[Book review] America divided Korea - then came war

Posted on : 2023-06-09 18:00 KST Modified on : 2023-06-09 18:00 KST
Bruce Cumings’ magnum opus “The Origins of the Korean War” is out in a complete translation into Korean for the first time
Author of the monumental “The Origins of the Korean War” Bruce Cumings. (Hankyoreh file photo)
Author of the monumental “The Origins of the Korean War” Bruce Cumings. (Hankyoreh file photo)
Covers of the Korean edition of “The Origins of the Korean War.”
Covers of the Korean edition of “The Origins of the Korean War.”

“The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947”; “The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 2-1, 2-2: The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947-1950”

By Bruce Cumings, Trans. by Kim Beom (Geulhangari)

The Korean War is still ongoing. The agreement signed on July 27, 1953, was a ceasefire agreement to temporarily halt the war, which never ended. Where and when did the Korean War, which turned the entire Korean Peninsula from Jeju Island to Sinuiju into ruins and caused indelible wounds to the Korean people, originate? “The Origins of the Korean War,” written by Bruce Cumings, a distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, is considered one of the most in-depth, radical and pioneering works on the issue.

Published in 1981, the first volume of this book was translated into Korean during the 1980s, but its second volume, published in 1990, has remained untranslated until now. This monumental work, considered the best study of the Korean War domestically and abroad, is now available in Korean in its entirety 33 years after its first publication.

The Korean edition of the book spans three volumes (Volume 1, Volume 2-1, and Volume 2-2) that totals a whopping 2,000 pages. In it, Cumings included a long preface detailing how he came to write the book and his reflections on it becoming available in Korean.

“Origin” does not equal “start.” Studies prior to Cumings’ focused on elucidating who started the war. But before we ask, “Who shot first?” Cumings asserts, we should ask why whoever shot first had to do so in the first place, so that we can properly investigate the characteristics of the Korean War.

Two years prior to an all-out war, over 10,000 casualties were incurred from guerilla warfare in South Korea and local warfare near the 38th parallel. Considering this, where the first gunfire occurred on June 25, 1950, can only be regarded as a secondary matter. What’s more important is finding out the origins of the war.

Cumings argues that the Korean War’s origins were formulated within a year of Korea’s independence on Aug. 15, 1945—more specifically, within a few months of that date. The first volume of his book tracks this time period within the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

Cumings focuses on the situation inside the Korean Peninsula — especially, the situation surrounding questions of nation and class born from dozens of years of Japanese colonial rule. Immediately following Korean independence, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two big camps. On one side, the people, mainly composed of tenant farmers and laborers who suffered colonial oppression and exploitation, as well as independence fighters who stood up against the Japanese Empire, made up the revolutionary nationalist camp. On the opposite side, bureaucrats, police, and soldiers who served as the hands and feet of the Japanese Empire’s oppressive policies, as well as capitalists and landowners who collaborated with the colonial government, formed another camp.

Directly after independence, anti-Japanese forces overwhelmingly held the upper hand. This is demonstrated by the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, which was launched on Aug. 17 by Lyuh Woon-hyung, a center-left leader. The committee spread overnight, with 145 branches all across the Korean Peninsula. Soon, hundreds of activists of the committee gathered in Seoul on Sept. 6, declaring the establishment of the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) and electing 87 leaders to constitute a provisional government. The vast majority of these leaders were independence fighters who had been released from colonial prisons.

Two days later, the PRK announced its cabinet, putting forward Syngman Rhee as premier, Kim Gu as director of home affairs, and Kim Kyu-sik as director of foreign affairs, aiming for a coalition between the left and the right. The declaration released by the PRK on Sept. 14 clearly displays the PRK’s goal: “We promise to completely eradicate the vestiges of the Japanese Empire and thoroughly struggle against foreign influences and all anti-democratic reactionary forces hindering our independence in order to build a completely independent nation and realize a truly democratic society.”

At this time, “people’s committees” were formed in all provinces, counties, and townships across Korea. The people’s committee was an avenue through which the people could express their revolutionary aspirations.

Cumings writes that the PRK and the people’s committees would have dominated the Korean Peninsula if it had not been occupied by foreign militaries in 1945. However, the US military, which commenced military rule on Sept. 8, joined hands with conservative, pro-Japan forces without recognizing the PRK, which was arrayed with leftists. Moreover, it reused the Japanese Empire’s police organization as is and gathered soldiers that had served the Japanese Empire and suppressed anti-Japanese guerilla forces to found the national defense guard.

What’s notable is that the US military government in Seoul and the US Department of State in Washington didn’t always see eye to eye. From the very beginning, the US military government designated the 38th parallel as the blockade line against communism and distanced itself from revolutionary forces in South Korea. In particular, it cracked down on leftists in earnest following its suppression of the people’s uprising in the fall of 1946.

At first, the US State Department in Washington tried to resolve the situation on the Korean Peninsula by following the principles of international cooperation through a trusteeship involving the US, the Soviet Union, China, and the United Kingdom, but after internal disputes, it ratified the anti-communist blockade of the US military government. Under US military rule, the Korean Peninsula became the front of the Cold War in late 1945, long before the Truman Doctrine formalized the blockade of the Soviet Union in 1947.

Volume 2 of Cumings’ book tracks the situation from 1947 to 1950, especially taking a close look at US foreign policy during this time. Following the publication of this second volume, classified documents from the Soviet era that were belatedly made public revealed Stalin’s involvement in Kim Il-sung’s war plans. Based on these classified documents, researchers of the Korean War criticized Cumings for underestimating Stalin’s role in the Korean War.

While admitting that he was wrong to overemphasize North Korea’s independence in his preface for the Korean edition of his book, Cumings makes clear that his overall argument still stands. He writes, “My argument that the Soviet Union did not want to participate in this war was right. [. . .] In the second half of 1950, when North Korea faced the greatest danger [due to the northward march of the US military], Stalin did not take any action.”

Cumings emphasizes that the Korean War started out as an internal war. In other words, he claims that the Korean War was a civil war as well as a revolutionary war in which two forces within one nation fought over revolutionary and reactionary ideals. This internal war developed into an international war due to intervention by foreign powers including the US.

Cumings’ book argues that if the US military government and Washington had not intervened according to the US’ hegemonic strategy, excessively taking one side in South Korea, the tragedy of Korea’s division would not have come to pass. For this reason, in his preface to the Korean edition of “The Origins of the Korean War,” Cumings calls to question the wrongs of “high-ranking leaders of the US who carelessly and rashly divided this historical country after 1945,” confessing that he has always felt responsible because his own country divided Korea.

If that’s the case, the responsibility to end the Korean War also lies with the US.

By Ko Myoung-sub, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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