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The North Korea Quagmire: Part 1, A Contest of Colonialism and Communism

Politics / North Korea Jan 18, 2018 - 03:22 PM GMT

By: Raymond_Matison


About this article

The purpose of this article (and its companion article Part 2) is to assess three questions of great importance as it relates to the relationship between North Korea and the United States of America.  The first is to make an inquiry as to why America and North Korea for decades on end holds each other as steadfast enemies.  The second is to evaluate whether this mutual enmity may lead to physical war in the region or beyond.  Finally, what is the likelihood that any future confrontation between these two countries may destabilize our global financial markets?

The writer of this article is no expert on North or South Korea, with only limited knowledge gained from recently reading four books on this subject.  These books were all very informative but varying in topic emphasis.  Their writing was so excellent that this writer decided to use their phrases, sentences and paragraphs wherever possible and more or less to place them as pieces in a picture puzzle to fit the specific sub-topic being discussed.  In this regard, this entire article is different from all of this author’s other articles.

Great credit and thanks goes to these four expert authors who have made our inquiry into the quagmire that is North Korea possible.  This article is heavily influenced by the comments, opinions, and writing of these four expert authors, with the attempt of this writer to coalesce their distinct histories into a unified comprehensive and compelling view, thereby providing a better and corroborated understanding as to what really has taken place in America’s and North Korea’s relationship these decades.  It is worthwhile asserting that the average American either does not know this history, or has forgotten it.  Given the prominence of North Korea’s recent brazen actions promoting great instability, it is very important for every American to understand the actual history of North Korea, the Korean peninsula as a whole, the milieu in which it occurred, and even more important to understand both sides of the story.  

The four books and its authors from whom almost all information and insights in this article have been taken are as follows:

“The Impossible State North Korea, Past and Future” Victor Cha, 2012
“Brothers at War, the Unending Conflict in Korea” Sheila Miyoshi Jager, 2013
“The Korean War, a History” Bruce Cummings, 2011
“The Coldest Winter, America and the Korean War” David Halberstam, 2007

The dramatic real saga of North Korea’s short history is impossible for any fiction writer to imagine – its founding and subsequent reality over the last seventy years is too bizarre for anyone to envision.  From being at the mercy of great powers for over one hundred years, North Korea has learned to become aggressive in its own national security interests and preparedness.  At this time, North Korea is threatening other nations.  It draws attention to its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile test-firing, and its preparedness to direct such weapons specifically towards the United States.  Its leadership seems so resolute in its policies that North Korea is seen as the rogue nation which needs reigning in, and any words to the contrary seem credibly anti-American.  But geopolitical issues are never as simple or transparent as they appear, or as they are purveyed by a single country media; and there always is another side to the commonly accepted events.  If we can entertain the view that history is generally not written to establish truth, but to control political events, then the views of these four authors becomes compelling and very interesting.

In order to gain every reader’s initial attention, we start this article with the intentionally provocative but true statement that the bizarre history of North Korea started with a fateful decision made by America’s State Department and President Truman in 1948.  How?  The country of North Korea did not exist before the United States proposed the partition of Korea into two countries – therefore, any problems with North Korea today stem directly, or are related to our own State Department and Presidential initial and subsequent decisions over these decades.

The Ancient Country

The whole Korean peninsula extends from China’s mainland, and is approximately 680 miles long and 130 miles wide.  It is surrounded by the Yellow Sea to its west, and the Sea of Japan to its east.  The island of Japan is approximately 120 miles away.  It has a long border of approximately 450 miles with China largely created by the boundary of the Yalu River, and a short 20 mile border with Russia substantially expanded by access through the Sea of Japan.  The country becomes increasingly mountainous as one heads north, with only 20% of the land being arable with short crop seasons in what is currently North Korea. 

Korea was a unified nation since the seventh century with its own language, culture, monarchy, state bureaucracy, and centuries of high civilization comparable to that in neighboring China and Japan.  Korea is an ancient nation, and one of the very few places in the world where territorial boundaries, ethnicity, and language have been consistent for well over a millennium. Although it has been deeply influenced by China’s Middle Kingdom over many centuries, it has always had an independent civilization.

Korea has been invaded over 900 times in its 2000 year history.  Despite having remained an independent nation for over a thousand years, it was annexed by Japan in 1910.  A privileged landed class, a mass of peasants, and little leavening in between – lasted through 20th century colonialism, because after their rule began in 1910 the Japanese found it useful to operate through local landed power.  Global depression, war, and the ever increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance.
Korea was a small, proud country that had the misfortune to lie in the path of three infinitely larger, stronger, more ambitious powers – China, Japan, and Russia.  Korea suffered one of the worst, twentieth-century histories of any nation, and remains divided in the new century.

Colonialism of China, Japan, Korea

Colonialism was widely embraced and practiced in the 1600-1950 year period by most countries of Europe.  Eventually it was the larger weaker nations that became the main targets of these European colonialists.  Six different countries infringed on China’s borders in the 1800’s for the purpose of imposing profitable trade deals.  Since China could not defend its borders and cities, its government became neutralized, and foreign powers dictated over its sovereignty.  Japan learned quickly that it would either adopt the ways of western powers, or it would itself become colonized.  As a result it became a colonizer, defeated Russia in a quick war, and invaded large portions of China and Manchuria.

Japan instigated a war with China in 1894 and defeated it a year later.  Over one hundred years has passed since China was forced to leave the Korean peninsula after its humiliating defeat in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War.  That war marked China’s decline and Japan’s ascendancy in East Asian affairs.  China was weak, cruel, and barbaric in its own way: a challenge by one set of violent, autocratic men to another set of autocratic and ruthless men who had ruled poorly with elemental brutality.  It was a system of oppression rather than authority that had been imposed with unparalleled harshness and greed upon ordinary Chinese.  Every unbearable aspect of their daily lives was marked by some kind of injustice, and the absence of elemental dignity.

The China that existed in reality was a feudal country badly fragmented politically and geographically, a country of almost unbearable poverty, ruled more often than not by regional warlords of exceptional cruelty.  The Japanese in conquering portions of China practiced and exceeded this exceptional cruelty of these warlords, which has been the basis of enmity between the two countries over the last century.  Japanese imperial forces were willing to go to any lengths to break the relationship between guerillas and the sea of people in which they swam: slaughtering suspected peasant collaborators (millions of Chinese died) in “kill-all, burn-all, loot-all” campaigns, as they were called.

After another decade of rivalry over Korea, Japan smashed czarist Russia in lighting naval and land attacks, stunning the world because a “yellow” country had defeated a “white” power.  Korea became a Japanese protectorate in 1905 and a colony in 1910, with the blessings of all the great powers and especially the United States.  The Koreans were regarded by the Japanese as a lower species of humanity, all the more inferior for having been so readily conquered.

Roosevelt was impressed with the Japanese as being the kind of can-do nation he could admire.  So with covert American agreement, the Japanese were allowed to control Korea ever more tightly, as a “protectorate” after the Russo-Japanese War, and then, in 1910, by open, brazen annexation – as a full-fledged Japanese colony.  

As war in the Pacific against the US heated up in the 1930’s, Japan sought to fully assimilate its colonies in Manchuria and Korea to fuel the war machine.  Koreans were exploited in mines, factories, forced labor details, and the like; tellingly, 10 per cent of their entire population (2.5 million) was in Japan in 1945.  In addition to common exploitation during the Second World War, Japan engaged women in what politely is called sexual exploitation but realistically was institutionalized repeated rape.
Yoshiaki Yoshimi in 1995 wrote a book, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II.  He determined that somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 women were in the system by the time it was fully established, the vast majority of them Korean.  The women were required to “comfort” 40-50 soldiers a day.

Harvard and Yale were not universities where great faculty members taught about the yearning of the colonized to be free.  Rather the students there learned of the innate generosity that colonialism offered those whose good fortune it was to be colonized. Most Koreans never saw imperial rule as anything but illegitimate and humiliating.

U.S. Occupation of Japan and Korea

American policy in East Asia was focused on the occupation of Japan, not on the occupation of Korea. The value in rebuilding the Japanese using military and economic aid and the resources of the United Nations was to prop up nations threatened by communism.  George Marshall told Acheson to draft a plan to connect a separate Korea with Japan’s economy.  South Korea was seen as essential to Japan’s industrial revival.

Because Korea, as a result of the Japanese colonialism, was virtually a country without political institutions and without indigenous leadership, the American military decided that they would have to rely on incumbent Japanese officials to carry out the essential functions of governance.  The first American commanders to arrive there, were utterly unaware of how much the Koreans loathed their Japanese masters, and how cruel the Japanese occupation had been.  Koreans also deeply resented the Americans treating the Koreans as a conquered people while conferring with the Japanese on the future of their country.  If the Japanese were to be reformed and treated as friends, where did that leave the Koreans, victims of Japan’s brutal colonial regime?

MacArthur wanted no part of Korea in the period from 1945-1950.  “I wouldn’t put my foot in Korea.  It belongs to the State Department,” MacArthur had stated.  “They wanted it and got it.”  Japan after the defeat in the Pacific was like a nation whose god had failed and now sought a new, more secular one; MacArthur, if nothing else, had always wanted to be idolized, and now he had found an entire nation ready to see him as a kind of deity. 

The North Korea colony before division

North Korea has undergone extraordinary hardships for a country that emerged at the end of World War II with one of the most developed infrastructures in Asia.  North Korea was the most industrialized and urbanized Asian country to emerge from WWII.  Japanese colonial authorities had built a network of heavy and chemical industries, hydroelectric power plants, railroad and telephone communications systems that were state-of-the-art at the time. 

By 1945, when Korea was liberated by Soviet and U.S. troops, the northern half possessed 76 per cent of the peninsula’s mining production, 80 percent of its heavy industrial capacity, and 92 percent of its electricity-generation capabilities. North Korean government found itself in 1945 inheriting and nationalizing state-of-the-art factories and technology.  With Soviet help, North Korea rebuilt large hydroelectric power plants, built hundreds of water-pumping stations for agricultural irrigation, and used high tech chemical fertilizers.  Though hard to imagine today, North Korea was a fairly high-tech economy in the 1960s and 1970s.

By contrast, in South Korea, which the Japanese treated as the “bread basket” of the Korean colony, there was no industry to nationalize and only scorched rice paddies.
Also there were actually a higher number of communists and socialists in the South at the end of WWII than in the North.

The country’s division

More than FDR’s grand design for a new world order, it was the sudden collapse of Japan that would determine Korea’s future.  With Japan’s collapse the Korean peninsula suddenly became of interest to the Americans and the Soviet Union.  However, the Soviet advance through Manchuria was so rapid that it would be able to occupy the entire Korean peninsula before the Americans could get there.  The Americans decided to approach the Soviets with a proposal to divide the peninsula into American and Soviet zones of occupation.

For the purpose of accepting the surrender of Japanese armed forces, in July 1945 the US and Soviet Union agreed to divide the Korean peninsula into temporary occupation zones along the 38th parallel.  Soviet armed forces had entered northern Korea and swept southward, but they accepted the 38th parallel decision silently, without comment or written agreement.  Therefore the North Korean regime was created in 1948 out of the division of the Korean Peninsula by U.S. and Soviet occupation forces at the beginning of the Cold War.

The Initially divided countries – North Korea

In September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the north, headed by a young former Soviet Army captain and anti-Japanese guerilla fighter, Kim Il-sung.  In the North, when the Red Army swept in, institutions were imposed instantly from the top down by the Russians, and Kim Il-sung had been installed by the Soviet Union.  Kim Il-sung the first “Great Leader” of North Korea was little more that a puppet of an unpopular Soviet occupation of North Korea.

Kim, while in his twenties, was an ambitious man displaced from his homeland.  He spent the next twenty years in the Communist movement in China, and like many nationalist Koreans saw this as a career path and devotion to the Korean independence cause.  Kim Il-sung was the authentic Korean patriot, a true independence fighter - an anti-Japanese guerilla in the hills of Manchuria.  Kim Il-sung was also something of a contradiction, a fierce nationalist who was the creation of an imperial power, the Soviet Union.  To Kim there was no contradiction between being a Korean patriot, a dedicated Communist, and an instrument of the Russians.  But even as Kim became materially dependent on the Soviet Union, the regime started to create an indigenous official narrative of “self-reliance” that is contrary to communist regimes.

The U.S. Geological Survey assesses North Korea to have some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of coal, iron ore, limestone, magnetite, and other minerals akin to rare earth reserves (tungsten, molybdenum, and niobium-tantalum).  North Korea’s 47,000 square miles of territory is rich in resources.  Lying beneath their feet are estimated to be over 100 billion metric tons of limestone, 14.7 billion tons of coal deposits, 6.5 billion tons of magnetite, 3 billion tons of iron ore, 12 million tons of zinc, 1.2 million tons of nickel, and substantial deposits of silver and gold. Some Europeans drilling companies believe there may be oil deposits in the seas west of the country.

The initially divided countries – South Korea

An UN-sponsored election for a national assembly was conducted in the south in May 1948. The new national assembly chose an aging and fiery nationalist, an exile politician who had spent his previous thirty years in America, named Sygman Rhee, to be the first president of the Republic of Korea (ROK).  Rhee almost pathologically anti-Communist wanted more than anything else to go to war against the North.  Rhee refused to sign any armistice that would keep Korea divided.

Consequently, the U.S. did not provide a lot of arms for fear that South Korean president Sygman Rhee (1948-1960) might use them to provoke a war with the North, thereby drawing the United States into his reunification plans.  This lack of military build-up in the South also would encourage the North Korea to attempt its own plans for unification.

President Rhee did not want an armistice but to fight communism to the death.
However, in April 1960 a popular uprising led by labor and student groups, overthrew the Rhee regime.  When Park came to power in 1961, South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world in term of per capita GNP, and it was completely dependent on the U.S.   Park ran the country with an iron fist, which he deemed necessary to counter the communist threat.  Park was a stooge of Japanese and American occupiers.  Park abandoned Rhee’s anti-Japanese attitude and normalized relations with Japan.

The ROK reflected the troubled nation they represented – a subjugated, semi-feudal society still struggling with the burdens of a colonial feudal past, emerging awkwardly, slowly, and seemingly incompetently from that past, under a volatile, authoritarian leader who believed himself the ultimate democrat.  The southerners, no matter what their grievance against Rhee, also knew a good deal about the oppressiveness of the Pyongyang regime.  That was something Kim did not think about, for he was a true believer as a Communist and did not think of his regime as oppressive.  By the end of 1948, two anti-hierarchical and antagonistic regimes were formed, each with its own vision of Korea’s future.

The Inter-Korean War – North Korea invasion of South Korea

Given Kim Il-sung’s strong nationalistic convictions, recognition of a militarily weak South Korea, and the belief that a large portion of people in South Korea would support his gambit for unifying the divided countries, he lobbied both China and Russia to support an invasion of South Korea.  Stalin ultimately gave Kim Il-sung the green light to launch the invasion, which took place at dawn on Jun 25, 1950, starting a war of Koreans against Koreans. 

The North Korean troops were very good and were well equipped. The soldiers were well trained, and they outnumbered the South Korean troops almost two to one. The soldiers were mainly of peasant background: they were embittered against their poverty, against the Japanese who had ruled them so cruelly, against the upper-class Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese; and now they were indoctrinated against the Americans, who in their minds had replaced the Japanese in the South.

South Korean military was terribly weak; it had nine army divisions which were poorly trained and equipped.  With the North’s invasion, military morale evaporated and civilians panicked.  Seoul fell to a Northern invasion force of about 37,000 troops.  By month end fully half of the ROKA soldiers were dead, captured, or missing.  Only two divisions had their equipment and weapons, all the rest having been left in place or lost on the battlefield.   According to Gen. Matthew Ridgway, by the summer of 1951 the ROK army had lost enough materiel to outfit ten divisions,

Least known to Americans is how appallingly dirty this war was, with a history of civilian slaughters amid which our ostensibly democratic ally was the worst offender, contrary to the American image of the north Koreans as fiendish terrorists.  North and South Koreans tried to outdo each other in eliminating suspected collaborators and sympathizers of the other side.  Violent upheavals by communists and leftists plagued the American zone.   When North Korea invaded, the South Korean regime hastily took measures to eliminate those who might help the communists.  Some of the worst atrocities were committed by South Koreans against South Koreans - conducted against leftists.  Koreans fought: crude, illiberal, murderous.

The quick and virtually complete collapse of resistance in the South, and fear for damage to its image if it did not respond energized the United States to enter the war in force.

The U.S. response to North Korea’s invasion
The United States was going to go to war in Korea, and Harry Truman was quite reluctantly going to have to be the commander in chief dealing with a war he did not want, in a part of the world his national security people had not thought important, and relying from the start on a commander in the field whom he did not like, and who in turn did not respect him.

North Korea had taken Seoul, and was moving south, when General MacArthur’s daring marine landing at Inchon stopped the sure conquest of South Korea by the North.  MacArthur’s Inchon gamble had paid off.  He had saved South Korea.  A fleet of 270 ships deposited 70,000 marines with hardly a loss.  Against this the North Koreans could do nothing.  The North Korean army, faced with encirclement and annihilation, rapidly retreated and disappeared.    Kim Il-sung’s dream of reuniting the peninsula under his rule by provoking a general uprising in the South had been thwarted. 

This great military coup was followed by a strategic error which had the approval of the president Truman to invade and conquer North Korea to its Chinese border.   It prompted the relatively poor and yet weak China marshaling 700,000 troops to fight the world’s greatest military power to a standstill, eventually concluding with the reinstatement of the 38th parallel military division.  The decision to defend South Korea was the finest hour of the Truman presidency, the decision to march to the Yalu occasioned an incalculable defeat to U.S. foreign policy and destroyed the Truman administration.

After the Inchon landing regular North Korean forces also continued pulling back in the face of the American decision to launch attacks across the parallel.  Truman’s advisors said that the chance had come not only to contain Communist aggression, but to roll it back and decided to invade the North.    Mac Arthur was authorized by the President to move into North Korea if there were no Soviet or Chinese threats to intervene.  Likewise UN Security Council passed Resolution 83 authorizing the use of force to halt North Korean aggression and had authorized MacArthur to go north.

Washington wanted to avoid a major war with China.  What McArthur wanted to do was to drive to the Yalu and unify all of Korea.  Mac Arthur had told the president that China would not enter the war despite the fact that the Chinese had warned that they would enter the war.  Torn between his great dream of conquering all of Korea and the danger to his troops from a formidable new enemy, MacArthur chose to pursue his dream and to put his army at risk.

The confrontation between the world’s most powerful nation and a nation of “bandits” was a brutal wake-up call to Washington, for it showed just how much American military readiness had deteriorated.  It was glaringly apparent that America was unprepared to fight a conventional war.  Later MacArthur became despondent over the consequences of China’s intervention.  He had staked his reputation on the Chinese not entering, or if they did, that he could easily deal with them.  The Red Chinese had made a fool of the infallible “military genius”.

Chinas considerations for helping Communist North Korea

First, the Communists were unlikely to permit a pro-Western proxy state to exist so near the Russian and Chinese border.  The Chinese decided to send their troops to Korea because Mao believed it was good for the new China, and necessary for the future of the revolution both domestically and internationally.  He also feared what a failure to intervene would mean – that his China, for all its rhetoric, was not that different from the old China, a powerless giant when facing what was in their eyes the armies of Western oppressors.

They observed that Americans are not capable of waging a large-scale war at all because all of their strength lies in air power and the atomic bomb.  Mao noted that they may even drop atomic bombs on us.  What then?  They may kill a few million people.  Without sacrifice a nation’s independence cannot be upheld.  Most Chinese people lived off farms, so what can atomic bombs do there?  China cannot be bombed out of existence.  The Americans can bomb us, they can destroy our industries, but they cannot defeat us on land.

To Mao and others in the Chinese leadership Taiwan was part of China, but MacArthur was referring to it as de facto American property.  To Mao it meant that the last battle of the Chinese civil war had not yet been fought - something few American understood.  China could not challenge the U.S. in Taiwan; therefore, Korea was far more attractive.  If the Americans crossed the thirty-eight parallel, China would be forced to intervene.

China’s response to U.S. invasion into North Korea

Eventually a force of thirty – six divisions, or roughly some seven hundred thousand troops would be available for the conflict.  Over several weeks two hundred thousand Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu River undetected.  As American forces were eager to reach the Yalu River, no one suspected, least of all MacArthur, that almost 400,000 Chinese troops were about to strike.

North Korean strategy was to lure them deep into the interior of North Korea, thus to stretch their supply lines, wait for winter, and gain time for a dramatic reversal on the battlefield.  The winter of 1950-51 turned out to be one of the harshest on record; the temperatures at night were minus 20F.   Chinese were already in the country, waiting patiently in the mountains of Northern Korea.  They wanted the Americans to be even farther north when they struck.

The combined Sino-Korean offensive cleared North Korea of enemy troops in little more than two weeks from its inception.  MacArthur “had been outsmarted and outgeneraled by a “bunch of Chinese laundrymen” who had no close air support, no tanks and very little artillery, modern communications or logistical infrastructure.”  The North Koreans who had no airpower chose to do their fighting at night, while the Americans preferred daytime.  MacArthur would never admit the mistakes he had made.  To no one’s surprise MacArthur did not take responsibility for the defeat; if anything he soon spoke as if he had been the principal victim of Washington’s policies.

The Armistice

American forces had not been able to hold terrain.  Each side had managed to neutralize the forces of the other, but both seemed somehow powerless to stop the war itself.   Washington wanted to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table without investing significantly more resources in Korea.   We never won the Korean War; we helped the south defend itself in a successful war to contain communism in the summer of 1950, and then we lost our attempt to invade and overthrow communism in the North in the terrible winter of 1950-51.   In July 1953 the four primary parties to the war signed an armistice agreement.  No peace treaty has been signed, so the peninsula remains in a technical state of war.

A cease-fire, not a peace treaty, ended hostilities in 1953.  Mao was willing to conclude an armistice if it was accomplished in a manner that would not undermine China’s prestige.  Mao already viewed the war as a victory for China: it had fought the world’s greatest superpower to a standstill.  North and South Korea remained divided.

None of the countries involved in this conflict demonstrated civilized deportment, or convincing human evolution. With the signed armistice agreement and the country’s division reinstated, no one achieved military victory – or a moral one.

Raymond Matison

In Part 2. of this article we examine the most egregious actions of the belligerents which have promoted their ossified positions, and from the most recent events project the likely resolution of this long-term catastrophe.

Mr. Matison was an Institutional Investor magazine top ten financial analyst of the insurance industry, founded Kidder Peabody’s investment banking activities in the insurance industry, and was a Director in Merrill Lynch Capital Markets.   He can be e-mailed at

Copyright © 2018 Raymond Matison - All Rights Reserved

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