The Korean War: A United People’s War Against Imperialism

By Do Hyun Byun.

Presentation given on March 12, 2022 at Korea, Vietnam, and Afro-America: Our Shared Struggle for Peace & Democracy, organized by VietLaoKhmer and the Bandung Reading Group.

James Baldwin writes on history:

“For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

Though history is within us, young Asians in America have become disconnected from it. The implications of not knowing our history are catastrophic. Without history we are lost. Without history we have no standard or understanding of what people have stood for, what we come from. Without history, we don’t know what kinds of people we can aspire to be. 

We have been lied to and misguided about the truth – what’s taught to us often frames our history as experiences of victimhood and exclusion in America. In the universities, Asian American studies classes emphasize the history that begins with the exploited agricultural laborers, known as coolies, the first Asians to arrive in America. Or perhaps they emphasize the murder of Vincent Chin and the Asian American organizing that began from that tragedy.

But we rarely talk about the history that begins in Asia and its far-reaching civilizations. We tout our Asian identities in today’s cultural moment of identity politics, a moment where suddenly it feels cool to be “Asian” – to eat Asian food, watch Asian movies, speak another language, but in many ways we have turned our backs to Asia. We’re grasping for something because we want to reject whiteness and feel like blackness is not our place, but we also don’t know how to be Asian. 

Our questioning of identity can only be resolved through history. And the peoples of Asia have produced, among many beautiful things, a tradition of struggle for peace that we can learn from. In Korea, there is a hidden history of the fight for sovereignty, democracy, and peace that shows us what kind of principled people we can be.

Korea was colonized by Japan in 1910 until 1945 when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. The Korean peninsula was divided by the US at the 38th parallel, roughly the middle of the peninsula, with plans for the Soviet Union to come to the north and the US to come to the south to assist the transition of the surrender of Japan. Yet an arbitrary line drawn on a single nation in 1945 has somehow become ingrained in our perceptions today as a natural fact. It is in 1950 that the Korean War began, which ended in not peace but a pause in 1953 through an armistice, a state of limbo that today, almost 70 years later, we still can’t untangle ourselves from. The war continues today. 

Any complete study of Korea and the Korean War must draw heavily from the work of three principled journalists who delivered the truth to the Western audience: Anna Louise Strong, Alan Winnington, and Wilfred Burchett.

The personal eyewitness accounts of these journalists north of the parallel provided them perspectives that no other Western journalist had access to. The reporting of all three journalists’ shared an essence: 

1) The Korean people were united in their aspirations for peace and sovereignty. The history that we are told in the mainstream is that the Korean War was a result of internal division so deep that the communist north invaded a democratic south to begin a civil war. The work of these journalists debunks that. The actions of the Korean people that these journalists witnessed show that Koreans were united in striving for one singular, independent nation, and to build a democracy in their own vision. 

2) The American government suppressed the Korean people and their efforts to build democracy in their own vision, which to this day we continue to feel the effects of. Through brutal napalm bombings, massacres, and police intimidation, the US Military Government and its puppet Syngman Rhee put down the voice of the people. Korea was divided as a result of the United States government’s political project of countering the Soviet Union and claiming hegemony over Asia.

We can see the essence of what Anna Louise Strong, Alan Winnington, and Wilfred Burchett reported on through three examples of Korea’s struggle.

The first example begins with the arrival of American and Soviet troops on Korean soil to accept the surrender of Japan. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. On that day, Koreans everywhere rejoiced, but were quick to organize, as exemplified by a village called Tonglim, who first heard word of this surrender in the afternoon. Youth organizers called a mass meeting for that evening and got to work – the town established a Self-Administration Committee, took over the Japanese police station, opened the village school, and conducted lessons in Korean to teach their children.

Burchett wrote in This Monstrous War: “This was of course not organised from Tonglim alone, but by working with other village committees. There were no Korean text-books, as they had been banned and destroyed by the Japanese, but teachers, writers, historians, and workers got together to produce within three days copied mimeographed sheets which could serve as text-books until policies and publishing houses could be organised.”

The U.S. arrived in the south three weeks after Japan’s surrender. In those three weeks, Koreans in every village elected People’s Committees and began administering the country. 

Yet upon the arrival of US forces, General Douglas MacArthur made a proclamation that revealed the true intentions of the United States.

MacArthur wrote:

“By virtue of the authority vested in me as Commander-in-Chief, United States Army Forces, Pacific, I hereby establish military control over Korea south of 38 degrees north latitude and the inhabitants thereof, and announce the following conditions of the occupation:

Article I

All powers of Government over the territory of Korea south of 38 degrees north latitude and the people thereof will be for the present exercised under my authority.

Article II

Until further orders, all governmental, public and honorary functionaries and employees…shall continue to perform their usual functions and duties…

Article III

All persons will obey promptly all my orders and orders issued under my authority. Acts of resistance to the occupying forces or any acts which may disturb public peace and safety will be punished severely…”

In effect, MacArthur was announcing an American occupation of Korea below the 38th parallel, that all government workers (aka the Japanese administrators/colonizers or Korean traitors who worked for the Japanese) would stay, and anyone disobeying the law laid down by the US would be punishable by death. An occupation, not liberation, had occurred in the south.

By contrast, the Soviet Union in the north encouraged the Koreans to build a democracy in their own vision. The commander of the Soviet forces, General Chistiakov proclaimed to the newly liberated people:

“To the Korean People!

… Remember you have your future happiness in your own hands. You have attained liberty and independence. Now everything is up to you. The Soviet Army has paved the way and created the conditions for you Korean people, for the free and creative ventures you are bound to embark on. Koreans must make themselves the creators of their own happiness.”

The second example occurred in the Korean elections of 1948. Rather than agreeing to the Soviet Union’s proposal for both Soviet and American troops to leave Korea, the US Military Government forced a UN-sanctioned election to occur only south of the parallel, over the calls of the Korean people for a nation-wide election on their own terms. What could have been a relatively simple process of the American troops leaving and the sovereign people of Korea working through their visions for their own country was denied by the US pushing the UN-backed election and effectively cementing the division of the Korean peninsula. The American-backed Syngman Rhee ran in the UN-sanctioned elections unopposed and won – potential opponent candidates were attacked and beaten. 

Prior to these illegitimate elections, a conference was held by Koreans in Pyongyang earlier in 1948 to discuss the question of unifying the north and south, and to boycott the UN-sanctioned elections. Members of organizations and political parties across the political spectrum took part. This was a united effort from both sides of the 38th parallel, and for the South it included groups that represented over 90% of organized Koreans south of the parallel. This was a big blow to the American military government’s legitimacy in Korea. Burchett writes, “The fact that right-wing parties and virtually every leading political figure from the South, some of whom the Americans had been grooming for top positions, took part in the conference and lent their prestige and names to denouncing American policy, was a bitter blow to USAMGIK. Bitterest of all was that the aging, conservative elder statesman Kim Ku, who had headed the provisional government in Chungking and had great prestige among the conservatives, took part in the conference and signed the decisions.” 

Burchett provides a snippet of the communique from this conference representing the unity of the Korean people: “…the United States intends to divide this country at the 38th parallel… We are in firm opposition to the American policy of colonizing backward countries and we oppose traitors and pro-Japanese who have now been established in power by the Americans. We are also opposed to the United Nations Commission to Korea which is designed to deceive the Korean people. In order to prevent the colonization of our country by American imperialists, we, both South and North Korean political parties and organizations, are united so that we can further develop a movement throughout the country to oppose separate elections and to support the Soviet proposals to establish a unified, independent country by having foreign troops withdrawn from Korea.”

The third example is from Alan Winnington’s reporting from the Korean war. Drawing from what he witnessed in September of 1950, Winnington shared about the unprecedented brutality of American warmakers. To Winnington, like all Europeans, the horrors of war were fresh in his mind because of his experiences witnessing World War II and the Nazis. And thus in his reporting, he appeals to his fellow Englishmen, to remember the war that had destroyed their nation, and to understand that what America was doing in Korea was far worse than what the Nazis had done.

Winnington describes the destruction in the town of Wonsan in I Saw the Truth in Korea: “The American style of waging war in Korea is on the same pattern as the Nazis but, bearing in mind the size of the country, even more savage and just as stupid… A thousand tons of bombs; a town obliterated; over 4,000 casualties in all; tens of thousands made homeless and bereaved—all to damage a rail-track. Does it make sense? This is bombing in the fashion that no British town ever met.”

Yet through this immense destruction, the Korean people were determined to rebuild their villages and stand up for their independence. “Every evening, the countryside of Korea, especially in the South, boils with life. Hundreds of thousands of peasants and townfolk converge on roads and in a matter of hours have repaired the bomb damage of the previous day by the sheer weight of limitless, willing human labour. While that is going on, hundreds of thousands of others are resuming their trek south from where they stopped at dawn; managing countless oxcarts over remote by-ways; carrying loads of food and munitions on their backs.”

Koreans rebuilding Pyongyang after the armistice

These 3 moments of Korean history give us a glimpse into the truth of Korea and of America. Though the history is long, complex, and the details highly debated, often influenced by much propaganda, the driving question is: what side were the Korean people on? What were the Korean people striving for? 

We see a people eager to build their nation from the ground up, through their efforts to organize village committees, to govern, and to teach their children. We see a people united across the political spectrum, despite their differences, in opposing the UN-sanctioned elections south of the 38th parallel, in favor of a process that would genuinely represent the will of the independent Korean people. We see a people enduring the unprecedented scale of bombings by the US, driven by their determination to build their nation. The Korean war was not a civil war, but rather a war of a united Korean people fighting against imperialism.

This history also challenges today’s common assumptions of North Korea as bad, and South Korea as good, as the beacon of democracy and culture and industry in Asia that overcame war and poverty. There is much that we don’t understand about North Korea, and it merits a study of its own. But what’s clear is that North Korea represents the fruition of the Korean people’s efforts to fight imperialist America and to build a sovereign nation. What dominates the mainstream narratives about North Korea are the accounts given by a handful of defectors, and children of people who fled from the north during the Korean war, many of whom were Japanese collaborators or landowners. But we have little understanding of the ideological strength and bravery of the much broader sections of the Korean people who were able to successfully fend off an American military raining napalm on them. That is an accomplishment that we can be proud of, and one that later inspired the people of Vietnam in defending their nation.

Our true history of Korea is waiting to be unleashed today. To know our history can be liberating. To know the bravery, the beauty, the strength that characterize the millions of Korean people who valiantly stood for peace and independence during the Korean War, qualities and principles that can inspire us to take responsibility for the crises of today. Our history is liberating because it presents us with a choice – am I on the side of the people? Am I on the side of peace and democracy? Or am I on the side of war, poverty, and destruction? 

Our answer becomes a compass for navigating the world. As Koreans and Asians in America, our history shows us whose shoulders and legacies we can stand upon, and what kinds of brave people we can be, and what values can define us. We can make the choice to take on the gun violence in our cities, to fight for a fulfilling public education, to build a nation willing to live in true peace with the rest of the world so that all children can live in conditions that encourage them to reach their fullest potential.

To know our specific history gives us an understanding of the broader unity that is possible in building democracy. Our history brings us to the world. We owe a great debt to Wilfred Burchett for drawing the connections between Korea and Vietnam through his reporting. People often compare the situation of North and South Korea to the division of East and West Germany, but a more apt comparison is between Korea and Vietnam – both colonized peoples in Asia, both waging a People’s War in fighting for self-determination. Burchett returned to North Korea in 1967 during the Vietnam War, and described the deep-running solidarity of the Korean people with Vietnam:

“Next to reunification and construction, solidarity with Vietnam is the most important theme in North Korea…The Korean people believe that even if the United States withdrew from Korea, as long as her forces remain anywhere on the Asian continent, there could be no lasting peace.”

Koreans and Vietnamese are united by our shared struggle for peace. We may feel like we are in the minority under modern propaganda, but we know that the darker peoples of the world make up the majority of the world. Through the Afro-Asian Bandung conference of 1955, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the reporting of journalists like Winnington, Burchett, Strong, it’s clear that there is a world, a tradition, and a people ready to unite for peace, democracy and self-determination. 

The Black Freedom Movement in America is an integral part of this unity. In his speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Dr. King speaks, “…Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. at W.E.B. Du Bois’ 100th Birthday Celebration, 1968

The United States of America can be a true beacon of democracy and of progress rather than a mockery of those terms. I believe that it can one day be, and that it must be, so that no Korean War or Vietnam War can be repeated. So our government never repeats Afghanistan, and the many regime changes that America covertly engages in overseas. So that we can learn to celebrate and learn from the great strides China is taking to build a democracy, rather than antagonizing them. So that there is peace in Korea, which requires peace in Asia, and peace in the world. I believe this because we have the example of Asian anticolonial struggles to look to, and also the Black Freedom Movement produced by the strivings of Afro-America. In these struggles we glimpse the America of peace that was envisioned by freedom fighters like WEB Du Bois, Paul Robeson, James Baldwin, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who saw the struggles in Asia as their own.

America has a place in the world to build democracy and peace. Asians in America have an incredible opportunity to connect to their unique history, and to contribute to the Revolution of Values by injecting the peace-loving spirit of their peoples to the decaying soul of America. The peace-loving spirit of Korea and of Vietnam and the anti-colonial struggles can not only unite Asians and Asians in America, but it can help build a united World House based on the principles of peace and democracy. 

Further Readings:


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