Wrong Turns In Korea

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On its 60th anniversary, the Korean War looks much like Vietnam, a pointless conflict that gained nothing for those who began it: North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, with the consent of the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong. Yet it was far worse than that: The bloodletting in that corner of northeast Asia was an exercise in human folly that cost all sides in the fighting nearly 4 million lives lost, missing, and wounded, not to mention the devastation of the peninsula from Pusan in the south to the Yalu River in the north. Not a single northern or southern Korean city escaped the ravages wrought by modern warfare. Public buildings and private homes were turned into piles of rubble, while thousands of refugees fled from the scenes of battle.

Despite a monument to its fallen heroes and considerable retrospective praise of Harry Truman for standing up to communism, America’s leaders—the president, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Far Eastern Commander Douglas MacArthur, and Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy—cannot lay claim to much, if any, praise for their parts in the conflict. As America wrestles with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and debates how to end U.S. involvement, the Korean War may be a useful cautionary tale—a reminder of how false assumptions about the benefits of military action can be so costly and unproductive and how political pressure to satisfy demands for military steps against perceived enemies can be worse than inaction.

By June 1950, anyone focusing closely on events of the previous two to five years should not have been surprised that a Korean civil war was in the offing. The governments of both the North and the South stridently proclaimed their determination to unify the country under their respective regimes.

In the North, Kim Il-sung was a 38-year-old firebrand. In 1929, as a 17-year-old student in Manchuria, where he and his family had moved to escape the oppressive Japanese occupation, he had joined the Communist Party. Between 1930 and 1945, he moved back and forth between China and Russia, distinguishing himself in the eyes of communists in both countries as a commander of Korean troops fighting the Japanese. His devotion both to Korean independence from Japanese imperialism and to Marxist doctrines made him an attractive choice to head the provisional government in Pyongyang, where he reflected Moscow’s determination to impose a communist government on all of Korea.

In 1948, after the Soviets rejected calls for UN-supervised elections as a prelude to Korean unification, Moscow rewarded Kim’s loyalty by making him the leader of the Korean People’s Republic, implying that he should be recognized as the governing authority for all of Korea. It was the first step in Kim’s attempt to make himself the ultimate ruler of the whole peninsula, if possible, or at least the all-powerful leader of a North Korean state.

Although his ambition to govern all Korea would be frustrated, he succeeded beyond anything Stalin and Mao—two of the most storied tyrants of the 20th century—achieved as authoritarian heads of their parties and peoples. Kim elevated himself to transcendent sovereignty over the North, creating a cult of personality comparable only to that of a religious figure. Monuments to the “Eternal President,” as the country’s constitution described him, made Kim an omni-present figure in every city and hamlet. His adoring compatriots paid homage to him at a 66-foot bronze statue of the Great Leader in Pyongyang.

Like the other ruthlessly authoritarian figures of his generation—Hitler, Stalin, Mao—Kim created a military arm that could defend his government from internal and external threats and reach across his borders to satisfy imperial ambitions. By 1950 his Soviet-supplied armies were prepared to counter any attack from the South or to move across the 38th parallel to bring all of Korea under his control.

Kim’s concern that South Korea might attack before he struck was not simply paranoid speculation. From his election as president of South Korea in 1948, Syngman Rhee had urged a “march north” to rid the peninsula of communist influence and achieve his lifelong dream of ruling a single Korean nation.

Like Kim, Rhee had spent most of his life in exile, returning home at age 70. He burned with urgency to unify Korea and believed that the hardships he had endured as a nationalist abroad entitled him to the presidency of a modern Korean state. In his 20s he had spent seven years in prison for opposing Japanese rule. Upon his release, he traveled to the United States, where he studied at George Washington University, Harvard, and Princeton, earning a Ph.D. in international law at the latter institution. Returning to Korea for three years between 1910 and 1913, he renewed his political opposition to Japanese colonialism, which obliged him to settle in Hawaii as the principal of a Korean school.

In 1919 Rhee was elected president of a provisional Korean government formed by pro-independence factions based in Shanghai. Unable to assert himself effectively over the divisive groups that made up the nominal coalition, he was ousted in 1925 amid charges of abuse of power. Rhee’s dictatorial tendencies would eventually find full flower when he became South Korea’s first president in 1948. After 1945, extreme fragmentation had marked South Korean politics: 205 groups asked for recognition as separate political parties, prompting one weary member of the U.S. occupying forces to jest that “Every time two Koreans sit down to eat they form a new political party.” Rhee would meet this factionalization by exercizing ruthless unitary power.