The Korean War

In reaction to North Korea’s fifth nuclear bomb test in early September, which was the second test in 2016, the United States and South Korea proposed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, as a defense strategy for the South against the Northern threat of nuclear missiles. This has harmed both the US and ROK’s relationship with China, which sees the projected creation of THAAD in the upcoming year as possibly a threat to China’s security as well as threatening to destabilize the Kim regime (, 2016). In light of my focus this week on the Korean war and the divide of North and South Korea, this news story seems relevant in highlighting how the peninsula is still split between foreign powers. The tension caused by nuclear threat and the THAAD program illustrate how the cold war tensions between Communism and Capitalism are still present in the Korea’s.

After Japan surrenders rule of Korea in August 15th 1945, the power void left by the authoritarian rule allowed for four main groups to seek the control of Korea. The Korea Independence Party, lead by Kim Ku and supported by Chinese Nationalists, was a staunchly anti-communist right group as opposed to the Korean Communist Party which was led by Kim Il Sung, and extreme leftist group that eventually aids the development of Northern Korea. Yo Unhyong was a moderate leader who prepared for the fall of the Japanese rule before it happened, creating the Committee for the Preparation for Korean Independence which helped develop the South. Another grassroots moderate leader, Cho Mansik, had a following of supporters as well. Because Japan had disbanded all nationalistic groups from the country, the Korean independence movement was heavily divided between groups with conflicting political agendas. With the liberation of Korea, many Koreans repatriated the homeland, bringing back their nationalistic ideas with them, for many worked on the movement in other countries. The many disparate opinions about what should be the ideals of a Korean nation were now forced into conversation without a clear singular voice.

However, within weeks of Japan’s surrender, Korea is divided between Soviet and United States control, so while these four leaders had ideas for their country, in the end a new foreign power’s ideology was placed on to the Koreans. During WWII, the US was concerned about attacking the mainland of Japan because the amount of casualties they had ben acquiring on the smaller islands, and so the US combined forces with the USSR to prepare for this kind of attack. In the agreement, the US agrees to acknowledge the USSR’s property over the Korean peninsula, but after the atomic bombs and Japan’s surrender, the US and USSR agree to divide ruling of Korea on the 38th parallel, the USSR gaining the North and the US occupying the South. The original goal of this plan was for the US and USSR to assist the two halves of Korea in setting up provisional government systems, after the power vacuum created by Japan’s surrender, and eventually combine forces into one government for the country, which was known as the Joint Commission. However, with the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 between the USSR and the USA, it became clear that this was no longer possible and that the peninsula would remain divided.

After the divide, the North of Korea is under the control of the USSR, but the Committee for the Preparation for Korean Independence, a group led by the moderate leader Yo Unhyong was already operating in the North. This allowed the USSR to have a central control over the North but allow this group, with assistance and input from the Korean Communist group, to dictate reforms in the post-liberation period. They mandated a massive land reform, seizing property from Japanese landowners and over 5,000 wealthy Korean landowners and redistributing it to Korean farmers. The new regime also established a minimum wage, controlled the length of the workday, and banned child labor. Koreans in the North were pleased with these actions as they benefitted and protected the common people. The North eventually builds ties with Chinese communist groups and participates in the Chinese civil war, giving the North a strong ally, that remains one its only allies to this day, and also trains the military of the North, giving them a strong advantage in the Korean war.

In opposition, the citizens in the South did not appreciate the United States occupation at all. General John Hodge was sent to Korea without any preparation to try and keep the USSR from occupying the whole peninsula and allowing communism to spread. Because of his hasty appointment, and his lack of planning, he created the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which reappoints the Japanese and Korean military and government officials from before liberation, infuriating the citizens. Unlike the North, which distributed land almost immediately, the South took two years to redistribute land and then it was only from the Japanese landowners, which was not effective enough to erase inequalities created by the Japanese colonialism. After the start of the Cold War, when tensions between the US and USSR are at a rise, on August 15, 1948 the Republic of Korea (ROK) has its first election, electing Syngman Rhee to be the first president and a National Assembly. The North responds by also renaming their state the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). However, with the divide of the elections between North and South, signifying the split of the country, the citizens of South Korea respond with protests, as they are still unhappy with their government. They were upset because reforms were happening too slowly, and because Rhee had too much power that was unchecked. This unrest led to the terribly bloody conflict of the Jeju Rebellion in the small island of Jeju off the southern coast, where over 27,000 citizens of the island were killed by the National Police force under Rhee’s rule.

The Korean War has an uncertain history of its origin, but regardless of whether or not it was provoked, the fighting began with North Korea, using war supplies from Russia and an army trained from the Chinese Civil War attacks, attacking from the 38th parallel into South Korea on June 25th 1950. The Southern army was entirely unprepared and the Northern army moved quickly to occupy Seoul, the capital city, within two days. The first fifty days of the war, the North dominated and occupied much of the South and even enacted communist changes similar to those of the North in the occupied land in war, including significant land reformations. Because this was during the Cold War, the US is especially interested in keeping the DRPK from expanding and so they sent troops in a hurry to assist the South. Led by General Macarthur, the UN and US military support helped the ROK troops reclaim Korea to the 38th parallel, but after when the ROK moved north past the division, in an attempt to gain the whole peninsula, the DRPK aided by large amounts of Chinese troops again made headway and seized Seoul. Eventually, the DRPK is pushed above the 38th parallel again, and the war continued over the original line of demarcation for another two years. To encourage the North to surrender, the US bombed the major cities, railway system, factories, and civilian housing, devastating the North. In the end, the DRPK and the ROK are divided in almost the same exact line as before the war, and the North’s industry and infrastructure as well as the capital city Seoul in the South are decimated.





Robinson, Michael E. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey. University of Hawai’i Press: 2007.


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