By Michael Drohan
Understanding the global geopolitical situation at the time of the Korean War provides us with a necessary context to make sense of the war. At the end of World War II in 1945, the major imperial powers of the world such as Great Britain, France and Japan were wounded giants. The lesser imperial powers, such as Belgium, Holland and Portugal, were also greatly weakened. The US, with its veiled imperial ambitions, was the only country to come through the war strengthened, if anything, since the war did not reach its shores.
This was the moment of opportunity for the countries of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, groaning under colonial oppression. Country after country struck at this opportune moment. The first to strike was India in 1947, but tens of others followed in the decade of the 50s.
The gig was up, but the imperial powers had a not-so-secret plan. This plan was to have a changing of the guard in the form of handing over political control, while maintaining economic control and access to cheap resources. This “neo-colonial plan” was implemented widely in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
The US had yet another plan; that is, to edge out the former colonial rulers and take control of the natural resources by putting in place client regimes subservient to US interests. This plan took different shapes in different arenas. In Vietnam, the US buttressed financially the bankrupt French colonial endeavor to hold onto that country, while later taking over the entire project through the Vietnam War. In Korea, the US hoped to keep out the Soviets and replace the Japanese empire.
The colonies themselves, aspiring for independence, were often divided into two groups: one was the nationalist group, which often fell for the neocolonial solution. The other grouping tended to be more radical, demanding a clean cut with colonialism and its economic structures of inequality and foreign domination. The latter were, generally, socialist or communist in affiliation and got the support of the then Soviet Union.
In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh wanted radical restructuring. In Korea, Kim Il Sung had a similar vision. The supposed reason for US intervention was the “Communist threat,” but when decoded the real threat to the US was reform to empower peasants and poor people at the expense of the wealthy and international capitalists. A similar dynamic played out in the Belgian Congo, with Patrice Lumumba representing the radical egalitarian position and the US client Mobutu Sese Seko representing the neo-colonial façade of independence.
The Korean War
Officially the war is said to have begun on June 25, 1950, when the Korean People’s’ Army (KPA) crossed the 38th Parallel and attacked the South. In reality, the war began on Aug 9, 1945, when the Soviets declared war on Japan, while entering and liberating Korea. The US was having none of it and declared war on August 10, 1945, creating a dividing line between two occupation zones, the 38th parallel.
The US was to occupy south of the line and the Soviets the north. The US appointed Lt. General John Hodge as military governor. He arrived in Korea on September 8, 1945. Hodge appointed Japanese colonial administrators to govern this part of the peninsula. Uproar ensued but it gives us a flavor of the US project. In December martial law was declared in face of opposition from the Koreans.
Many Koreans had helped the Chinese in their civil war, especially in Manchuria, to secure their victory. Consequently, many Koreans were seasoned guerillas and well organized, and the Chinese were anxious to help them in their struggle for independence. In the south, the US carried out a general election and a reactionary dictator, Syngman Rhee was elected leader.
On June 28, 1950 the KPA took over Seoul and Syngman Rhee was evacuated. South Korean forces were reduced from 98,000 to 22,000. The war was pretty much over but the US was not in accord. It engineered a UN resolution condemning the KPA and secured an international force to fight for the south. In August, Congress appropriated $12 billion.
Once the US entered the war the massacre of the people of Korea began. None other than a US General described it as follows: Maj. Gen. Emmett O’Donnell, who led the Far East Bomber Command of B-29s that participated in the bombings said their goal was “to work burning five major cities in North Korea to the ground, and to destroy completely everyone of about 18 major strategic targets.” Curtis Lemay boasted that Strategic Air Command “burned down just about every city in North and South Korea both.” He also estimated that “over a period of three years or so, we killed off 20 percent of the population.”
This is why North Korea is so exercised about the fulminations of Donald Trump. Would that he knew a modicum of history but, alas, we are afflicted with a political head of state who knows not of the crimes of the 1950s and seems compelled to repeat the same.
Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and the Board of the Thomas Merton Center
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