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Korea Was the United States’ First Forever War

Incompetent U.S. forces did more harm than help for South Korea’s path to democracy.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
Korean refugees flee to the south.
Korean refugees flee to the south as they pass frozen rice fields on Jan. 18, 1951. AFP via Getty Images

In one corner of the Peace Park in Jeju, a large tropical island off the southern coast of South Korea, there is a statue of a barefoot young woman with a baby falling in a field of snow. The park commemorates the April 3 incident, also known as the Jeju Massacre, in which the South Korean military, under U.S. military oversight, slaughtered as many as 30,000 civilians from April 1948 to August 1949.

Following unrest that culminated in 350 communist militiamen attacking a police station on April 3, 1948, then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee declared martial law on the island and began indiscriminately destroying villages on its mountain ridges, where the insurgents were supposedly hiding. According to a 2003 fact-finding report by the South Korean government, Rhee’s military and police destroyed nearly 60 percent of Jeju’s 400 villages and killed 10 percent of the entire island’s population. The statue is based on Byeon Byeong-saeng, who was 25 years old in January 1949. She was running with her 2-year-old infant in the snow-covered mountain ridge of Jeju when she was shot dead.

As the United States debates its withdrawal from Afghanistan, South Korea is a popular example among those who wished to stay. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed to “a stable equilibrium on the Korean Peninsula [and] a valuable South Korean ally.” Robert Kagan, Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted Americans “have kept troops in Korea for 70 years … The fact is, Americans will keep troops in distant theaters for decades, so long as casualties are minimal.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted an “open-ended presence” in Afghanistan could have been an option, as it was the case for U.S. forces in South Korea. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro posted: “If we abandoned every country for which we had sacrificed blood and treasure due to corruption concerns, authoritarianism, and inability of the domestic military to repel foreign invasion, South Korea would not exist.”

In one corner of the Peace Park in Jeju, a large tropical island off the southern coast of South Korea, there is a statue of a barefoot young woman with a baby falling in a field of snow. The park commemorates the April 3 incident, also known as the Jeju Massacre, in which the South Korean military, under U.S. military oversight, slaughtered as many as 30,000 civilians from April 1948 to August 1949.

Following unrest that culminated in 350 communist militiamen attacking a police station on April 3, 1948, then-South Korean President Syngman Rhee declared martial law on the island and began indiscriminately destroying villages on its mountain ridges, where the insurgents were supposedly hiding. According to a 2003 fact-finding report by the South Korean government, Rhee’s military and police destroyed nearly 60 percent of Jeju’s 400 villages and killed 10 percent of the entire island’s population. The statue is based on Byeon Byeong-saeng, who was 25 years old in January 1949. She was running with her 2-year-old infant in the snow-covered mountain ridge of Jeju when she was shot dead.

As the United States debates its withdrawal from Afghanistan, South Korea is a popular example among those who wished to stay. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed to “a stable equilibrium on the Korean Peninsula [and] a valuable South Korean ally.” Robert Kagan, Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted Americans “have kept troops in Korea for 70 years … The fact is, Americans will keep troops in distant theaters for decades, so long as casualties are minimal.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted an “open-ended presence” in Afghanistan could have been an option, as it was the case for U.S. forces in South Korea. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro posted: “If we abandoned every country for which we had sacrificed blood and treasure due to corruption concerns, authoritarianism, and inability of the domestic military to repel foreign invasion, South Korea would not exist.”

Today’s South Korea is an amazing country—but that’s little comfort to the 25-year-old woman who died barefoot in the snow with her baby and the over a million Koreans in the North and South whose lives were sacrificed on the way, let alone the people of North Korea who still live under dictatorship. These comments reveal the mindset that enabled the “forever war”: a callous dismissal of an unconscionable human cost in favor of a simplistic and self-serving historical narrative, which hubristically declares the coming arrival of a teleological future. This is precisely the mindset that caused the United States to lose the War in Afghanistan and made the North Korean nuclear crisis impossible to resolve.

For all the talk of the forever war in the Middle East, the longest U.S. war is not Afghanistan but the Korean War, which is under an indefinite cease-fire 71 years after the war began in 1950.

Yet, to be sure the trajectory of South Korea in those 71 years is nothing short of miraculous, Daniel Tudor, former Seoul correspondent for the Economist, titled one of his books Korea: the Impossible Country. Since the U.S. military entered the Korean Peninsula in 1945 at the end of World War II, the impoverished former Japanese colony endured an apocalyptic civil war and decades of authoritarian rule to become a prosperous liberal democracy, a major presence in international affairs, and a staunch U.S. ally—all while avoiding another all-out war against North Korea. Indeed, the Korean War may be the Platonic ideal of a forever war and U.S.-led state-building, which explains South Korea’s popularity as the counterpoint for the Afghan withdrawal.

But on a closer examination of South Korea’s modern history, there are fewer reasons for Americans to pat themselves on the back. Most importantly, the United States did not even win the war. To this day, half of the Korean Peninsula remains under North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian rule. If U.S. President Joe Biden had proposed to cede half of Afghanistan to a Taliban armed with 40 to 50 nuclear warheads, the proponents of the forever war would hardly consider it a victory. By pointing to South Korea, they are all but admitting that half-success is the only kind of success possible.

The United States could not do any better than half-success because U.S. management of South Korea and the Korean War was pockmarked with incompetence. Americans knew nothing about the country they divided and occupied. The two young colonels who determined the initial dividing line between North and South Korea—Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel—simply grabbed a National Geographic map and drew a line across the 38th parallel, which, as Rusk (later U.S. secretary of state under then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy) recalled, “made no sense economically or geographically.”

After advancing close to the border between North Korea and China in the early stages of the Korean War, the United States had to make an embarrassing retreat and suffer massive losses because of a catastrophic intelligence failure that ignored the possibility that China might intervene on behalf of North Korea. To this day, the term “advisory officer” (gomun-gwan) is South Korean military slang for an incompetent soldier, referring to the U.S. advisory officers who were considered utterly useless by the South Korean soldiers they supposedly commanded.

South Korea’s journey to democracy is worth celebrating, but in that journey, the United States was as much a hindrance as it was a help. To be sure, there were key moments in which U.S. support was invaluable, such as when U.S. ambassador Philip Habib interceded to prevent then-South Korean President Park Chung-hee from assassinating democracy activist (and later president) Kim Dae-jung in 1973.

Yet for nearly 40 years, the United States propped up murdering dictator after murdering dictator in South Korea—Rhee, Park, and Chun Doo-hwan—because the exigencies of the Cold War supposedly demanded such support. Just months after Chun usurped power and murdered hundreds of people in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan invited Chun to the White House, giving the military dictator the validation he was desperately seeking. The Chun dictatorship would have endured past 1987 if it were not for massive protests during the June Struggle movement, led in large part by left-leaning activists who were considered anti-American.

Above all, U.S. commentators’ self-congratulations over Korea elide just how many people died horribly and needlessly, either because of or at the behest of the United States. Those who advocated for the United States to stay in Afghanistan direly warned of the Taliban’s coming massacre. But in South Korea under U.S. supervision, the massacres happened nonetheless. Princeton University-educated, U.S.-installed dictator Rhee had killed tens of thousands of South Koreans before North Korea ever crossed the 38th parallel in 1950, purportedly to root out communists and their sympathizers.

In 1948, the United States had the formal authority to command the South Korean military, but the United States all but signed off on the Jeju Massacre, with Col. Rothwell Brown in Jeju touting his efficient coordination of South Korean military and the police who were wiping out the mountain villages. In response to the Jeju Massacre, South Korea’s 14th Regiment, stationed in the cities of Yeosu and Suncheon, South Korea, revolted as they refused to be sent to Jeju to kill civilians. While quelling the revolt, Rhee killed another 10,000 civilians in the area, with Capt. James H. Hausman (who came to be known as the “father of the South Korean army”) overseeing the supply of aircrafts, armored cars, and weapons for the operation.

The chaos of the Korean War, which killed 10 percent of the Korean population, ratcheted up the wholesale massacre of civilians. The United States dropped more bombs in North Korea than it did in World War II’s Pacific theater, without bothering to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Gen. Curtis LeMay of the Tokyo firebombing coolly explained: “We burned down just about every city in North Korea and South Korea both. We killed off over a million civilian Koreans.” The U.S. bombing campaign in Korea was so appalling it inspired artist Pablo Picasso to paint Massacre in Korea, third in his anti-war trilogy that began with Guernica. At No Gun Ri, U.S. forces knowingly targeted South Korean war refugees, killing 163 individuals. Rhee happily joined the killing spree, murdering as many as 200,000 civilians accused of communist sympathies in what came to be known as the Bodo League massacre. When Rhee wasn’t killing deliberately, he was killing through corruption and incompetence. Up to 120,000 soldiers in South Korea’s National Defense Corps died not from battle but from frostbite and malnourishment, as Rhee’s cronies liberally siphoned supplies.

Forever war advocates may say: If mass graves are what is necessary to secure peace, then we must choose mass graves. Byeon must die with her child so South Korea may prosper. To his credit, Kagan came closest to saying this conclusion openly: “If someone had told Americans after 9/11 that they could go two decades without another successful attack but that it would cost 4,000 American lives and $1 trillion, as well as tens of thousands of Afghan lives, would they have rejected it as too high? Likely not.” But this glib claim—the actual number of the dead in Afghanistan is more than 278,000 deaths—obscures the most pernicious effect of the forever war: It distorts the United States to a point that choosing peace is impossible.

This distortion is the reason why North Korea’s denuclearization has been such a fruitless task for decades. The United States can spend many hours discussing the specific points where negotiations fell through. But ultimately, negotiation with North Korea always fails because all relevant parties—North Korea, South Korea and the United States—are inured to the original forever war.

In the United States, for example, many experts (including myself) have advocated for an end-of-war declaration with North Korea. It would be a small step toward trust-building with North Korea, as the declaration would only recognize, as a practical matter, the reality that the Korean War has been over for decades. Yet many in Washington have opposed this simple measure, supposedly out of concern that the declaration might weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance—oblivious, apparently, that two countries may form an alliance in the state of peace. Unless the United States abandons the mindset that kept it in a losing war for the past 20 years, it will not see progress in ending its longest war.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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