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In the year of 1950, when the Korean War began, the world was suffering from the aftermath of the Second World War and converging to another global conflict that had international effect: the Cold War. Korean War began on June 25th, 1950, during the Cold War era, and it is known to be one of the wars that occurred with the close relation of Cold War conflict. On the whole, however, Korea War is often regarded as The Forgotten War by the United States, as comparing to other conflicts that arose during the Cold War era – such as the Vietnamese War and the Cuban Missile Conflict –American casualties were fewer and the concerning issues were far less clear.1
Prior to the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula was already subtly divided by the Allies of World War Two – Britain, United States, and USSR – during the Potsdam Conference.2 To pinch out all the Japanese from the Korean peninsula, United States and USSR agree to occupy each South and North and meet at the 38th parallel border, and split the Peninsula into North and South, without any inclusion of consultation from Korean.3 Thus, the peninsula became geographically divided, but politically as well, as the North served Kim Il-Sung as their leader in behalf of Stalin, when the South had Syng-Man Rhee with the support of United States. The commencement of the Korean War was hold by the North Korean armies, launching invasion across the 38th parallel border, capturing Seoul, the capital city of South Korea.4 The origins of the Korean War has been a subject of research for the understanding of the conflict and historians claim various reasons for the outbreak of the war. It is easy to assume that Kim Il-Sung is responsible for the outbreak of the war as he commanded the invasion across 38th parallel due to his pride and nationalism, but is that really all that explains the beginning of this civil war? Other issues, such as Stalin’s influence on North Korea, United State’s intervention, and Japanese Invasion from 1910 to 1945, can all be included as the factors that caused the Korean War to begin. Was the origin of the Korean War the impact of foreign interventions or the nationalism of North and South Koreans? Answering this question, this essay evaluates the roles of Japan, USST, and United States on causing the Korean War and investigate the conflicts between North and South Koreans that arose the civil war. It argues that Origins of the Korean War is principally due to the contention of North and South Korea, but interestingly this internal split of the nation develops from the invasion of Japan, and the intervention of foreign countries become the catalyst of the beginning of this civil war.
Korea, before 1950
Until August 15th, 1945, the independence day, Korea goes through the phase of Japanese rule from August 29th, 1910. The imperial ambition of Japanese Empire over Manchuria and Korea provide the major cause of Russo-Japanese War, and the Russian Empire had to request a peace treaty for their utter defeat. Thus the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on September 5th, 1905, in the presence of leaders from United States, Russian, and Japan.5 During the Portsmouth Conference, Russian delegation had to acknowledge Japan’s paramount interest over Korean Peninsula,6 and successfully gain individual control over Korea. Despite the numbers of objections to Japanese rule over Korea, the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was signed in 1910, and Korea becomes a colony of Japan.7 Japanese Empire claimed that they are establishing economic progress for the Koreans under their rule, however, during this time period, the Japanese imperialism “stuck a knife in old Korea and twisted it, and that wound has gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since.”8 As the Second World War began on the year of 1939, Korea under Japanese rule became a part of the Empire of Japan, along with Taiwan, and Japan used Korea’s food and livestock to maintain the war. As the war progressed, the power of Japanese Empire began to descend and the leaders of United States, USSR, Republic of China, and United Kingdom held a conference in Cairo on November 1943, to address their decision against Japan. The Cairo Declaration stated the Allies’ intention of military force against Japan until the Japanese army’s unconditional surrender, and declared also that “in due course Korea shall become independent.”9 However, Japan continued their offensive posture, and by this the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the USSR declared war on Japan, and led the Red Army to the northern Korea and Manchuria.10 United States thought that it was essential to have an arrangement on the occupation zone of Korea, and with the USSR’s agreement, directed a demilitarization line – the 38th parallel – across the peninsula.11 Japan finally surrendered due to the outcome of atomic bombs, and the Second World War was over. As a result, Korean nationalists who gathered with common hatred on Japan, sought their way to establish an independent Korea.12 The two most prominent leaders who emerge in this era to control the free Korea were Kim Il-Sung and Syng-Man Rhee. Kim Il-Sung was an officer in the Soviet army during the fight near the Manchurian border, and when he returned to Korea he became the core of the northern Korea’s high command, and ultimately gets appointed as the chairman of government of North Korea by the USSR.13 Unlike Kim, Syng-Man Rhee studied in the United States, obtaining B.A. degrees from George Washington and Harvard University, and Ph.D. from Princeton. He returned to Korean in 1910 and began to represent the democratic council, showing contradicting opinions from Kim on the Korean leadership, and Korea free from any intervention of USSR or United States. The emergence of two opposing leaders in Korean Peninsula become the start of the civil war and a cause for the origins of the Korean War. The division of a Korean nation that began in 1945 ultimately becomes a stalemate and the split still continues today.
Conflict among Korean Nation
The opposition between Kim Il-Sung and Syng-Man Rhee became officially evident when on December 1945, the decision made by United States and USSR on the Korean issue at the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers was announced to the Koreans. Even after acknowledging Korea’s independency at previous conferences, they declare that Korea will be fully independent after a five-year trusteeship.14 Nationalist Syng-Man Rhee strongly opposed to this idea, while Kim Il-Sung favored the decision, as he found it helpful for the formation of communist empire on Korea with the advocating of USSR.15 Due to the continuous hostility between North and South, United States transfer the Korean problem to the United Nations (UN), and in 1948, a UN Temporary Commission for Korea (UNTCOK) was set up.16 The Northern Korea, however, rebuffed the entrance of UN to their sector and thus a separate free election was held in the Southern Korea, making Syng-Man Rhee a first elected president of the Republic of Korea17. On the other hand, after the establishment of Southern Korea’s government, Kim Il-Sung was also appointed as the Prime Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) by the northern Koreans, and formed a new country called North Korea.18 Formation of two governments with different ideology and foundation in one country becomes a significant event that foreshadows the indication of a civil war.
If the two governments maintained to be separated, a peaceful unification of Korea could have been negotiated. However, both Kim Il-Sung and Syng-Man Rhee restlessly desired to unite the peninsula and they did not fear to use military force for this matter as neither one of them accepted the other’s ideology. Spies were executed when found across the border, and many gun-involved aggressions broke out near the 38th parallel; even though the incidents were “faint,” there was a “chain of violence,” between the North and South Korean armies and it almost reached up to the point of the Korean War.19
Rhee and his South Korean officers greatly wanted to march into the North. He had spoke to his adviser Dr. Robert Oliver that “North Korea should be recaptured by the force of arms to fulfill the UN’s mandate that the Republic of Korea government is the only legitimate government,” and “to fulfill the ancient nationality of Korea.”20 However, South Korea made no preparation for their army and was in no state of military readiness, thus when the invasion came from the North, it appeared as a surprise to many South Koreans.21 For Kim, on the other hand, he had more organized plans to lead the unification of the peninsula. After the establishment of North Korea, Kim increased the size of Northern Korean armies and formed a meeting with Stalin on March 1949 to discuss the possibility of a war in Korean Peninsula.22 He showed his want to “touch the South with the point of a bayonet,”23 and he spoke to Soviet ambassador Shtykov on January 17th 1950, that "[he] can't sleep at night because [he is] thinking of the unification of the whole country.”24 Furthermore, it is regarded that Kim became more and more impatient as Mao Zedong came close to unifying all China under the Communist regime and he was frustrated to see Mao’s success yet himself being an “incomplete dictator.”25 Therefore, when Stalin finally gave him the permission to invade across the 38th parallel, Kim directly initiated the first attack across the border on 4 A.M. of June 25th, 1950, and thus began the Korean War.26
Not only the enmity between North and South Korea, but also Rhee and Kim’s pride and the Koreans’ nationalism were major factors that originated the Korean War. Both leaders beloved that if only he is granted with Soviet’s permission, “he could conquer the region in virtually no time,” and Syng-Man Rhee was also convinced that “he could easily conquer the North.”27 It is reported that Kim also thought that “if the [invasion] is postponed, then [he] may lose the confidence of the Korean People.”28 Moreover, numerous Koreans rose in revolt for the unification of one nation, and evidence provides that when the North’s bid to reunify the Peninsula was told, the South replied with wide range of support;29 showing the nationality of Koreans and their desire of unification, not the right government.
Though it is evident that the accumulation of North and South Korea’s conflict has caused the Korean War, the question of who initiated the war is quite murky. The Communists always protested that the war was started by the South Korea. In fact, many North Koreans believed this statement as many of them were exposed to Syng-Man Rhee speeches on his desire to recollect North Korea on radio.30 In addition, when the war broke out, South Korea incorrectly reported on papers that the Southern army had charged into enemy’s position, while the battlefront was actually descending to the edge of South, and the North tactfully used this false report to assert South’s invasion across the border line.31 Nevertheless, existing evidences point that the initiator of the Korean War was North Korean armies with the order of Kim Il-Sung. Yoo Sung-Chul, who was the director of North Korea’s military operation during the Korean War era, recalls that “to hide that Kim Il-Sung invaded the South by first,” the North reacted as if South Korea showed aggressive approach across the 38th parallel, and named their invasion “a counterattack order.”32 One of Kim’s former aide and translator speaks that “in order to provoke a war and show that it had been started by the South,” the North Koreans put some of their units into green border-guard uniforms two days before the military operation and they then made an incursion into South Korean territory, drawing the South into battle. Thus the South Koreans started shooting at the North Korean border guards.33
Still, regardless on who initiated the war, it is important to notice that the origin of the Korean nation’s conflict was prominently a cause of the Korean War and both North and South hold the responsibility for it.
The Foreign Interventions
the United States
Among many historians, foreign intervention is considered as a principal cause for the origins of the Korea War. Two major powers that influenced North and South Korea most during that time will be USSR and United States. Foreign intervention in Korean Peninsula began from the era when Korea was under Japan’s rule. When World War II was over and Korean nationalists jumped into action to establish a independent government, the role of USSR and United States is important, as they hold dominant responsibility on Korean nation’s internal split.
Examining the foreign nations’ role on the issue of internal division, United States holds responsibility of deepening the civil conflict.34 The fact that United States appointed officers and settled up a government in South Korea, before Syng-Man Rhee’s official inaugural ceremony, is often neglected by many people35 because Rhee obstinately pursued a independent government. On September 8th, 1945, Lieutenant General John R. Hodge arrived in Korea to set up a military government and while doing so, he made a mistake an his political decision. Hodge failed to sense the deep hatred the Koreans had for the Japanese36 and for the Koreans whom served for Japanese government before the independency. “Japanese officials”37 were appointed for South Korea’s government and in larger scale, United States supported Koreans who were considered as rebels as they assisted in Japanese government; a man like Kim Suk-Won, who was a major general in the Japanese Army during the World War II.38 Ironically, Kim Il-Sung was considered a patriot to many people at that time as he fought against Japan in Manchuria as guerrilla, and Japanese soldiers wanted to arrest him, yet he was supported by Stalin.39
The United States has high responsibility on appointing Korean soldiers from Japan, whom actually deserved a punishment for rebellion against the nation, yet were supported by the Americans.40 Revolts broke out in places like Pusan and Yeongcheon by people who went against pro-Japanese South Korean officials and United States Army Government as results.4142 Jeju Uprising, being a notable incident that aroused in April 1948, by communist party in South Korea and anti-US military government, caused 14,373 victims and about 30,000 of total death tolls.43 It is reported that from 1945 till 1994, the United States controlled Combined Forces Command dominated “Peacetime” activities and thus they were responsible for all military aggressions in Korea.44 The Koreans’ rebellion against the United States’ military force was summarized through these incidents and they are the examples of showing the United States’ responsibility on Korea’s civil conflict.
the Cold War Influence
Due to the fact that the Korean War occurred during the Cold War era, the Korean conflict can be seen as a continuation of the United States and the USSR’s rivalry on their imperialism. As post to World War II, both United States and USSR did not want any military aggression to occur, thus they began to compete each other through the conflicts of foreign countries – examples are Vietnamese War and Cuban Missile Crisis – and for the matter of the Korean War, the possibility of the idea of Cold War affecting the Korean issue cannot be ignored. When the United States settled a US military government in South Korea, a State Department official wrote in September 1947, that he “fears” that US abandonment of Korea “will be interpreted throughout the world as an indication that the United States has decided not to maintain its strong position in the Far East. The result upon Soviet policy toward the United States, both [in] the Far East and […] in Europe would […] be unfortunate.”45 The United State’s intention on Korea is clear as they strongly show their will to go against communism in Korean Peninsula, and the Americans viewed the civil conflict in Korea more as a conflict between United States and USSR, their contradicting ideology. Prior to the Korean War, the United States government was criticized for the “lost” of China as China fell to the hand of communism.46 The United States feared the expansion of communism in Asia and in the letter of Truman, who was the president of United States at that time, emphasizes the importance of securing South Korea.47 Moreover, the reason for the Americans to unilaterally divide Korean Peninsula in advance was due to their fear of spread of communism in Korea as well.48 The United States’ motivation to divide Korea and establish a military government derived from their rivalry toward USSR. The effect of Cold War’s influence over Korea must be included when discovering the origins of the Korean War.
Stalin and USSR
Prior to the start of the Korean War, Stalin shared close relationship with Kim Il-Sung and many first-hand evidences prove his interest on the issue of Korean conflict. After Korea was liberated from Japanese control, USSR supported Kim as the leader of northern part of Korea who will establish communist dominated Korea, due to his reputation of being a former captain in the Soviet Red Army.49 Some historians argue that the Korean War was a “hot war” for Stalin and Kim was “Stalin’s puppet,” who was ordered to start a war, yet this argument lacks its supporting evidence as documents from Soviet archives, which were opened in 1992.
They prove 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.”50 American academic Dr. Kathryn Weathersby, who was the first foreign historian to gain access to the Soviet archives, quotes that Stalin thought it was not “advisable” for North to engage in offensive action against South.51 Moreover, Kim's former aide and translator Valentin Pak, says that says: "I saw many of the documents addressed to Kim and I can absolutely confirm that Stalin did not encourage.”52 However, it does not seem that Stalin had absolutely no interest over North Korea’s invasion across the 38th parallel. It is reported that in the spring of 1949, during a meeting with Kim Il-Sung, Stalin spoke to Kim, “Are you short of arms? You must strike the Southerners in the teeth […] Strike them, strike them.”53
Whether he wanted Kim Il-Sung to begin a war or not, Stalin clearly declared his willingness to aid Kim with his decision. This is proven by his letter to Shtykov – asking to relay a message to Stalin – as he wrote, “It is possible that Kim Il Sung needs our technical assistance and some number of Soviet specialists. We are ready to render this assistance.”54 Nonetheless, he was not in hurry of this matter of invasion and the reason for Stalin’s hesitation seems to come from his consideration over the United States. Historian and Korean PoW General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley tells that if Stalin thought that the Americans would intervene, “[he] wouldn't have allowed the war to be started at all.”55 In fact, when Dean Acheson, a Secretary of United States spoke to the National Press Club on January 12th, 1950, on the matter of American defensive perimeter in Asia, it appeared that Acheson left Korea out of the defensive line, there is evidence that Kim used the speech to persuade Stalin.56 The exact reason for Stalin giving a firm permission to invade South is unclear. It could be due to the victory of the Communist China, or Soviet’s acquisition of the atomic bomb as well.57 Still, Stalin and USSR’s commitment on the origin of the Korean War was quite minor, comparing to that of Kim Il-Sung, and it seems that Stalin was not an initiator of the war, but he simply was “backing the Korean enterprise” and actually “distancing himself from any direct involvement.”58
The Korean War was an event that made many nations to get involve on the small peninsula. Beginning from the year of Japanese Rule over Korea in 1910 till June 25th, 1945, the starting day of the war, minor and major causes that contributed to the outbreak of the war were continuously developed. What can be first examined as one of the causes was the conflict between the nation, as the Koreans began to internally divide themselves into two separate groups with different leaders: Kim Il-Sung’s North and Syng-Man Rhee’s South. The role of foreign involvements can also be examined while dissecting the split of Koreans as certain responsibilities lie on the United States and USSR. The Americans are greatly responsible for unilaterally dividing the land and for appointing pro-Japanese soldiers Koreans to the government of South. Considering the condition of Korea right after the liberation from long period of Japanese rule, USSR and United States’ support on two contradicting leaders only worsened the disorganized political situation in Korea. The reason for supporting two opposing men relates to the matter of the Cold War, which was happening through the Korean War time period, as the United States and USSR were in opposing relationship with different ideologies. In this sense, nevertheless the Korean War had the characteristic of a civil war, the involvement of foreign countries overshadowed the civil conflict with more internationally conflicting issues. Even so, the initial action for the commencement of the Korean War is considered to be happened by North Korea, more specifically by Kim Il-Sung, and this emphasizes that even though the foreign intervention was encompassing Korea’s situation, the direct motivation of the war was the struggle of Korean nation. As the establishment of the causes of the Korean War start from the year of 1920, it is possible to argue that the origins of Korean war begin from the conflict among Koreans during the Japanese empire era. Therefore, to provide a clear answer for the question of the origins of the Korean War, it can be concluded that the Korean War was a combination of civil and international conflicts, yet for the direct initiation of the war, the problem among the Koreans was a bigger issue than foreign intervention for beginning of the Korean War.
Word Count: 3698
Shtykov cable to Stalin, 19 January 1950, AVPRF.
Statement, dated June 27, 1950, by President Harry S. Truman; Papers of George M. Elsey.
AVP RF, Fond 059a, Opis 5a, Delo 3, Papka 11, list 92, 01/30/1950
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