I. The Forgotten War II. The Korean Nation III. The Simmering Cauldron IV. The War V. The Aftermath VI. As It Stands Now Candidates' Position
I. The Forgotten War
The Korean War, despite costing the country its second biggest non-World War casualty, behind Vietnam, has surprisingly remained in the periphery of the national consciousness. Literatures, movies and other pop culture references in relation to the Korean War are disproportionately low when compared against other armed conflicts of the last five decades.
Perhaps the timeframe, occurring just five years after World War II and ending eight years before the first U.S. boots landed in Vietnam, has conspired to relegate it to a mere footnote in the annals of American history. Was it not for M.A.S.H (movie and TV series), the war that caused the death of over 40,000 American soldiers could have suffered an even more ignominious brush off. The fact is, though, the Korean War prevented the spread of Communism into many politically vulnerable East Asian countries. However, the costs of the war were massive, and one that America continues to pay to this day; and this without factoring the deaths of over two million Koreans into the equation.
II. The Korean Nation
The Korean nation is widely recognized as one of the oldest country in history. Traces of human presence go as far back as 40,000 years ago. However, the Eastern Asian nation has never quite attained a measure of significance comparable to its neighbors China and Japan throughout its history. Ruled by a hereditary monarch and local chiefs, occasionally, it has been regularly conquered by its two neighbors, alongside the Machurian, French and British over the centuries.
The modern Korean conflict has its roots in the tail end of the 19th century. The emerging military-industrial giant, Japan, swept into the country, overcoming the fragile Chinese presence there, along with local Korean forces quite easily. However, following their defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to cede the territory back to the Allies and the Korean people.
However, the emergence of a strong Russian and Chinese backed Communist movement in the country prevented the Allies from simply returning the country back to the native Koreans. After intense negotiations, the Americans, headed by the legendary and controversial General Douglas MacArthur, and the Russians, agreed to split the country in two, with the 38th parallel serving as the demarcating line. The agreement saw to the creation of two nations: the Russian supported North and the American backed South.
III. The Simmering Cauldron
The establishment of the two separate Koreas foreshadowed the conflict that was about to erupt. Up North, the Kim Il Sung led communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, under the patronage of the Soviet Union and China, began a nationwide Marxist indoctrination program modeled closely to that of the Soviets. Meanwhile, down South, the Republic of Korea, under the guiding hands of the Americans and their first president, Syngman Rhee, work was immediately underway to develop a full-fledged democratic government.
The situation became tense over the next few years, as skirmishes along the Demilitarized Zone of the 38th parallel began to occur with increasing frequency. North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, emboldened by the growing military might of his young nation, began to harbor ambitions of retaking the South and unifying the two nations. So, it wasn’t entirely unexpected when the North Korean army, aided by Chinese soldiers, breached the 200-mile long 38th parallel line in the early hours of June 25, 1950.
IV. The War
The full-scale invasion prompted an immediate reaction from the United Nations Security Council later the same day. In the absence of the Soviet Union (who was on a Stalin-ordered boycott) and Yugoslavia’s decision to abstain from voting, the remaining members of the council (United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Norway and India) unanimously adopted Resolution 82, which states (excerpts):
• Calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities;
• Calls upon the authorities in North Korea to withdraw forthwith their armed forces to the 38th parallel…
Additionally, the Security Council passed Resolution 83 two days later and Resolution 84 on July 7.
Resolution 83 (excerpts): … Recommends that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area…
Resolution 84 (excerpts):
Recommends that all Members providing military forces and other assistance pursuant to the aforesaid Security Council resolutions make such forces and other assistance available to a unified command under the United States of America;
Requests the United States to designate the commander of such forces;
Requests the United States to provide the Security Council with reports as appropriate on the course of action taken under the unified command…
As the United Nations, and the United States, in particular, prepared to deploy their forces in South Korea, the North Korean army progressed virtually unchallenged across the country and made enormous gains before the American-led United Nations forces halted their march in the fall. The South Korean capital, Seoul, fell on June 28, while Suwon, Pyongtaek, Kangnung, Samchuk, Ulchin, Owonju, Chungju, Chonan, Chochiwon and Taejon fell in a ten-day blitz starting from July 4th. Fierce fighting with the Americans commenced in the midst of their secondary thrust towards Pusan at the end of July.
The Americans, led by Commander of the United Nations Command Korea (UNC-Korea), General Douglas MacArthur, began to assert themselves and made steady progress, recapturing the fallen cities, and less than two months later, turned the tables on the North Koreans and briefly took their capital, Pyongyang, on October 19, 1950, on the back of the powerful 1st Marine Division that General MacArthur had lobbied strongly for at the onset of the war.
“I strongly request reconsideration of my need for a Marine division. Its availability is absolutely essential to achieve a decisive stroke. If not made available, a much longer and more expensive effort both in blood and money will result. I must have the Marine Division by September 10. I cannot too strongly emphasize the complete urgency of my request.”
General MacArthur to General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
As the Americans press their advantage and began to run riot deep inside North Korea, a tactical blunder by General MacArthur near Hyesanjin/Yalu River, just miles outside the Chinese border, saw the combined North Korean-Chinese forces flanking the Americans and slicing through their formation, resulting in an American retreat to the 38th parallel. The North Korean and UNC-Korea forces planted themselves along the 38th parallel and began preparing for a long-haul war.
However, President Truman, satisfied with the recapture of the South Korean territories and the qualified victory of the American forces, appeared to look favorably at the silent peace overtures from the battered North Koreans, conveyed through Russian officials. General MacArthur, still smarting from the Hyesanjin/Yalu River debacle, reacted furiously at the news and publicly spoke out against President Truman, criticizing him in several press conferences. He even sent a letter to the Congress, which was read by Speaker of the House of Representative, Joseph William Martin Jr. on the floor of the House. The General advocated an expansion of the war towards North Korea and even China, and did not rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the two nations, as a way to effectively curtail the spread of communism to the Far East.
MacArthur’s public display of insubordination humiliated Truman, and disrupted the peace negotiations that were under way. Truman, realizing that any action against the popular general would provoke a negative reaction from the populace, who was smitten by the war hero, nevertheless, went ahead and relieved General MacArthur of his command on April 10, 1951, and appointed Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway as the replacement to head the UNC-Korea. The firestorm that followed threatened to engulf Truman’s presidency. There were even calls to impeach Truman, the ‘communist-loving’ and ‘weak’ president, as some of his opponents were quoted as saying. Merle Miller, Truman’s unofficial biographer, would later reveal Truman’s thought behind the decision.
“I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President…I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
Peace negotiations resumed shortly thereafter and after an almost two year break in hostilities, the parties involved reached an agreement. The Armistice Agreement was signed at 10 P.M on July 27, 1953, at Pammunjon between the UNC-Korea, the North Korean and the Chinese, and in the process, creating a Demilitarized Zone along the same 38th Parallel – a 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide buffer zone between the two nations. South Korea decided not to sign the Armistice Agreement, and thus, despite the cessation of hostilities, the war has technically still not ended up to this day.
V. The Aftermath
South Korea, bereft of the industrial and military might of the North, requested for the continued presence of American forces in their country after the war. Their Army, which has been under the direct control of the American-led United Nations Command since the beginning of the Korean War, maintained its organizational structure for the next 25 years. The United States was accorded de-facto authority over South Korea’s military until the 1978 creation of a combined 600,000 strong Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command (ROK-US CFC).
The ROK-US CFC primary aim was to act as a deterrent to any future North Korean acts of aggression. It also heralded the creation of an independent South Korean armed forces. America’s presence in the ROK-US CFC is through the United States Forces Korea (USFK), which constitutes a fighting force of 37,500 men and women spread over 85 military installations around the country; with the majority falling under the Eighth United States Army, the US Air Forces Korea (Seventh Air Force), Marine Forces Korea, U.S. Naval Forces Korea and Special Operations Command Korea. In a marked contrast to other countries, the U.S. continued presence in the country is widely welcomed by its citizens. A March 7, 2011, BBC World Service Poll revealed that “South Korean views on US influence markedly improved as positive ratings rose to 74 per cent…”
South Korea, after a tumultuous first three decades of its existence, which saw the country experiencing severe political and economic upheavals, is now one of the most developed countries in the world. An autocratic regime, a student revolution and an army coup that eventually culminated with political and free-market reforms in the 1980s has seen the Korean GDP breached the trillion-dollar mark last year, the fifteenth largest in the world. Nevertheless, North Korea still features prominently in its future plans, as evidenced by the size of its armed forces, which is the sixth largest in the world, and its continued reliance on the American military.
North Korea emerged from the war battered and bruised, but not broken. Its industrial strength, a legacy of the Japanese’ military wartime activities, proved to be an important component for its recovery. Kim Il Sung and his Worker’s Party of Korea strengthened their hold of the country by the brutal culling of the ‘questionable’ Southern population, through executions, Gulag-like imprisonments and exiles to remote villages.
The establishment of a cult personality propaganda for Kim, through his new title, the Great Leader (suryoung, 수령), alongside the classification of social classes through a rank system and badges (for work/service excellence), and the incorporation of the socio-political ideology of juche (self-reliance, 주체) into the daily lives of its citizenry, all were part of a great scheme to propel North Korea into prosperity and international success under his firm but benevolent hands, aided by a billion rubles loan from their ideological master, the Soviets, and another eight trillion yuans from the Chinese.
Alas, his plans failed through a combination of factors, most notably because of excessive military expenditure and the nationalization of all heavy industries which led to the inevitable operational inefficiency. The oil crisis of 1974 also played a part in the failure, as the North Koreans failed to secure international credit to meet their energy requirements. The period also coincided with their Southern cousins passing them economically, as the North Korean economy entered a sustained period of slump.
The economic problems of the Soviet Union and their satellite states in the Eastern bloc also affected the North Koreans exports and eventually, aid money, while their northern neighbor, China, cut their credit and began demanding cash. The North Korean economy defaulted on its obligation in 1980, and has not recovered from it since.
A series of natural disasters (flood, drought and earthquakes) in the early 90s made things worse, badly affecting their food production capabilities. Observers estimates that over two million North Koreans died in the resulting famine, with millions more affected with malnutrition. Another million died following the three-year famine in the late 90s. Studies have shown that chronic hunger has resulted in North Korean children being physically smaller than their South Korean counterparts.
The Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994 as the nation’s economy spiraled into oblivion. However, the Worker’s Party elevated his status into that of the country’s ‘Eternal President’ and appointed his son, Kim Jong Il, as the nation’s new Great Leader. Before his death, Kim laid the groundwork for a nuclear program, headed by Japanese defector, Dr. Lee Sung Ki. The program has been a qualified success, providing the North Koreans with limited nuclear energy for its small industrial bases. More importantly though, it has provided them with the ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Interestingly, despite its monumental problems, the country still maintains a huge army, the fifth largest active force in the world, with over 20% of its male population standing by as reserves.
VI. As It Stands Now
North Korea is one of the five communist states left in the world (China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam complete the group). Out of the five, North Korea and China are the only members of the nuclear club. However, unlike China, they are a non-signatory nation for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on April 10, 2003.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which also ended their last major foreign donor, North Korea has entered into a phase of simmering hostility. Unlike their Southern cousins, economic prosperity has eluded the ultra-secretive nation, and their nuclear capability has become the best source of direct, and indirect, foreign income, excluding their U.S. dollar counterfeiting operation.
The technology transfer, training and supply of nuclear-related machine components to non-nuclear countries generate a healthy profit for the North Koreans, while their game of brinkmanship with their southern neighbors has ensured a steady stream of foreign aid for their impoverished population, particularly their huge army.
Repeated talks over the past two decades have generally failed to produce any results, and on the rare occasions that it does, it will inevitably break down within a short period of time.
The issue boils down to this. North Korea is prepared to halt their nuclear programs in return for the full revocation of economic sanctions and normalization of diplomatic ties. However, Washington contends that the North Koreans record of broken promises makes such a sweeping compromise untenable, and would only hand the initiative to them and allow the Stalinist-Juche nation to strengthen their position. Furthermore, any concession would also give the impression that the world is rewarding one of the most brutal, repressive and aggressive regimes in the past century. In fact, some historians believe the levels of atrocities committed by the communist nation, or rather, by its Great Leaders, rival that of Adolf Hitler himself. The North’s unceasing provocations and criminal acts over the years also enter into the equation.
Chronology of Major Acts of Aggression by North Korea
Feb 16, 1958
North Korean hijackers took control of a South Korean airliner and brought the plane back to Pyongyang along with its 36 passengers. 28 of the hostages were released a month later, while the remaining eight were kept as hostages.
Jan 17-21, 1968
31 North Korean commandos, disguised as South Korean soldiers, secretly entered the country to assassinate President Park Chung-Hee. After traveling several hundred miles, they came within walking distance of the official residence, the Blue House, before being discovered. In the ensuing firefight, 28 of them were killed, and one captured. Another two managed to escape back to North Korea. 134 South Koreans and three Americans died in the attack.
Oct 30 - Nov 2,1968
130 North Korean commandos came in through the eastern coast of South Korea for undisclosed reasons. 110 of the infiltrators were killed, thirteen escaped, and seven were captured.
Apr 15, 1969
Two North Korean MiG fighter jets shot down an unarmed American EC-121 surveillance craft 90 miles of the North Korean western coastline. 30 Navy men and one Marine were listed as missing, presumably dead or captured. America, still knee-deep in Vietnam, did not retaliate. The Soviets, in an uncharacteristic move, sent two of their vessels to aid in search and rescue efforts.
Dec 11, 1969
Korean Air Lines NAMC YS-11, flying with 51 passengers on a domestic route was hijacked by a North Korean operative and redirected to Sondok Airfield in Woson. 39 of the hostages were released 66 days later, while the rest were kept as hostages. Two of the crew members would later work as news announcers for a state-run TV station.
Jan 31, 1970
North Korean Navy patrol vessels sunk two South Korean fishing boats and detained its 30 fishermen on charges of spying.
Aug 15, 1974
A second assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung Hee resulted in the death of his wife, Yuk Young Soo. A North Korean operative, Mun Se Gwang, fired several shots at Park as he gave an Independence Day speech at the Korean National Theater. The shots missed him but hit the First Lady. Mun was convicted in a resultant trial and sentenced to death.
Popular South Korean actress Choi Eun Hee and her ex-husband, the legendary director Shin Sang-ok, were kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong. The Great Leader-in waiting, Kim Jong Il, envisioned Shin directing movies, starring his ex-wife, which would present the virtues of the Worker’s Party and their leaders to an adoring world. A recalcitrant Shin, who attempted to escape, was sent to a ‘re-education camp’ and fed with grass, salt and rice for four years as punishment.
Upon his release, Jong Il offered him a $3m pay packet to produce the propaganda pieces disguised as high art (see the Pulgasari video below - a socialist monster?). Jong Il also ‘recommended’ that the couple remarried for a better public image – a ‘recommendation’ that the couple quickly took. However, during a scouting trip to Austria in 1986, Shin and Choi managed to evade their minders and sought refuge with the American embassy in Vienna.
Oct 17, 1978
The third attempt by the North Koreans to build a tunnel across the DMZ was probably the most dangerous one. Located 70 meters underground and running over a mile long, the 2m x 2m tunnel, once completed, would’ve easily facilitated the movement of a large force. And with a planned exit point merely two kilometers southwest of an American base in Panmunjom, it would have granted the North Koreans with an immense tactical advantage. When confronted, the North Koreans painted a portion of the walls black, and claimed the tunnel was dug to mine coal.
Oct 9, 1983
An assassination attempt was made against Chun Doo Hwa, the President of South Korea, during a state visit to Myanmar. The attack, organized by current North Korean Great Leader, Kim Jong Il, also resulted in the death of 14 South Korean officials, along with seven Myanma nationals and injured 32 others. Senior American officials reportedly urged South Korea to show restraint and not to retaliate.
Sept 14, 1986
Evidence recovered from an explosion at Seoul’s Kimpo International Airport, which killed five and wounded 30 more, pointed to the involvement of North Korean agents.
Nov 29, 1987
Korean Air flight 858 exploded in midair from explosives planted by two North Korean Army spies, in a plan hatched by Kim Jong Il. The 95 passengers and 20 crew members were all missing, believed to be dead. One of the spies, Kim Hyon Hui, was captured and would later sensationally confess before South Korean television of the North Koreans role in the plot.
May 14, 1995
A North Korean patrol boat fired on a South Korean fishing vessel, killing three South Korean fishermen and detaining the rest of the crew on board. North Korea released five of the detainees in December 1995.
Oct 2, 1995
Two North Korean agents were intercepted at Puyo, about 100 miles south of Seoul; one was killed, and the other was taken alive. The captured agent disclosed that he had infiltrated the country two months earlier, and his mission was to initiate contact with anti-government dissidents and politicians.
Apr 21, 1996
Pyongyang’s unilaterally announced that it would no longer abide by a number of provisions contained in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Soon after that, several hundred North Korean soldiers breached the DMZ on three separate occasions at Panmunjom in a show of defiance.
May 4, 1996
Five North Korean naval ships entered into South Korean waters and withdrew only after a four-hour standoff with the South Korean Navy. The incident was repeated a month later, this time by three North Korean ships.
Sep 13, 1996
A damaged North Korean submarine floated off the shore of the South Korean city of Kangnung. The soldiers inside the submarine refused to surrender and in the ensuing firefight, thirteen of the North Koreans and eleven South Korean soldiers died. A captured soldier revealed that eleven of his countrymen were executed by the commandoes on the submarine when it became clear they were about to be captured. A month later, the North Koreans retaliated by murdering a South Korean diplomat, Choi Duke un, in Vladivostok, Russia.
Feb 17, 1997
Lee Han Yong, who defected to South Korea in 1982, was murdered by two North Korean agents in Seoul.
Apr 30, 1997
Five North Korean soldiers breached the DMZ in the Cholwon sector and opened fire at their South Korean counterparts before retreating.
Jun 11, 1997
Three North Korean Navy vessels entered into South Korean waters and two miles in, fired at a South Korean patrol boat before retreating.
Jul 12, 1997
Fourteen North Korean soldiers breached the DMZ and despite repeated warnings, progressed another 70 meters before retreating under heavy gunfire.
Aug 31, 1998
North Korea test-fired a Taepodong long-range missile in an arc over the Japanese airspace, prompting angry reactions from Tokyo and Washington. North Korea, however, claimed it was a multistage rocket used to launch a satellite into space, despite video evidence.
Jun 5, 1999
An undisclosed number of North Korean vessels entered into the South Korean western coastline and provoked a confrontation that lasted nine days, ending in an exchange of fire. A North Korean torpedo boat sank, and five of their crafts were heavily damaged, while two South Korean vessels sustained minor damage. North Korea warned the South Koreans that more bloodshed would be inevitable unless their infiltration into “our territorial waters is checked.”
The incident was repeated exactly two weeks later when a North Korean patrol boat, deep inside South Korean waters opened fire on a South Korean vessel. Four South Koreans were killed in the incident.
Mar 26, 2010
The ROKS Cheonan, a corvette from the South Korean navy, was sunk by a North Korean torpedo near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea, which killed 46 of the 114 sailors onboard. The North Koreans denied any involvement in the incident, but a South Korean-led official investigation involving a team of experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Sweden concluded that the warship was hit by a North Korean torpedo fired by a midget submarine.
Nov 23, 2010
The North Koreans fired artillery shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong of its northeastern coast. Eight Koreans were killed, while six were seriously wounded. Seventy houses on the island were also destroyed by the attacks, which was in retaliation of South Korea’s annual Hoguk military drills. The South Koreans returned fire, but no casualty reports were released by the North.
However, closing the door completely would only push the North Koreans into a corner and precipitate retaliatory actions from them, with allies South Korea and Japan being the most likely target. Apart from the obvious nuclear threat, the country possesses long ranged missile technology that would also pose a threat to surrounding nations.
Additionally, even if the North Korean leadership backs down from their threats, an economic collapse would see millions of refugees pouring into neighboring South Korea and China – a scenario that China will attempt to prevent at all cost.
Pulgasari: Executive produced by the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il
Obama considers South Korea as an important ally and is strongly against North Korea acts of
aggression towards them. He is also opposed to North Korea’s nuclear program, but prefers a
consultative approach with our allies to address the issue.
“South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War and we strongly affirm our
commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance… Well, I’m not going to speculate on
military actions at this point. I want to consult with President Lee.”
November 23, 2010: President Obama responding to North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korea’s
“North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program posed a grave threat to the peace and
security of the world and I strongly condemn their reckless action. North Korea’s action endangers
the people of North East Asia. They are a blatant violation of international law, and they
contradict North Korea’s own prior commitments.
Now the United States and the international community must take action in response. The record’s
clear – North Korea has previously committed to abandoning its nuclear program. Instead of
following through on that commitment, it has chosen to ignore that commitment. Its actions have also
flown in the face of United Nations resolutions. As a result, North Korea is not only deepening its
isolation, it’s also inviting stronger international pressure. That’s evident overnight, as
Russia and China, as well as our traditional allies of South Korea and Japan have all come to the
same conclusion – North Korea will not find security and respect through threats and illegal
We will work with our friends and allies to stand up to this behavior and we will redouble our
efforts towards a more robust international non-proliferation regime that all countries have
responsibilities to meet. In this effort, the United States will never waver from our determination
to protect our people and the peace and security of the world. “
May 25, 2009: President Obama responding to North Korea’s nuclear weapons test