The Korean War: Barbarism Unleashed Part I

“Massacre in Korea” by Pablo Picaso in 1952


I. Introduction: Contrasting views

Remembering the Korean War
Was the Korean War necessary and just?
Could the war have been avoided?

II. Origins and causes of the Korean War

Backdrop of Japanese colonialism
American imperial ambitions
Social revolution and repression in North Korea
Brutal anticommunist pacification in South Korea
Southern provocations and the origins of the war
Domestic politics and bipartisan support for the war

III. Military history of the war

North Korean blitzkrieg and occupation of Seoul
“So terrible a liberation:” Pusan, Seoul, Inchon, and Operation Rat Killer
MacArthur heads to the Yalu River
Chinese counterattack and American retreat
High noon: The Truman-MacArthur stand-off
Bombing ‘em back to the Stone Age: Aerial techno-war over North Korea

IV. Public opinion and antiwar dissent in the United States

Manufacturing consent: Media coverage of the war
The responsibility of intellectuals: “Crackpot Realists” and the New Mandarins
Grassroots antiwar activism and dissent
American soldiers’ experience and disillusionment
Letter exchange between a questioning Marine, his father, and Dean Acheson

V. The war’s costs, hidden dirty secrets, and legacies

South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and atrocities in the war
Dirty little secrets: Maltreatment of prisoners-of-war and allegations of biological warfare
“The Horror, The Horror”: Korea’s Lieutenant Kurtz
Racism and class stratification in the U.S. Army
Canada and Great Britain’s Korean War
Legacies of the war

Did you know?

-Japan imposed colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.
-With Japan on the verge of defeat in World War II, two young American army officers drew an arbitrary line across Korea at the 38th parallel, creating an American zone in the south and a Soviet zone in the north.  Both South and North Korea became repressive regimes.
-In South Korea, the United States built up a police force and constabulary and backed the authoritarian leader Syngman Rhee, who created a police state.  By 1948 partisan warfare had enveloped the whole of South Korea, which in turn became enmeshed in civil war between South and North Korea.
-In North Korea, the government of Kim II-Sung arrested and imprisoned student and church leaders, and gunned down protesters on November 23, 1945.  Christians as well as business and land owners faced with the confiscation of their property began fleeing to the South.
-The U.S. Army counter-intelligence corps organized paramilitary commandos to carry out sabotage missions in the North, a factor accounting for the origins of the war.  The Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea conducted a massive invasion of the South.
-The U.S. obtained the approval of the United Nations for the defense of South Korea (the Soviet Union had boycotted the UN over the issue of seating China).  Sixteen nations supplied troops although the vast majority came from the United States and South Korea.  U.S. General Douglas MacArthur headed the United Nations Command.
-The three-year Korean War resulted in the deaths of three to four million Koreans, produced 6-7 million refugees, and destroyed over 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes.  Over 36,000 American soldiers died in the war.
-From air bases in Okinawa and naval aircraft carriers, the U.S. Air Force launched over 698,000 tons of bombs (compared to 500,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II), obliterating 18 of 22 major cities and destroying much of the infrastructure in North Korea.
-The US bombed irrigation dams, destroying 75 percent of the North’s rice supply, violating civilian protections set forth in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
-The Korean War has been called a “limited war” because the U.S. refrained from using nuclear weapons (although this was considered).  Yet the massive destruction of North Korea and the enormous death toll in both North and South mark it as one of the most barbarous wars in modern history.
-Reports of North Korean atrocities and war crimes were well publicized in the United States at the time.  The 2005 South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, judged that most of the mass killings of civilians were conducted by South Korean military and police forces, with the United States adding more from the air.
-For all the human suffering caused by the Korean War, very little was solved.  The war ended in stalemate with the division of the country at the 38th parallel.

I. Introduction: Contrasting views

The Korean War memorial on the National Wall in Washington features nineteen light-colored steel American combat soldiers, representing different nationalities, heading in formation towards the American flag.  The statues stand in patches of juniper bushes and are separated by polished granite strips symbolizing the rice paddies of Korea.  The four architects selected for designing this memorial sued the government because their design was to include quotes on war and peace intended to raise “huge doubt about war as an institution.”  The approved final version, however, omitted the telling quotes and related images, thus memorializing those who served in Korea without attempting to assess the political context for the war or the human suffering it engendered.[1]

The Washington war memorial stands in sharp contrast to one of the finest pieces of art to emerge from the war, Pablo Picasso’s painting “Massacre in Korea” (1951).  Picasso captured much about the horrors of American style techno-war in depicting a group of robot-like soldiers descending on a village – thought to be Sinchon in South Hwangae Province, North Korea.  The soldiers are preparing to execute women and children suspected of sheltering guerrilla combatants.  The miracle of the painting is that the faces of the women about to be shot are transformed into masks of art, an expression of life amidst the horror and death that is war.

Inspired by Goya’s “The Third of May 1808,” which shows Napoleon’s soldiers executing Spanish civilians, Picasso’s painting provides an important commentary not only on the Korean War but also on America’s role in the world.  Hiding behind their advanced weaponry and technology, Americans became predominantly cut off from the people they were supposedly saving from communism or other evil, never heeding their aspirations and dreams or feeling their pain.  In attempting to project power through superior technology, they also lost something of their own souls, shedding the blood of too many innocents.
Remembering the Korean War

On Memorial Day in 2015, as President Barack Obama Jr. honored fallen soldiers with an emotional speech, his guest of honor was former Republican Party presidential candidate Robert Dole, a representative of the “greatest generation” who had fought in World War II.  Dole’s contemporaries were seated on stage.  Vietnam veterans were also called out during the ceremony as were wounded warriors who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many of their letters read out loud.[2]  Korean War veterans, however, were largely absent from the ceremony despite it being the 65th anniversary of the war’s outbreak.

The ceremony epitomizes Korea’s status as a “forgotten war” in American memory, one which came between the glorious victory in World War II and inglorious defeat in Vietnam.  Writing in the Washington Post, Richard L. Halferty, head of the Texas Korean War Veterans Committee compared the Memorial Day slight with the heroic reception he claimed to have received on a visit to Seoul and Chipyong-ni in 2010, where he was allegedly hugged and thanked by women and men who spotted his Korean War veterans hat.

In considering the question, was the war worth it, Halferty urged readers to look at the results.  “When the U.S. entered the war to protect the freedom of South Korea, the nation was at the bottom of the world.  The Korean people took the freedom we helped buy with our blood and rose to become one of the top economies in the world.”[3]

Halferty sounded very much like George H. W. Bush, who at a speech commemorating the Korean War memorial in June 1992 heralded the contributions of U.S. soldiers in stopping totalitarianism and in sacrificing themselves so that “the enslaved might be free.”  Defining the war explicitly as a victory, he claimed that in the wake of “North Korea’s wanton aggression,” the United States did not hesitate to act, and had since “built a stable peace in Korea that has lasted nearly 40 years.”  Previously, Bush had called Korea “a war in which we turned the tide against communism for the first time in a victory regrettably sometimes ignored by history.”[4]

From these examples we can see that if remembered at all, Korea is considered a just war that contributed to the defeat of communist totalitarianism and enabled development of South Korea into a stable and prosperous democracy.  The darker aspects of U.S. conduct, the commission of wide-scale atrocities spotlighted in the Picasso painting, are little discussed or contemplated.

Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary from 2001 and 2005 and key architect of the Iraq War, wrote a New York Times editorial in August 2010 entitled “In Korea, a Model for Iraq,” suggesting that South Korea had evolved because of a long U.S. military presence as a “haven for freedom.”  Compared to the “bleak and brutal despotism of North Korea,” South Korea was a “political success story.”  This was epitomized by the advent of free elections in 1987, thirty-four years after the Korean War ended.  The lesson was that Americans needed to be patient about the evolution of democracy in Iraq.[5]

Wolfowitz’ analysis is undercut by George Katsiaficas’ history, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings: South Korean Social Movements in the 20thCentury (2012), which shows that democracy emerged in 1987 not because it was promoted by the U.S. but because of the efforts of committed social activists, many of whom endured torture, beatings, and massacres fighting against the American-imposed military dictatorship.

For years, the U.S. had built up South Korea’s military and police forces, honoring the generals who committed myriad atrocities, including the 1980 Kwangju massacre, South Korea’s equivalent to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989.[6]

Many prominent historians have reinforced the official narrative about the Korean War.  John L. Gaddis of Yale University, the so-called Dean of Cold War scholars presents the war as a clear-cut case of communist aggression backed by Soviet premier Joseph Stalin.  David J. Bercuson of the University of Calgary considers the war to have prevented Korea from “becoming the Munich of the Cold War.”[7]  Absent from this viewpoint are the perspectives and experiences of the Koreans themselves, which scholars such as Bruce Cumings take into account.

Well before the Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, South Korea was in a state of revolt.  The war actually began in 1946 when the American Military Government supported the repression of opposition movements in South Korea, particularly in the southern island of Cheju-do where tens of thousands of peasants were massacred between April 1948 and May 1949.  The South also provoked the North, mounting clandestine raids and sabotage.  Also absent from the official U.S. narrative is the recognition of the horrors of the war and the fact that U.S. and South Korean forces committed mass atrocities against civilians.[8]

Was the Korean War necessary and just?

A good barometer for judging whether a war is just or unjust is to decipher whether it was undertaken as an act of self-defense, in accordance with domestic and international legal principles, as established in the United Nations Charter. Rather than an act of self-defense, President Harry S. Truman presented military intervention as a police action and limited war, waging it without Congressional authorization.

The North Koreans, it was said, had crossed a United Nations-recognized border – the 38th parallel – and thus had committed military aggression against a “democratic” Western ally, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the defense of which had been assumed by the United States.  The UN Security Council approved a U.S.-led military intervention in a 9-0 vote.  (The Soviet Union had walked out of the Security Council in a dispute over the seating of Communist China, and thus was unable to veto the measure.)  Canada, Great Britain, Turkey, Australia, and Thailand subsequently sent military forces, paid for mostly by the Americans.  Compared to the war in Vietnam, where the U.S. did not sign the Geneva Accords nor receive UN sanction, the Korean War was legal and considered by many justifiable in its first phase.

Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, accepts the legitimacy of the U.S.-UN intervention but considers the subsequent U.S.-UN invasion of North Korea to be an act of military hubris.  He also condemns the U.S. military strategy of deploying indiscriminate firepower to conserve American soldiers’ lives.[9]  While Walzer may be correct in these judgments, the legal justification for defending South Korea from northern attack does not necessarily make the war right, as the Korean perspective was not taken into account when the country was divided.

The 38th parallel line, in fact, had no historical justification and was selected arbitrarily by two U.S. colonels, Charles Bonesteel and the future Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, near the end of World War II.  Granted that the United States came to the defense of South Korea, it also contributed to the outbreak of war by projecting its Cold War mission onto Korea and establishing a repressive state in the south that opposed unification.  The United States also trained South Korean saboteurs and commandos who infiltrated the North and even tried to assassinate Kim Il-Sung in the months prior to the June 25 invasion.  The northern invasion of the South can thus be considered to have been provoked.

On June 27, 1950, President Truman sent U.S. forces to Korea under United Nations authority, without a declaration of war from Congress

President Harry S. Truman claimed the U.S. goal in Korea was to prevent the “rule of force in international affairs” and to “uphold the rule of law,” but this was utterly contradicted by American support for right-wing counter-insurgent forces in Greece, which committed large-scale atrocities in suppressing an indigenous left-wing rebellion led by anti-fascist elements, and in subsequent years, by Washington’s overthrow by force of the legally elected governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954, respectively.

As Howard Zinn pointed out in Postwar America, 1945-1971 (1973), other cases of aggression or alleged aggression in the world, such as the Arab states invasion of Israel in 1948, did not prompt the U.S. to mobilize the UN or its own armed forces for intervention.  Zinn concluded that the decision to intervene in Korea was, at its core, political, designed to uphold the dictatorial U.S. client regime of Syngman Ree and acquire U.S. military bases in South Korea, which the U.S. did as a result of the war.[10]

Apart from the question of whether the Korean War was necessary, the horrible human cost of the war marks it as one of the worst ever fought.  Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) considered war a crime if it was fought with “malicious intent to destroy, a desire to dominate with fierce hatred and furious vengeance,” which was clearly the case for Korea.[11]  While 36,574 Americans died, three to four million Koreans lost their lives as a result of the war, including one out of every nine North Koreans, according to a UN estimate.  In addition, six to seven million Koreans were rendered refugees and over 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and 600,000 homes were destroyed.

Survivors wander among the debris in the aftermath of an air raid by U.S. planes over Pyongyang, circa 1950 (photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

Donald Kingsley, head of the UN Korean Relief and Reconstruction Agency, called Korea “the most devastated land and its people the most destitute in the history of modern warfare.”[12]  This devastation was inflicted primarily by the United States and its proxies with backing from the United Nations.  Taking this into account, the Korean War can be considered to have been a gross injustice and crime for which the U.S. bears important responsibility.  To add insult to injury, the war did not resolve the conflict between North and South, which lingers on today, over 60 years later.

In summary, while the United Nations approved the U.S.-led international intervention in Korea, other factors should be taken into account:  (1) the 38th parallel was not a legitimate international boundary in the eyes of the Korean people; (2) both South and North Korea had engaged in aggressive actions prior to the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950; and (3) the United States had set up a government in South Korea that ruthlessly repressed leftist opposition and resisted compromise toward a unified Korean government.

As to the conduct of the war, the United States employed massive firepower that rendered Korea a devastated land, causing untold suffering.  The U.S. air war flagrantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which ban indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their means of survival.

Could the war have been avoided?

In hindsight, the war could have been avoided and the Koreans left to determine their own future if the United States would have allowed it.  U.S. leaders viewed the conflict through the narrow lens of the East-West conflict and the Cold War when in reality it was primarily an internal Korean civil war with anti-colonial underpinnings.  Historian Bruce Cumings has suggested that the outbreak of war became inevitable once the U.S. decided to back Syngman Rhee.

Wanting to unify the two Koreas under his rule, Rhee was a hard-line anticommunist who saw no room for compromise or middle ground, considering all left-wing groups and opponents of his regime to be communists.  This viewpoint was shared by American Military Government leader John R. Hodge.  With American military backing, Rhee launched repressive counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1940s that led South Korea into a state of virtual civil war prior to the official outbreak of war between the North and the South.

Among Rhee’s victims were moderate nationalist politicians such as Kim Ku, who warned that Koreans should not fight each other, and Yo Un-Hyong, who had wanted the peaceful unification of North and South.  Yo had headed a provisional government preceding the U.S. military occupation and advocated a mix of liberal-nationalist and social democratic ideals which were anathema to the Rhee government.

Revered in both North and South Korea today,  Yo had been a newspaper editor who opposed Japanese colonialism, and though not a communist himself, had always been willing to work with communists.[13]  Had the U.S. supported Yo and his efforts to create a unity government with the North, the war and its attendant misery could likely have been avoided and Korea’s history would be much different.

The war itself hardened animosities on both sides and helped to consolidate Kim Il-Sung’s rule and the harsh authoritarian characteristics of his regime amidst legitimate security threats.  While the nature of the Kim regime in North today is used to rationalize the Korean War, it should, in my view, be considered another horrific consequence of the war.[14]  A North-South unity government was indeed the best option for the U.S. to pursue in the 1940s in order to avoid catastrophe, although the political climate of the time and the U.S. drive for hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region precluded this possibility.

Once started, the Korean War could clearly have been ended much earlier had U.S. leaders been committed to diplomacy.  On December 12, 1950, journalist Walter Lippmann received a memo from New York Times reporter James Reston that the Chinese had passed to Secretary of State Dean Acheson a peace proposal from Peking offering a cease-fire in exchange for negotiations on Formosa.  Acheson, however, did not take the request seriously, saying it was “merely a maneuver instigated by the Russians to prevent completion of the NATO military command and prevent the rearming of Germany.”[15]


[Continued in Part II]


The Author of “The Korean War,” Professor Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches history at the University of Tulsa. He is author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012). He is active in the Historians Against the War and the Tulsa Peace fellowship, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.

The original source of the article from United States Foreign Policy: History & Resource Guide


The Korean War: Barbarism Unleashed


The 21st Century

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