Skip to main content

North Korea and the Korean War: A Dissident Draftee Remembers

The Korean War was central to the militarization of our society and to the creation a national security state. It was an essential element in fostering racism, sexism and in the cutting of social programs - creating growing inequality. Today, the threat of a cataclysmic war between Washington and North Korea cannot be discounted. It is vital for the US public to know that North Korea has been asking for a peace treaty with Washington and Seoul for sixty-four years.

U.S. Army photograph, once classified "top secret", depicting the summary execution of 1,800 South Korean political prisoners by the South Korean military at Taejon, South Korea, over three days in July 1950.,

(The following article below is an extract from a forthcoming narrative/memoir, "Keeping On in Dark Times: Memories of Racial Justice and Antiwar struggles in the 1940s and 1950s.")


One thing is certain. Hardly any draftee or volunteer at Fort Dix in 1953 had the slightest knowledge of Korea, the Korean War and the history and politics that drove that particularly brutal carnage. Despite the Cold War hysteria, Korea was no more than an unpleasant aberration and a distant horror for most, if not all. It is safe to say that the vast majority of the unlucky conscripts could not locate Korea on a map. 
Those of us on the left were also not well schooled on Korea. Yet, from the outset, we at least grasped the essential fact that the conflict was a long-brewing civil war within a larger more menacing confrontation between the Soviet bloc and the West. Whatever the stakes within Korea, the global threat of another world war was more than enough to stir our efforts, feeble though they were, to end the war. 
Beyond that, we were not far off in viewing the US intervention as an imperial reach that had nothing to do with the needs and interests of the Korean or the US people. Our country's involvement was shaped and driven by Dean Acheson, a strident Cold War crusader, who despite having placed Korea outside the declared US defense perimeter pulled President Harry Truman into an Asian land war. Acheson was driven by near-fanatical concern for US global prestige - and in a burst of a more conventional imperial motive, worry over the potentially disastrous impact on the Japanese economy (Japan was already the linchpin of US involvement in the Pacific) should all of Korea fall to the Reds. [1]
Japan, in fact, figured immensely in the convoluted postwar US march to engagement on the Korean peninsula that continues to this day. Korea had been in a protracted struggle with Japanese invaders from 1910 when the latter formally colonized Korea. While the country was divided artificially at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II, the North continued to harbor a burning animus towards the Japanese and their Korean collaborators. The South however was drawn into a tripartite security system with the US and Japan, with governments run by egregiously corrupt Quislings, many of whom had been long-time collaborators with the Japanese occupiers.
Syngman Rhee was among the most notoriously corrupt and oppressive of the South Korean politicians who emerged from the US occupation below the 38th Parallel. Flown into Seoul on Douglas MacArthur's personal plane in October 1945, Rhee was employed as a suzerain for Washington, running an unpopular regime sustained by the US military replete with routine political assassinations and jails filled with over 30,000 political prisoners.
In 1950, increasingly insular North Korea was deifying Kim Il Sung as a latter-day Confucius endowed with god-like powers and god-like benevolence that the West would come to treat with burning contempt and disbelief dipped in lampoonery. At least the Kim personality cult had some grounding in North Korea's tortured history. Unlike Syngman Rhee, Kim has a lustrous pedigree based on early engagement in the country's long and bloody struggle against foreign intervention. 
That struggle consumed Kim's family. His father died largely from the debilitating effect of his imprisonment in the mid-1920s for "anti-Japanese activities." His brother died at age twenty while jailed in Manchuria by the Japanese. His uncle served thirteen bitter years in Japanese prisons. 
Beyond Kim's relatives, the coterie of veterans of guerrilla struggles that formed the core of North Korea's leadership around Kim suffered the losses of brothers and sisters by execution, other kin by death on the battlefield and by losses of mothers and fathers to starvation. Thousands of a next generation flowed into special schools for orphaned children whose parents perished in the struggle against the Japanese and in the Korean War. Many then entered governmental leadership, constituting an orphan "family state" out of the debris of two incredibly destructive wars. 
With widespread support emerging from popular battle for national liberation, Kim Il Sung's Korean Workers Party was well positioned to win a postwar election. US authorities had actually banned a short-lived "Peoples Republic of Korea Revolutionary Government" in December 1945. The prospect of a viable leftist government spurred Washington to take half a loaf by sealing the division of that country at the 38th parallel. In 1948, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic were being formed on opposite sides of that contrived divide. 
While the North Koreans have largely been accused of starting the war on June 25, 1950, the conflict's origin was murky (skirmishes by troops on both sides of the border had been commonplace). In any case, the massive South Korean and US counterattack across the 38th parallel undermined the anointment of that border as sacrosanct.  
Slogging through basic training in the summer of 1953, we draftees were only vaguely aware of what was happening (and possibly what awaited us) on the ill-fated peninsula. We were barely aware that napalm, invented at the end of World War II, was being dropped unsparingly on populous cities and industrial centers in North Korea - far more than dropped a decade or so later on North Vietnam. B-29 bombers incinerated scores of towns and villages, prompting even the arch cold warrior Winston Churchill to complain to Washington that napalm was not supposed to be "splashed" over civilian populations. [2]
"Conventional" aerial bombing compounded the Napalm horrors. When the Chinese entered the war in 1950, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the creation of a virtual wasteland between the Chinese border and the battlefront - bombing "every factory, city and village" over thousands of square miles. At war's end, only two modern buildings in the capital Pyongyang remained standing. 
In all, United States planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs principally on North Korea, including 33,000 tons of napalm. Damage assessments confirmed that 18 of 22 major cities in the North had been half or more demolished. At the end of the war, the dead and wounded, mainly northern approached three million, possibly 15 percent of the North Korean population. [3]
The unfortunate young men trapped in basic training had little or no inkling of the determination of the United States forces and their southern acolytes to obliterate the North. Nor did we have any real grasp of the well-grounded paranoia of North Korean and Chinese forces - paranoia that drove them to frenzied resistance to their adversaries.  
Most of all, there was no conversation, speculative or otherwise, that I can recall at any officer or recruit level about the most existential threat: the prospect of using atomic bombs. Hiroshima was a fresh memory, but when the Chinese entered the war, President Harry Truman had considered dropping the bomb again. At that point, Pentagon brass issued orders to the Strategic Air Command to "be prepared to dispatch without delay" bombs including those with "atomic capabilities." [4]
Again, in March 1951, MacArthur pressed the White House for a "D-Day atomic capability."  By the end of that month, atomic bombing pits were being loaded at the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. In April, the Joint Chiefs ordered instant "atomic retaliation" should fresh Chinese forces enter the war. In June, the Pentagon pondered the use of battlefield tactical atomic weapons. 
Mercifully, the Joint Chiefs could never find North Korean targets large enough for atomic incineration. The entry of the Chinese into the war triggered a stalemate that nudged the Pentagon into wishful thought that greater infusions of conventional warfare could possibly turn the tide of battle without recourse to atomic bombs. 
In those months of war before I scuttled my textbooks and lost my student deferment, one could sense a muted unease in the country regarding a war whose brutality and mass suffering only occasionally broke through in the media. In retrospect, the contrast with a televised war to come in Vietnam was overwhelming. I recall one rare moment when the newspapers published a photograph of what appeared to be a few US soldiers lying face down in a ditch. The caption said that they were prisoners of war who had been executed by the North Koreans or Chinese
Arguably, strong opposition to the war should have existed. A draft forced tens of thousands of unwilling youth into the armed forces. The United States lost were more than 36,000 dead and 128,000 wounded. The war was launched unconstitutionally without congressional consent. It was sold as a nebulous "police action" with vaguely limited objectives and no clear endgame - always troubling to a big chunk of the public. The UN imprimatur was questionable if not bogus. Washington got the Security Council sanction two days after US forces had intervened because the Soviets, boycotting the Council to protest Chinese Communist exclusion, were not present to cast a veto.  
Antiwar protest was stifled by the power and pervasiveness of the Cold War. Truman dared not deviate from full commitment to combat lest he would be confronted with the lethal McCarthyite charge that he "lost Korea" as the Democrats had "lost China."  A bipartisan foreign policy had become so enshrined that the Republicans were reduced to a dependable amen corner of support for the Democrats' war. The near unanimity of Republican assent to the carnage was only magnified by the lonely complaint of Senator Robert A. Taft, the conservative constitutionalist from Ohio that Truman pursued an "unnecessary war.without the slightest authority from Congress or the people." [5]
The biggest problem in galvanizing opposition to the war was the rupture and fragmentation of the left. The social democratic and liberal forces, always vital but wavering components of popular fronts quickly embraced the Korean War. Some whose heartfelt pacifism impelled them to stand against World War II had now found their way to backing a bloody unjust war in the name of stopping communist aggression and Stalinist tyranny. Such was the pilgrimage of the writer and social critic Dwight Macdonald who journeyed from pacifist rejection of mass killings of civilians in World War II to embrace of United States intervention in Korea presumably including the napalming of civilians. Also traveling that jagged road were socialist leader Norman Thomas and the remnants of the Socialist Party, The Progressive journal and perhaps most wounding - Henry Wallace who, under heavy pressure, converted from an unwavering voice for world peace and US-Soviet détente to supporter of a US war in Korea.  
Yet, we still had that small but resolute (and immensely inspiring) group of African Americans on the left who consistently excoriated the Cold War and the Korean "police action." They were sensitized to the increasingly militarized society that inevitably crippled a domestic social agenda needed by the vast majority but especially by besieged African Americans. Along with a broader segment of black opinion, they viewed atomic threats as largely pointed at colored people. They voiced concern that Washington's military power would be ranged against the yearning of colonized peoples for freedom. There was the fervent anti-imperialism of Shirley Graham. William A. Hunton was an immensely dignified voice steering the Council on African Affairs towards any political opening that would raise consciousness about the threat to colonial liberation embodied in a militarized US foreign policy. It was not surprising to see Paul Robeson at a Security Council meeting in the early days of the war voicing protest. It seemed that every speech delivered by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1950 senatorial campaign contained a stinging critique of US foreign and military policies - especially their imperial compulsions and the unhesitating incineration of colored people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 
The Korean War was central to the militarization of our society and to the creation a national security state. It was an essential element in fostering racism, sexism and in the strangulating of social programs - contributing to growing inequality. At this moment, the threat of a cataclysmic war between Washington and North Korea cannot be discounted. It is vital for the US public to know that North Korea has been asking for a peace treaty with Washington and Seoul (only an armistice is in place) for sixty-four years. At one point, North Korea dismantled a key nuclear facility; it had agreed with the Clinton administration to disband its nuclear weapons program in exchange for material aid and equipment to pursue peaceful atomic development - only to have the agreement scuttled by the incoming George W. Bush administration. 
North Korean paranoia and its rigidly controlled political culture are often the stuff of ridicule. Yet, the presence of tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea, annual joint US-South Korean war games on North Korean borders, nuclear armed US naval forces off North Korean waters - all give that paranoia rational grounding. 
A small and besieged peace movement in the fifties spoke out admirably at a time of intense McCarthyite repression. Today, there is a far broader and deeper movement for social and economic justice. However, the present-day movement for peace, despite that fact that peace is essential to all progress, has been muted or absent. There is a compelling need to repeat and deepen the demand for peace articulated by those courageous activists years ago.  It is not possible exaggerate the stakes. Voices for peace must be heard - now.
1. The material on the Korean War presented herein is based largely on the work of Bruce Cumings, the preeminent Korea scholar. His brief synthetic work, The Korean War: A History (New York: 2010) encapsulates a lifetime of work on that subject. The information in this essay is drawn largely from pages 3 to 35 of that work.
[Mark Solomon is a former member of the Presidential Committee of the World Peace Council, a past national co-chair of the US Peace Council and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). He is author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (University Press of Mississippi) and is editor of Victor Grossman's Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press).]

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)