Korean War Policies

   Erupted in 1950 and lasted three years, the Korean War is still one of the biggest controversial issues, both in terms of its cause and of the responsible actors. In the face of the claims saying it was an international war involving great powers as the main impetus, there is another opinion defending that it was a civil war between domestic forces on the peninsula.[1] According the latter, there are also two different views as conservative scholars insisting North Korea invaded South Korea while mainly Communist scholars advocate South Korea was the one invading the north.

      It is a stubborn fact that the Korean War was a complex struggle, in which domestic and international factors were intertwined. The war was basically a domestic conflict over the legitimacy of political power on the Korean Peninsula, but after the liberation from the Japanese colonial rule, domestic politics began to tightly interlock with the Cold War in the global level. By this means, this internal conflict grew during Korea’s pursuit of independence. The geopolitical position of the peninsula and the international character of Korean emancipation made this conflict vulnerable to external pressures. These circumstances expanded the scope of the conflict by internationalizing the domestic power struggle, and brought along its complex character. While the inner independence conflict was internationalized, the international situation was also internalized by domestic politics with the purpose of pursuing their own goals.

      At that time, there were two distinct movements in Korea to establish a unified Korean government. One was the Korean People’s Republic set up in Seoul on September 6, 1945. It was a coalition between the Korean communists headed by Pak Hon-yong and the left-wing nationalists. The other movement was the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea based in Chungking. It was supported by nationalists such as Rhee Syngman, Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik. These two governments tried to negotiate for a potential amalgamation, but there was no room for compromise because each side insisted on an exclusive title to legitimacy, and sought to discredit the other. Their battle was not limited with Korea as each asked for international recognition from the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR).


      Between the chaos and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, domestic and international politics tangled in a complicated manner when the Cold War in Europe spread to the Korean Peninsula. External forces competed each other in order to establish a new order on the peninsula. Some issues such as the idea of trusteeship, establishment of a provisional government under the Soviet-American joint commission, general elections under the supervision of the United Nations (UN), withdrawal of Soviet and American troops were problematic points to compromise. Each external force sought domestic allies to defend its interests on the peninsula while domestic groups were looking for international aid and sponsorship for their own aims in the power struggle at the same time. But still, the US and the Soviets were trying to prevent a confrontation by maintaining their cooperation through the joint commission. The Soviet-American joint commission was established as a result of the Moscow Agreement in 1945 to consider long-term political and economic matters, and to make suggestions for the formation of a provisional government for all Korea, but this cooperation already collapsed in the second meeting.

      As well as in the rest of the world, there was also bipolarity within Korea between two ideological systems. In the first half of 1948, the influences of the Cold War made itself evident in domestic conflict on the peninsula with the clear support of Rhee Syngman by the US, and the Soviet and North Korean move toward the radical Pak Hon-yong line. Domestic conflict came to its climax with the UN-supervised general elections for a South Korean government in May 1948. Although the 1948 conflict became more than local, it was still limited to confrontation among domestic groups. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were concerned about the status quo on the peninsula, and that is why, they still respected each other’s spheres of influence on either side of the 38th parallel. However, in the summer of 1948, two governments were formed on the Korean peninsula: the west-affiliated Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south, and the Soviet Union-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. Each of them regarded itself as the only lawful government of all Korea.

American Policies toward Korea

      In terms of American wartime planning for postwar settlement, the emphasis was placed on ensuring that the two main aggressor nations, Germany and Japan, would never again become a threat to the world peace, but rather would turn into democratic, peaceful, and responsible members of the world community.[2] These defeated nations would become the dominant industrial powerhouses in their regions and would act like the engines of growth and maintenance of the world economic order with their rehabilitated economies. Knowing Japan’s strategic importance and her industrial preeminence in East Asia, postwar American policy was shaped upon the formation of a democratic and prosperous Japan allied with the US. Korea’s role in this plan was nothing but to be a military outpost of the States between Japan, Soviet Russia, and China later on.

      The American foreign policy toward Asia was shaped around Japan whom the US gave a higher priority, especially after having consolidated its position in the region with the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Having no intention of sharing its power with the Soviet Union and believing the necessity of forestalling the Soviet spread, the States designed to defend Japan from the Soviet threat by controlling more territories in the Korean Peninsula. After the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, the US proposed to the USSR to divide the peninsula into two zones along the 38th parallel as the border with the aim of eliminating Japan from its position through a cooperation with the Soviets, and also containing Soviet influence in the region.

from BBS upload
US troops in Korea, 1953 (Source: cnn.com)

      In fact, the United States did not have any explicit objectives except military occupation when they came to Korea after the war. From the American point of view, Korea was not a state, but a no-man’s land, and a governmental vacuum brought about by the de facto separation from Japan.[3] In other words, Korea was always a dependent variable in fulfilling America’s interest in Japan. With the end of the war, the US was aware that new states would emerge, and those states would need a military government and specially trained agents. Korea was one of those states where the US designed to found a military government and to continue a Japanese style administration system. Moreover, American policymakers did not know what to do with Korea after the war and they chose trusteeship as a tool of adjourning a definite decision on the country’s future.

      In the Korean case, emancipation from Soviet domination is the priority for the United States rather than its independence. Intended to make Korea a bulwark against communism, the most efficient way would not be an independent sovereignty, but a military government of military control. With this design, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was launched on September 8, 1945 as the de facto government of South Korea, and as an American agency exercising the authority of a military occupation. The basic policy of the US toward Korea was to find a moderate political force within Korea to establish a provisional government as soon as possible upon the Soviet approval.

      There was always an asymmetrical relationship between Korea and the United States.[4] From the Korean perspective, the US was a great power that could be leaned on to protect the nation’s independence from its strong neighbors such as Japan, China or Russia. On the other hand, the States considered Korea as a pawn that could be sacrificed to meet their more important foreign policy priorities such as China and Japan. From 1910 until the outbreak of the Second World War, the main point of the American policy toward Korea was noninterference in Japan’s colonial possessions, but with the Japanese attack to the United States in 1941, a new phase in Korean-American relations began. American wartime plans focused on defeating Japan besides Germany, until its unconditional surrender to the Allies, and to take all of its overseas possessions including Korea from its control. Perceiving Korea’s significance as a buffer state for her neighboring great powers, Roosevelt thought that a trusteeship administered jointly by four great policemen would be a good way to prevent a recurrence of rivalries between these great powers. According to him, such a collective trusteeship would end old politics of spheres of influence and provide balance of power over the Korean Peninsula.[5]

The 38th parallel in the Korean War era (Source: heavy.com)

      Having fear of total war and knowing that a possible involvement in Korea would expand the present conflicts, the US did not want to interfere in the peninsula as far as possible. Furthermore, the States was facing with political and economic difficulties while coping with the Korean question and had doubts of Korea’s strategic value. Therefore, it wanted to keep the American involvement in the peninsula at the minimum. Still, although it did not give top priority to Korea, and its policy toward Korea looks like an appendage of its foreign policy toward Japan and the Soviets, there were three specific factors forming the US’ strategy on the peninsula: Firstly, the US had solid ties with the Rhee Syngman government. A North Korean victory over the Rhee government would damage the credibility of the American policy in East Asia. Secondly, following the Communist Party’s triumph in China, an appeasement policy toward the North Korea could mean political suicide for the US administration. Thence, the American administration should demonstrate its anti-communist zeal by using the Korean War. Lastly, with the Soviet possession of atomic bomb, the US’ East Asian strategy changed in early 1950. Since then, the US decided not to allow further expansion of Soviet influence in any part of the world. In this way, American support for South Korea signified a new direction of American foreign policy.

Soviet Policies toward Korea

      After the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 ended in Japan’s total victory, the Russian government began to worry about Japan’s imperialistic plans on East Asia. Later with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Japan emerged in the world scene as a great power. As a consequence, Stalin’s basic national security aim after the Second World War was shaped in this context to avoid the resurrection of German and Japanese aggression. With this deep insecurity, Stalin sought to prevent the use of the Korean Peninsula as a buffer zone against any possible aggression against the Soviets coming from Japan or any other future aggressor. Therefore, the Soviets adopted a friendly attitude toward Korea so that Korea would not become a base for an attack.[6]

      In terms of the trusteeship issue appeared in the Moscow Conference of 1946, there were two sides of the coin for the Soviets. Indeed, the Soviet government had not have a clear plan for a political settlement for Korea back then, but still it was precise that the Soviet policy would focus on preventing the establishment of a unified Korea under an anti-Soviet government by supporting a movement to unify Korea under a pro-Soviet government without direct confrontation with the US. To that end, the USSR regarded the trusteeship proposal as a useful means of consolidating its position in Manchuria and confronting the US in the Pacific. Considering the possibility of undermining British, French, Dutch and Japanese powers by dismantling their colonies, Stalin saw a golden opportunity in the trusteeship for a drastic expansion of Soviet influence around the globe.

Oct 1945.jpg
Soviet troops in Korea, October 1945 (Source: military.wikia.com)

      In the meantime, the Cold War was getting intense each passing day, and its parts began adopting more strict policies against each other. Following the Marshall Plan, which was a postwar American initiative to aid devastated Western European economies on the purpose of preventing the spread of communism, the Soviets’ opposition became stiffer, and it declared that it would refuse any accommodation to the West and any cooperation with it.[7] With the expansion of the Cold War and in accordance with her stance to the European situation, Kremlin changed the formulation of her policy toward Korea as well. The Soviet Union adopted an uncompromising attitude about the question of selecting Korean organizations for the formation of a provisional government because for the Soviets, besides being a golden opportunity to expand her sphere of influence, the proposal was also a scenario to enable the US to dominate the trusteeship and to penetrate the northern economy. As the result of the Russian stance, the Joint Commission was deferred in early May for an indefinite period of time, and finally, seeking a strong system in the northern half of Korea under Soviet leadership, a Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea was established on February 4, 1946 with Kim Il-sung as its leader. The persistent Soviet efforts to establish a pro-Soviet regime in the north materialized when a de facto state composed of party, government, and a people’s assembly was established later in February 1947.[8]

      Lastly, the Russian interests in the Korean War were not limited to political or strategic value. The USSR was also calculating on the special demands for the reconstruction of North Korean industry after the War. For the Russians, the Korean War was not a bad business, unless the US was engaged and it was a total war.

Chinese Policies toward Korea

      On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops rapidly advanced into the South. Right after hearing about the North Korean invasion, Washington dispatched military forces to assist South Korea. At American request, the UN Security Council passed two emergency resolutions condemning the North Korean invasion and requesting sanctions against it on June 27. In the meantime, President Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to enter the Taiwan Strait to neutralize the area. Mao Zedong and others in Beijing were not surprised by the North Korean invasion, but they were shocked by the quick American reaction. As a consequent, the Korean War quickly changed into an international crisis.

      At the beginning of the Korean War, North Korean relations with its two neighbors were vague. Both Beijing and Moscow clearly stated their desire to remain uninvolved in the war by showing only their moral support of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They both did not want to commit troops on the peninsula. While the Soviets avoid the possibility of a war with the US, China focused on liberating Taiwan and continuing her economic reconstruction after the civil war. Furthermore, China believed that the Soviet Union would protect the DPRK if necessary. However, by October, the Russians decided to keep its distance from the war and indicated that Russian troops would not become involved in the war, while Beijing felt uncomfortable about the threatening American troops approaching the Chinese border. [9]

Chinese poster from the Korean War saying, “The Korean People’s Army and Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, victorious forever!” (Source: history105.libraries.wsu.edu)

Considering the Soviet relinquishment about any interest in protecting her sphere of influence and the American menace near her borders, China unwillingly decided to intervene at long last. Neither preserving the DPRK nor pursuing Korean reunification were China’s initial aims, but rather providing its own national security against American threat was its main goal. For CCP leaders, the Korean crisis was a result of the American imperialist who aimed to change Korea into the base for their actions in the East, and to prepare for starting a new world war.[10] Thereby, Korea was the center of the struggles in the world, and the key for the East’s future. Starting from this, the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) entered P’yongyang in the fall of 1950. China’s security had a direct link to Korea’s safety because if the involvement of the US extended or reversed conflict in Korea, the safety of China’s northeastern region would be threatened as well. Policymakers in Beijing believed that the US intervention in Korea and Taiwan represented a scenario to surround and attack China from three directions- Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina.[11] This approach toward American policy also made Mao and his fellow Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders follow the development of the Korean conflict closely.

      Besides serious challenges, the outburst of the Korean crisis brought CCP leaders a series of potential opportunities as well. The leadership could turn the US imperialist intervention in Korea and Taiwan into an opportunity to mobilize Chinese people by creating a revolutionary momentum. If they deal with the Korean dilemma, they could consolidate the Communist Party’s authority and reputation, hence preparing the ground for Mao’s long-term plans of creation of a new socialist China. Considering the Korean War’s international dimension, a new international order more favorable to China could be created in East Asia by allying with North Korea. In a nutshell, China’s policy toward Korea included guaranteeing the safety of the Chinese-Korean border, promoting the CCP’s authority and credibility at home, and enhancing the new China’s prestige on the international scene.

      Nonetheless, its assistance to the DPRK was over-costing for China that had been at the heart of civil wars for years. The new regime in Beijing desired to perform economic reconstruction and national unification, however, involvement in a new war damaged the Chinese government’s faith in domestic progress, and maintaining a large army in Korea laid an economic burden on the country. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s liberation was denied, and China’s entry into the UN continued to be blocked because of her actions in Korea. To make matters worse, China’s dependence on the Soviet Union grew over time due to the loan of money she got from the Soviets for the war.[12] Moreover, there were massive internal pressures on Mao and the CCP leadership due to the American military intervention in Korea and Taiwan. The eight-month-old Chinese Communist regime was busy with reestablishing order and reinforcing the new regime. The leadership worried that the crisis situation arose from the Korean War would provoke reactionaries, social classes opposed to the Communist revolution, and the Kuomintang (KMT) regime in Taiwan. Therefore, Korean crisis was also a test case of the CCP’s ability to rule China and to protect China’s prestige and national interests.

[1] Shin, Bok-ryong. “The Origins of the Korean War (2)- Kim Il-sung’s Intention to Begin the War”. The Politics of Separation of the Korean Peninsula, 1943-1953. Paju: Jimoondang, 2008. p.589.

[2] Ibid. p.16.

[3] Shin, Bok-ryong. “The Policy of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea- The First Year”. The Politics of Separation of the Korean Peninsula, 1943-1953. Paju: Jimoondang, 2008. p.101.

[4] Lee, Jongsoo James. “U.S. and Soviet Policies toward Korea until August 1945”. The Partition of Korea after World War II: A Global History. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. p.4.

[5] Ibid. p.15.

[6] Choi, Sang-Yong. “Trusteeship Debate and the Korean Civil War”. Korean Under the American Military Government, 1945-1948. Westport: Connecticut, 2002. p.27.

[7] Masao, Okinogi. “The Domestic Roots of the Korean War”. p.308.

[8] Masao, Okinogi. “The Domestic Roots of the Korean War”. The Origins of the Cold War in Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. p.307.

[9] Simmons, Robert R. “The Korean Civil War”. The Origins of the Cold War in Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, p.161.

[10] Ibid. p.149.

[11] Jian, Chen. “Beijing’s Response to the Outbreak of the Korean War”, China’s Road to the Korean War. New York, Columbia University Press, 1994. pp.129.

[12] Ibid. p.165.

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