Korea, China, and the United States: A Look Back

By Deane, Hugh | Monthly Review, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Korea, China, and the United States: A Look Back


Deane, Hugh, Monthly Review


The triumph of the Chinese revolution in 1949 secured the Manchurian rear of Kim II Sung's Democratic People's Republic and brought it the bonanza of scores of thousands of battle-experienced troops. Koreans whom Kim had sent to fight in the Chinese People's Liberation Army against the Kuomintang came home, bringing much equipment, and were integrated into the new northern army.

That year North Korea responded defensively when South Korean troops provocatively crossed the 38th parallel on the Onjin peninsula. But when the south crossed again in the same area in 1950, as substantial evidence indicates, North Korea struck all along the parallel in what turned into an attempt to unite Korea by force. Yet the northern assault of June 25, 1950, did not begin the Korean war. The war started in 1945 and it was begun by the United States.

When the U.S. Twenty-fourth Corps, commanded by General John R. Hodge, landed in Inchon that September, it found in place a thriving Korean People's Republic organized and led by jubilant patriots with a sense of historic mission. The United States responded by allying itself with Korean collaborators, the Japanese trained police, youthful terrorist groups, the dominant landlord class, and returned rightist exiles like Syngman Rhee, to bring about the destruction of the People's Republic and its supportive new-born organizations--trade unions, peasant associations, the youth federation, and all sorts of cultural groups. Cruelties beyond count led to the establishment in 1948 of a separatist southern regime headed by Rhee, who began many trips to the podium with promises to invade the north and free its enslaved population.

The official rhetoric and most accounts in the media portrayed the Rhee dictatorship as a praiseworthy young democracy valiantly confronting a despotic Soviet puppet in the north. But the CIA told it broadly as it was in internal documents. It said that South Korean politics were dominated by rightists "who control most of the wealth" and exercise control through the National Police, which, allied with "rightist youth groups," are "ruthlessly brutal in suppressing disorder." The left had been driven underground.

Rhee's abuses and inflammatory rhetoric alarmed and troubled important U.S. officials, largely for pragmatic reasons. Moves to try to shift to a centrist regime were considered and debated. But, as elsewhere, the deterrent was a serious uncertainty, the possibility that centrism might slip over to a left success. The United States clung to Rhee and to the dictatorships that succeeded him.

Still in naval uniform, I was in Seoul briefly in October 1945. General Hodge had recently described Japanese and Koreans as "the same breed of cat." Syngman Rhee arrived on one of MacArthur's planes to be warmly welcomed at a ceremony organized by the United States and its Korean collaborator friends. Rhee was provided with quarters with the generals in the Chosen Hotel, with a huge slush fund and ready access to the radio. I returned for substantial stays in 1947 and 1948. In 1947 I feverishly reported on the destruction of the above-ground left and in 1948, with Pierre Doublet of Agence France Presse, I worked to get at the truth of the farcical election that elevated Rhee to power.

Left-oriented educated Koreans had been misled into believing that if U.S. correspondents were amply supplied with the facts, they would use them to get the truth out. The result was that hundreds of nocturnal hours were spent in preparing detailed papers on a score of subjects. The English was flawed (a scholar who became a friend spoke Shakespearean English) and some of the facts were hearsay, but they were a powerful, numbing recitation of the brutalities that frustrated the aspirations of a long-suffering people. My copies are among my Korean papers at the University of Chicago.

The left did not succumb easily. The Autumn Harvest Uprisings of 1946 were a surge of bitter anger, ill-organized by the local people's committees of the People's Republic, and savagely crushed. …

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