The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The End of the Korean War

Aug 21, 2023

This article is translated from the August 18 issue #2872 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

At a time when the great Western powers, led by the United States, are using Ukraine to wage war on Russia, it’s worth recalling how, from 1950 to 1953, the same United States waged war in Korea, using its population against Mao’s China, though at the time, unlike today, over 36,000 American GIs paid with their lives.

Korea had been dominated by Japan since 1905. This domination had been particularly ferocious. In the racist ideology of the Japanese military dictatorship, Koreans were almost subhuman. As a symbol of this humiliation, during the Second World War, the Japanese army developed a state-run pimping system, turning thousands of young Korean women into “comfort women” for its soldiers.

The Social Explosion at the End of the Japanese Occupation

When the Japanese colonial administration collapsed at the end of the Second World War, there was a nationwide social explosion. Parties came out of hiding. People’s committees were formed, often on the initiative of communist militants but under the leadership of nationalist leaders. And on September 6, 1945, a national conference of these committees founded the People’s Republic of Korea.

But for the United States, the great victor of the world war, allowing colonial peoples to take advantage of the power vacuum to emancipate themselves was out of the question. A few months earlier, at the Yalta Conference, U.S. President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Churchill, and Soviet bureaucratic chief Stalin had divided up the areas of the world where revolts could break out. Stalin had offered his services to the imperialist powers to maintain their social order, hoping in return that they would let him control the USSR and its zone of influence.

USA and USSR Occupy Korea

When the People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed, the Soviet army entered Korea from the north and the U.S. army from the south, decreeing that the 38th parallel would be the dividing line between the two zones of occupation. In the southern zone, which included the country’s capital, Seoul, the American army refused to recognize the new republic and set up a government under its thumb, linked to the large landowners and wealthy classes who had collaborated with the Japanese colonizer. People’s committees were banned, as were all organizations claiming to be communist.

In September 1946, a major strike by railway workers in a southern city spread across the country. There were uprisings in the countryside for land reform. The repression led by the American army and South Korean police resulted in a thousand deaths and tens of thousands of prisoners. But in the northern zone, Stalin’s army also refused to recognize the leaders of the People’s Committees. For him, they were much too close to the mobilized population, which risked making them too independent of Moscow.

Stalin chose to impose a young leader of the Korean CP, Kim Il-Sung, as head of state, coming from the guerillas of Manchuria where he had fought against the Japanese army. But unlike what the Americans had done in the South, the Northern regime organized an agrarian reform that made it popular throughout the country. And it was on this basis that, in June 1950, it launched a military offensive against the South to reunify Korea.

War between South and North ... and between the USA and China

North Korean troops met with little resistance. Most of the American army had left the country, lending credence to the idea that South Korea was perfectly independent. And while some of the South’s population waited on the sidelines or were even frightened by the arrival of the North’s troops, others, especially the poor peasants, were hopeful that they would bring about land reform and a government opposed to the wealthy classes. Within three months, the South was largely conquered.

The United States could not allow Korea to escape its control. Especially since, less than a year earlier, in October 1949, Mao had seized power in China by overthrowing the dictator who was their ally. American leaders had opted for a policy of containment: from then on, they would oppose any poor country’s desire to join the camp of the so-called communist countries, led by the USSR and now China.

Under cover of a UN intervention, with the military participation of the other Western powers, the American army organized a landing in September 1950. Within a month, it had recaptured the entire southern zone, then moved into the northern zone as far as the Chinese border. The U.S. dropped as many bombs as had been dropped in the Pacific during the entire World War. In the rear, the police of the reinstated South Korean dictatorship cleaned house: 100,000 civilians were executed.

General MacArthur, who led the American troops, went so far as to propose dropping atomic bombs on China. He was relieved of his command. China, for its part, sent hundreds of thousands of troops to support the North Korean army, and the balance of power shifted once again. American troops were forced to retreat to the 38th parallel.

From then on, the front stabilized, but the deadly battles to regain a few meters of ground continued. It became clear to the American leadership that they could not win against the Chinese army and reconquer the North. Negotiations began and lasted two years. Under pressure from the United States, an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, but no peace treaty followed. In all, 700,000 soldiers and over 2.5 million civilians were killed. And Korea, from north to south, was devastated.

A People Divided

The South became one of the U.S. army’s main bases in Asia. It received massive investment from the United States and Japan to develop an industry in line with their interests. A Korean CIA, the KCIA, imprisoned and tortured en masse to prevent any protest or independent organization of the young, numerous and combative working class that industrial development was producing. As for the North, it was subjected to an economic blockade that strangled its development. The progressive aspects of the early years of the regime gave way to the dictatorship of an increasingly restricted clan, which had nothing to do with communism and didn’t even claim it.

The policy of imperialism thus prevented a people from taking its destiny into its own hands, and divided it into two parts set against each other, to make the South one of the main points of support for U.S. policy in this part of the world. A few years later, 320,000 South Korean soldiers were sent to fight alongside American troops in Vietnam.