The US and Soviet Union agreed in December 1943 that Korea was to become "free and independent" and that they would disarm the Japanese forces there. The Koreans had a resistance movement and claimed they could have handled the Japanese themselves. The Koreans had a government in exile in China, and it was expected that in losing the war the Japanese would be pulling out of Korea as they would other lands.
The Truman administration was looking forward to Korea, north and south, being self-governing and united. Since December 1945, Moscow was supporting a five-year trusteeship as a lead-up to independence. There were those in the north who supported the trusteeship under pressure from the Soviet government. A Korean leader who did not, Cho Man-sik, disappeared into house arrest.
In the north, People's Committees were reorganized as Interim People's Committees dominated by Communists. Land redistribution, industry nationalization, labor law reform, and equality for women were proclaimed. Communists formed the Workers' Party of Korea, and it was led by Kim Il-sung, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader of considerable fame among the Koreans.
In May 1946, talks between Moscow and Washington regarding Korea's future broke down. In May 1947 the US demanded that elections be held in both the US and Russian zones for the creation of a government that united the country. The US turned to the United Nations for help, and an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly agreed to general elections for the whole of Korea.
In January 1948, the Russians refused the UN commission entry into its zone (north of the 38th parallel) to prepare for nationwide elections. The UN General Assembly authorized elections in those areas where its commission members were allowed: south of the 38th parallel. In the South the winners formed a National Assembly, and in July a new government was created, in Seoul. Moscow described Washington as having imposed its will on both the UN and on South Korea. It spoke of American capitalism and imperialism at work, and it countered with elections in its zone different from the kind of elections the UN had offered: single slate elections with pro-Communist candidates.
On 8 September 1948, the Russian zone was proclaimed as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Its premier was Kim il-Sung. On 12 December the UN General Assembly recognized the government in Seoul as the only lawfully constituted government in Korea. Fifty nations joined in recognizing the Seoul government — the Republic of Korea. The Truman Administration formally announced its recognition on January 1st and stated its intention to "help the Korean people and their lawful government to achieve the goal of a free and united Korea." The New York Times that day wrote:
It's no secret that a peaceful and unified Korea free of Communist domination is a goal of United States foreign policy.
As for China, it emerged from World War II divided between Communist forces and government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists held territory in northern China and had gained prestige and power among their fellow Chinese by fighting Japan's invasion. The Communists had something like two million men in militia units and another 900,000 or more in regular troop units. In 1946, civil war erupted between Chiang's regime and the Communists. The Truman administration helped the Chiang regime with two billion dollars worth of military aid, equipment and troop transport — but no troops. Corruption and inflation had turned many Chinese against the Chiang regime, and in the summer of 1949 Communist forces swept southward. With ease they entered Beijing, and in October, in his high-pitched voice, Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People's Republic of China.
In December, Mao was in Moscow having strategy discussions with Stalin, with Mao concerned about the possibility of an attack on China by what he called "the imperialist countries". Mao felt humiliated by Moscow's casual treatment of his visit (a treatment that included people under Stalin referring to him as "the China-man"). Mao was looking for material support while telling Stalin that China's revolution needed "a period of 3-5 years of peace, which would be used to bring the economy back to pre-war levels and to stabilize the country in general."
Kim Il-sung was encouraged by the communist victory in China and said that the Korean people wanted liberation and would not understand why the opportunity to have it was missed. On January 30, Stalin informed Kim Il-sung in a telegram that he was willing to help Kim in his plan to unify Korea, and in discussions with Kim that followed, Stalin suggested that in return for his support he would like a yearly minimum of 25,000 tons of lead. He advised Kim to minimize risk, Stalin apparently believing that it was possible to win a quick victory and present the world with a fait accompli. Mao and his associates were in accord with Kim's idea, Mao having told Stalin that it was his opinion that the US would not intervene in Korea.
Regardless of claims of the South's provocations against North Korea at the 38th parallel, on June 25, 1950, it was Kim Il-sung military with Russian tanks that crossed the 38th Parallel, and kept going. South's forces were no match against Kim's. In three days Kim's forces entered the Republic of Korea's capital: Seoul. The South's forces blew up the bridges that crossed the Han River, just south of Seoul – unfortunately while the bridges were packed with refugees fleeing southward.
The US appealed again to the United Nations. The Soviet Union was demonstrating its frustration over the UN's refusal to seat the People's Republic of China and was away from its seat on the Security Council. Without the Soviet Union to cast its veto, the Security Council voted to defend the Republic of Korea — the only government in Korea that the UN recognized. Nineteen UN nations were to join the war alongside the United States under the aegis of the UN.
The North Koreans overran and inflicted heavy casualties the Americans fifty miles south of Seoul. Then they pushed farther south, rounding up and killing people who they deemed anti-Communist. The US was fighting back with bombings in the North. On August 22, Pyongyang radio claimed that air raids on Pyongyang and five other cities between July 2 and August 3 had killed 11,582 civilians.
By September, the North's forces were stalled at what became known as the Pusan Perimeter, around the cities of Taegu (Daegu) and Pusan, defended by US and Republic of Korea (ROK) troops. On September 15, 1950, MacArthur landed a force at Inchon. The North's forces began pulling back to avoid entrapment, ROK forces moving in behind them. And they too engaged in roundups and killings — of those accused of having welcomed the Communist forces — the dead being thrown into mass graves on the outskirts of town.
On October 3, through India's ambassador to Beijing, K.M. Panikkar, China informed the world-at-large that if the United States crossed the 38th parallel China would intervene. Confident people in the US State Department, Dean Rusk among them, believed that the Chinese would not dare attack US forces in Korea. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, believed it was a bluff. US troops moved into North Korea and approached its border with China, at the Yalu River. The Chinese crossed into Korea and drove the US forces back across the 38th parallel. By 1952 the US forces were a short distance into the North. The Chinese had nearly impregnable positions across mountainous terrain and for the rest of 1952 a stalemate developed except for bloody bravado actions largely as demonstrations.
In May 1952, General Mark Clark had become the UN commander in Korea, and he believed in throwing everything at the enemy that he could. He chose to bomb reservoir dikes in the North, flooding the North's sparse agricultural lands, threatening the North Koreans with starvation. He bombed North Korea's hydroelectric plant just south of the Yalu River, and he gave the Air Force permission to strike again at North Korea's industrial and population centers. Pyongyang was bombed again, including the use of napalm, and the burning to death of civilians was extensive. The Air Force was after military targets, but distinction between military targets and civilians was blurred. The US Navy attacked North Korean fishing vessels, crippling this source of food for the North.
In hope of winning a favorable and quick end to the Korean War, the United States let it be known that it was considering the use of atomic weapons. Apparently of more concern to the Chinese than the atomic bomb were the economic costs involved in continuing the war. Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai met with Stalin in late 1952, and they agreed that the war should be ended.
On 20 January 1953 Dwight Eisenhower became US President, after having promised to end the war. Then on 5 March 1953, Stalin died. Two days after he returned from Stalin's funeral, China's Zhou Enlai announced a new effort to end the war in Korea. The US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles remained opposed to ending the war, wishing to appeal to those in the US opposed to anything that could be construed as appeasing Communism. And General Clark was also opposed. He wished to extend the war to China to end Communism there. Eisenhower wanted an end to the war, and his prestige was great enough that only a very few hardliners accused him of appeasement.
An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty was not signed, and South Korea did not sign the armistice. North and South Korea remained technically at war.
CONTINUE READING: Britain's Democracy to 1954
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.