Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

OVERVIEW
The United States and Korea

IN AUGUST 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea and set up client regimes in the South and the North that immediately dedicated themselves to undoing the division. Both Syngman Rhee in the South and Kim Il Sung in the North repeatedly pressured their superpower patrons to help them reunify the peninsula militarily. The United States resisted Rhee, but in early 1950, after initially restraining Kim Il Sung, Josef Stalin agreed to support a North Korean invasion of the South. When the Korean War finally ended with the 1953 armistice, some 800,000 Koreans on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel had lost their lives, together with 115,000 Chinese and 36,400 Americans.


PUPPETS, PUPPETEERS, AND THE KOREAN WAR

Mounting historical evidence makes it increasingly clear that the meaning of the Korean War has been widely misunderstood. The original assumption underlying U.S. intervention was that the North had acted as a puppet of the Soviet Union in the opening thrust of a worldwide Communist expansionist offensive. This assumption led to an image of the conflict as a mere extension of the superpower rivalry, with its fundamental character as a civil war largely obscured. But historians have now established beyond doubt that it was Kim Il Sung, not Stalin, who instigated the invasion, primarily in response to an internal factional challenge from his most significant rival for control of the ruling Workers Party in the North, Pak Hon Yong, who was later purged. Pak had been the leader of the Korean Communist organization in the South before fleeing north following the division and the U.S. occupation. Having left his party base behind, he wanted to liberate the South to enhance his power in the Workers Party. Pak used the rallying cry of unification to challenge Kim for party control, and Kim responded by assuming the leadership of the unification cause himself.

Recent research in the Soviet Union and China has unearthed extensive documentation that shows how hesitant Stalin was in responding to Kim's pressures for an invasion. When Kim first raised the issue in March 1949, Stalin told him not to invade the South unless Rhee attacked first. In October, Moscow reprimanded Pyongyang for provocative military

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