The Washington Post Gets the Korean War All Wrong

Korean civilians, caught in the line of fire while fleeing North Korean forces, were killed near Yongsan.
Public domain

The Washington Post Gets the Korean War All Wrong

The real history of America’s forgotten war

On July 27, 1953, the forces of the United Nations and South Korea signed an armistice with the armies of China and North Korea, concluding hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. Although combat ceased, there is still the absence of peace. The 38th parallel remains the most heavily armed border in the world. South of that border is one of the most vibrant democracies in all of Asia. North of that border is one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

The results of the Korean War continue to have profound consequences on our modern world. The Communist regime in North Korea is led by a deranged dictator with nuclear weapons and on the brink of having ballistic missiles. At the heart of the problem is the idealistic hatred North Korea harbors against America. Where did that animosity originate?

According to Anna Fifield at the Washington Post, American actions during the Korean War helped shape the violent narrative North Korea preaches. In her article “Why Does North Korea Hate the United States? Let’s Go Back to the Korean War, Fifield wrote:

Any day of the week, the North Korean propaganda machine can be relied upon to spew out anti-American vitriol using some formulation of “imperialist” and “aggressor” and “hostile.” …

Kindergartens and child-care centers are decorated with animals holding grenades and machine guns. Cartoons show plucky squirrel soldiers (North Koreans) triumphing over the cunning wolves (Americans).

“North Koreans live in a war mentality, and this anti-American propaganda is war-time propaganda,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert in North Korean propaganda who teaches at Korea University in Seoul.

The thing is: There is some element of truth to the North Korean version of events. It’s only a kernel, and it is grossly exaggerated, but North Koreans remember very well what most Americans have forgotten (or never knew): that the Korean War was a brutal one.

The truth is, there is no kernel of truth in “the North Korean version of events.” The Korean War was a brutal, bloody conflict, but it was all precipitated by Communist aggression. The brutality meted out by the Communist forces was answered by American troops with cold steel and firepower. This apologetic tone of history is all too common in our society. There is no need to apologize for how America waged the Korean War.

The hateful regime in North Korea was not created by too much American force, but by not using enough force. History reveals America’s greatest fault during the Korean War was simply not having the will to achieve ultimate victory.

Origins of the War

No war can be properly understood without understanding why it began. The scenario on the Korean Peninsula was created from the alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States, and by the collapse of Japan. Fifiled wrote:

The Korean Peninsula, previously occupied by Japan, was divided at the end of World War ii. Dean Rusk—an Army colonel at the time, who went on to become secretary of state—got a map and basically drew a line across at the 38th parallel. To the Americans’ surprise, the Soviet Union agreed to the line, and the Communist-backed North and the American-backed South were established in 1948 as a “temporary measure.”

On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung, installed by the Soviets to lead North Korea, decided to try to reunify the peninsula by force, invading the South. (Although in the North Korean version of events, the South and their imperialist patrons started it.)

The push south was surprisingly successful until Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed his troops on the mudflats at Incheon, sending the northern troops back. Then the Chinese got involved, managing to push them back to roughly where they started, on the 38th parallel.

In this rather brief overview of events, Fifield leaves out a vital fact: the involvement of Joseph Stalin in causing the invasion of Kim Il Sung. The Korean War was not merely a war over Communist nationalism, but was part of the ussr’s world strategy. Max Hastings writes in his book The Korean War:

By any reasonable measure, Kim Il Sung’s invasion of June 1950 was an unprovoked act of raw aggression, which the South lacked the means to resist. If the Soviets did not directly encourage the invasion, it could not have been carried out without their consent. From Moscow’s perspective, the invasion of South Korea can be regarded—as it was interpreted in Washington at the time—as an experiment. If the Americans merely abandoned their puppets, so much the better. Even if they did not, it is unlikely that the Russians anticipated an American reaction on the scale that in reality took place.

With Europe gripped in a Cold War deadlock, Stalin was testing the resolve of President Harry Truman. Kim Il Sung was in power by the will of Stalin, and North Korea was shaped in the monstrous image of Stalinist Russia. This transformation included adopting the idealistic hate all Communists have toward the United States and the West. This is the seed of their current anti-American narrative, and it was planted well before hostilities broke out. If this key point is skipped, the origins of North Korea’s narrative can be misplaced.

President Truman reacted much more strongly than Stalin expected, and a “policing action” was launched with the legendary General MacArthur leading the UN forces. The war continued to escalate beyond what Stalin, Truman and MacArthur anticipated.

The Air Campaign

One of the sore points many apologists have with any American war is the destruction caused by air campaigns. North Korea was subjected to a terrible onslaught as Fifield pointed out:

The United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, not counting the 32,557 tons of napalm, Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago professor who’s written several books on North Korea, wrote in The Korean War: A History. This compared with 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War ii.

“If we keep on tearing the place apart, we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North Koreans,” Defense Secretary Robert Lovett said after the napalm and aerial bombing campaigns of 1950 and 1951, according to Cumings. “We ought to go right ahead,” Lovett said.

This leveled most cities in the North. Since North Korea is a low-technology country with only a handful of industrial targets, it had fewer obvious targets. Many civilians died in the bombing raids, but Max Hastings makes an extremely important point:

No one could seriously dispute that to be bombed was a deeply distressing experience, and UN strategic bombing added greatly to the Communists’ difficulties in sustaining the war. But of all governments upon Earth, those in Peking [Beijing] and Pyongyang were among the least likely to be deterred from continuing a commitment to the conflict merely because of the distress it caused to their peoples.

If the casualties are viewed through the narrow perspective of the air war, it is easy to think that American airpower was over the top. The full view of history, however, gives a different picture. The North Korean and Chinese regimes had a complete disregard for human life that stupefied the American, British and Canadian soldiers they faced. The disregard was displayed on the battlefield, but also toward their own people, whom they viewed as cannon fodder.

An Occupation of Devastation

Starting with the disaster of Task Force Smith, it was clear that five years of demobilization had left America completely unprepared for war. The North Korean Army pushed the UN forces into the Pusan Perimeter. While General MacArthur prepared for his brilliant landing at Inchon, the North Koreans ruled over the South. Many South Koreans treated this as liberation, thinking that Kim Il Sung would be fairer than Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s leader. Hastings points out those fantasies quickly dissolved:

For many South Koreans, the process of discovering the meaning of Communist liberation was extended through the four months that Kim Il Sung’s army occupied their country. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this period in the subsequent history of Korea. In the years between 1945 and 1950, many of those living under the regime of Syngman Rhee were dismayed and disgusted by the corruption and injustice that the old president came to represent. For all the rumors filtering down from the North, about land reform and political education, there seemed no reason to imagine that life under Kim Il Sung was any worse than under Syngman Rhee. The two vicious totalitarians appeared to have much in common. Even when the invasion came in June 1950, in the words of the young bank clerk’s son Minh Pyong Kyu, “We still did not realize that this was a catastrophe for us.” Syngman Rhee’s creatures conducted some odious killings of alleged Communist sympathizers as they fled south. Yet the behavior of the North Koreans in their four months of dominance of the South, their ghastly brutalities and wholesale murders of their enemies, decisively persuaded most inhabitants of the country that whatever the shortcomings of Syngman Rhee, nothing could be as appalling as Communist tyranny.

The government of Kim Il Sung descended like a black cloud over South Korea, threatening to choke the life out of the population. In those four months of North Korean occupation, the UN estimated that 26,000 South Koreans were murdered, with 5,000 discovered in the city of Taejon alone. While the air war against North Korea may have been terrible, it does not compare to systematic murder. The moral legitimacy of the Korean War cannot be questioned, and all of this happened before the most brutal fighting ensued.

War Turns North, and South

At Inchon, the 1st Marine Division landed unopposed, catching the North Koreans off guard and cutting off their retreat and communications. Many told MacArthur it was an impossible operation, yet it remains the most brilliant stroke of his career. Unfortunately, the magic of Inchon was only the beginning of the war.

MacArthur pressed north, crossing the 38th parallel with the full support of President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Soon enough, almost all of North Korea was under UN control. As UN forces were approaching the Yalu River, which borders Communist China, the Chinese government issued several warnings that went unheeded by all American military and civilian leaders. General MacArthur promised that the Chinese would not intervene, and if they did, we would defeat them too.

In November of 1950, around 40,000 Chinese troops poured over the Yalu River, with 700,000 more in reserve, pushing the 8th Army to retreat and forcing the 1st Marine Division into the legendary battle at the Chosin Reservoir. It was at this moment in the war, the winter crisis of 1950, that the fiercest fighting of the war began, and the Americans quickly found out how courageous and savage the Communist armies could be.

Knowing the combat experiences of the American, British and Canadian troops in Korea is essential to understanding the Korean War and the nature of North Korea. The troops in the UN forces had to fight with equal ferocity to survive. In his analysis of the wartime experiences of U.S. troops titled American Soldiers, Peter Kindsvatter wrote:

The next Asian foes to seem especially heedless of life were the Chinese during the Korean War. Although lurid accounts of human-wave attacks by screaming, fanatical Chinese have been overdone, the Chinese did often press their assaults with seemingly suicidal determination, according to the war correspondent Marguerite Higgins: “They frequently seemed to care very little for life and were willing to die unquestioningly. They would keep right on surging toward a target even though wave after wave of them were blown up in the process.”

The Chinese forces, and the reinvigorated North Korean forces, surged south with bold, suicidal frontal assaults that would either overwhelm the enemy or be decisively stopped. Usually, it would be decided in close-quarters combat. Kindsvatter describes one such attack:

Hand-to-hand combat was common fare in the Korean War. Cpl. Joe Scheuber’s description of a Chinese night assault captures how vicious this type of combat could be: “The fighting was heavy and confused. I turned to look back, hoping that some more of our people might be coming up to reinforce us. As I did, an enemy soldier shot my steel helmet off my head. I hit the ground and lost my rifle. I grabbed a grenade and threw it, never hearing it explode, though it must have. I saw the [South] Korean soldier who had been with me in the foxhole run his bayonet into a Chinese. There was a tremendous amount of noise and confusion, with bullets flying in every direction.”

It was in the foxholes, trenches and mountain passes of Korea that bitterness swelled between the two sides. Many Americans also learned that it was far better to fight to the death than to surrender to the Communists. Kindsvatter continues:

Soldiers captured by the North Koreans were often tortured, killed and their bodies mutilated. Mass executions of American prisoners occurred, and many more died from starvation and maltreatment. The Chinese exhibited less outright brutality and committed fewer atrocities than the North Koreans, but their treatment of prisoners was also far from humane, especially during the first winter of the war.

If any nation should be embittered by the Korean War, it should be the U.S. It is ridiculous to think that North Koreans have any justification in their hatred for America when they instigated a conflict that killed around 4 million people, most of them Koreans, and displayed no humanity by committing atrocities that created a terrible cycle of violence. As Kindsvatter explains:

The American soldier expected his enemy to fight by the same rules, or norms, that he did. To some extent these rules were formalized by various Hague and Geneva conventions, but in any case reflected the American soldiers sense of what was fair and proper. …

Once the American soldier perceived that the enemy was regularly violating these norms by killing or torturing prisoners, mutilating corpses, or firing on medical personnel, however, he retaliated out of anger and a desire for revenge. A vicious downward spiral into brutality could then occur, with each side reacting to the other’s atrocities.

American troops and airmen did kill Korean civilians, either out of the suspicion they were soldiers in disguise, or they were caught in the crossfire of strafing runs. It was a terrible war, forgotten by most Americans, but not forgotten by the veterans and families who sacrificed so much to defeat an evil regime. But perhaps Korea should be called “the forgotten war” most of all because it was caused by forgetting the one true God.

No Substitute for Victory

After the Chinese intervened in the conflict, General MacArthur succumbed to hubris. He was sacked for defying President Truman’s directions, and for writing political opinions to members of the Republican opposition. The most famous one to Rep. Joseph Martin ended with the phrase: “There is no substitute for victory.” Although MacArthur’s conduct was wrong in many ways, this sentiment is absolutely right.

Matthew Ridgway took command, and was able to salvage the war and stop the advance of the Communists around the 38th parallel. While this saved South Korea from the Communists, it did not resolve the issue. Ridgway advised against a renewed offensive, and Truman agreed since it would be fraught with risk and would involve many casualties. They also realized that the American people would not support another offensive. If there is anything America should apologize for from the Korean War, it is for not ending the reign of Kim Il Sung. It is the North Korean people who have suffered the most, as Hastings writes:

The people of North Korea have paid the bitterest price of all for Kim Il Sung’s adventure in June 1950. To this day they remain prisoners of the aging obsessive, perhaps demented old dictator in one of the most backward societies in Asia …. North Korea exists in pitiful isolation, a society dominated by poverty and the cult of Kim Il Sung.

The cult and bitterness of the Kims’ have continued, now under the reign of Kim Jong-un. What makes many people today question the wisdom of Truman and Ridgway is that North Korea now has nuclear weapons, which makes any military intervention much more complicated.

The hatred North Korea harbors towards America is a combination of Stalinist idealism and justification: the Kims must stay legitimate by focusing on an enemy. However, Fifield and the Washington Post get it wrong because they do not realize that the Korean War was a barometer of American morality and a watershed moment in Bible prophecy.

In an August 1950 Plain Truth, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote:

Stalin, bent on complete world domination, as part of his plan to wear the United States down, sap our strength, maneuver events to a place where America is so weakened, and Russia so strengthened, that the final death blow may be dealt, chose Korea as the field for a most important test case.

He chose Korea because it is the only spot on Earth where he could do this without risk to himself. … Since the United States did not win a quick decisive victory, Stalin is going to win, no matter which way it goes from here.

Korea was a test of America willpower, and although President Truman responded with more force than Stalin bargained for, it was not enough. North Korea exists today because of the limited war Truman chose to implement against the Chinese. This was mainly done in the fear of a Soviet response with nuclear weapons or an invasion of Western Europe. Stalin maneuvered the United States into an impossible situation: fight a total war like General MacArthur advocated and risk a nuclear response, or fight a limited war and try to contain your enemies, rather than defeat them.

This was a turning point in American history, as Mr. Armstrong pointed out in an October 1961 Plain Truth: “The United States of America has won its last war!” The wars fought since the end of World War ii have ended in stalemate, withdraw or defeat. The Korean War was the beginning of this curse against America because the American people had forgotten God. America did not have enough faith in God to defeat our enemies, and today the situation is spiraling into a nuclear catastrophe.

North Korea’s idealistic hatred of the United States was not created from American firepower. North Korea is a monstrous child of Stalinist Russia, and was specifically created to wage the Communist war against the United States. Stalin died long ago, but North Korea remains, more dangerous than ever. The troops who fought in Korea fought valiantly, and bitterly, to end tyranny, and there should be no apology for that sacrifice. Hindsight allows us to see how tragic it was to fight a half war and to be content with containing North Korea. America essentially lost control of Asia in the winter of 1950, and the entire debacle was a reflection of national morality.

To read more about how history and prophecy intersect in Korea, order our free book He Was Right.