for 110,000 troops.

From, the beginning of fhe U.S. occupation its policy has favored extreme reactionary groups. In China, the State Department complains it could do nothing with the Kuomintang. In Korea, the U.S. has created and given power to a super-Kuomintang. Syngman Rhee, president of the South Korean Republic, represents the traditional landlord groups opposed to the slightest reform. His party, aided by armed gangs of “patriotic youth” and a constabulary staffed by officers trained under the Japanese, has instituted a regime of vicious police terror.

No opposition is countenanced. This holds even for such reactionary rightists as Kim Koo who was assassinated last week. Last year Chang Duk Soo, another rightist who supported Rhee, was murdered, presumably at the instigation of Kim Koo. Still another rightist of the anti-Rhee faction was arrested for a plot to overthrow the government. Last December another anti-Rhee politician was bombed at his home.

Terror organizations of the Rhee group supposedly organized a plot to kidnap and murder those members of the assembly who criticize the ruling group. Terrorism as a political weapon flourishes in an environment of suppression. Murder has become a common pattern of Korean politics.

This atmosphere in the state is duplicated in the country at large. Arrest of members of the South Korean Labor Party (CP) is a daily police function. During the first week of November last, hundreds of leaders of the Independence Party (Kim Koo’s), Social Democratic Party, and Laboring People (Peasants) Party, were jailed. Students are frequent police victims. Arrests run into the thousands. Ever since the Yosu revolt last year, repression has haunted the country. The press is strictly censored by decree. Reporters and editors are frequent victims of the police or terror squads for printing “false information.” A National Peace Presentation Law provides the death penalty for ring leaders in anti-government plots and imprisonment or death for all participants in riots. Anyone caught discussing the activities of rebels may be subject to ten years imprisonment. Police do not need warrants for arrests and may keep prisoners under examination indefinitely without charges.

The U.S. bears full responsibility for this totalitarian rule. American military government sanctioned this development and, since establishment of the Republic last summer, has supported all the major acts of the Rhee government. The people of South Korea correctly identify the regime with U.S. policy. They know that the U.S. Army, up till a few months ago. was the real armed force of the state.

The South Korean Republic and its rulers live in a state of chronic fear of internal rebellion and northern, Russian-supported invasion. The worst revolt was the much publicized one at Yosu last year. Its suppression was so inhuman as to shock all observers. However, revolts are common and in fact have never ceased since the end of the war.

People Rebel Against Repression

In September and October 1946 what amounted to national revolution swept the country. It was at this time that the U.S. army joined forces with the most reactionary elements encouraging and sanctioning the worst counter-measures. But hunger and harsh landlord rule have gestated new revolts.

In April two battalions of troops deserted to North Korea. On May 12 a mine sweeper deserted. On January 31 an entire division mutinied in the deep south.

The disaffections are not limited to the army. Strikes are frequent and are treated like rebellions. Peasant demonstrations break out frequently and armed force is commonly used against them.

Conditions in South Korea are at boiling point. The country is too impoverished to sustain the restored landlord class and the new repressive state. At the source of Korea’s difficulties is the split of the country which separates the industries of the North from the agriculture of the South. Hunger and misery stalk the land.

On April 1, the government cut 4,300,000 people off its ration lists because it had no more rice to distribute. Landlord pressure to end forced rice collection had succeeded. These landlords can now sell their rice on the black market. But no one made provision to feed these almost four and a half million people, who with one decree, were doomed to starvation.

Currency in circulation has risen from eight million at the war’s end in 1945, to 40 million – thus contributing to terrible inflation. Wages have risen from 224.5 in 1944 to 25,659 in January of this year. Prices, which were 225.9 in 1944, closely balanced with wages, have risen to 74,243, or three times as fast. These enormous increases more accurately reflect the extent of the inflation. Production has remained depressed, unable to reach even minimal pre-war levels. South Korea produced 21 per cent as much flour in 1947 as in 1940 and 41 per cent as much cotton cloth. The minimum per capita need is about 10 yards while only two were produced. This is the price of national partition.

U.S. Policy Buttresses Partition

South Korea has subsisted on U.S. aid without which the government and the economy could not survive at all. In the first three years of occupation U.S. supplied 434 million dollars worth of goods and supplies of which 290.million ent for absolutely essential food and clothing.

In reality, U.S. has been subsidizing the split of the country for these items were normally obtained domestically as a result of a unified national economy.

President Truman has just asked Congress for an allocation of 150 millions for 1950 Korean aid. Although U.S. is withdrawing its forces from Korea, Truman prepares to continue the annual subsidy at the previous level because in his own words: “Without the continuation of such relief its economy would collapse inevitably and rapidly.” Yet these appropriations have not alleviated conditions in the last four years. Nor is it likely that it will in the future since from ⅔ to ¾ of the allocation goes for non-productive food and clothing and most of the balance will go for essential raw materials and to subsidize the expanding army. Almost none will be available for economic reconstruction, or duplication of northern industry.

There will be no relief from hunger in Korea until the country is unified and the agrarian system is altered. President Truman is requesting an appropriation as a substitute for and in order to prevent these essential political and social changes. American policy is completely reactionary in relation to Korea. Its native allies are the medieval-minded landlord class.

Military government actually did distribute about 20 per cent of the land, which had been Japanese owned. However, no one is certain how much of this has not already come under control of landlords. At present the national assembly is considering a new land bill which would permit peasant purchase for three times the annual crop payable over ten years time.

This program has not met with great response because the purchase price and conditions are harsh. It means ten more years of tenancy under existing feudal conditions at the end of which the peasant who has acquired his land would be over his head in debt and at the mercy of the usurers. From sad past experience the peasant understands very well that so long as the landlord retains control of political power he will find ways of regaining the land.

Trapped in Global Conflict

Meanwhile, in the North, the Stalinists have distributed the land. While little is actually known about this controlled peninsula behind the iron curtain, there are reports of extremely oppressive taxation, frequent confiscations and, of course, all the social and political trappings of Stalinist dictatorship. However, the peasant has the land; that is irrefutable. Korea is divided then between peasant holdings and feudalism.

A social wedge has been driven into the 38th parallel which makes the Stalinist North attractive, and permits the Stalinists to pretend to a real program of economic change. This attraction is the root of fear for the landlord reactionaries of the South. Groups which have proposed independence from both Russia and America, as well as from social change, have been repressed in both regions.

By the first of this year Russia had withdrawn its troops, Or claimed to have done so, since no observers have been permitted to check. In any case they do not have far to withdraw since Siberia makes a border with Korea to the East, while Manchuria borders the entire north. Korea is surrounded, landward, by Stalinist power.

U.S. troops are now being withdrawn. However, President Truman has announced: “A military advisory group requested by the Korean Government for training purposes will be retained in Korea ...” Together with subsidies this is the formula of the Truman doctrine as applied to Greece and Turkey. It commits U.S. to continued maintenance of the reactionary government and to defend the division of the country with military aid. The Stalinists have acknowledged that similar military advisers are present in the North Korean army.

If can be expected that, just as in Greece, the regime will do everything necessary to retain U.S. interests, particularly military and economic aid, even if it must create incidents.

The threat of civil war is imminent. The world split between the two giant imperialisms is its inspiration. The people of Korea are caught in the destructive vise.

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