The Korean War

A History

About the Book

For Americans, it was a discrete conflict lasting from 1950 to 1953. But for the Asian world the Korean War was a generations-long struggle that still haunts contemporary events. With access to new evidence and secret materials from both here and abroad, including an archive of captured North Korean documents, Bruce Cumings reveals the war as it was actually fought. He describes its origin as a civil war, preordained long before the first shots were fired in June 1950 by lingering fury over Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Cumings then shares the neglected history of America’s post–World War II occupation of Korea, reveals untold stories of bloody insurgencies and rebellions, and tells of the United States officially entering the action on the side of the South, exposing as never before the appalling massacres and atrocities committed on all sides.

Elegantly written and blisteringly honest, The Korean War is, like the war it illuminates, brief, devastating, and essential.

Read more

Praise for The Korean War

“A powerful revisionist history . . . a sobering corrective.”The New York Times

“Worth reading . . . This work raises the question of what Korea can tell us about the outlook for Iraq and Afghanistan.”Financial Times

“Well-sourced [and] elegantly presented.”The Wall Street Journal
Read more

The Korean War

Chapter One

The Course

of the War

On the very day that President Barack Obama fielded a student's question in Moscow about whether a new Korean War was in the offing (July 7, 2009), the papers were filled with commentary on the death of Robert Strange McNamara. The editors of The New York Times and one of its best columnists, Bob Herbert, condemned McNamara for knowing the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet sending tens of thousands of young Americans to their deaths anyway: "How in God's name did he ever look at himself in the mirror?" Herbert wrote. They all assumed that the war itself was a colossal error. But if McNamara had been able to stabilize South Vietnam and divide the country permanently (say with his "electronic fence"), thousands of our troops would still be there along a DMZ and evil would still reside in Hanoi. McNamara also had a minor planning role in the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II: "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" he asked; people like himself and Curtis LeMay, the commander of the air attacks, "were behaving as war criminals." McNamara derived these lessons from losing the Vietnam War: we did not know the enemy, we lacked "empathy" (we should have "put ourselves inside their skin and look[ed] at us through their eyes," but we did not); we were blind prisoners of our own assumptions. In Korea we still are.

Korea is an ancient nation, and one of the very few places in the world where territorial boundaries, ethnicity, and language have been consistent for well over a millennium. It sits next to China and was deeply influenced by the Middle Kingdom, but it has always had an independent civilization. Few understand this, but the most observant journalist in the war, Reginald Thompson, put the point exactly: "the thought and law of China is woven into the very texture of Korea . . . as the law of Rome is woven into Britain." The distinction is between the stereotypical judgment that Korea is just "Little China," or nothing more than a transmission belt for Buddhist and Confucian culture flowing into Japan, and a nation and culture as different from Japan or China as Italy or France is from Germany.

Korea also had a social structure that persisted for centuries: during the five hundred years of the last dynasty the vast majority of Koreans were peasants, most of them tenants working land held by one of the world's most tenacious aristocracies. Many were also slaves, a hereditary status from generation to generation. The state squelched merchant activity, so that commerce, and anything resembling the green shoots of a middle class, barely developed. This fundamental condition- a privileged landed class, a mass of peasants, and little leavening in between-lasted through twentieth-century colonialism, too, because after their rule began in 1910 the Japanese found it useful to operate through local landed power. So, amid the crisis of national division, upheaval, and war, Koreans also sought to rectify these ancient inequities. But this aristocracy, known as yangban, did not last so long and survive one crisis after another by being purely exploitative; it fostered a scholar-official elite, a civil service, venerable statecraft, splendid works of art, and a national pastime of educating the young. In the relative openness of the 1920s, young scions proliferated in one profession after another-commerce, industry, publishing, academia, films, literary pursuits, urban consumption-a budding elite that could readily have led an independent Korea. But global depression, war, and ever-increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s destroyed much of this progress, turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance.

Korea was at its modern nadir during the war, yet this is where most of the millions of Americans who served in Korea got their impressions- ones that often depended on where the eye chose to fall. Foreigners and GIs saw dirt and mud and squalor, but Thompson saw villages "of pure enchantment, the tiles of the roofs upcurled at eaves and corners . . . the women [in] bright colours, crimson and the pale pink of watermelon flesh, and vivid emerald green, their bodies wrapped tightly to give them a tubular appearance." Reginald Thompson had been all over the world; most GIs had never been out of their country, or perhaps their hometowns. What his vantage point in 1950 told him, in effect, was this: here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam-gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally, a cunning enemy, fundamentally untrained GIs fighting a war their top generals barely understood, fragging of officers, contempt for the know-nothing civilians back home, devilish battles indescribable even to loved ones, press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism. "What a Quixotic business," Thompson wrote, trying to impose democracy-to try to achieve "an evolutionary result without evolution." The only outcome of fending off the North, he thought, would be a long occupation if not "conquest and colonization."

The Conventional War Begins

The war Americans know began on the remote, inaccessible Ongjin Peninsula, northwest of Seoul, on the night of June 24-25, 1950, Korean time; this was also the point at which border fighting began in May 1949, and the absence of independent observers has meant that both Korean sides have claimed ever since that they were attacked first. During the long, hot summer of 1949, one pregnant with impending conflict, the ROK had expanded its army to about 100,000 troops, a strength the North did not match until early 1950. American order-of- battle data showed the two armies at about equal strength by June 1950. Early that month, MacArthur's intelligence apparatus identified a total of 74,370 Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers, with another 20,000 or so in the Border Constabulary. The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) order of battle showed a total of 87,500 soldiers, with 32,500 soldiers at the border, 35,000 within thirty-five miles, or a day's march, of the 38th parallel. This data did not account for the superior battle experience of the northern army, however, especially among the large contingents that had returned from the Chinese civil war. The North also had about 150 Soviet T-34 tanks and a small but useful air force of 70 fighters and 62 light bombers-either left behind when Soviet troops evacuated in December 1948, or purchased from Moscow and Beijing in 1949-50 (when war bond drives ensued for months in the North). Only about 20,000 South Korean troops remained in the more distant interior. This was the result of a significant redeployment northward toward the parallel in the early months of 1950, after the southern guerrillas appeared to have been crushed. The northern army had also redeployed southward in May and June 1950, but many KPA units-at least one third-were not aware of the impending invasion and thus were not mobilized to fight on June 25. Furthermore, thousands of Korean troops were still fighting in China at this time.

Just one week before the invasion John Foster Dulles visited Seoul and the 38th parallel. By then he was a roving ambassador and, as the odds- on Republican choice for secretary of state, a symbol of Harry Truman's attempt at bipartisanship after Republicans opened up on him with the "who lost China?" campaign. In meetings with Syngman Rhee the latter not only pushed for a direct American defense of the ROK, but advocated an attack on the North. One of Dulles's favorite reporters, William Mathews, was there and wrote just after Dulles's meeting that Rhee was "militantly for the unification of Korea. Openly says it must be brought about soon . . . Rhee pleads justice of going into North country. Thinks it could succeed in a few days . . . if he can do it with our help, he will do it." Mathews noted that Rhee said he would attack even if "it brought on a general war." All this is yet more proof of Rhee's provocative behavior, but it is no different from his threats to march north made many times before. The Dulles visit was merely vintage Rhee: there is no evidence that Dulles was in collusion with him. But what might the North Koreans have thought?

That is the question a historian put to Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, in a seminar after the Korean War: "Are you sure his presence didn't provoke the attack, Dean? There has been comment about that-I don't think it did. You have no views on the subject?" Acheson's deadpan response: "No, I have no views on the subject." George Kennan then interjected, "There is a comical aspect to this, because the visits of these people over there, and their peering over outposts with binoculars at the Soviet people, I think must have led the Soviets to think that we were on to their plan and caused them considerable perturbation."

"Yes," Acheson said. "Foster up in a bunker with a homburg on-it was a very amusing picture." Pyongyang has never tired of waving that photo around.

At the same time, the veteran industrialist Pak Hung-sik showed up in Tokyo and gave an interview to The Oriental Economist, published on June 24, 1950-the day before the war started. Described as an adviser to the Korean Economic Mission (that is, the Marshall Plan), he was also said to have "a circle of friends and acquaintances among the Japanese" (a bit of an understatement; Pak was widely thought in South and North to have been the most notorious collaborator with Japanese imperialism). In the years after liberation in 1945 a lot of anti- Japanese feeling had welled up in Korea, Pak said, owing to the return of "numerous revolutionists and nationalists." By 1950, however, there was "hardly any trace of it." Instead, the ROK was "acting as a bulwark of peace" at the 38th parallel, and "the central figures in charge of national defense are mostly graduates of the former Military College of Japan." Korea and Japan were "destined to go hand in hand, to live and let live," and thus bad feelings should be "cast overboard."

The current problem, Pak said, was the unfortunate one that

"an economic unity is lacking whereas in prewar days Japan, Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa economically combined to make an organic whole." Pak Hung-sik was the embodiment of the Japanese colonial idea-having been born a Korean his only unfortunate, but not insurmountable, fate. For Pak and Kim Il Sung, the 1930s were the beginning: hugely expanded business opportunities for Pak (the founder of Seoul's Hwashin department store, its first on the American model), a decade of unimaginably harsh struggle for Kim. After this beginning, a civil war between the young leaders of Korea who chose to collaborate with or to resist Japan in the 1930s was entirely conceivable, and probably inevitable.

War came on the last weekend in June 1950, a weekend about which much still remains to be learned. It is now clear from Soviet documents that Pyongyang had made a decision to escalate the civil conflict to the level of conventional warfare many months before June 1950, having tired of the inconclusive guerrilla struggle in the south, and perhaps hoping to seize on a southern provocation like many that occurred in 1949, thus to settle the hash of the Rhee regime. Maturing clandestine American plans to launch a coup d'état against Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan complicated this same weekend; Dean Rusk met with several Chinese at the Plaza hotel in New York on the evening of June 23, 1950, hoping that they would form a government to replace Chiang's regime, which was threatened by an impending invasion from the Chinese Communists. He and Acheson wanted a reliable leader in Taipei, so that their secret desire to keep the island separate from mainland control would field a government that Truman could justify supporting.

The fighting on Ongjin began around 3 or 4 a.m. on June 25; initial intelligence reports were inconclusive as to who started it. Later on, attacking elements were said to be from the 3rd Brigade of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Border Constabulary, joined at 5:30 a.m. by the formidable 6th Division. At about the same time, according to the American official history, KPA forces at the parallel south of Chorwon assaulted the 1st Regiment of the ROKA 7th Division, dealing it heavy casualties; it gave way and the 3rd and 4th KPA divisions, with an armored brigade, crashed through and began a daunting march toward Seoul. South Korean sources asserted, however, that elements of the 17th Regiment had counterattacked on the Ongjin Peninsula and were in possession of Haeju city, the only important point north of the 38th parallel claimed to have been taken by ROK forces.

Roy Appleman, America's official historian of the war, relied on James Hausman's heavily sanitized account of the war's start on the Ongjin Peninsula. Hausman later told a Thames Television documentary crew that his good friend Paek In-yop (brother to Paek Son-yop) was the commander on Ongjin, "and when the war broke out as you know he was there not only defending his line but counterattacking" (that is, across the parallel). As for "those who think that the South may have started this war," Hausman went on, "I think . . . I think they're wrong." Another Thames interviewee, Col. James Peach, an Australian who was with the UN observer group, reported that the Ongjin commander, Paek, was "a get-going sort of chap" who led the "twin- tiger" 17th Regimental Combat Team: "I, I never quite knew what went on. There's a bit of a mystery still about Haeju, I think it might have been Paek and his merry men, the 17th Regiment, attacking it . . . We didn't hear anything about it until the war had been going for a while, and I never quite knew what went on. It's been said that they attacked there and that the North Koreans responded." Peach went on to say that he didn't think this version held much water. (Note also that if the South Koreans attack, it is "Paek and his merry men"; when the North Koreans do the same, it is heinous aggression.)

Whether 17th Regiment soldiers may have occupied Haeju on June 25, or even initiated the fighting on Ongjin, is still inconclusive, with the existing evidence pointing both ways. There is no evidence, however, to back up the North's claim that the South launched a general invasion; at worst there may have been a small assault across the parallel, as happened many times in 1949. Whatever transpired, the North met it with a full invasion.

South of the attacking KPA units was the ROK 7th Division, headquartered at the critical invasion-route town of Uijongbu; it had not committed its forces to battle even by the morning of June 26, probably because it was waiting to be reinforced by the 2nd Division, which had entrained northward from Taejon

Modern Library Chronicles Series

The Romantic Revolution
The Korean War
Uncivil Society
Dangerous Games
The Christian World
A Short History of Medicine
The Hellenistic Age
View more

About the Author

Bruce Cumings
Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, and specializes in modern Korean history and East Asian-American relations. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia. More by Bruce Cumings
Decorative Carat
Random House Publishing Group