William S. Geimer
Author: Canada: The Case for Staying Out of Other People’s Wars
A number of important matters are being ignored in the latest furor of North Korea. One is the fact that the U.S. created North Korea and South Korea, and then rejected the only democratic option for unification. The U.S. made these moves with little or no regard for the wishes of the Korean people, and at the cost of millions of their lives. To date, it has been clear that Korea is no more than a deadly playing field for foreign interests. Koreans themselves don’t count. One wonders if they will be considered this time around.
The lives of Koreans today depend upon adoption of a relatively simple solution to the current standoff: negotiation. The principal parties should begin talks, without preconditions. All parties, that is all parties, should assess what they are willing to give, and proceed from there. Anyone seen a list yet of what the U.S. might be willing to give up? More importantly, while there are others with legitimate interests in the confrontation, primacy should be accorded to the wishes of Koreans—all Koreans.
Listening to Koreans involves heeding both the government and the people. Giving the lead to Korea is the best negotiation model. At the government level, that is the only approach that has so far made any progress. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in may have buckled to the U.S. a bit in announcing that South Korea may have to revamp its military, but he has thought through to issue of negotiation far more than his bellicose U.S. counterpart. And, as his spokesman recently observed: Resumption of dialogue with North Korea may need to be pursued with close cooperation and consultation with the United States, but South Korea does not need to be allowed by the U.S. to do so.
As for the Korean people, every indication for years is that, not only are they fine with negotiating with their brothers and sisters in the north, they clearly do not suffer from the rampant paranoia that occasionally strikes the West. Many suggest that what North Korea most resembles is Texans strutting around with their guns.
The problem is difficult but not insoluble and the issues suggest that the approach outlined by Moon’s representative is probably the better one. It apparently breaks down like this. South Korea is willing to talk. The U.S. says it is willing but imposes impossible preconditions it knows North Korea will never accept. There is intelligent opinion to the effect that North Korea is currently averse to continuing talks with South Korea because its primary goal is an end to joint U.S./South Korean military exercises and a final end to the 67 year old war that would include withdrawal of U.S. troops. If that is true, it raises a point that is being almost universally ignored at the moment. If negotiations led by Koreans should result in concessions by both regimes, is it not open to South Korea to agree to end the military exercises and set a timetable for U.S. troops to leave? If not, why not?
A compelling reason for leaving this matter primarily to Koreans is the sorry history of U.S. involvement in Korea. Few in the West remember much about post-WWII Korea, aside from Cold War propaganda. A review of that record should highlight the importance of taking another path today.
Korea was long ago, but the story is much the same as that of later U.S. interventions like Iraq. Make a mess that includes tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and then claim the need for further intervention to clean it up.
At the close of WWII, Korea became a pawn in the U.S. struggle with the Soviets over the spoils of war, a struggle better known as the Cold War. Except that, notwithstanding U.S. propaganda, it turned out that the Soviets had little interest in Korea.
The Russians had entered the war against Japan late and began to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria and Korea. This triggered action by the previously uninterested Americans. Two American officers drew an arbitrary line at the 38th parallel, designating the best agricultural land, industry, and more than half the population for occupation by their forces. One of the officers was Dean Rusk, later to cause further damage to the people of Vietnam. The advancing Soviets, of course, did not have to accept this division, but they voluntarily halted at the arbitrary line. At the end of 1945, they accepted a U.S. proposal that all of Korea be governed for five years by a four-power commission and then become a unified independent state. The U.S. backed out in 1947. The Russians then proposed that occupying forces simultaneously withdraw and leave the fate of Korea to Koreans. That did not happen, but Russian troops went home anyway, leaving the U.S. to continue clinging to Korea as part of the confrontation with the non-existent “world wide communist conspiracy”.
In their area, the Americans excluded Korean nationalists, including leftists and communists, many of whom had been prominent members of the guerilla forces fighting the occupying Japanese. This faction was largely free of corruption. Apparently, the major sin of its members was opposition to being occupied by the Americans. The U.S., opting for “stability” and administrative efficiency, instead employed Japanese, including war criminals to be in charge of law and order. Eventually, most of the Japanese were sent home, but not before warning the new occupiers of the danger of communist influence in the newly forming Korean political parties. The Americans took their advice.
The reason the U.S. rejected the idea of an election leaving Koreans to decide about Korea was that the Americans knew that those excluded nationalists would probably prevail. Instead, manipulating the fledgling UN, as they would later do to provide cover for their war, they got approval for a UN supervised election. All countries allied with the Soviets made it clear that they would reject the idea. In these circumstances, going ahead with an election only in the South meant the end of prospects for a united Korea, chosen by Koreans.
Instead, what the Korean people got were two dictators. Before leaving, the Russians set up Kim Il Sun and family, patriarch of today’s despot Kim Jung Un whose governmental skills and rhetorical flourishes are roughly equivalent to those of his current U.S. counterpart. Below the 38th, having rejected legitimate nationalists who supported reassembling the nation, the U.S. chose instead an egotistical Harvard –educated dilettante, Syngman Rhee. He had not fought the Japanese and in fact had been absent from Korea for decades, but he talked a great anticommunist game. He met the only two requirements of dictators allied with the U.S.: opposition to communism and a willingness to do business with the Americans.
Aide by the U.S., Rhee’s faction saw to it that the election was conducted in an atmosphere of violent repression. His goon squads terrorized anyone who opposed him, detaining 10,000 people in the run up to the election and killing hundreds more. An American diplomat pronounced the predictable election result a magnificent demonstration of the capacity of the Korean people to establish a representative and responsible government. Ordinary Koreans doubtless had little interest in which of the two dictators imposed on them was the worst. They would soon learn that things could get much worse.
Over in Japan, there was another major player, the egomaniacal Douglas MacArthur. He was in many respects like the current U.S. CINC. The irony is that his eventually got rid of him.
Rhee, Sung and MacArthur had in common the absence of any intent to accept Rusk’s 38th parallel as an international border. Incursions by both sides continued into 1949. Sung went to Russia and China seeking support for his plan to unify by force. The Soviets eventually acquiesced, but with important caveats: their forces would not participate and they would not bail him out if he failed. He must also get approval from China. The Chinese were surprised, but agreed. This war belonged to Pyongyang, not Moscow or Bejing. Similar to the danger we all face today, there were numerous miscalculations. Sung, like the misguided Americans later in Iraq, assumed his forces would be greeted as liberators. China and Russia were unaware that the U.S. was spoiling for a fight anywhere, including intervening in a civil war in a place where none of the major powers had expressed much interest.
I was in grade school in Yokohama on June 25, 1950 when Sung’s forces invaded. A short time later, they had conquered the entire peninsula, save an enclave around the port of Pusan (Busan). My father was part of the underequipped U.S. force in Japan thrown into the desperate defense. He was one of the very few with combat experience.
With Russia boycotting the Security Council over its refusal to recognize the real government of China, the U.S. managed to get a UN fig leaf for its war in Korea. Importantly, however, the authorizing resolution permitted member states to render such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security to the area.
As a military leader, MacArthur was sometimes a genius, sometimes a fool. In WWII, he ignored good intelligence about the impending Japanese attack on the Philippines. When defeated there, with his full retinue in tow, he abandoned his troops. In Korea, he was slow to realize that the attack from the north was more than an incursion, and even slower to recognize that South Korean forces could not repel it. Once he got his bearings, however, he overcame objections of his staff and ordered a daring landing at Inchon on September 15th. It was a complete success. The North Korean forces quickly retreated north of the 38th parallel. The UN mandate had been fulfilled. If repel means drive back, and restore means put back, the Korean War was over.
But another characteristic later shared by Donald Trump was the belief that rules made for others did not apply to him. He decided that this was the time for a decisive battle to rid the world of the evils of communism, and he would be the leader who brought that about. The most dangerous aspect of the rogue general’s delusion of this apocalyptic struggle, was that his plan included using nuclear weapons. Like the scenario that may well play out soon in the U.S., it was not opposition to his policy that saved the world. Polls indicated that Americans were fine with using nukes. Instead, it was his insufferable personal hubris that brought him down. Truman fired him before he could start WWIII.
Before that happened, however, MacArthur got a lot of people killed. For months, he ignored China’s warnings that she would stand neither for an American-led army on her border nor for a unified Korea under the West’s preferred dictator rather than hers. MacArthur invaded the north and pushed all the way to the Chinese border. The Chinese intervened and absolutely routed the U.S. 8th Army, driving it in headlong retreat back down the peninsula to the Hahn river, south of Seoul. MacArthur was now ready to use nuclear weapons. A coincidental change of command on the battlefield may have kept that from happening. Forces under new 8th Army commander, Matthew Ridgeway, managed to halt the retreat. Of this, an American historian who supported the war wrote: The men who reversed the fortunes of the UN on the battlefield in Korea in the first week of 1951 may also have saved the world from the nightmare of a new Hiroshima in Asia. There is no guarantee that some such serendipitous event will avert disaster in 2017.
The war evolved into a stalemate, but the sides were too stupid to stop fighting. Armistice talks continued until 1953, bringing more deaths than had the period of full fighting. Rhee billed the UN $90 million for rent of land used by the forces that saved his beleaguered regime. South Korea suffered autocratic rule for 35 years. North Korea got even more repressive. That is where we sit today. The 38th parallel bristles with weaponry. There are some 30, 000 U.S. troops in South Korea. The insecure rulers of North Korea and the U.S. scream childish threats at one another.
Where do the Korean people fit into all this? So far, their job has largely been to be victimized and ignored. In the war, millions of civilians were killed. The U.S contribution included bombings that left no building in the north higher than two stories, as well as bombing and strafing of refugees fleeing the conflict. It also included a massive display of cultural ignorance and racism. The “gooks” didn’t matter.
So how does the world today find its way out of a mess that history shows to be so reminiscent of the earlier fiasco? If you ask me, a good starting point would be to begin negotiating a non-aggression pact among all the parties in area. But that’s the point. Don’t ask me. Ask the Koreans this time.