The Korean War[In late 1949 and early 1959, there] seemed to be signals that the United States might not actively intervene in a Korean civil war, or be willing to shed vast quantities of American blood to prevent a forcible North Korean reunification of the peninsula. In 1950, therefore, Joseph Stalin finally gave his approval to Kim Il Sung’s ambitious plan of attack — with the understanding that there would be no active Russian participation. ... South Korea had a larger population than the north — approximately two-thirds of Korea’s total — but most of Korea’s existing heavy industry was located in the north. The northern military forces were also better equipped ... [and] as many as one hundred thousand North Korean soldiers had previous combat experience fighting with the Chinese communist forces during China’s civil war. These troops were already battle hardened, and their prior service in the Chinese communist cause also established an ominous burden of debt that the Chinese communists felt obliged to repay. ...
In the early morning hours before dawn on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces staged a massive offensive south across the line of the thirty-eight parallel. ... President Truman fully committed U.S forces in Korea and also ordered the American Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits to prevent a possible communist invasion of Taiwan. ... The defense of South Korea became a UN action. Eventually some fifteen countries would contribute soldiers to the war effort, although by far the largest foreign contingent came from the United States .... By the third week of the war, over half of South Korea had been captured by northern armies. With only light handheld weapons to confront the northern armored vehicles, the first American units that engaged the enemy also fell back quickly. Eventually, however, UN forces were able to dig in and hold a defensive perimeter of about fifty square miles around the southeastern Korean port city of Pusan, which provided an essential base for resupply and buildup for a counteroffensive. ...
Next, in a daring gamble, General MacArthur staged an amphibious landing farther up the west coast at Inch’on, on September 15. Inch’on is an important port city, serving the southern capital Seoul, but it has no nice sandy beaches and features one of the world’s most extreme tidal ranges. At low tide, an amphibious invasion must confront miles of mudflats. Inch’on could very easily have become a deathtrap for the UN soldiers, and MacArthur decided to strike there against much contrary advice — but he was fortunate, this time. Inch’on turned out to be the perhaps the single greatest triumph in General MacArthur’s long and distinguished military career. A mighty invasion armada consisting of 261 ships put the American X Corps ashore with the loss of only 536 men. By the end of September, the North Korean forces had been driven back to the place from which they had started, across the thirty-eight parallel. ...
On September 30, the first South Korean troops passed north across the thirty-eighth parallel. On October 2, the Chinese premier (Zhou Enlai) formally notified the Indian ambassador that China would intervene if any American troops crossed the parallel. ... Although this Chinese message was repeated through several channels, it was evidently not taken seriously. On October 7, the American First Cavalry crossed the thirty-eighth parallel heading into North Korea. On October 19, the North Korean capital fell, and by October 26 advanced units of the UN forces had reached as far as the Yalu River, which marks the border between Korea and China. A few days earlier, on October 15, at an historic meeting on Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, General MacArthur personally assured President Truman that there was “very little” chance of Chinese intervention in the war. Even if the Chinese did intervene, MacArthur boasted that they would be easily crushed in what he predicted would be “the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind.”
The very next day, on October 16, Chinese so-called “volunteers” began crossing the Yalu River into North Korea, undetected by UN observers. Given the vast disparity in military firepower between the United States and China at that time (this was, furthermore, a People’s Republic of China that was still scarcely a year old), China’s decision to enter the war was an enormous gamble. ... Most senior Chinese leaders were reluctant to go to war against the powerful American armed forces, especially after Joseph Stalin belatedly informed them that the Soviet Union would not provide air support. But Mao Zedong calculated that the U.S. would be unwilling to wage an unlimited total war, and Mao was also confident in his doctrine of “people’s war,” which relied on huge Chinese resources of manpower rather than technology. ... On November 27, the Chinese struck in full force. Within a week, the center of the UN line had fallen back again some fifty miles. By January 4, 1951, the South Korean capital at Seoul had fallen to the enemy for a second time.
General MacArthur seems to have felt at this point that the best military response to Chinese intervention in Korea would be to escalate the war by taking the offensive to the Chinese homeland. President Truman and the Joint Chiefs, however, sensibly enough, did not relish the idea of turning a limited, if nasty, was in Korea into a general World War III. ... When President Truman ordered that all future public statements concerning Korean War be cleared through the State Department, General MacArthur proceeded to violate this presidential directive repeatedly. MacArthur’s complaint was that the restraints being imposed on his war effort by civilian politicians were preventing him from winning total victory. In March 1951, MacArthur even wrote a letter endorsing the idea of “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese from Taiwan to open a second front against the Chinese communists. When this letter was read aloud on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. president viewed it as outright insubordination, and on April 11 President Truman officially relieved General MacArthur of his command.
The bloodiest phase of the combat in Korea was still yet to come, but by June 1951 the war had reached an effective stalemate not far from its original starting point at the thirty-eighth parallel. Cease-fire talks began, and a truce was declared on July 27, 1953. The war in Korea had cost the United States some thirty-three thousand lives. China lost roughly eight hundred thousand, including Chairman Mao’s own son. The conflict left a staggering three million Koreans killed, wounded, or missing — one out of every ten. In the north, the war provided Kim Il Sung with an opportunity to further consolidate his power. In South Korea, it helped pave the way for three decades of authoritarian military rule. In China, the war greatly increased the prestige of the infant People’s Republic, which had taken on the world’s leading military superpower and not been clearly defeated. To the present day, two mutually hostile Koreas still confront each other across a heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ). An official end to the war has yet to be arranged. (HEA, 331-5)
In the immediate aftermath of the war, with substantial Soviet assistance, and through energetic mass mobilization of its population, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recovered from the extensive destruction surprisingly quickly. For many years, the North Korean economy even appeared to be more vigorous than that of the south. But the North Koreans were reluctant to fully acknowledge the massive contribution that had been made by China in saving them from defeat during the war, or the important Soviet role in establishing Kim Il Sung as leader in the first place, and North Korea began charting a resolutely independent course. ... [After Kim Il Sung’s] disastrously failed attempt to conquer the south and reunify Korea, he developed his own unique philosophy of juche, or “self-reliance,” beginning around 1955. Juche became the core ideology of North Korea, to a large extent replacing orthodox Marxism. This ideology was then drummed into the entire population through morning-to-night loudspeaker broadcasts and obligatory political study sessions. The growing personality cult of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung “became a kind of secular religion” in which Kim Il Sung performed the role of “a living sage-king or god.” (HEA, 335-6)
In connection with a temporary thaw in relations with the south, in 1992 inspections of North Korean sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency began to be permitted. These inspections had no sooner begun than they were interrupted again the following year, however, and tensions escalated until North Korea announced that any further international sanctions would be considered an act of war. This showdown was defused by a dramatic visit to North Korea by a former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who managed to extract an agreement to resume talks. North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear program in exchange for a U.S. promise to supply fuel and to help North Korea develop light-water nuclear reactors that could not be put to military uses. In 2002, however, North Korea once again expelled its inspectors, withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and openly began trying to develop atomic weapons — in 2006, 2009, and 2013, actually detonating nuclear test devices. North Korea is currently suspected to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for a half-dozen atomic bombs, but prob ably is not yet capable of launching them by ballistic missile. (HEA, 338)
Under its youthful new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, since 2011 North Korea has appeared, if anything, even more volatile. In 2013, Kim purged and killed his own uncle, who had been the number two leader. In December 2014, the FBI identified North Korea as the culprit behind a cyberattack targeting the Sony Pictures movie “The Interview” — a comedy about a fictional assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un — which included making terroristic threats against movie audiences in the U.S., and which forced Sony to withdraw the film from theatrical release. Even the People’s Republic of China, which in 2010 still refused to condemn North Korea after it (was widely suspected of having) torpedoed and sunk a South Korean navy frigate, with considerable loss of life, and shelled a South Korean island causing civilian as well as military casualties, and which is probably North Korea’s only significant foreign friend in the world, nonetheless now enjoys vastly greater cultural and commercial ties with South Korea than with the north. (HEA, 338)
South KoreaThe Republic of Korea (South Korea) was founded in 1948 as a constitutional democracy, but true democracy in South Korea did not flourish immediately, at least not without qualification. Based on a series of major constitutional revisions, and a couple of military coups, South Korea has gone through a succession of six different so-called “Republics” since 1948, the most recent of which began in 1987. Despite a veneer of democracy, the first president of the First Republic, Syngman Rhee, had somewhat authoritarian inclinations. On one occasion, he literally locked up members of the National Assembly until they voted as he desired. ... Almost immediately after its formation, his new country had been plunged into a devastating war with the north. Even after the end of active combat, in the 1950s, South Korea long remained one of the poorest countries on earth. Even communist North Korea appeared more economically successful than South Korea until as late as the mid-1970s. A U.S.-backed program of compulsory land redistribution did, however, finally destroy the power base of the old Korean yangban aristocracy. ... Korean society was transformed from a highly polarized hierarchy to a relatively egalitarian community — a feature that postwar South Korea also had in common with both postwar Japan and Taiwan. (HEA, 338-9)
Gangnam StyleStarting in the 1990s, a so-called “Korean wave” (hallyu) of fascination for South Korean television programming, movies, music (K-Pop), and other pop cultural items, as well as for the material products of South Korean industry such as cell phones and automobiles, has swept across much of Asia. Although the astonishing worldwide Internet success of Psy’s (Park Jae-sang, 1977-) music video “Gangnam Style” might be dismissed as a one-time novelty song fluke, within Asia the Korean wave is real and substantial. (HEA, 348)
Contemporary Pop Culture