Socialist Worker

Korea: the forgotten war

Sixty years ago a brutal war for control of Korea sucked in the United States, China and Russia – leaving a legacy of destruction and division, writes Ian Birchall

Issue No. 2202

When Japan surrendered on 14 August 1945, five days after the United States had dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki, Korea posed a problem.

Russia and America had carved out the “spheres of influence” that were to dominate the post-war world at the Yalta Conference in early 1945.

But by August the haggling about Korea had not been brought to a satisfactory conclusion and the country was still occupied by Japanese troops.

So on l4 August the US president Harry Truman ordered Japanese troops south of an arbitrary line, the 38th parallel, should surrender to the Americans. Those north of the line should surrender to the Russians.

In accordance with the cooperative relations existing between Russia and the US at this time, Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was immediately informed of the American action and seems to have been quite happy about it.

Russia and China both border Korea to the north. Russian troops had already entered Korea to grab the spoils of war.

Nobody, of course, suggested that the Korean people might be consulted on whether they wished their country to be one state or two.

The major industrial area was in the north. The Korean working class was estimated to be a quarter of a million strong in l945, but the Russian state had no interest in mobilising it.

In the South the US quickly dismantled the revolutionary committees which emerged out of the resistance to the Japanese occupation. Instead two puppet regimes emerged.


In the North Kim Il Sung, a former Communist guerrilla leader, arrived from Russia to head a new regime. Russian troops remained till 1948 to enable Kim to consolidate his rule.

In the South the US handed over power to a reliable ally, Syngman Rhee, a 70 year-old who had spent 37 years of his life in the US.

He based his regime on landlords and other conservative groups. Thousands of his opponents were jailed and at one point a quarter of the country was under martial law.

By 1947 even the US assistant secretary of state publicly admitted that “many Koreans feel they are worse off than they were under the Japanese.”

Meanwhile the Cold War had begun. When Russia exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949, the post-war balance of terror was established.

Neither side wanted an all-out confrontation, but both sides were willing to risk a small-scale limited trial of strength, preferably in the Third World, in the hope of marginally improving their position.

It was in this context that the Korean War began. The precise circumstances of the outbreak of the war are still obscure. Both sides accused the other of having invaded first. Rhee had indeed threatened to invade the North on several occasions in the late 1940s.

But when the war broke out on 25 June l950 the Northern forces gained a very rapid advantage, occupying most of the South within two months.

This would seem to suggest that the North was prepared for the war – and that if the South did invade first it had been ill-prepared to do so.

But for Marxists the question of who fires the first shot is relatively unimportant in the analysis of a war.

What matters is the nature of the regimes in conflict and how the war fits into the overall political situation.

What is clear is that the two major world powers very rapidly took over the control of their puppets and ensured that the war proceeded according to their intentions.

The US saw the war as requiring rapid and massive intervention. It had been unable to prevent Mao’s take-over in China the previous year, but Korea looked as though it could be held.

The US government believed that standing firm here would ward off the danger of threats to its hegemony elsewhere in the world.

Conveniently for the US, Russia was boycotting the Security Council of the United Nations (UN) at the time.


The US was therefore able to mobilise its various allies in the UN and pass a resolution authorising military action in support of South Korea.

Massive contingents of US troops – some 1.5 million in total – were sent to Korea, wrapped in the false flag of the United Nations. They were supported by 63,000 British soldiers and troops from other states loyal to the US.

Russia decided to avoid direct involvement in the war, but gave unconditional military and political backing to the North Korean regime.

In the first two months of the war the North Korean forces made rapid advances. The Rhee regime was so unpopular that few working people felt it worth defending.

But then the US staged a landing behind the North Korean lines and, with the aid of vastly superior forces, they swept forward to the very north of the country.

In the process most of the North Korean army was destroyed.

The response, undoubtedly agreed between Stalin and Mao, was for large numbers of Chinese “volunteers” to be sent into Korea.

Initially the war had contained at least an element of national liberation struggle. Workers and students in the South had risen to join with the advancing North Korean forces.

But within a matter of months the armies of both North and South Korea had been destroyed.

The conflict became a war between the US and China (dependent on Russian military aid), fought on Korean territory.

By the end of 1950 the territorial gains and losses had cancelled each other out and both sides were bogged down around the very 38th parallel where they had begun.

If the Koreans themselves no longer had anything to gain from the war they had much to lose.

The casualties and after-effects of the war were horrifying: four million dead and wounded, 20 million refugees.

The US took the opportunity to use Korea to try out a new weapon – napalm.

Rene Cutforth, the Guardian newspaper’s correspondent, described what this meant: “In front of us a curious figure was standing a little crouched, legs straddled, arms held out from his sides.

“He had no eyes, and the whole of his body, nearly all of which was visible through tatters of burnt rags, was covered with a hard black crust speckled with yellow pus...

“He had to stand because he was no longer covered with a skin, but with a crust-like crackling which broke easily.”

The US was, however, preparing to cut its losses.

In early 1951 the US Commander in Korea, General MacArthur, publicly criticised his government’s strategy, saying, “There is no substitute for victory.” He was promptly sacked.

The dominant view inside the US ruling class was to support a limited conflict within the framework of the Yalta carve-up.

The war dragged on for another two years. Military stalemate was accompanied by haphazard peace negotiations.

But in l953 Eisenhower became president of the US and Stalin died. In July 1953 an armistice was fairly rapidly agreed.

The war was switched off, as it had been switched on, in Washington and Moscow.

The Korean people were the victims, not the agents of the war.

Korea remained divided.

South Korea enjoyed if that is the right word an economic boom based on the superexploitation of its workers.

North Korea laboured under massive debts to Japan and the West, while internally it suffered the grotesque personality cult of the megalomaniac and nepotistic Kim Il Sung.

Both Korean states continued to maintain massive military forces, a factor which undoubtedly contributed to the major role played by the military in South Korean politics in the decades following the war.


Britain’s military role in Korea was negligible, but the Labour government’s slavish support for the US meant that the war had a significant effect on the British economy.

Prime minister Clement Attlee immediately agreed a massive increase in military expenditure. National Service was extended from 18 months to two years.

It was also announced that the US bomber force in Britain would be increased from 180 to 1,000 involving the use of 30 airfields instead of three.

The only coherent opposition to this came from a handful of MPs who effectively took a pro-Stalinist line.

The hegemony of the Communist Party on the British left was as yet unshaken, and those who saw through the lies generated in Washington fell all too easily for those emanating from Moscow.

The majority of Britain’s tiny Trotskyist movement gave virtually uncritical support to the North Korean regime and its backers in Moscow.

But the last word can be given to Socialist Review in 1950 (published by the predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party):

“The victory of South Korea will mean the extension of US influence to the North and the conversion of the whole of Korea into a US landing ground on the East Asian mainland.

“While the victory of North Korea will… reduce Korea to a bureaucratic pattern of Soviet Russia – i.e. without popular control of nationalised industries and socialist democracy...

“We can, therefore, give no support to either camp”

Further Reading

Tony Cliff, The Struggle of the Powers (1950), available at » cliff/works/1950/11/powers.html

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Article information

Tue 18 May 2010, 17:44 BST
Issue No. 2202
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