The American war in Korea lasted three years, one month and two days and ended in a stalemate on July 12, 1953, at 10:12 am. Fighting continued for 12 more hours, with even more “blood and treasure” on all sides wasted in the intense, deadly fireworks of frustrated, war-wearied soldiers. Americans at home had tired of the deadlocked war and they disconnected from it; American soldiers fighting in it did not understand its historical roots. The war’s especially morbid consequences for Korean women have not ended, in what has been “60 years of a war system.” The menace of nuclear war in spring 2013 embodies its toxic legacy.
On Veterans Day 2011, Korean War veteran Jack Tolbert spoke to a gathering at a Northern California cemetery. After relating his memories of serving in the war, among them covering a hand grenade with his lower body to save soldiers under his command, he remarked, “I’ve never understood why they insisted on calling it the Korean Conflict. After seeing the bodies I’ve seen, it was more like a war than anything else I’ve ever seen.”
For the early 1950s White House, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress and American people, the Korean War never measured up to its precedent, the Second World War. It was fought in a remote, backward country of no vital, strategic interest, and it ended in a deadlock – the kiss of death for national pride and war memory. President Truman never acknowledged it as a war, even though he was responsible for sending American troops to fight in it, without seeking a mandate from Congress and prior to a UN mandate.
Throughout its loss-win-loss-stalemated years, 1950-1953, Truman referred to the war as a “police action,” even though he and top military officers entertained the idea of dropping atomic bombs on China. General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the war “a great military disaster” and “the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy.” (1) General Douglas MacArthur, the dominant US military presence in the Pacific region for 14 years, operated with Raj-like rule in Japan and Korea after World War II. Under the delusion of his own infallibility, he boasted of easy victory in Korea. When proved wrong about the war’s course, he set out to bomb and burn all of North Korea to the ground and entertained fantasies of Armageddon in Communist China and the Soviet Union. He was defiant of orders from Washington, mendacious, arrogant and a loose cannon – causing the loss of many soldiers’ lives in vain. Yet it took the White House and Joint Chiefs of Staff more than a year to remove him as field commander of the war. The military then – as with military sexual assault today – dithered over punishing one of their own men. Congenitally above reproach, MacArthur blamed his dismissal on President Truman’s (contrived) mental instability. (2)
American goals morphed rapidly during the war. Pushing back the North Koreans over the 38th parallel was superseded by a second goal: to unify Korea by force and replace the Communist North Korea dictator, Kim Sung II, with the extreme right dictator in the South, Syngman Rhee. Publicly the US government proclaimed Rhee its brave ally and freedom-seeker and identified him as a “Christian statesman,” code for superior to alien, atheist Asian Communists. Behind closed doors he was considered “an irrational, illogical fanatic.” The National Security Council and CIA entertained the option of a coup and eliminating him if necessary. (3)
No peace treaty was signed at the war’s end, and the war resolved nothing. Peace in Korea is still managed by the 1953 cease-fire agreement and a heavily militarized “demilitarized zone” (DMZ), secured by North and South Korean soldiers, a UN command of mostly American soldiers, and a few neutral country observers. US policy toward North Korea over the past 60 years has been one of regime change.
No wonder the Korean War has been dubbed the “Forgotten War.” All the key political and military decision-makers wanted to put behind them the humiliation of US impotence in its first Cold War encounter. War fatigue set in quickly: The American public became detached from soldiers fighting peasants they couldn’t defeat in a small backwater Asian country. And “the cream of World War II generals could do nothing about it.” (4) No crowds gathered to cheer the war’s end; there were no massive celebrations. White House statements were low-key.
Some 54 years after the war, John Martin Meek, a former US Navy Corpsman, recalls the hurt of coming home in his uniform and being treated like an outcast. “…[I]n World War II…everybody who came home was treated like a hero…and I came home and people were looking at me like I was some kind of freak…and two or three of them said, what are you doing in that uniform? It still stuns me.”
Vincent Walsh, a former machinist crewmate on the destroyer USS. Beatty, also harbors bitter memories about returning home from the war: “…[N]obody seemed to know we’d ever been there…People didn’t care about the war. They weren’t thinking about it. They just put it out of their minds. The attitude was, you were a sucker. The guys that stayed home got all the good jobs.” (5)
“The forgotten war” is correspondingly “the unknown war.” For Americans, the war spanned 1950-1953, and pitted a Soviet-backed communist dictatorship in the North against the anti-communist South, on whose behalf the US and UN intervened. In other words, it was a proxy war (the first) of the US against the Communist Soviet Union.
But for Koreans the war was essentially a civil war, with roots in Japanese colonialization since 1910 and in Japanese aggression, beginning in Manchuria in 1931-32, in which Koreans fighting with Chinese against Japan fought Koreans collaborating with Japan. Additionally, post-World War II rebellions within South Korea between peasants and South Korean authorities fueled divisions within Korea. The country is riven still by this civil conflict. The majority of South Korean elite and political leaders have been from right-wing families who collaborated with the Japanese; the autocratic power holders and geriatric military leaders of North Korea trace their lineage to the anti-colonial war against Japan. (6)
The long civil war, as lived by Koreans, is largely unknown to Americans and the veterans who fought there. “I had no idea what the 38th parallel was,” admitted one US veteran. “I didn’t understand what was happening in Korea. I wasn’t even sure I knew where Korea was.” (7) “I didn’t feel I was defending …the rights of the South Korean people or the interests of the United States. I was simply trying to stay alive,” recalled another veteran whose sentiment, he added, was shared by most. The few who wanted to fight in the war were guys who were “exhilarated by combat.” (8)
The events in Korea leading up to the 1950-53 war reveal the war’s complexity for Koreans. In 1945, scarcely three days after bombing Nagasaki and anticipating Japanese surrender, two junior US Army officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, chose the 38th parallel in Korea as a dividing line between North and South Korea. Their decision, made with a pen and National Geographic map of Korea, took a mere 30 minutes. No Koreans were consulted about the partition of their country, a partition that separated one in three families at that time. The North was to be temporarily occupied by the Soviet Union, and the South by the United States. During the 1945-48 military occupation of the South, the US kept Japanese-collaborator rightists in control of South Korea and supported the right-wing Syngman Rhee as the emerging leader.
During this period a series of peasant insurgencies ensued, led by local South Korean leftists rebelling against extreme social and economic inequities that deepened their poverty. The peasants were brutally crushed with mass murder, sexual torture of South Korean women akin to that of the war in the Congo today, and mass destruction of entire rebellious villages. The US interpreted the local social insurrection against right-wing control as a Communist threat from within and provided military support and equipment for crushing the rebellions. By 1948, more than 100,000 South Koreans were killed in this US-supported reign of terror by South Korean police and military.
In 1949, extensive fighting ensued along the 38th parallel, with each side wanting to unify Korea under their political ideology. Both sides had been invading each other and skirmishing when the North conducted its full, aggressive and overwhelming invasion against the South in June 1950. This prompted American and soon after UN (with predominantly American troops) entry into the war, initially under the command of General MacArthur. A pattern of each side pushing the other back over the 38th parallel ensued. When UN and South Korean forces drove back the North Korean army as far as the North Korean border with Manchuria, the Communist Chinese entered the war on the North Korean side. By fall 1951, both sides were locked in trench-like warfare around the 38th parallel. Negotiations to end the war and the war itself dragged on until 1953, during which time the North was bombed into a wasteland by the US Air Force. The newly elected President Eisenhower chose – against the advice of his generals and MacArthur whom he had consulted – not to use atomic bombs that had been assembled on Okinawa (save for their nuclear core) and to negotiate a cease-fire.
The US may have killed 20% of the population of Korea, said General Curtis Lemay, who was involved in the US air war on Korea. If so, that is a higher rate of genocidal slaughter than what the Nazis inflicted on Poland or the Soviet Union.
Bombing in war has always contravened UN conventions on war because cities, towns and infrastructure become their ultimate strategic target, and unarmed residents, their primary victims. Statistics on war tell the story. For three years, Korea – both South and North – was one single free-fire zone: A UN air assault demolished most of Seoul; the US Air Force carpet-bombed North Korea with incendiaries and explosives, dropping 635,000 tons of explosive bombs and up to 40,000 tons of napalm. The destruction within North Korean cities and towns ranged from 40 percent to nearly 100 percent. (9) War commander General Ridgway wanted to “‘wipe out all life'” (10) in tactical sites, sites which became, in the merciless momentum of air war, every city, town and village. North Korea’s large dams, which provided irrigation water and generated electricity, were bombed, some at the onset of the rice-growing season. General MacArthur had boasted of a plan to win the war in 10 days: Drop 30 atomic bombs across the neck of Korea from sea to sea, leaving a belt of radioactivity between China and North Korea.
The US air war in Korea was so extreme as to be genocidal. General William Dean, as a POW in North Korea, observed that “most of the towns and villages he saw were just ‘rubble or snowy open spaces.'” Chief Justice William O. Douglas visited Korea in the summer of 1952 and avowed “I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe; but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea…” (11)
Civil War Atrocities
All sides in the war committed atrocities against prisoners of war and civilians, including cold-blooded killing of captured soldiers, wounded soldiers and civilians, violating UN conventions. A former medic in the 34th Infantry Regiment, who was captured by North Korean soldiers early in the war, tells of POW beatings, assassinations, and starvation in a “death march” on the road to Pyongyang. (12) Another US veteran told of American and other UN troops shooting fleeing civilian refugees who would have impeded their road movement. “It was the most pitiful thing I’ve ever seen. If they got within a hundred yards of the road they were shot. There was only one road to move the Eighth Army on and the road had to be kept open.” (13) In his profoundly perceptive novel on the treatment of Communist Chinese POWs, the writer Ha Jin describes elaborately sadistic methods of torture employed by South Korean military guards and pro-nationalist Chinese in the camps. Communists, he notes with bitter irony, “always treat their enemies more leniently than their own people.” (14)
Historical records reveal that the worst atrocities were carried out by South Korean police, who were involved in prostitution rings, racketeering, blackmail and the execution of thousands of political prisoners, and also by the South Korean military who routinely executed prisoners of war, including old men, women and children. Western journalists reported these atrocities during the first six months of the war, until American censorship placed press correspondents under Army jurisdiction. The result was a rash of half-truths and distortions about the war and a paucity of insight or understanding of the war. (15)
In 2000, the Korean Truth Commission on Civilian Massacres – the first in East Asia – was launched to investigate civilian atrocities committed by all sides before and during the 1950-53 Korean War. In 2005, the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission was organized to continue this work and to include human rights abuses. Their findings to date show that “Communist atrocities constituted about one sixth of the total number of cases, and tended to be more discriminating,” (16) targeting police, people with power, and so on, than South Korean military and police barbarities.
Racism against both Koreans and African-American soldiers pervaded the Korean War. According to Black soldiers who fought in the war, they were universally stereotyped as always “bugging out” (running away from a fight) (17) and denied earned promotions and awards. Most American soldiers had a deep-seated disdain and antipathy for Koreans. Because of their bigotry, they were flummoxed (and routed) by the skill and discipline of the North Korean soldiers. American soldier Lieutenant Uzal Ent, who was sent with his company into a near death trap early in the war, spoke many years later of the chaos, breakdown of discipline, and the sense of no grand purpose in fighting the war except to stay alive. He also spoke bluntly about endemic racism: “Many men fought with a visceral hatred of the enemy. Maybe the fact that they were Orientals had something to do with it. “‘Gooks'” was the standard term for them, and it was easier to think of them as not quite human, as something beneath us.” (18)
In their war reporting and editorials, American journalists described North Koreans as primitive barbaric hordes, swarms of locusts, Nazi-like in ability to provoke fear and terrorize. (19) British war journalist Reginald Thompson was shocked by the ignorance and racism of the American military, up and down the chain of command from generals to infantry, who referred to Koreans as “gooks” and Chinese as “chinks.” This verbal racism originated in the Philippines and carried over to other US wars in Asia, including Korea and Vietnam. He wrote that “‘GIs never spoke of the enemy as though they were people, but as one might speak of apes'” (20) – a linguistic device that numbs one’s humanity and enables torture, killing of POWs and civilians, free-fire zones, and use of napalm and carpet-bombing.
Blaine Friedlander, a high school teacher who served in the Korean War as a military adviser in communications with South Korean troops, was one of the few American soldiers to talk with and befriend South Korean soldiers. “Once I was able to communicate with them (many spoke English), I realized they were not a bunch of faceless gooks, but people who cared very deeply about their country, who knew its history and also who knew a surprising amount about our country…[T]hey were not an army of dumb peasants.” (21)
Unfinished: The Military-Prostitution Complex (22)
In the 1930s and ’40s, the Japanese procured an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 Korean women to sexually service soldiers in their war of aggression against China and during World War II. South Korean male functionaries and police operated as pimps for the Japanese, recruiting and forcing young women from their villages into military sexual slavery. South Korean soldiers who joined the Japanese army also used the “comfort women,” as they were spuriously called. When the Korean War began in 1950, the South Korean army set up the same system of enslaving local women in brothels for their own use. When the war ended, with their lives having been ruined, many victims of this organized sexual slavery continued in the system of “kijoch’on” (military camptown) prostitution organized and regulated by the American and South Korean governments.
Nearly 60 years after the end of the Korean War, women who were exploited in prostitution by American soldiers based in South Korea challenged their own government’s hypocrisy in demanding reparations from Japan for the sexual enslavement of Korean women while it has functioned as “one big pimp for the US military.” South Korean officials promoted prostitution as “patriotic” in order to assure that US military would stay after the Korean War and also to garner badly needed foreign currency through the prostitution industry. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the South Korean government and US military controlled prostituted women in the camptowns established around military bases within a mandated testing and treatment system to assure they were “disease-free” for American troops, even arresting and forcing treatment on women. A group of former prostituted women is now seeking compensation and an apology from the South Korean government for their complicity in the sex trade surrounding the American bases. The words of a 71 year-old woman capture the inestimable price paid by women trapped on men’s battlefields: “…I think that women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans…Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the US military’s.”
Neither the South Korean government nor the US has kept official statistics on crimes against the prostituted women; however, an independent survey of 243 camptown women in Kyonggi province revealed that more than two-thirds had experienced “beating, sexual violence, theft and robbery, in declining order of frequency” at the hands of American soldiers and a smaller number of Korean men. (23) Nor is there any shred of justice for these women victimized by US soldiers’ sexual violence and crime. Through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) negotiated with other countries, the US military assures that its soldiers are exempt from prosecution of crimes by the “host” country.
By the early 1990s, Korean club owners in the camptowns colluded with the government to recruit women mainly from the Philippines, Central Asia and Russia as “entertainers” to sustain their supply of women for America soldiers and local Korean men. The trafficking of these women served the purposes of club owners for customers and profit, the government for foreign currency, and the military for sexual outlets for male soldiers. In 2004, the US military put into effect a zero-tolerance policy for military personnel on prostitution and trafficking, which resulted in education of military personnel, monitoring of clubs for trafficking and prostitution, and bringing entertainment onto bases. However, cohabitation of soldiers with camptown women, often referred to as “cohabitating prostitution” and “deceptive marriage and abandonment,” (24) flourishes and functions like an end-run around zero tolerance. And it spawns dire consequences for the sexually used women: single motherhood, poverty, ostracization, illegal immigration status and biracial children unwelcomed in the society.
Three years after the beginning of the war, a cease-fire was finally signed. Everything was back to where it had been at the beginning, with almost the same [arbitrary] borders as before the war and the same unfulfilled dream of reunification. No one had won. Everyone had lost. The war is calculated to have cost the lives of up to 5 million people, by far the majority of them civilians. (25)
More than 35,000 American soldiers died in the war with approximately 92,000 wounded and 5,000 missing in action. What lesson was learned by the new administration presiding over the last year of the war? At October’s end 1953, President Eisenhower promulgated a new defense strategy, NSC-162/2, that would assure national security for less cost. No longer would the United States be drawn into limited conflicts and use conventional weapons, as in Korea. Massive retaliation with atomic weapons would be the threat and response, if necessary. (26) And, thus, a foundation was laid for the escalating nuclear threat-counter threat dysfunction that poisons the Korean peninsula and imperils the world.
In a recent lecture at Lafayette College, former US president and Korean War veteran, Jimmy Carter spoke bluntly about American militarism: “Almost constantly since World War II, our country has been at war.” He added that he could not think of any place on earth today where the United States is working to promote peace – nor could the then-new Secretary of State John Kerry when Carter queried him.
Regarding North Korea, Carter traced the current crisis to the Bush administration’s abrogation of a 1994 agreement with North Korea that assured North Korea would not develop nuclear weapons in exchange for energy and economic aid. In the early 1990s, Carter was asked by the North Korean leader Kim II Sung to come to North Korea “because,” he said, “no one in the US government would talk to the North Koreans.” After persuading the adverse Clinton administration for permission, he met with Kim II Sung who expressed the desire for a peace treaty with the United States and to have the economic embargo lifted against his country. The result of their talks was a successful diplomatic agreement that ended the Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting of an economic embargo, allowing Americans to search for the remains of Korean war veterans, a peace treaty and so on.
The Bush administration dismantled that agreement and included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” countries, making it an explicit target of regime change. North Korea responded by re-starting a nuclear weapons program, weapons testing and chest-beating war rhetoric. The Obama administration has, in turn, ratcheted up war games with South Korea, including a simulated nuclear attack on North Korea, and tightened the economic stranglehold on banking and trade. Thus, a small, poor country wasted by its own militarization and the world’s hypermilitarized superpower are locked in an asymmetric nuclear standoff.
Carter concluded his address at Lafayette College: “I’ve been there two or three times since the 1994 agreement, and I can tell you what the North Koreans want is a peace treaty with the United States and they want the 60-year economic embargo lifted against their people, so they can have an equal chance to trade and commerce. It’s a very paranoid country. They are honestly convinced that the United States wants to attack them and destroy their country, to eliminate the Communist regime. They make a lot of mistakes, but if the United States would just talk to the North Koreans…I believe…we could have peace, and the United States would be a lot better off in the long run.”
Many expert commentators agree, adding that, when polled, the majority of South Koreans consider the United States a greater threat than North Korea. The US policy of sanctions, isolation, and war games has led to a downward spiral of nuclear buildup in North Korea, continuing US militarization in the region, bolstering of right-wing forces in South Korea and Japan, and greater risk of another war on the Korean peninsula. The United States needs to talk to North Korea, as Carter and others have emphasized, and to change our belligerent foreign policy into one that seeks peace after 60 years of war by other means.
An Unexpected Outcome
The 155-mile long by 2.5-mile wide demilitarized zone dividing the people of Korea has evolved into an unforeseen ecological habitat for several endangered plants and animals, among them the iconic red-crowned crane, the Korean tiger and Asiatic black bear, in what is “one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.” Ecologists there have identified nearly 3,000 plant species, 70 types of mammals and 329 species of birds. All in a heavily monitored, militarized, and mined buffer zone. May it serve as nature’s model and metaphor for an as-yet-unreconciled, yet deeply connected people.
Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict Statement Calling for Immediate Dialogue on the Korean Peninsula Crisis
Korea-Japan Civil Society Joint Statement
Joseph C Goulden. 1982. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: McGraw- Hill. p.xv.
Bruce Cumings. 2011. The Korean War: A History. New York: Modern Library Paperback Edition. p.229.
Rudy Tomedi. 1993, 1994. No Bugles, No Drums: An Oral History of the KoreanWar. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p.154.
Ibid. p. 153.
Sven Lindqvist. 2001. A History of Bombing. New York: The New Press. p.128.
Tomedi. p. 57.
Ha Jin. 2004. War Trash. New York: Vintage Books. p.128.
Ibid. P. 202.
Cumings. pp. 80, 169.
Janice G. Raymond. Forthcoming 2013. Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.
Maria Hohn and Seungsook Moon, Eds. 2010. Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press. p.351.
Ibid. p. 352.
Ibid. p. 132
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