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New International, July–August 1950


Jack Brad

The Political War for Korea

Korean Clash Tests U.S. Position in Far East

(5 July 1950)


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 4, July–August 1950, pp. 201–204.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


After only four or five days of war, it has become painfully apparent that Stalinism has won the political war for Korea. Whatever one thinks or speculates about the Russian timetable in military terms, they certainly never limited their objectives to military conquest. The Russians must have calculated on the minds and wills of the twenty millions of South Korean people. This is now assured them by the sheer emptiness of the alternative. The Koreans will not fight or wish success to a foreign army which is already tainted with Syngman Rhee, and whose aims are, at the minimum, restoration of this decrepit police-state and the establishment of permanent military occupation.

This aspect of the war will become more apparent in coming months. It will come to haunt the State Department, frustrate the military and make ridiculous the entire American intervention. For the U.S. has presented no program for South Korea other than military re-conquest so that this area can be retained, for the moment only, in its Pacific strategic plan. And it is stuck with just that. It can win mountains, valleys, towns, or even Seoul itself, without having won anything but space.

If the U.S. entered the war because South Korea needed to be defended from brutal and planned aggression, it now finds that this South Korea hardly exists. If it came to the aid of the army of Syngman Rhee, it now has become the substitute for it since that army has disappeared. If it came to salvage the helpless Rhee state, this state is now only a tiny clique of frightened men without the ability even to call upon its people to defend it. If Rhee was formerly alienated from the people, he is today isolated from them and this isolation is deepened by the American army. For if Rhee was formerly stigmatized as a U.S. puppet, he is now completely identified with the U.S. since it is clear he has no other way to defend himself or reestablish his power save through the U.S.

This being so, the chief outcome of the first week of war was not so much military reversals, but the fundamental American defeat on the political field – and, whereas new battles may reverse earlier military trends, there is little prospect of recovery in politics.

Those sad liberals and non-Stalinist Leftists who rationalized their latest rush to the colors by accepting the United Nations facade for the real thing will have ultimately to face their embarrassment. One cannot indefinitely support a war for “principle” if that principle somehow becomes increasingly elusive, and never becomes clothed in the flesh and blood that can only be acquired by support from the people involved. The liberal critics of Washington’s foreign policy had been most righteous in denouncing its Korean policy. And correctly so. Five years of bolstering the most hated and anti-popular regime in all Asia, outside of Stalinland itself, are now bearing fruit.

Both Russia and the United States collaborated in reducing the Korean people to pawns in their global contest. Both viciously mocked the deep desire for independence and national unity in that land. But with some very important differences in the two policies: Russia’s puppet in the North revolutionized social relations, distributed the land to the landless and created a new class of privileged bureaucrats who preyed on the peasantry. Through “mixed companies” Russia penetrated all the more productive areas of the economy, coordinated it with its North Manchurian and Siberian structure. But in the process it restored industry, increased the number of workers, and granted them special privileges, abolishing the millennium-old Asiatic society.

Stalinism substituted its own modern despotism which, because it is totalitarian, demands of every one a total transformation, demands that every Korean accept the new gospel without hesitation or question. How successful Stalinism has been in these five years, it is hard to say. Certainly there is evidence that the unruffled surface covered an accumulation of discontent, particularly among the peasants. Millions of Northerners fled their homes, or were driven out, and came South during this time. But, by all these means, modern Stalinism created for itself a relatively wide base of support and reduced the opposition to an ineffectual force.

The clearest example of the Russian method is, of course, the Northern army. This is an elite corps, well- fed and clothed, trained in the use of the latest weapons. An integral part of Russia’s Far Eastern legions, it is equipped as befits an adjunct, albeit a minor one, of a great power. Beneath these accoutrements, and making them effective, is the heavy indoctrination of the soldiers, the constant propaganda, the ever-present political commissar – all of which supply morale, purpose and confidence in the leadership.

By contrast, consider the former Southern army: inferior in numbers and equipment and training it was the nucleus for a police force rather than an army. Its armaments consisted of rifles and some light artillery; no planes, tanks or heavy guns. It could not defend the country because it was not even a well-rounded military force, other considerations aside.

One must ask how this came to be: that the creation of the enormously powerful U.S. should be so poor indeed. The whole answer is not yet clear, but the fact that it is so is damning enough. For the fact is that neither the state nor the U.S. military mission has any faith in their own army and, therefore, hesitated to equip it. This absence of faith is no secret. It has been freely expressed and was based on the reality that the army was honey-combed with dissenters. Desertions were frequent. On many occasions whole battalions, with their officers, went over to the North. Last December, an entire garrison went over to rebellion. This revolt was suppressed by a bloody terror which turned the former rebels into guerrillas. The army was a constant source of manpower and arms for the guerrilla forces. Corruption, which is the normal life of the state, was the code of the officer corps. The army had no morale because it had no faith in its leaders or their regime or its very own purpose. It knew that its main function was to suppress popular movements. It was an arm of the hated police. Above all, every soldier knew that Syngman Rhee was not depending on him, but that the regime’s defense program depended on speedy U.S. intervention.

But an army can only reflect social origins. On the heels of Japanese collapse the entire nation had risen in an explosion of freedom. A political movement embracing all classes except the tiny collaborationist aristocracy arose out of this jubilation to form the first people’s republic. The U.S. occupation suppressed this really popular movement out of fear and ignorance. Once the harm was done the occupation had to lean more and more heavily on the most reactionary groups. As U.S. world policy became oriented toward the cold war it sought in Korea such support as would be most adequate to its strategic needs there against Russia. That is, the U.S. had to lean on those groups which sought to maintain the social order and thereby, presumably, social peace. Since the U.S. feared the people, because of the danger to law and order, it became allied to those Koreans who feared the people. The U.S. became the sustaining prop to the crumbling Asiatic medievalism whose native Rhee government remained in power through constant terror, kidnappings, arrests, murder – and a ubiquitous police operating without legal restraint.

Intolerable as political condition were, the economy was worse. Inflation became so rampant that Ambassador Jessup demanded some definite steps against it early in 1950 or else ECA funds would be withheld. Industry was at a standstill. The division of the country, the heavy state bureaucracy’s drain on agriculture on top of that of the landlord’s, added to the growing military establishment, lay like the proverbial albatross about the neck of the people. The point was that South Korea, no more than the rest of Asia, could remain aloof from the need for deep-going change in order to survive in the modern world. North Korea made its own reactionary adaptation. Rut in the south, U.S. policy supported those who stood for the ancient and impossible order.

That is why the regime was so hated, as the U.S. also came to be, by identification. Its every act had to be one of restraint against the inevitable desires of the people for change. The popular volcano was kept from eruption by sitting on it. Even so Seoul reported 19,066 killed, 3,281 wounded, 7,140 captured and 2,144 surrendered in its chronic anti-guerilla war in 1949 alone. According to northern reports these skirmishes took place in all 8 of the south’s provinces, in 7 out of 15 cities, 119 out of 133 counties. It was estimated that in spite of constant suppression campaigns, the army’s chief function, guerillas grew from 16,000 in April 1949 to 90,000 in October 1949. That is what South Korea looked like on the eve of war.

Since U.S. policy in Korea was no different from its Chinese policy, it is now suffering the same consequences. Washington has not got any program to fight Stalinism. Its intervention in Korea by force after 5 years of failure through politics will be noted by all Asiatic peoples, as well as by the Koreans, as failure.

An American military victory will achieve what? It cannot simply restore the old regime because that regime is in ribbons; it barely exists at all. And besides, it would be only a matter of time before it again succumbs to revolt or invasion. Can the U.S. introduce needed reforms? That is the Chinese dilemma all over again. The old regime has too many supporters in Washington who would shout communist at such effort. Besides, it would require swapping horses in the midst of war and who in the South can really trust such sudden new blandishments – that is, among those opponents of Rhee who are not in jail? Rhee has proved his ability to take care of his enemies even when U.S. courted them just as Chiang did with the Democratic League. And the largest consideration of all is that Washington has dropped pretenses about reform in favor of all-out strategic and military considerations. That is the meaning of the Korean act itself, not to mention Formosa, Japan and Indo-China.

The American program in Korea must be one of permanent military occupation. The Korean people sense this and are forced into the arms of Stalinism thereby. The plain fact is that the U.S. has not offered the Koreans anything but a battlefield to fight for. This, and not Stalinism’s armies, is the source of its victories.

July 5, 1950

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