Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The decision to prolong the Korean War and revisionist history

Much of modern Korean history painted from a revisionist point of view (notably that of Bruce Cumings in English, and National Liberation (민족 해방) faction of the Korean left in Korean) have painted the US as responsible for the Korean war, or for intervening in a civil war, or just responsible for Korea's woes generally ("The U.S. has committed barbaric and unpardonable crimes against our race for over 100 years," as seen here or in WWII Japanese propaganda). The idea that the Korean War was only a civil war was undone by the scholarship of  Kathryn Weathersby who found in the Soviet archives that Stalin had given Kim Il-sung permission to attack South Korea. In a recent RAS lecture, she looked at how the Soviets and Chinese prolonged the war:
Once China entered the Korean War in October 1950 and saved the DPRK from extinction, the North Korean leadership had little say in how the war was run. The Chinese took over day-to-day management of the fighting and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had the final voice on all important decisions. As a result, when Stalin decided in January 1951 to prolong the war for two to three years to tie down American forces in Korea while the Soviets and East Europeans rearmed, the North Koreans were forced to acquiesce, even though it meant subjecting their country to complete destruction from US bombing.
It can be difficult to hear at times (turn up the volume) but here is the lecture:

If the pro-North NL leftists and revisionists were to accept the fact that it was the Soviets and Chinese who prolonged the war which left the North in ruins, it might help to lessen anti-Americanism (which, though it's not manifest at the moment, is often latent). This is also interesting:
After Stalin died in March 1953, the Communist side finally agreed to an armistice. Yet the North Koreans resented the armistice, since it left the country divided. Furthermore, the North Koreans resented the Russians and the Chinese for prolonging the war by sacrificing the Korean people. Since then, North Koreans have believed that the rest of the world owes their country ongoing reparations. Even today, they often regard foreign aid as reparations.
While I'm not very sympathetic to the North, that might actually explain the North's attitudes towards negotiations with the outside world and make them seem less 'crazy.'

Also on the topic of revisionist history is this impressive lecture by Dr. In-ho Lee, former ambassador to Russia:
In this 2006 lecture, which looks at Korean history from the late nineteenth century to the present, Dr. In-ho Lee discusses the attempts by leftist historians to re-write Korean history from their point of view, one in which the U.S. is to blame for Korea's post-liberation trials. She places much blame for this on the anti-communist education of the Park Chung-hee government and its refusal to intellectually engage with communism, which she argues made a generation of young people susceptible to romanticized views of North Korea and communism.


wetcasements said...

"The Chinese took over day-to-day management of the fighting"

Given that they'd just forced the US/SK forces into the largest retreat in modern military history, yeah, they were probably correct to take over the day-to-day management of said thrashing by their own armies. MacArthur was an idiot to bring his forces that close to China and not expect an overwhelming response. And it's also easy to understand why Koreans, North and South alike, are a little salty over the fact that MacArthur wanted to solve his problems by dropping a "necklace" of nuclear bombs across the peninsula. (And it might have happened if Eisenhower hadn't intervened.)

One thing that Cumings stresses is that many North Korean officers cut their teeth fighting with the Chinese against the Japanese. Were Russia and China pulling the strings? Probably. They had the money and the guns. But the "North Korea as puppet state" doesn't hold up. There was a genuine sense that a US occupation wouldn't have been all that much different from the (disastrous) Japanese one.

If Cumings is a "revisionist" historian, please let us know what the "true" story is. Did the United States _not_ divide the peninsula in two? It certainly wasn't the Soviets who did.

I'm less moved by Cumings' argument that SK/US forces "shot first" but honestly, it doesn't really matter. Once the peninsula was divided a civil war was probably inevitable. That the US backed SK as a proxy and China/Russia backed NK doesn't mean it wasn't a civil war. South Koreans today overwhelmingly consider it to have been one, and are rightfully amused when an American talks about the sacrifices made by the US during the conflict. (The US sacrifices were genuine of course, but a drop in a sea of blood compared to Korean losses.)

tl;dr: To be critical of US policy during the Korean war is hardly to adopt a "leftist" or a "pro-North Korean" position. Honestly, the first sentence of your post is pretty damn snide IMO.

Person of interest said...

When ranting, proof-read before submitting. 'Truman' relieved MacArthur.