Related: "The Korean War: The 'Unknown War.' The Coverup of US War Crimes"
U.S. Marines fighting in Seoul, Korea, Sept. 1950
News of the worst atrocities perpetrated against civilians was routinely suppressed and the full story of the horrific suffering of the Korean people---who lost 3-million souls of a total population of 23-million--- has yet to be told in full. Filling in many of the blank spaces is Bruce Cumings, chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, whose book "The Korean War"( Modern Library Chronicles) takes an objective look at the conflict.
In one review, Publishers Weekly says, "In this devastating work he shows how little the U.S. knew about who it was fighting, why it was fighting, and even how it was fighting. Though the North Koreans had a reputation for viciousness, according to Cumings, U.S. soldiers actually engaged in more civilian massacres. This included dropping over half a million tons of bombs and thousands of tons of napalm, more than was loosed on the entire Pacific theater in World War II, almost indiscriminately."
The review goes on to say, "Cumings deftly reveals how Korea was a clear precursor to Vietnam: a divided country, fighting a long anti-colonial war with a committed and underestimated enemy; enter the U.S., efforts go poorly, disillusionment spreads among soldiers, and lies are told at top levels in an attempt to ignore or obfuscate a relentless stream of bad news. For those who like their truth unvarnished, Cumings's history will be a fresh, welcome take on events that seemed to have long been settled."
Interviewed by Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, producers of Comcast's "Books of Our Time" on Sunday, March 20 th , Cumings said U.S. coverage of the war was badly slanted. Hanson Baldwin, the military correspondent for The New York Times, described "North Koreans as locusts, like Nazis, like vermin, who come shrieking on. I mean, this is really hard stuff to read in an era when you don't get away with that kind of thinking anymore." Cumings adds, "Rapes were extremely common. Koreans in the South will still say that that was one of the worst things of the war (was how)many American soldiers were raping Korean women."
Cumings said he was able to draw upon a lot of South Korean research that has come out since the nation democratized in the 1990s about the massacres of Korean civilians. This has been the subject of painstaking research by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Seoul and Cumings describes the results as "horrific." Atrocities by "our side, the South Koreans (ran) six to one ahead of the North Koreans in terms of killing civilians, whereas most Americans would think North Koreans would just as soon kill a civilian to look at him." The numbers of civilians killed in South Korea by the government, Cumings said, even dwarfed Spaniards murdered by dictator Francisco Franco, the general who overthrew the Madrid government in the 1936-1939 civil war. Cumings said about 100,000 South Koreans were killed in political violence between 1945 and 1950 and perhaps as many as 200,000 more were killed during the early months of the war. This compares to about 200,000 civilians put to death in Spain in Franco's political massacres. In all, Korea suffered 3 million civilian dead during the 1950-53 war, more killed than the 2.7 million Japan suffered during all of World War II.
One of the worst atrocities was perpetrated by the South Korean police at the small city of Tae Jun. They executed 7,000 political prisoners while Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military officials looked on, Cumings said. To compound the crime, the Pentagon blamed the atrocity on the Communists, Cumings said.
Initially, reporters from U.S. magazines' "Look," "Saturday Evening Post," "Collier's," and "Life," could report on anything they saw, the historian said. They reported that "the troops are shooting civilians, the South Korean police are awful, they're opening up pits and putting hundreds of people in them. This is all true."
Within six months, though, U.S. reporters were muzzled by censors, meaning,
Cumings believed that Douglas MacArthur, the General who commanded U.S. forces in Korea was prejudiced against Asians and badly underestimated their fighting capabilities. On the day the North Koreans invaded the South in force on June 25, 1950, MacArthur boasted, according to Cumings,
The U.S. use of air power to inflict widespread devastation had a profound impact on future North Korean military practice. To escape the rain of death the North Korean military---starting at the time of the Korean War---built 15,000 underground facilities, putting whole factories, dormitories, and even airfields underground. "So you have jets flying into the side of mountains," Cumings says, as well as 1 million men and women under arms in a nation of 24 million---so that one in every 24 people is in the military. The U.S. military believes the North Koreans have built their nuclear weapons facilities underground---plural, that is, as it is possible they have one or two backups if a facility is destroyed by an enemy attack. While the U.S. today is concerned that North Korea is developing the means to deliver a nuclear weapon, Cummings said the country "has been under nuclear threat since the Korean War. "Our war plans, for decades, called for using nuclear weapons very early in a new war. That's one reason there hasn't been a new war," Cumings said. The armistice that terminated the peninsular war banned the introduction of new and different quality weapons into the region but the U.S. in violation of the pact inserted nuclear-tipped "Honest John" missiles into Korea in 1958. "They said, 'Well, they're (always) bringing in new MiGs and everything, so we can do this.' But to go from conventional weapons to nuclear weapons essentially obliterated the article of the (armistice,) Cumings said. The U.S. has relied so heavily on nuclear deterrent in Korea that one retired general said it has reached a point where "the South Korean army doesn't think it has to fight in a new war because we're going to wipe out the North Koreans," Cumings continued.
The historian said the North Koreans detonated their first nuclear device in 2006----of about one-half kiloton equivalent (compared to the 20-kiloton bomb that leveled Hiroshima). Three years later, they detonated a 4- to 5-ton kiloton range bomb that could "certainly blast the hell out of a major city." While Cumings doubts the North Koreans have yet to miniaturize a bomb so that it can ride on one of their medium-range missiles, there is nothing stopping them from, say, putting such a device aboard a freighter and detonating it upon reaching its port of destination. Cummings noted the North Koreans are "very good at manufacturing missiles" and have medium-range missiles "that are among the best in the world outside of the American bailiwick." These are sold to Iran and Pakistan and, if fired from Korea, could reach all of Japan and the U.S. base on Okinawa, as well as all of South Korea. Any new war on the Korean peninsula, the historian says, "would be an absolute catastrophe" even though the general consensus is that the North Koreans have been unable yet to miniaturize a nuclear warhead.
Getting back to the Korean War, historian Cummings believes that all parties to the war bear some responsibility for its outbreak:
Both the North's Kim Il-sung and the South's Syngman Rhee wanted to fight all-out at the time but were restrained by their American and Soviet advisers, respectively. The following year, after his troops came back from China, Kim Il-sung stationed his crack Sixth Division just north of Seoul and when hostilities broke out captured the South Korean capital in just three days.
Because of the troops North Korea furnished the Chinese Communists, deep ties were forged between the two countries.
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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)