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The ultimate blood feuds – The Korean War
A short history of modern Korea as seen from a Korean nationalist’s eye
Kim Young Sik, Ph.D.
Kim Il Sung started the Korean War on June 25, 1950. The history books in America and South Korea would have us believe that: “The evil Communists instigated by Stalin invaded, without any provocation, the peace-loving, democratic Republic of Korea of Dr. Rhee Syngman, who was loved by all Koreans.” The events leading to the war were much more complex.
As more and more Communists and socialists were rubbed off, the anti-Communist fervor became purer and rose sharply after the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948. The anti-Communists were not satisfied with South Korea cleansed of Communist impurity – they wanted to liberate North Korea and rid Korea of all Communists and leftists, once for all. They wanted a Red-free Korea.
Furthermore, most of the anti-Communists were refugees from North Korea, and they were eager to go home; they wanted to take back their lost properties and be reunited with their families and friends they left behind. There were about one million anti-Communist refugees from North Korea before the Korean War. The North Korean refugees controlled Rhee’s army, police, and political organs.
Rhee Syngman was keen on becoming the first president of all Korea. At least on paper, he was. The five provinces of North Korea had governors and provincial offices installed in Seoul, and refugees from the northern provinces reported to the provincial offices as if they were in North Korea. Rhee bought a squadron of fighter planes in 1949 for his air force and acquired several warships from the United States.
Rhee Syngman dispatched bands of guerrillas to North Korea on missions to assassinate key leaders and destroy utilities and transport facilities. Kim Il Sung, too, had his own partisans stirring up troubles in South Korea. In addition to covert actions, both sides sent regular army units across the 38th Parallel and tried to bait the other side into starting a war. In effect, the two Koreas had been at war for years before the Korean War broke out.
Rhee Syngman believed that his army could easily beat Kim Il Sung’s army. Gen. Chae Byong Duk, Rhee’s army boss, promised Rhee that he would have breakfast at Kaesong at the 38th Parallel, lunch in Pyongyang, and dinner in Sinyiju at the Yalu River – on the same day. All Chae needed was Rhee’s go-ahead or an opportune moment.
Kim Il Sung was equally anxious to unite the country under his leadership. He knew that Rhee’s army was no match for his army. He waited impatiently for the right moment to strike. He talked Stalin into selling him tanks and other modern weapons. His foreign minister and vice-premier, Park Hyon Young, assured him that the United States would not intervene. Park told Kim Il Sung that all Kim had to do was to take Seoul and the rest of South Korea would fall like a rotten apple.
On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung ordered his troops to take Seoul. Seoul fell in three days and Rhee fled to Taegu after leaving a taped message urging his people to stay put and defend Seoul. The South Korean people did not rise up and the United States did intervene. Kim Il Sung realized that he had made a big mistake but it was too late: Korea was plunged into a gigantic killing zone. Millions of Koreans died and the land of Korea was devastated. Kim Il Sung will go down the history as the man who started the Korean War.
Thanks to the United States, Rhee Syngman was at last given the opportunity to march North and unify the nation in October 1950, and his victorious army occupied much of North Korea. Anti-Communists began to exterminate Communists and leftists in North Korea. Rhee’s conquest of North Korea was short-lived, however. Mao’s Communist troops and Stalin’s air force came to save Kim Il Sung’s neck.
The UN forces were defeated in North Korea, and Rhee lost the best of his divisions there. Seoul fell to the Communists for the second time in a year. Neither side had the military superiority or the political will to win the war. And after three years of meaningless fighting (“die for tie”), the war ended in a stalemate with the truce line drawn more or less along the 38th Parallel, where it all began in 1950.
The war sharpened the left-right split. More than one million non-Communist North Koreans fled to South Korea during the war, making North Korea more ‘red’ than before the war. The membership of the Workers Party jumped twofold after the war. The intense aerial bombing by the US warplanes and anti-Communist pogroms killed over one million North Koreans, and the survivors have become sworn enemies of the United States and South Korea – seeking vengeance at any price.
South Korea, too, became more anti-Communist. When the war broke out, some 200,000 suspected Communists and leftists were rounded up and summarily executed. In addition, Communists and leftists surfaced from hiding and joined the Communist forces in June and July of 1950. When the People Army was defeated in South Korea, many of the South Korean sympathizers fled to North Korea. Thus, South Korea became less contaminated with Red and became purer in anti-Communism.
While Rhee Syngman consolidated his power in South Korea by eliminating political opponents, Kim Il Sung went on a witch-hunt looking for escape goats to blame for the war disaster. He purged Park Hyon Yong and other key leaders from South Korea. Kim claimed that Park and associates were American spies sent to North Korea to destroy it. Although there is an element of truth in Kim’s accusation, Lee Sung Yup was indeed an American spy, Park Hyun Young and others were the main instigators of the war and accepted the responsibility for the failed war of unification.
After purging the Communist leaders from South Korea, Kim Il Sung turned on the Soviets – Kim claimed that the Soviets failed to provide war materials and support when they were most needed. Stalin died in 1953 before the war ended and the new Soviet leaders were cooler to helping Kim Il Sung than Staling had been, which made Kim rethink his faith in Communism. Kim Il Sung began to distance himself from Communism and formulated his own brand of Korean nationalism – juche.
In the 1960s, Kim Il Sung purged the last organized group of Communists – the Yenan Koreans. The Yenan Koreans helped Mao win the civil war in China, and after liberation, they returned home to help build North Korea. Many Yenan Koreans became senior army commanders and won many battles and given hero medals during the Korean War. Nevertheless, they were purged and many of them went back to China or Russia.
Kim Il Sung became the absolute dictator of North Korea
The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union hit Kim’s economy hard, but nevertheless, he increased military spending. He was in a great hurry to develop nuclear bombs. After the Soviets reneged on a nuclear reactor deal, Kim had his own scientists to design and build nuclear reactors. At the same time, his agents scoured the former Soviet Republics for nuclear scientists and materials. Some Russian sources claim that Kim’s agents obtained several nukes and 120 lb of plutonium from a former Soviet Republic.
The completion and successful operation of Reactor I at Yongbyon in 1987 and construction of much larger reactors alarmed the Clinton administration. By 1990, the US CIA collected enough evidence to conclude that North Korea had extracted 60-90 lb of plutonium from Reactor I, enough for one or two “crude” nukes and that North Korea had developed the technical capability to make more nukes. Pres. Clinton decided to bomb Kim’s nuclear facilities but South Korea’s then president Kim Young Sam and the US Army commander of Korea managed to talk Clinton out of carrying out his preemptive strikes.
In 1994, North Korea and the United Sates struck a deal whereby North Korea agreed to shut down its reactors and the plutonium extraction plant and the United States agreed to provide two reactors – financed mainly by Japan and South Korea – by 2003, and to deliver 500,000 tons of heavy oil per year until the reactors are completed.
Today, North Korea is in a dire economic situation. After Kim Il Sung died in 1994, North Korea was hit by 100-year floods three years in a row. Farms were destroyed and food production went to zilch, and people began to starve. The floods inundated coalmines and no coals were available for thermal power plants and factories – and they were shut down. One million or so factory workers lost jobs. Many starved or froze to death.
Even before the floods, North Korea’s food production had been on the decline for many years due to faulty state planning. Farmlands became less productive from excessive use of chemical fertilizers and herb/insecticides. The government forced the farmers to plant low-yield seeds. Kim Jong Il executed the Party boss who ran North Korea’s agriculture for being an American spy. New ‘wonder’ seeds from South Korea, Japan and China have replaced the old seeds, and more organic fertilizers are being used now. North Korea is expected to become self-sufficient food-wise next year.
North Korea’s acute energy shortage persists. The Agreed Framework reactors are years behind schedule and the US heavy oil was of lowest possible quality and North Korea had problems burning it. North Korea concluded that the United States had no intention of delivering on its promises and began contingency programs. North Korean scientists developed ways to enrich uranium using laser beams and small centrifuge tubes. They devised ways of making thermonuclear bombs using enriched uranium without plutonium.
The Bush administration asked North Korea not only to shut down all of its nuclear programs but also to scrap all nuclear weapons, biochemical weapons and delivery systems. North Korea scoffed at Bush’s order and told him in so many words to ‘make me - if you can.” Today, both sides threaten preemptive strikes on the other side, and a nuclear war may break out at any time.
South Korea’s picture looks brighter. In 1960, the people of South Korea overthrew Rhee’s corrupt dictatorship, but, unfortunately, Rhee’s dictatorship was followed by a succession of military dictatorships - Park Jung Hee, Jung Doo Whan, and Roh Tae Woo. There was a silver lining in the dark clouds, however. South Korea’s economy boomed under the military dictators and democracy began to sprout. Young Koreans began to question the long-held dogma of anti-Communism. People began to opine more freely with less fear of violating the National Security Law.
Kim Dae Jung became the president and openly advocated reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea. He called his policy – ‘Sunshine Policy’ – and traveled to Pyongyang to give Kim Jong Il a bear hug. To be fair, it was Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung’s predecessor, who had broken the ice with Kim Il Sung. It was Kim Young Sam who was to meet Kim Il Sung. But Kim Il Sung’s sudden death robbed Kim Young Sam of that historic event. South Korea’s next president Roh Moo Hyun is expected to carry on Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine” policy. Democracy and Korean nationalism are returning to South Korea.
Kim Young Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.
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