FIFTY YEARS ago next week, on 27 July 1953, the Korean War ended. In the course of three years it had claimed over two million lives. Most were civilians. The warring armies settled in almost exactly the same positions they had been in at the start of the war - facing each other off across the 38th parallel.
It has marked the dividing line between North and South Korea ever since. Both parts of the country were devastated. General Curtis LeMay masterminded the US bombing campaign in Korea half a century ago. At the end of the war he said, 'Over a period of three years or so we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea too.' The terrible power of the US air force has grown since then.
Yet, amid the pious speeches of world leaders to mark the anniversary, the warmongers in the White House are now increasing the military pressure on North Korea. They risk a second Korean War, which would be even more catastrophic, as the US state turns to military means to frighten off any potential challengers. The Korean War of 1950-3 was also a product of the clash between imperialist powers.
Japan had annexed Korea in 1910 and ran it as a colony until 1945. Groups arguing for independence grew in the 1930s and then gained a wider following as it became clear that Japan would be defeated in the Second World War.
But that war ended with US troops sweeping into Korea from the south and Russian forces careering down the peninsula from the north. They met near the 38th parallel. Neither the US nor Russia wanted to see an independent Korea, and instead the country was divided into two states. In October 1945 the US and Russian occupiers sponsored the return of two exiles. Russian officers stood with Kim Il Sung, who claimed to have fought a guerrilla war against the Japanese, as he lined up to run the North Korean state.
The US meanwhile brought Syngman Rhee, who had lived in the US for four decades, back to head the South Korean administration. Neither Syngman Rhee nor Kim Il Sung were simply puppets of the rival superpowers, but they did rely heavily on them for support. Both leaders declared that they wanted to reunify Korea through force - destroying the other regime by war.
The US prevented Rhee from launching a major offensive in 1949. But there were ongoing skirmishes across the border. A major incursion by the North Korean army on 6 June 1950 triggered full-scale war.
The South Korean army collapsed spectacularly. By early August, the Northern army had occupied the whole of the South except for a pocket in the south east. The US ordered General Douglas MacArthur, who ran its occupation regime in nearby Japan, to hit back.
He poured in troops and drove up into North Korea, hurling back Kim Il Sung's far weaker forces. He reached the Korean-Chinese border. There he proclaimed his intention to reunify Korea, within the US's sphere of influence, and threatened to continue the attack into China.
The Chinese army crossed the border in response. Cities again changed hands as it swept forward. As the fighting escalated Russia too became more involved in the war. It moved 13 air divisions towards Korea and put 200 bombers within range of US bases in Japan.
What was supposed to have been a limited war for the US was now turning into one of the most bloody conflicts of the 20th century. MacArthur called for the use of atomic bombs. In interviews published after his death he said he had a plan that would 'have won the war in ten days.
'I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs strung across the neck of Manchuria.'
He also wanted to use chemical weapons to end the stalemate. In the end the US settled for bombing cities and, in the final weeks of the war, destroying the immense irrigation dams that provided water for 75 percent of the North's food production. Neither side had gained any significant territory when the war ended. But the whole of Korea had been thrown back decades.
The madmen in the White House threaten new horror
TWO MONTHS ago US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz announced a redeployment of troops in South Korea. He said that US troops were to pull back from the border with the North to positions south of Seoul, the South Korean capital.
That would put them out of reach of North Korean artillery and so make it easier for the US to launch air strikes on the North without suffering instant heavy casualties in return. But the people of Seoul and of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, would suffer appalling casualties from any new war.
George Bush is prepared to risk that, placing North Korea on his 'axis of evil' hit list. The move caused panic in South Korea, including among sections of the government of Roh Moo Hyun.
That government has sought to build closer ties with the North. South Korean conglomerate Hyundai has just built a factory in an enterprise zone in North Korea. There are important differences between Bush's attempt to destabilise the North Korean regime and his warmongering elsewhere.
North Korea may well have a small number of nuclear weapons. It certainly has missiles that are capable of reaching Japan. That makes moves to intimidate it all the more dangerous.
The other difference is that in South Korea there are powerful groups of workers who over the past two decades have shown they are able not only to fight to improve their conditions but to force political change. Roh Moo Hyun's government has just survived a major confrontation with striking rail workers. Most observers anticipate further battles.
Workers in South Korea, concentrated in vast conglomerates, hold the key to radical political change across the whole Korean peninsula.
Southern workers now hold the key
THE SO called 'demilitarised zone' separating North and South Korea became a faultline of the Cold War. The North Korean regime was allied at various points to the Russian and Chinese blocs.
South Korea was firmly in the US camp. The US maintained a heavy military presence in the South, which continues to today. For 30 years both Korean states undertook a similar drive to develop their economies through the state marshalling resources and investing in heavy industry.
And both retained an iron grip on dissent and workers' discontent. North Korea inherited the bulk of heavy industry when the country was partitioned in 1945.
Despite the destruction of the Korean War it was able to rebuild its industrial base and grow more rapidly than the South throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The South Korean regime of Syngman Rhee was one of the most authoritarian in the world.
Discontent erupted in 1960, forcing Rhee to stand down. Within a year there was a military coup led by General Park Chung Hee. He set about using the power of the state to repress opposition and to galvanise economic development.
The South Korean miracle depended on some of the lowest wages, longest hours and most unsafe working conditions. By the end of the 1970s South Korea was beginning to outstrip the North. There are two main reasons why.
First, South Korea was able to export into the key areas of the world economy - the US, Japan and Europe. North Korea, however, was limited to trade with the Russian bloc, which was economically smaller and weaker than the US. Second, the US brought South Korea under its military umbrella, stationing over 30,000 troops there and, until 1991, nuclear weapons.
South Korea could get away with military spending of about 5 percent. The North had to spend about 22 percent of its economic output on the military. The collapse of the Russian bloc in 1991 left North Korea isolated. Its economy began stagnating and it faced repeated food crises as investment had been shifted from agriculture to heavy industry for decades.
But the explosive growth of the South Korean economy created huge tensions too. The mass of workers railed against appalling conditions and authoritarian rule. In 1980 much of the population of the city of Kwangju rose up demanding change. South Korea's generals massacred the movement, with US troops looking on. Then in 1987 one of the most militant strike waves in history engulfed South Korea. Workers struck and occupied shipyards, car plants and key parts of the giant corporations.
They demanded and eventually won the right to form independent trade unions. By 1992 pressure for change in the South had led to the election of a government not directly tied to the military.
Read: Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cumings Web: www.kctu.org - Korean trade union site with an English section giving reports on contemporary labour struggles