The Outbreak of the Korean War
War were not domestic but international, suggesting that the conflict in Korea was part of the worldwide ‘cold war’ fought between the United States and the USSR. However, some historians differ, suggesting that the foundations of the War in Korea could be found deep in the country’s divided history, proposing that the conflict in Korea was not a veiled conflict between the two countries at the heart of the Cold War using the Korean War as a means to fight without a ‘hot war’ and the nuclear destruction that would come with it, but a conflict that was inevitable for Korea cause of the deep rooted divides in its society.
A number of factors that arguably led to the Korean War revolve around the way the United States and the USSR dealt with Korea after freeing them from the defeated Japanese and the end of the Second World War. The 38th parallel was implemented as the new border between the Soviet controlled North Korea and the American controlled south; it could be argued that the implementation of the 38th parallel itself is symbolic of the way Korea was dealt with in the post war years due to the haphazard nature of its implementation and he ill-fitting nature of the border itself .
Another failure of the Soviets and Americans in their dealing with post-war Korea that also involves the creation of the 38th parallel border was the fact that aside from the practical downfalls of the new border it also created a stronger psychological division in an already ideologically divided country.
The post-war failures of the newly established super-powers and the United Nation in Korea were compounded by the failure of these entities to re- unify the Korean state before the US and the USSR withdrew in 1948 and 1949 and move what was only supposed to be a temporary border, which arguably left Korea in a situation where war between the North and South was inevitable.
These factors suggest that it was external factors that cause the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950, even when you only consider the international communities downfalls in dealing with the situation in Korea, aside from other factors such as those motivated by the cold war. Others would argue that the psychological divides within Koreans society were a more important factor in the lead-up to war then the physical division created by the 38th parallel. This is because Korea had a history of conflict between conservative and reformist factions long before international intervention in the post-world war two era.
Certainly, this is evident when studying the two leaders of divided Korea. Kim II-Sung was placed in control of the newly formed communist government in the soviet controlled north; Kim along with other communists fought the Japanese in Korea and Manchuria and saw conservatives like Sandman Rhea as collaborators to Japanese rule, it is also known that Kim was ruthless in his purging of the Chinese faction in the Korean communist party led by Peak II-You.
The leader of South Korea after American occupation was anti-communist ‘strongman’ Sandman Rhea; Rhea was a right wing conservative who soon after attaining political office began enacting laws that tackled political dissent. In the years before the Korean War a large number of Rhea’s alleged leftist opponents were arrested and often killed.
Rhea is also known to have committed a number of massacres during his time in office, most notably; the Change massacre conducted by the 1 lath division of the South Korean Army between the 9th and 1 lath of February 1951 and was thought to include the deaths of ever 300 children, the body league massacre of 1950 in which it is believed over 100,000 suspected communist supporters were executed and finally the Juju Uprising that took place between April 1948 and May 1949, the South Korean armies brutal suppression of the unrest is thought to have resulted in the deaths of up to 60,000 Koreans.
It becomes clear that the political situation in Korea, in-which both leaders were both equally prepared to carry out violent acts of repression to bring under control the half of Korea they governed, was already likely enough to lead to a argue-scale conflict without international intervention. Furthermore, both of the leaders of divided Korea as nationalists wanted unification of the entire country under their control, another important consideration when studying what caused the conflict.
Although it is clear a number of political entities in Korea (most notably Kim and Rhea) were important factors in the lead-up to war, what also must be considered is the effect occupation had on a country referred to as the ‘hermit state’7 by 19th century westerners, not only the post-war occupation by the U. S and Soviets UT as a protectorate and later a annexed part of Imperial Japan. Japanese occupation had a large effect of Korea with large-scale moderations, Randall S.
Jones wrote claimed ‘economic development during the colonial period can be said to have laid the foundation for future growth’8, a statement which is hard to contest when you consider that Seoul (Koreans capital) became the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone, and telegraph systems all at the same time, although much of the country remained in a backwards agricultural economy.
However, Japanese occupation also bought about a number of factors that were arguably factors in the lead up to the Korean War, such as the large number of non- Korean settlers that arrived during Japanese control, also, the modernization and industrialization of many large cities and towns brought about the creation of a Urban Proletariat. Perhaps the most detrimental effect Japanese occupation had on Korea was the divisions it created between the generally conservative collaborators and the generally left-wing resistors as this divide lasted after Japanese occupation ended.
There were also problems with the occupations in the North and South after the Second World War, in the South the US military occupation caused discontent for a number of reasons mainly due to their initial branding of South Korea as a low priority and the military governments lack of preparation for the task in hand. Upon arriving in South Korea the US military had little or no knowledge of the language or political situation in South Korea, this was compounded by the fact that many US military personnel failed to make a distinction between the Koreans and the defeated Japanese, creating animosity on both sides.
The lack of preparation lead to a number of key failures in the US occupation, primarily their failure to implement any real reforms during throughout the period, and their use of the vastly unpopular former Japanese colonial governors as advisors to tackle pressing issues such as the large influxes of refugees from the North and returnees from areas such as China. The unpopularity of these decisions made by the US military government was compounded by the fact that they supported almost unilaterally, right wing leaders such as Sandman Rhea and the conservative social elite, alienating arguably all leftist sects in the South 1 .
It could be argued that the Soviet occupation of the North had a more positive influence, their view of Korea as a security priority certainly suggests this. During the occupation the Soviet military government implemented a number of reforms, including the nationalization of industry and land reforms that divided ownership of Japanese and collaborators land between poor fame’s in 1946, both of which proved to be exceedingly popular. The Soviets also staged national elections that saw Kim II Sung (the Soviet supported candidate) attain political office with a 9. % voter turnout, a figure that brings the validity of the election into question because of likelihood of an election in almost any country boasting a turnout that high. The Soviets worked with the pre-existing committees unlike the Americans in the south, although it is widely believed that these committees openly attacked collaborators and land owners with large numbers disappearing or killed. Furthermore, a worker’s party was introduced that actively suppressed opposition.
The overall effect of the numerous occupations of Korea were undoubtedly damaging o the country’s political situation, especially when considering them in regards to the Korean War. Other important factors in the lead-up to the Korean War were the interests of the Soviets, Americans and Chinese in Korea in the post-world war two, cold war era. There was a general belief within the US government that when one country fell to communism, the countries surrounding it were also at threat of falling victim to the spread of communism; the ‘Domino Theory 13.
America was worried that Korea would be the next ‘domino’ after China’s conversion to communism following he revolution that occurred between 1946 and 195014, furthermore, the American’s feared Japan would be next in line if Korea became communist. Another of the Americans policies regarding communism under Truman was the idea of ‘containment’ which was based around not allowing the communists to take any more territory and the ‘rolling back ideas transmitted in NCSC 68 meant the American government began considering actually pushing communism back, also making war in Korea more likely.
Similar to the Americans, the Soviets also had security interests in Korea (perhaps even greater due to Kormas proximity to Russia), and also ideologically believed in aiding the spread of and protecting the communist revolution that began in Russia itself. The Third country whose interests had an influence in the outbreak of war in Korea was China, partially because of national security interests due to China’s shared border with Korea, but also because the newly communist China shared the Soviets expansionist Marxist ideology.
The new communist leader of China Mao Sedona also wanted to prove the legitimacy of his communist regime in China to his counterpart in Moscow. Foreign interests in Korea undoubtedly were an important factor in the outbreak of war in Korea even if they ere not directly responsible for the outbreak of war. However, it could also be argued that the outbreak of war was more due to internal forces.
Documents release by Russia in 1992 suggest that ‘Stalin considered this request [of starting a war] from Kim II Sung for nearly a year,’ and that from March 1949 to January 1950, before he finally approved it, he said ‘no’ a number of times over the course of 1949’1 5, it is also widely agreed that Stalin himself (up until giving Kim the ‘green light’) though that it wasn’t advisable for the North to engage in war with the South. Although, even Hough Stalin is thought to have advised Kim against the war, he is also known to have informed Kim of his support in whatever decision he made.
It could be argued that the Americans also attempted to steer Korea away from war, firstly through their refusal to supply Rhea with any heavy weapons, unlike the Soviets in the North. Also, the withdrawal of American military personal from South Korea is generally believed to be because they feared that they would get dragged into a conflict, by aggression from Kim in the North or Rhea in the South. However, this move arguably moved Korea closer to war because it removed what was arguably the key deterrent to aggression from the North.
These factors, although flawed, do suggest that war was not actively pursued by external powers and therefore suggest that the main driving force towards war came from internal factors. One factor that cannot be ignored when discussing the causes of the Korean War is the rising Cold War tensions during the period. Both the Soviets and America saw Korea as the key to Japan, the Soviets willing the further spread of the communist revolution to Japan and America wanting to defend the democratic capitalist state of post-war Japan.
Unlike the American occupation in the South, the Soviets supplied North Korea with the heavy arms Kim requested, and although denied initially, Stalin is believed to have eventually given the ‘green light’ to an attack from the North. Furthermore, the Soviets allegedly aided Kim in the planning of the North’s attack and supplied specialists to help carry them out. America’s leaving of South Korea out of its pacific defended perimeter also arguably made war more likely as Kim and his Soviet and Chinese sponsors believed that there would be no American response to an attack on South Korea.