Essay: Causes to the Korean War

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Korean War refers to the military conflict between North and South Korea that started on June 25, 1950 and lasted until the armistice signed on July 27, 1953. During the war, both adversaries attempted to re-unify the country under their own regimes and ideology and several major powers including the United States, the UN forces, the Peoples Republic of China, and the Soviet Union also became involved in the conflict. It has at times been dubbed as a civil war between the two Koreas; at other times it is described as a proxy war between the forces of Communism led by USSR and China on the one side and the forces of Capitalist led by United States on the other, fought in the backdrop of the post-World War II Cold War. In any case, the Korean War is recognized as one of the most destructive wars of the 20th century in which as many as 4 million Koreans are believed to have died throughout the peninsula, most of them civilians. In addition, China lost as many as 1 million soldiers, and the United States suffered more than 140,000 casualties with 36,934 dead and 103,284 wounded. Other UN nations suffered 3322 dead and 11,949 wounded (Cumings). The economic and social cost of the War to Korea, especially in the North was colossal, where hardly any building remained standing after three years of hostility and bombings. The aftermath of the War not only affected the future relations between both parts of Korea but its consequences extended well beyond the borders of Korea. The causes behind the conflict are many and differ significantly from the perspective of each adversary. In this essay, I shall examine the background of the Korean War and take a look at all possible causes which led to its start and contributed to its escalation and sustenance for such a long period. It includes the perspective of all the parties involved including North and South Koreas, the United States, the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.


For a proper understanding of the causes behind the Korean War, it is important to examine the modern history of Korea as well as the world order that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Korea had a long history as a unified, independent country until the Japanese started to flex their imperialist muscles in the late nineteeth century. Following its victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, Japan occupied several parts of Korea and formally annexed the entire country in 1910. From then onwards, Japan mercilessly exploited the country and ruled it with an iron hand until its comprehensive defeat and surrender suffered as a result of the use of the atomic bombs against it by the U.S. In 1945 ("Treaty of Annexation").

As the Second World War drew to a close, it had become obvious that the United States and the Soviet Union would emerge as the two pre-eminent world powers in a post WWII world. This circumstance, by itself, was a dangerous sign as history shows us that whenever two great powers came into close contact with each other, it became almost impossible for them to avoid conflict. In the case of the United States and the U.S.S.R., there were further grounds for mutual antagonism. Both countries represented the opposite spectrums of political ideologies. While the U.S. represented democracy, individual liberty and capitalism, the U.S.S.R. was the world's first socialist republic, which was committed to the spread of the communist revolution among the 'down-trodden' masses of the world. Both of them were looking for areas of influence in Europe as well as Asia and manuevered to promote their own political ideologies (Bell, 55). Even though the Koreans had expected to become free after Japan's defeat, the United States and Soviet Union decided to divide the Korean Peninsula with the U.S. taking control of the Southern part and the Soviet Union the North of the Peninsula. The dividing line between the two parts of Korea became the 38th parallel with the capital city, Seoul, lying in the American-controlled southern half.

The long-term plan of both the Soviet Union and the United States was not to continue their direct occupation of North and South Korea indefinitely but to build and promote regimes that would further their interests and follow their respective Communist and Capitalist ideologies. The Americans, therefore, supported Syngman Rhee, an anti-communist Korean who had lived for a long time in the U.S. And had emerged as a right-wing leader in the South after the end of the Second World War. The Soviet Union (and China), on the other hand supported Kim Il Sung, a former Korean guerrilla fighter who had fought with Chinese Communist forces against the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s and who had emerged as the leader of the left-wing by pushing for radical land reforms in Korea aimed at taking away land from big land-owners and redistributing it among the impoverished Korean farmers. By 1948, the political division of the Korean peninsula was formalized with the southern part named the Republic of Korea (ROK) led by Rhee and backed by the United States and the United Nations, and the northern part became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK); it was led by Kim Il Sung and supported by the U.S.S.R. And China.

The American administration in the south had retained several Japanese colonial administrators and collaborators to their previous positions of power within Korea. This policy was understandably very unpopular among Koreans who had suffered horribly under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years. Moreover, the left-wing policy of radical land redistribution in the North also found significant support in the South, especially among the landless peasants. This led to a guerilla movement in South Korea, which was supported by Kim's government. The ROK government, with active support from the United States, crushed the guerilla movement with force and pushed the communists into the hills. In the meantime, both Rhee and Kim were intent on re-uniting Korea but under their own ideologies, i.e., capitalism and communism respectively. In their aim, both leaders had the covert as well as overt support of the cold war adversaries -- the U.S. And its allies on one side, and the Soviet Union and China on the other. The stage was, therefore, set for a serious escalation of hostilities between the North and South Koreas (Edwards, 41-43).

The Causes of the Korean War

Internal Conflict: The Civil War Thesis

As we saw in the preceding paragraphs, most of the causes for the Korean War are embedded in the Korean history and the political and economic circumstances prevailing in the country at the end of the Second World War. One of the popular theses attempting to explain the reasons behind the conflict is that the Korean War was part of a continuing internal civil conflict in Korea which started at the end of World War II. During most of the twentieth century when Korea was ruled by Japan as a rice-producing colony, the Japanese had tried to extinguish all vestiges of Korean national identity (Kaufman, 4). The attempt, however, failed and at the end of World War II, almost all political groups believed in the unification and independence of Korea and considered the Soviet and the U.S. occupation of the North and South of their country as a temporary phenomenon. Although all these groups were united in this objective, they were deeply divided ideologically and politically and were at daggers drawn. On the one side was a conservative elite of landowners, businessmen, and manufacturers who had enjoyed a privileged status under Japanese rule that they sought to retain. Opposed to them were political leftists, including large numbers of peasants and workers, who sought a fundamental change in the social and political structure of Korea (Ibid). Even before Second World War II officially ended in August 1945, clashes had taken place between the opposing groups as workers' and peasants' unions flourished and communist strength grew.

Hence, when the American and Soviet occupation forces landed in Korea in 1945 to supervise the surrender of the Japanese, they found a country on the verge of a civil war. Although both the occupying powers had agreed on the eventual independence of Korea, their time frame for such independence and the modus operandi differed with that of the Korean political groups. Inevitably the two super powers proceeded to support groups that were closest to their own ideologies, i.e., the Americans supporting the right wing led by Syngmann Rhee and the Soviets supporting the leftists led by Kim Il Sung.

At first, Kim and the left wing guerillas were hopeful that the peasant uprising against Rhee's regime in the south would topple the right-wing regime and re-unify the country under communist rule. However, when the uprising was crushed by Rhee with the help of the Americans, Kim decided that he would re-occupy the South militarily and hoped that a majority of the Korean… [END OF PREVIEW]

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