The US and Soviet Union agreed in December 1943 that Korea was to become "free and independent" and that they would disarm the Japanese forces in Korea. The Koreans had a resistance movement and claimed they could have handled the Japanese themselves. The Koreans had a government in exile in China, and in losing the war the Japanese would be pulling out of Korea as they would Burma and other lands they occupied.
The Roosevelt administration's decision to divide Korea with the Russians would have troublesome ramifications. The Truman administration was looking forward to turning Korea over to the Koreans. In May 1946, talks between the Russians and Washington regarding Korea's future broke down. The following May, the US demanded that elections be held in both zones for the creation of a government that united the country. The US turned to the United Nations for help, and an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly agreed to general elections for the whole of Korea.
In January 1948, the Russians refused the UN commission entry into its zone to prepare for nationwide elections. The UN General Assembly authorized elections in those areas where its commission members were allowed. The winners formed a National Assembly, and in July a new government was created, in Seoul. The Russians blamed the United States for imposing its will on the United Nations and on South Korea. They saw American capitalism and imperialism at work, and they countered with single slate elections in their zone. On 8 September 1948, the Russian zone was proclaimed as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Its premier was the former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader of considerable fame among the Koreans: Kim il-Sung.
In December, the UN General Assembly recognized the government in the south – the Republic of Korea – as the only lawfully constituted government in Korea. The Truman Administration also recognized it as such, as did some fifty other nations.
As for China, it emerged from World War II divided between Communist forces and government forces led by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communists held territory in northern China and had gained prestige and power among their fellow Chinese by fighting Japan's invasion. The Communists had something like two million men in militia units and another 900,000 or more in regular troop units. In 1946, civil war erupted Chiang's regime and the Communists. The Truman administration helped the Chiang regime with two billion dollars worth of military aid, equipment and troop transport — but no troops. Corruption and inflation had many Chinese against the Chiang regime, and in the summer of 1949 Communist forces swept southward across the Yangzi River. With ease they entered Beijing, and in October, in his squeaky voice Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People's Republic.
In December, Mao was in Moscow having discussions with Stalin about the possibility of an attack on China by what he called "the imperialist countries".
In 1950, North Korea's leader, Kim Il-sung, journeyed to Moscow to meet with Stalin and requested aid so he could unite Korea by force. Eventually, Stalin gave Kim some or little more than material support, impressed perhaps by the Communist victory in China. Regardless of claims of the South's provocations against North Korea at the 38th parallel, it was the North's armies — with Russian tanks — that poured across the border.
The US appealed again to the United Nations. The Soviet Union was demonstrating its frustration over the UN's refusal to seat the People's Republic of China and was away from its seat on the Security Council. Without the Soviet Union to cast its veto, the Security Council voted to defend the Republic of Korea — the only government in Korea that the UN recognized. Nineteen UN nations were to join the war alongside the United States under the aegis of the UN.
The North Koreans overran and inflicted heavy casualties the Americans fifty miles south of Seoul. Then they pushed farther south, rounding up and killing people who they deemed anti-Communist. The US was fighting back with bombings in the North. On August 22, Pyongyang radio claimed that air raids on Pyongyang and five other cities between July 2 and August 3 had killed 11,582 civilians.
By September, the North's forces were stalled at what became known as the Pusan Perimeter, around the cities of Taegu (Daegu) and Pusan, defended by US and Republic of Korea (ROK) troops. On September 15, 1950, MacArthur landed a force at Inchon. The North's forces began pulling back to avoid entrapment, ROK forces moving in behind them. And they too engaged in roundups and killings — of those accused of having welcomed the Communist forces — the dead being thrown into mass graves on the outskirts of town.
On October 3, through India's ambassador to Beijing, K.M. Panikkar, China informed the world-at-large that if the United States crossed the 38th parallel China would intervene. Confident people in the US State Department, Dean Rusk among them, believed that the Chinese would not dare attack US forces in Korea. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, believed it was a bluff. US troops moved into North Korea and approached its border with China, at the Yalu River. The Chinese crossed into Korea and drove the US forces back across the 38th parallel. By 1952 the US forces were a short distance into the North. The Chinese had nearly impregnable positions across mountainous terrain and for the rest of 1952 a stalemate developed except for bloody bravado actions largely as demonstrations.
In May 1952, General Mark Clark had become the UN commander in Korea, and he believed in throwing everything at the enemy that he could. He chose to bomb reservoir dikes in the North, flooding the North's sparse agricultural lands, threatening the North Koreans with starvation. He bombed North Korea's hydroelectric plant just south of the Yalu River, and he gave the Air Force permission to strike again at North Korea's industrial and population centers. Pyongyang was bombed again, including the use of napalm, and the burning to death of civilians was extensive. The Air Force was after military targets, but distinction between military targets and civilians was blurred. The US Navy attacked North Korean fishing vessels, crippling this source of food for the North.
In hope of winning a favorable and quick end to the Korean War, the United States let it be known that it was considering the use of atomic weapons. Apparently of more concern to the Chinese than the atomic bomb were the economic costs involved in continuing the war. Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai met with Stalin in late 1952, and they agreed that the war should be ended.
On 20 January 1953 Dwight Eisenhower became US President, after having promised to end the war. Then on 5 March 1953, Stalin died. Two days after he returned from Stalin's funeral, China's Zhou Enlai announced a new effort to end the war in Korea. The US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles remained opposed to ending the war, wishing to appeal to those in the US opposed to anything that could be construed as appeasing Communism. And the General Clark was also opposed. He wished to extend the war to China to end Communism there. Eisenhower wanted an end to the war, and his prestige was great enough that only a very few hardliners accused him of appeasement.
An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty was not signed, and South Korea did not sign the armistice. North and South Korea remained technically at war.
CONTINUE READING: The Eisenhower Years
Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.