The Korean crisis is a powerful lens on American barbarism, past and present. Despite Washington’s self-righteousness and pretensions of virtue, the modern history of Korea is an especially powerful lesson that destroys the American national mythology.
Listening to President Trump’s conceited rhetoric about wiping out North Korea has an eerie resonance with the rhetoric of President Truman. Truman launched into the Korean War more than six decades ago with same arrogant, mythical presumptions of American virtue and self-ordained right to use overwhelming military force.
For reasons of political self-preservation, Washington must live in denial of historical reality. US leaders out of necessity have to construct an alternative, fictional narrative for their nation’s conduct. Because if historical reality were acknowledged, the rulers in Washington, and the whole edifice of presumed American greatness, would implode from the endemic moral corruption.
The Korean War (1950-53) has been described as the most barbaric war since the Second World War. Up to four million people were killed in a three-year period. The US air force dropped more tonnage of bombs on the country than was dropped during the whole of its Pacific War against Japan.
Despite this massive and barbaric effort in Korea, the first war of the incipient Cold War turned out to be a source of potentially crippling shame for the US. This risk of shame to the American mythical self-image of virtue explains why the Korean War has become known as the “forgotten war”. It would also explain why present and past US governments prefer to bury their responsibility to end the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
Sixty-four years after the end of the Korean War, the United States continues to refuse to sign a peace treaty with the other main belligerent party – North Korea. Indeed, the issue is not even publicly addressed by Washington, which shows how far removed political awareness of American responsibilities is.
Yet, the signing of such a peace treaty by the US is essential to establishing a viable framework to resolve the current and recurring security crisis on the Korean Peninsula.
The Korean War came to an end in July 1953 with the declaration of an armistice, or truce. The armistice was never formalized into a legally binding peace treaty, largely due to American intransigence not to do so. The absence of a peace treaty is almost unique in the history of modern warfare.
Technically, therefore, the Korean War is not over. It is simply on pause. So, when US military exercises are conducted with its South Korean ally – several times every year – the war drills are plausible grounds for North Korea to fear a resumption of large-scale hostilities.
As former US ambassador to South Korea, James Laney, has stated: “One of the things that have bedeviled all talks until now is the unresolved status of the Korean War. A peace treaty would provide a baseline for relationships, eliminating the question of the other’s legitimacy and its right to exist.”
The looming question is: why does the US government and its military leaders not sign a peace treaty with North Korea?
One reason is that the ongoing state of war on the Korean Peninsula provides the US with important strategic advantages – too important for it to forfeit by concluding a peace treaty with North Korea. Lucrative weapons sales – decade after decade – for “protecting” allies in South Korea and Japan is a boon for the US military-industrial complex that drives its economy.
With the presence of 70,000 US troops in Japan and South Korea and the regular positioning of aircraft carriers, missile destroyers and nuclear-capable warplanes, the ongoing low-intensity conflict with North Korea gives the US a politically acceptable cover to project military power for economic influence in the vital, resource-rich region of Asia-Pacific.
The installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the Aegis anti-missile systems in South Korea and Japan – allegedly to “protect from North Korean aggression” – is also an important strategic gain for Washington to exert leverage over China and Russia. Indeed, this may be the main strategic objective.
These economic and military strategic issues have been broached elsewhere in a recent article as to why the US is more interested in maintaining conflict on the Korean Peninsula than pursuing peace.
What is worth considering here is the legacy of the Korean War as to why the US continues to bury that conflict as a “forgotten war”. What is it about the Korean War which seems to make it unpalatable for Washington to publicly acknowledge?
The Korean War can be seen as the first major test of US moral and military authority in the Cold War. We must remember that a mere five years after the Second World War, the US had staked its image on presenting itself as the “leader of the free world” against the Soviet Union and “evil communism”. In Western political mythology, the US had gloriously won the Second World War, defeating Nazi Germany and saving Europe from totalitarianism. The actual much bigger achievement of the Soviet Union in defeating European fascism was – and still is – conveniently downplayed by Western official narratives.
Soon the evil of Nazi Germany was recycled to be projected on to the Soviet Union and world communism. The supposedly Christian, democracy and freedom-loving United States was presented as the noble defender of the “free world” against “the evil of communist expansionism”.
When the civil war in Korea erupted in June 1950, the US-backed southern administration led by Syngman Rhee claimed that it was communist aggression by the north with the support of the Soviet Union and communist China. The year before, Mao had just successfully won China’s civil war against the US-backed Chiang Kai-Shek forces which fled to Formosa (Taiwan).
From the US point of view, steeped in Cold War ideology of Red Menace, the war in Korea looked like another domino falling to world communism.
The origins of the war are murky. American claims about North Korean aggression are belied by the fact that the US-backed Rhee regime in Seoul had carried out countless acts of aggression against the de facto northern state led by Kim Il Sung (grandfather of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un).
In any case, Korea became a paramount test for presumed US global authority. President Truman had already declared the Truman Doctrine of “defending the world from communist aggression”.
Arguably, the US had no justification for entering the war. It railroaded the newly formed United Nations for a mandate to intervene “on behalf of the UN”. The facts suggest that the conflict in Korea was one of national self-determination between, on the one hand, competing socialist factions popular in the north and in the south, and on the other hand, the US-backed autocratic regime of Syngman Rhee. The latter’s hold on power was shaky due to US imposition immediately following the Second World War. Rhee’s dictatorship, comprising military trained under the previous Japanese fascist colonial regime (1910-45), had carried out mass executions of suspected “communist supporters – with American support. It was deeply unpopular and would inevitably have been overthrown in the ferment of anti-colonial movements that were sweeping Korea and the world in the post-Second World War era.
In other words, the Korean War was an unnecessary slaughter that was fueled by US interference and ideological presumptions of leadership against “evil communism”.
During the Korean War, the US unleashed barbarism with new technological weapons, writes American historian Jeremy Kuzmarov.
It was the first war when napalm incendiary bombs were used in large scale in a scorched-earth tactic of indiscriminately destroying villages and civilians seen as “guerrilla sympathizers”. Farms, crops, cattle, dikes and dams were also pulverized by American B-29 bombers. The entire country was obliterated in order to “save it” from communism.
American actions were a monumental violation of the Geneva Convention which had only just been signed in 1949, forbidding the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The ink was barely dry when American forces were running rivers of blood all over Korea. The communist guerrillas also reportedly carried out atrocities. But in no comparable way to the scale that the US was committing.
How was US conduct in Korea any different from the genocidal “total war” concept of the Nazi Third Reich? Exactly, there was none, if the truth were told.
General Curtis Le May, the head of the US air force in Korea who earlier had masterminded the firebombing massacre of Tokyo during the Second World War, later candidly admitted that there was nothing left to bomb in Korea. He reckoned that US forces killed up to 30 per cent of the North Korean population. Even then, the US generals were actively considering dropping atomic bombs, including on China, which they considered as the real power behind the North Korean guerrilla army.
Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union did indeed lend crucial military support to the North Korean side. Newly innovated Soviet MiG jets reportedly had a curtailing effect on the American B-29s. But Beijing and Moscow’s involvement only came after the US weighed into what was a national struggle.
In the end, despite its declarations of moral virtue and Christian righteousness, the US was fought to a standstill. The three-year, backward-and-forward war finally stopped at the 38th parallel, which the US military government had earlier demarcated in 1945. Korea was not “liberated” from godless communism. The northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stands today as a reminder of defiance to US pretensions.
In the course of the war, the US Commander General Douglas MacArthur, was sacked by Truman over his failures and insubordination. It was a shameful outcome for MacArthur who had been adorned as a “war hero” for the Pacific victory over Japan. He had been one of the US generals advocating the atomic bombing of China.
Almost a decade later, the Vietnam War also became another episode of American barbarism and use of genocidal hi-tech weaponry. But by then, as American historian William Blum points out, there was a popular anti-war movement in the US, which exposed many of the crimes and falsehoods perpetrated by Washington.
The Korean War was different though. It was largely supported at the time by a US population which had bought into the official mythology of America as “the defender of the free world”. The Korean War was supposed to be the baptism of noble America, the alleged emerging “victor of the Second World War”, the presumed protector against evil totalitarianism.
But the Korean War destroyed that myth in the most searing way from the slaughter and barbarism that the US inflicted on a peasant army seeking national unity and independence. And for all its military might and “divine pretensions”, the US was fought to a standstill, if not an inglorious moral defeat.
Such is the shameful legacy of the Korean War for American national mythology that one suspects that this is a major reason why US authorities, the government, the Pentagon and the dutiful corporate-controlled news media would much rather prefer to forget the whole despicable episode. Simply put, it has to be erased from consciousness because it would be so otherwise jarring to American presumptions of exceptional virtue.
That is why the all-important issue of a peace treaty over the Korean War is not signed by the US. It is simply too shameful a subject to even revisit in the slightest way.
And yet, fiendishly, making a formal declaration of peace is crucial to resolve the ongoing conflict on the Korean Peninsula, one that could so easily escalate into a global catastrophe involving nuclear weapons.
Tragically, and heinously, the refusal to bear responsibility for the violence and suffering caused in Korea is why the current Trump administration presumes the “right” to go to war on North Korea. This American presumption is woefully ignorant of history and infused with a disturbed messianic zeal.
Trump and his officials arrogantly threaten North Korea with “annihilation” because the United States has never been held to account for its crimes in Korea (or elsewhere for that matter).
Signing a peace treaty would be an important step towards long-overdue American accountability. A step that the arrogant American rulers refuse to take – because they can’t admit the shocking reality of their enormous crimes.