Korea was a unified, homogeneous country from the seventh century CE until 1945 when in the wake of the Second World War it was partitioned by the United States and the Soviet Union and formally became two separate states in 1948. Since that time, writes James Madison University history professor Michael J Seth, Korea has been a nation divided into vastly different social systems and “perpetually at war” with itself. Seth’s new book Korea at War attempts to describe and explain this geopolitical transformation.
Seth notes that Koreans have long described their country as a “shrimp among whales”, being situated near Russia, Japan and China, and the Korean people have suffered as a result of that unfortunate geography. China briefly exerted imperial control over Korea in what Seth calls the “lost decade” between 1884 and 1894. Indigenous Korean forces known as “Donghaks” rebelled in 1894 but that was also the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, which Japan won, gaining a preeminent position on the Korean peninsula. But then Russia entered the geopolitical jockeying for power in the region, and in 1904-1905 suffered a humiliating defeat in its war with Japan. The resulting peace settlement—brokered by US President Theodore Roosevelt—“gave Tokyo a free hand in Korea”.
Seth describes Japan’s rule over the peninsula as brutal and oppressive, and Koreans responded by launching a guerrilla insurgency that in turn produced even greater Japanese repression. “Japan’s colonial rule”, Seth writes,
had the feel of an occupation, with a highly centralized national gendarmerie and strategically located military garrisons throughout the country.
Japan also attempted to forcibly assimilate Koreans into Japanese culture, and this, too, was resisted. These efforts continued during the Second World War. And it was during imperial Japan’s rule that divisions among Koreans—divisions that exist to this day—developed as some Koreans complied or collaborated with Japanese rule while others opposed it. Some Korean independence fighters turned to communism and associated with both Soviet and Chinese communist forces, while others joined guerrilla groups in Manchuria. Seth notes that more than 200,000 Koreans served in Japan’s military during the war.
When World War II abruptly ended in Asia after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Soviet intervention in the Asian theater of the war,
most Koreans wanted independence, peace, and unity. They got instead another foreign occupation, more conflict, and greater division.
Korea, like many places in Europe, was divided into zones of occupation by the victorious powers. And, Seth notes, the “ideological divide among Koreans was becoming a geographical divide as conservatives fled to the South and leftists fled to the North.” But even as two Koreas emerged from the beginnings of the Cold War, Koreans in both North and South shared the goal of reunification; eight decades later, they still do.
The actual Korean War takes up only two chapters of the book, and Seth mostly conveys the conventional view of the war, except for describing what he calls the “Pre-War Korean War” in which North and South Koreans fought several skirmishes along the 38th parallel prior to the North’s massive invasion in June 1950. The Truman administration, Seth notes, gave every impression that Washington’s commitment to the defense of South Korea was uncertain at best. Both South Korea and the United States were woefully unprepared for war, while North Korea was determined to forcibly unify the peninsula (and provided with Soviet and Chinese arms), and Mao Zedong was intent on seizing control of Taiwan (which was only saved by the American Seventh Fleet’s movement to the Taiwan Strait shortly after the North’s invasion).
Seth speculates that had UN, South Korean and US forces stopped at the 38th parallel after General MacArthur’s successful landing at Inchon and the liberation of Seoul, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, Mao and Stalin would have settled for a stalemate soon thereafter. The fighting could have ended then, and tens of thousands of lives would have been spared. Seth blames MacArthur and South Korean leader Syngman Rhee for continuing the war by having UN, South Korean, and US forces cross the 38th parallel in an effort to unify the peninsula under Rhee’s rule. In the event, Washington approved the effort to liberate North Korea from communist rule, Chinese forces massively intervened in the fighting, briefly recaptured Seoul, US-UN-South Korean forces pushed back and the war ended in a stalemate.
War, as Clausewitz wrote, is fundamentally a political conflict. The political war to reunify the Korean peninsula never ended. North Korea has periodically engaged in provocative acts–assassinations, kidnappings, border crossings and skirmishes, hijacking attempts, seizures of ships–that could have led to all-out war. Over the eight decades since the armistice, South Korea evolved from an authoritarian regime into a functioning, prosperous democracy, while North Korea descended into the nightmarish totalitarian rule of three generations of the Kim family and became a nuclear threat. Although Seth holds out hope that the Korean War will end peacefully, it is more likely that the war will finally end when the North’s communist regime falls.