By Stephen Gowans
June 25, 2021 What’s Left
How an American Korea and a Korean Korea came to blows over the same territory on this day 71 years ago
Korea, as a nation, has existed within the same space for over a thousand years, but it is only since 1948 that it has been divided into two states, and the division is the consequence of a US decision taken in pursuit of US geopolitical aims, without the slightest regard for the wishes or aspirations of Koreans, who didn’t want their country divided politically.
Had the United States not intervened in Korea at the end of the Second World War, historians agree that the nation would have emerged from the war, and from its years of colonization by the Japanese, with a politics that favored communism, or at the very least, favored a very robust leftist agenda, because that’s what Koreans, in the majority, wanted.
Koreans were, in the main, peasants, who were exploited by a tiny landlord class. And they lived in a country that was oppressed by the Japanese. They would naturally be inclined toward communist politics, since communist politics aimed at overcoming exploitation at all levels, including the levels of class and nation.
Today there are two states on the Korean peninsula, the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, the creation of the United States, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, the creation of Koreans, and the successor to the People’s Republic of Korea, the state Koreans proclaimed for themselves at the end of WWII, before the United States arrived on the peninsula, and refused to recognize it.
These two states—one an American Korea, the other a Korean Korea—each claim to be the sole legitimate state in the country.
Kim Il Sung, who was the first leader of North Korea, worried that the division of Korea into US and Soviet occupation zones, which was done at the end of the Second World War to accept the Japanese surrender, would inevitably lead to the division of Korea into two states—one of patriots, and one of traitors.
The patriots, in Kim’s view, would be the Koreans who fought the Japanese colonization of Korea, and aspired to an independent Korea. The traitors would be the Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese, who, Kim believed (correctly it turns out), would also collaborate with the Americans. Kim recognized that the United States was an imperialist power that would seek to dominate Korea, as Japan had done, and would recruit collaborators to assist it, also as Japan had done.
Coveted by Great Powers
Koreans have had the great misfortune of inhabiting territory that has been either coveted by powerful states or dominated by them. China (which Korea borders), Russia (which Korea borders), Japan (which lies nearby across the Sea of Japan), and the United States (which regards itself as an Asia-Pacific power) have all, at one time or another, sought to make Korea, if not their own, then at least subservient.
Korea was long a tributary of its neighbor China.
After Japan modernized, and fell under a compulsion of its capitalist economy to seek markets for its industrial products, sources of raw materials, investment opportunities, and territory to settle its surplus population, its rapacious gaze fell upon Korea. The Sino-Japanese war was fought over the question of who would control the country: China or Japan. The Japanese won the war and therefore won Korea.
Russia was also interested in Korea. Japan and Russia fought the Russo-Japanese War over control of Korea (and Manchuria), a war the Russians lost, to the great consternation of the West, for this was the first time a Western power had been defeated by an Eastern one.
Finally, the United States fought Japan over control of all of East Asia, and when it defeated Japan in 1945 with the help of Britain and the Soviet Union, its intention was to supersede Japan as the hegemonic power in the region. Its goal was to make all of East Asia an American neo-colony.
Japan formally colonized Korea in 1910 and remained the colonial power for the next thirty-five years.
These were very harsh years for Koreans.
Korean culture was outlawed. All Korean political organizations were disbanded. Korean newspapers and public gatherings were prohibited. The education system was Japanized. Koreans were forced to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, and worship at Shinto shrines, even though Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan, was foreign to Korea.
Koreans were coerced into service as conscripted laborers, sent to every corner of the empire to satisfy the requirements of Japan’s military and economic expansion. At the close of World War II, one third of industrial workers in Japan were Koreans.
At the same time, Korea was transformed into a Japanese granary. Agriculture was steered away from Korean needs to Japanese needs. The Japanese ate more Korean rice per capita than the Koreans did.
Korea, thus, became a means to Japanese ends, a country that existed to serve Japan, not itself.
Inspired by the Soviet Union and Communism
Koreans found themselves in a dual debased condition. Most were peasants, exploited by landlords. And they lived in a country oppressed by a foreign power. Such a people couldn’t help but be inspired by a Soviet Union that called for an end to the exploitation of man by man, and an end to the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations.
Moreover, the Soviet Union was not only calling for an end to these debased conditions, it was showing how they could be overcome. For example, the Bolsheviks had given land to the peasants and ended the rule of the landlords, something that would certainly appeal to Korean peasants who toiled under the oppression of Korean landlords. They also successfully repelled a dozen capitalist powers that tried to bring Russia under their control in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Later, the USSR emerged victorious from the greatest colonial war ever waged, that of Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, impelled by the German imperialist aim of enslaving the peoples of Eastern Europe. Germany said its war for lebensraum would create its own American West or its own East Indies in Eastern Europe. The Soviet victory in repelling the attempted colonization of Eastern Europe was an inspiration to colonized people everywhere, Koreans included.
What’s more, communists were at the forefront of the struggle against Japanese colonialism. Kim Il Sung and Mao Tse Tung were major figures in the resistance.
Finally, the Soviet economy offered oppressed people a model of how to modernize and industrialize.
Washington’s Interest in Korea
The United States had the same interests in East Asia as Japan had—to exploit the region as a market, source of raw materials, and sphere for investment.
Koreans hated the United States because they saw the country quite correctly as another imperialist power, no different from Japan. Washington had blessed Japan’s colonization of Korea in return for Tokyo blessing the United States’ colonization of the Philippines.
Thus, in the view of Koreans, these two countries were robbers, seeking to divide up East Asia between themselves.
Kim Il Sung made fun of Syngman Rhee, the anti-communist Washington picked as the first president of South Korea, because Rhee had spent over four decades in the United States lobbying Washington to free Korea from Japanese rule. Kim said this was like asking a robber who waits outside your house to help you evict the robber already inside your house.
Koreans, with the exception of people like Rhee, had no illusions about what the United States was, namely, a predator, waiting outside their door to rob them once the Japanese were evicted.
The US-Orchestrated Political Division of Korea
The United States created the Republic of Korea in 1948, over the objection of most Koreans, who saw the American project of establishing a state in the US occupation zone as an attempt to create a permanent political division of their country. Few Koreans wanted this. What they wanted was a unified, independent, communist Korea.
But the only way Washington could prevent Korea from becoming a communist state, or at the very least, a country with a robust leftist agenda and preference for political independence, was to artificially implant an anti-communist Gestapo-like police state in the US occupation zone to crush the political aspirations of Koreans who favored a unified communist country.
As mentioned, to accept the Japanese surrender, the peninsula had been divided at the end of WWII into two occupation zones, an American one, and a Soviet one. By agreement, the occupations and division were to last no longer than five years. Before the end of this period, elections were to be held for a pan-Korean government and the occupying armies were to leave. (The Soviets departed at the end of 1948. The Americans stayed and have never left.)
It was clear to Washington, that the election would be won by anti-imperialist, pro-communist forces, who would oppose a continued US presence on the Korean peninsula. Washington, then, had a choice. Lose all of the peninsula or keep the half it controlled. It chose to keep the half it controlled. To retain its influence in Korea, the United States created a puppet state in its own occupation zone. And then it boldly claimed that the state it created was the sole legitimate state in Korea, representing all Koreans.
The only possible response to this attempt to preempt the creation of an independent, unified Korea, was for Koreans who held out the hope of a Korean Korea to create their own state, as the sole legitimate state in the country.
That was why the DPRK was founded. It was also how the division of Korea between an American Korea and a Korean Korea came about.
Bruce Cumings, the leading US historian of Korea, recounted in his book, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, that when “the leading scholar of Korean communism, Dae-sook Suh, was finally allowed to explain the real story to a large audience of young people in Seoul in 1989, upon hearing that Kim Il-sung was in fact a hero of the resistance, they all burst into applause.”
That, in short, is who Kim Il Sung was – a hero of the anti-Japanese resistance. Kim was so important as a guerilla leader that the Japanese established a special Kim unit to hunt him down, and they staffed it with Korean traitors who would later be recruited by the Americans to play leading roles in the South Korean military.
Kim spent 13 years in top positions in the armed struggle against the Japanese, and on the eve of his return to Korea after the Japanese surrender, the major Korean leaders of the resistance agreed that, owing to Kim’s reputation, his charisma, and his abilities, that he should become the principal political leader of a Korean Korea.
He wasn’t selected by the Soviets, but was chosen by his peers in the resistance. Indeed, the Soviets never fully trusted Kim, but within their occupation zone, they allowed Koreans to administer their own affairs independently, and to promote Kim as the leader of a Korean Korea.
The Korean War
There are many views of what the Korean War was, or is.
One view is that the Korean War began in the early 1930s when Kim Il Sung created his first guerilla unit, and began to fight Korean traitors who collaborated with the Japanese, traitors who would then form the core of the US-created Republic of Korea, while Kim and his colleagues formed the core of the DPRK. According to this view, the Korean War is a war between the traitors of the American Korea and their descendants and the patriots of the Korean Korea and their descendants, and that, so long as these two states independently exist, the war between patriots and traitors, between those who oppose imperialism and those who collaborate with it, between American Korea and Korean Korea, never ends.
Another view is that the Korean War began in 1945, when the United States arrived on the peninsula and went to war with the People’s Republic of Korea, and five years later, with its successor, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
A third view is that the war began in 1948, when the United States created a permanent political division in the nation by setting up an American Korea in the form of an anti-communist, Gestapo-like police state, staffed at the highest level of its military with pro-Japanese traitors, over the objections of the majority of Koreans. This presented Koreans with no choice, if they were to have a Korea that met their preferences, but to go to war to liberate their country.
This view, as the preceding one, sees the Korean War as a war of the United States on Koreans, whereas the first view sees the Korean War as a civil war, between those who fought against imperialism and those who collaborated with it.
The conventional view of the war is that it began on June 25, 1950 when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel, and immediately drove the South Korean army deep into the south. The United States soon after intervened, driving the North Korean forces out of the south, and deep into the north, up to the Yalu River, which divides Korea and China. At that point, China intervened, and China and North Korea drove US forces back across the 38th parallel where the war bogged down for the next two years. The war ended in an armistice in 1953 and a peace treaty has never been signed.
What most Americans don’t know about the war is that there was no moral or legal basis for US intervention.
There was no moral basis because American Korea was unacceptable to most Koreans. Because the collaborator government had little popular support, its army immediately collapsed. North Korea would have quickly won the war, millions of lives would have been saved, Koreans would have achieved the communism they desired, and an independent, unified, Korea would have been born, had the United States not intervened.
Fundamentally, the war was a civil war between Korean Koreans and American Koreans, a quarrel over how to organize the social, political and economic life of the nation. At the heart of the quarrel was the question of equality. Are nations equal, or are some nations destined to lead others, and to have rights and privileges senior to others? Should exploitation be prohibited or welcomed? Should the country be integrated into the US Empire, or independent? And who should form the governing elite—collaborators with the Japanese Empire, or those who waged war against it? These questions were at the heart of the conflict.
Also, there was no legal basis for the US intervention, because there was no aggression across an international border. When North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950 they crossed an imaginary line drawn in 1945 by two US colonels to separate US and Soviet occupation armies. This was not an international border separating two countries. It was simply a dividing line that came to separate two Korean armies. Koreans cannot invade Korea. What’s more, North Korea’s military action against territory occupied by a foreign power and its Korean collaborators was not an invasion; it was an attempt at liberation.
The War’s Aftermath
Open hostilities came to an end because the United States threatened a nuclear strike unless the North Koreans and their Chinese allies came to terms with Washington. Because the United States wielded a nuclear sword, it was able to drive a hard bargain, and the North Koreans and Chinese had little choice but to accept many US demands.
The United States left behind tens of thousands of troops and brought tactical nuclear weapons onto the peninsula which weren’t withdrawn until 1991. North Korea believes those weapons remain. At about the same time, the United States retargeted some of its strategic nuclear missiles away from the Soviet Union, which had dissolved at this point, to North Korea. Thus, for decades, the United States has cast a nuclear shadow over the Korean peninsula.
That’s a key point in any talks about denuclearizing the peninsula. To North Korea, denuclearization means that the nuclear shadow Washington casts over Korea must be lifted. To Washington, denuclearization means North Korea must abandon its nuclear weapons but that the US nuclear shadow can remain.
Thesis and Antithesis
From 1961 until 1979, South Korea was ruled by Park Chung-hee, a military dictator who had served in the Imperial Japanese Army, and who had hunted down Korean guerillas liked Kim Il Sung. During this period, Park served as the largely figurehead ruler of an American Korea and Kim Il-Sung ruled in Korean Korea—the traitor versus the patriot.
From 2013 to 2017 Park’s daughter was president of South Korea and Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s grandson, was leader of North Korea. As Bruce Cumings has pointed out, the conflict between traitors and patriots carried on in their descendants.
Park nurtured a capital-centered economy, in which South Koreans “had the right to work the longest hours in the industrial world at wages barely able to sustain one’s family,” as Cumings wrote. Kim preferred a people-centered economy, and had introduced an eight-hour work day and social security within months of coming to power.
Park was greatly hemmed in by the influence exercised behind the scenes by the US military commander, US ambassador, and CIA station chief—the decision-makers with ultimate authority in American Korea. Tens of thousands of US troops occupied the domain over which the southern leader’s state ruled. And his military reported, not to him, but to a US general. In the north, there were no foreign troops, and Kim preached a doctrine of self-reliance, which eschewed dependency on foreign powers.
In the south, the top political leader was a traitor to the Korean project of national liberation; in the north, the top political leader was a patriot who had devoted his life to Korea’s liberation.
In the south, the state was part of an empire. In the north, the state rejected empire.
The state of the south was founded by a foreign hegemon. The state of the north was founded by guerrilla leaders who had fought against foreign hegemony.
US propaganda paints a false picture, not only of the DPRK, but also of the Republic of Korea.
It doesn’t tell you that South Korea is not an organically created Korean state, but a state created by Washington to serve US aims: an American Korea.
It doesn’t tell you that for decades, until the 1990s, South Korea was ruled by a series of vicious anti-communist military dictators, who ran a Gestapo-like police state that locked up communists and leftists, for infractions as mild as having something good to say about the DPRK or reading Marx and Engels.
It doesn’t tell you that there was a massive guerilla war in the south from 1945 to 1950 against the United States and its South Korean puppet, and that American Korea built concentration camps to hold the tens of thousands of Koreans who opposed the US presence in their country.
It doesn’t tell you that the military of American Korea has always been under the command of US generals.
It doesn’t tell you that 300,000 troops of American Korea fought on the American side in Vietnam in return for injections of economic aid from the United States, making the American Korea a mercenary state, on top of a traitor state.
It doesn’t tell you that the South Korean military has been trained and equipped by the United States to kill communists. It killed communists in the south from 1945 to 1950, communists in the north from 1950 to 1953, and communists in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. It is being trained by Americans today to kill the communists of a country Washington deems its enemy: China.
And it certainly doesn’t tell you that while Washington has done all it can to ensure that American Korea succeeds economically, it has also done all it can to immiserate Korean Korea.
North Korea’s manufacture of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles capable of striking US targets effectively forecloses the possibility of a US invasion of North Korea and a US nuclear strike. By using nuclear weapons to substantially enhance its means of self-defense, the DPRK is able to re-allocate resources from its military to its civilian economy, to mitigate the effects of the world’s longest and most comprehensive sanctions regime. No country has been the target of as long and comprehensive a campaign of economic warfare as the DPRK.
Concerning the prospects for a unified Korea, the key question is: Will it be a Korean Korea or an American Korea?
Washington’s favored unification scenario is one in which North Korea follows the East German path of annexation by its neighbor and absorption into the US empire. Since the early 1990s, US officials have expected this scenario to play out. Three decades later, their expectation has proved to be wide of the mark.
A Korean Korea, on the other hand, cannot be born unless the American Koreans evict US troops from the peninsula. Since the collaborators of the South Korean government evince no strong predilection for parting company with their American master—and since the possibility of North Korea unifying the peninsula by force is beyond the DPRK’s capabilities—the possibility of a unified Korean Korea is remote. But it’s the nature of anti-colonial struggles that they’re often long-term projects.
Kim Il Sung recognized that Korea’s fight for freedom might last hundreds of years. He wrote, “India won its independence from England after 200 years of colonial enslavement. The Philippines and Indonesia won their independence after 300 years. Algeria after 130 years. Sri Lanka after 150 years and Vietnam after nearly 100 years.”
It may take 200 years, maybe longer, for Korea to win its struggle, but one day all of Korea will be Korean.
Stephen Gowans is the author of Traitors, Patriots, and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Fight for Freedom, Baraka Books, 2018, available at https://www.barakabooks.com/catalogue/patriots-traitors-and-empires/