Scholarship in both history and political science debates as to whether the Korean War was (a) a civil war between two national factions fighting for their own ideals in a country stained with the legacies of imperialism and domination; or (b) a proxy war of the wider and developing Cold War between the agents of capitalism and communism. Regardless of stance, a conflict occurred in which the communist north, after establishing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under Kim Il-Sung, attacked the liberal south, in the form of the Republic of Korea. Whilst the two Koreas fought it out for claim of the entire peninsula, the greater world powers got involved on the basis of ideology. The north gained support from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), who had just won their own civil war against the Nationalists, and by extension – and somewhat debatably – the Soviet Union (USSR). Simultaneously, the south received support from American-backed United Nations (UN) forces, who effectively took over the war effort from the South Koreans.
American Involvement in Korea
The grand strategy of American foreign policy after the Second World War has come to dominate the discourse of international relations and history in the contemporary era. The initial basis for the involvement of the US in Korea stems from the liberal undertones of American foreign policy. In theory, the democratic and liberal roots of American constitutionalism influences policy makers into defending liberty across the world. Some, including neoliberals and Marxists have interpreted this as a desire to keep economics liberal and not necessarily politics – which is backed by the American support of illiberal governments, such as the Iranian Shah in the 1960s. However, it seems that the US themselves promote their foreign policy as an attempt to ‘liberate’ the peoples of the world and defend social justice. This often manifests itself as interventionism, even imperial notions of ‘liberal’ foreign policy.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US was left as by far the strongest liberal country on the global stage. Its European allies, having taken the full brunt of Axis ambitions on the continent, were left devastated, if victorious. Elsewhere, the remaining colonies of the European Allies were also fragile, both economically and politically, and the ex-colonies of the Axis powers were bare and open to extremism. The fear for the US was, that, with a distinct lack of resources available through the free market, many areas of the world would follow the structure of the USSR and turn to Communism. In terms of how this related to East Asia, communism took hold of China very quickly after the Second World War, and the Americans, who had taken control of the capitulated Japanese state, feared communist expansion through Korea to the destroyed Japanese islands.
Thus American foreign policy took on a distinctly anti-communist character, which was institutionalised after the declaration of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. The US began to pump money into Western Europe so as to defend it from the communist expansion in the east. They also began to take the rehabilitation of Japan very seriously too, sending development economist Joseph Dodge to administer Japanese economic policy in 1949. To some extent, but perhaps on a less developmental level, these trends continued, dominating international history in the latter half of the twentieth century, and influencing conflicts such as the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, two wars in the Persian Gulf, the War on Terror in the twenty first century, among many others.
The Politics of Korea
Whilst the Korean identity and culture had always been strongly distinct from its East Asian neighbours, Korean politics had always been dominated by either China or Japan, at least officially anyway. Historically, the peninsula had always been a cultural ‘conveyor belt’ between Japan and the mainland. In more recent years, Korea was annexed by the Japanese at the beginning of the latter’s period of swift colonial expansion in 1910, having been the scene of much conflict during the 1894-5 Sino-Japanese War. Korea remained under Japanese domination, acting as the entrance to China for the Imperial Army, which moved through Manchuria, mainland China, Indochina and down through Southeast Asia, before capitulating in 1945 after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans. In the aftermath of the fall of the Japanese Empire, the Koreans were left to sort out their own independence, at least at first, after centuries of inconsistent and fluctuating domination by foreign forces.
Two factions began to emerge in the dust cloud at the end of the Pacific War, divided materially by geography but also on an ideological level. The north was led by Kim Il-Sung, who had communist ambitions to unite Korea under the banner of the DPRK. The south, however, resisted, with support from the liberal global powers, and a confrontation became increasingly inevitable on the peninsula. As conflict drew closer, Kim Il-Sung sought an alliance with other communist states, namely the USSR, although a friendship with the Chinese looked more likely due to cultural and geographical assimilation.
The Narrative of the War
It was the north that broke the tense deadlock first, by attacking the south in attempt to achieve their aims of unification. Immediately after the invasion, the South received official backing from the United Nations, promising military aid to repel the communist advance. This UN support was in turn backed by the Americans, whose fear for the political health of Japan was growing. UN troops then landed in Korea to push back the DPRK forces, which was easily done. They didn’t stop at forcing a retreat, however; they instead moved north across the 38th parallel, a move that began to worry the Chinese.
Beijing thus began to support the North Koreans with material aid, in response to perceived American aggression towards their allies. By the time an armistice was signed, three years after the war had begun, both sides of the parallel had taken huge human and material damages, as many as a million deaths on each side. The division between the two sides were also firmer than ever. The war established a significant Cold War discourse, it being one of the first manifestations of a proxy war between major global players, on the backdrop of the Korean civil war. In terms of inter-Korean relations, the war has not technically ended, and tension in recent years between new leaders is effectively an extension of the conflict that, for the global players, ended in 1953.
Impact of the War
As well as having a monumental impact on the Korean economy and political dynamic, the international politics of the war was to have far reaching effects on other actors too. Firstly, the newly formed Sino-Soviet alliance was put to the test. Mao, having conversed with the Soviets during his years in opposition, coveted a strategic alliance with them when he brought the communists to power in 1949. He got what he wanted, through a treaty of friendship and alliance signed in 1950. Thus, when the Chinese entered the Korean War on the side of the communist north, Mao did so on the basis that, should it come to it, he could rely on support from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. That support did not come, however. Mao, it seems, felt betrayed that the solidarity portrayed in Soviet propaganda had been defeated by realpolitik strategy. The lack of Soviet support paved the way for a break between Russian and Chinese interests almost before they had even aligned.
Secondly, whilst the Korean War had a complicated effect on Sino-Soviet relations, the impact on Japan was monumental in a more linear fashion. That is, the war fostered tremendous economic growth, a ‘miracle’ to neoclassical economic historians. The method of growth, however, was less of a miracle than it was set up by good planning mixed with a little luck. As part of the American redevelopment in Japan, Detroit banker Joseph Dodge had arrived in Tokyo in 1949 and set forth a tough plan for the Japanese economy. His most famous policy is know as the Dodge Line; he pegged the Japanese Yen to the American Dollar at 360, which, whilst low, provided stability and set up favourable export conditions. Those conditions were then fostered by the beginning of the Korean War, which provided the perfect export market for Japanese produce and effectively kick started the economy with a huge boost. Much of the subsequent growth experienced in Japan over the late 1950s, 1960s until the end of double digit growth in 1973 can be attributed to the surge of demand for Japanese produce during the Korean War. The rise of Japan as an economic superpower thus makes the legacy of the Korean War rather significant to the international relations, not only of East Asia, but of the global north.