Skip to Content


Korea – the 60 year war

9 July 2013

9:37 AM

9 July 2013

9:37 AM

In the early morning hours of June 25, 1950 the opening shots of the Korean War were fired.

At the time, few could have predicted how seminal this event would be in shaping world history. While the Korean War itself was only fought over a period of three years, no peace agreement was ever reached. In her new book ‘Brothers At War’, Sheila Miyoshi Jager provides a compelling historical analysis of a conflict that set the agenda for much of the Cold War. 

Sheila Miyoshi Jager is Luce Associate Professor and Director of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio. She has written extensively on modern and contemporary Korean politics and history.

Would you describe the various phases of the Korean War? 

When most people think of the Korean War, they focus on the events that occurred between June 25, 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea, and July 27, 1953, the date of the armistice signing when fighting on the peninsula came to an end.  In my book, however, I make the distinction between four main phases of the war: the civil and international war phase (1945-1953), the Cold War phase (1953-late 1960s); the local war phase (late 1960s-1990s), and then the post-Cold War phase (1990s to the present). Because the war ended in an armistice, and not a peace treaty, the conflict never ended. Thus, I structured my book to address this unending aspect of the war. Yet, even as I show how these four phases of the war are distinct, they are nevertheless linked to the basic struggle that began after Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945 as a civil war between two opposing political groups with very two different visions of what modern Korea should become.  Once the peninsula became permanently divided by outside powers, that civil struggle became global and exploded into war, which began in June 1950. But the contest between the two Koreas has always remained the same, that is: which Korea, North or South, is the legitimate Korea?

South Korea would seem like an obvious enough answer, right?

Well everyone recognises that South Korea has won this contest of legitimacy, but it wasn’t always obvious. Until the late 1960s, North Korea was actually ahead of the South economically and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that South Korea began to catch up.

By the 1990s, it was clear that South Korea had won the war except that North Korea’s leaders have so far refused to admit defeat and enact reforms that would better the lives of their people. To do so would create a mass legitimization crisis and risk the collapse of the North Korean regime. 

What implications did the Korean War have for Cold War politics?

Because no peace treaty was signed between the U.S. and China, Sino-American relations went into a deep freeze for the next 20 years. This situation obviously had huge implications for the United States. In the permanent fight against communism, the United States was forced to maintain a large permanent standing army for the first time in the nation’s history, enlarged defence budgets and military bases all over the world. This is what Eisenhower warned Americans against in 1961 when he said in his farewell address to the nation ‘beware the military industrial complex.’ 

Can you speak about the changing relationship that America had with Japan as the Korean War intensified?

When the American occupation of Japan began in 1945 General Douglas McArthur at first introduced the policy of ‘demilitarization and democratization.’ This policy aimed to sweep Japan clean of its militarized past and war making capabilities. However, by 1947, due to the emerging Cold War in Europe, MacArthur was forced to ‘reverse course’. Formerly purged leaders were brought back into power in the hope that they could help jump-start Japan’s shattered economy. American leaders were now focused on building up Japan as a strong bulwark against communism in Asia. However, it was the Korean War that really helped to revive Japan economically. Since the overriding concern was now focused on defeating the communists in Korea and creating a strong Japan, punishing Japanese war criminals was no longer deemed important. In this way, the Korean War promoted Japanese forgetfulness of their wartime past. Helping the Americans fight the Chinese communists in Korea obviously did little to stimulate the memory of Japan’s wartime atrocities in China. This is one of the reasons why the history issue was never resolved between the two nations and why it has become such a point of contention, even in recent times. 

How important was China’s role in the Korean War?

Well, China saved North Korea during the war. After China intervened in Korea in October 1950, North Korea was relegated as a secondary player in its own war since China now called all the shots. Kim Il-Sung and the rest of the North Koreans really resented this dependency. But, ironically, it was China’s presence in North Korea that actually helped Kim Il-Sung distance himself from the Soviet Union, and most importantly, from Soviet Koreans who had played a vital role in establishing the North Korean state in 1948. Not long after the war ended, Kim Il-Sung began a purge of these Soviet Koreans in an effort to secure his hold on power. The Korean War also enhanced China’s prestige since it had fought the greatest superpower to a standstill. This meant that China was now able to demand equality with the Soviet Union, which it hadn’t been able to do during Stalin’s lifetime. Mao thus became more assertive in his relationship with the Soviet Union, and saw China as the new centre of the communist movement. Kim Il-Sung was later able to reap tremendous benefits from the emerging tensions between China and the Soviet Union by playing off one superpower against the other to steer an independent course. 

How important was the Korean War in terms of how it affected the Vietnam War?

The Korean War had a great impact on shaping American Cold War foreign policy. President Johnson relied heavily on the Korean War analogy in making his decision about American escalation in Vietnam. China also learned a great deal from that conflict.

The Korean War taught Mao about the essential link between war and revolution. Mao used the lessons he learned during the Korean War to mobilize the nation for war — this time by launching the Cultural Revolution. Renewed fighting abroad (in Vietnam) once again served his purpose in consolidating his power at home. At the same time, however, both the Americans and the Chinese took the lessons of Korea to avoid another direct Sino-American clash. Mao thus made it very clear to the Americans that if they invaded North Vietnam, the Chinese would directly enter the war. Likewise, the Americans learned from Korea and heeded China’s warning. So the legacy of Korea really shaped the next future Cold War conflict in Asia. 

How did the Korean War affect South Korea, in terms of the kind of society that evolved? 

In South Korea, the memory of the war and the implacable fight against communism was used to great effect by Park Chung Hee, who came into power in 1961, and laid the foundation for South Korea’s rapid economic growth. Anyone who opposed Park was automatically labeled a pro-North Korean communist and hauled off to jail. Today, many South Koreans still have mixed opinions about Park. They see him as the true founder of South Korea’s prosperity. But on the other hand many are critical of the methods he used to achieve national growth. Still, most South Koreans believe that Park’s authoritarianism was the price South Koreans had to pay for the economic prosperity they enjoy today. 

What is next for North Korea, and how will the Korean War finally end? 

North Korea is in a catch 22 situation: it needs to implement drastic economic reforms in order to get out of its current doomed economic situation. But doing so would mean opening North Korea to foreign capital and influences, which would spell the end of the Kim dynasty. The more North Koreans know about the outside world, the less willing they will be to put up with the conditions of poverty and repression at home. So the question then for North Korean leaders is: how are they going to get their country out of its current economic stagnation while also holding on to power? I see China ending the Korean War.

How will that happen?

China will continue to shield the North Korean regime from internal collapse while also promoting incremental economic reforms. This is why you are starting to see a great deal of Chinese investment in North Korea. It’s in China’s interest to get North Korea to become a normal functioning economy. But China also knows that opening up North Korea to the outside world too fast would result in regime collapse. So China will do everything it can to help promote incremental reforms in North Korea, while carefully shielding the regime from internal collapse in the process. 

Do you think there is any real significance in the threats of nuclear war that North Korea has been making in recent months to the United States?

No. North Korea is never going to start a war with the United States. It would mean the end of North Korea and the leadership is not suicidal.

How has the North Korean regime survived over the last six decades despite the economic catastrophe it has experienced?

Many people have talked about North Korea’s unique ideology and its use of traditional Confucian concepts, like filial piety, as a major reason why North Korea has lasted so long. However, what struck me about North Korea in doing research for my book was its uncanny ability to manipulate other nations to do its bidding, what some have called its aid-maximizing strategy. Kim-Il Sung wanted to wage a war of unification, but it was the Soviet Union that funded the war, and China that largely fought it. During the Cold War, Kim used the Sino-Soviet split to great advantage, leveraging North Korea’s position to solicit large amounts of foreign aid from both parties. After the Cold War, when these sources of aid dried up, North Korea was able to use its nuclear programme to leverage foreign aid. The 1994 Agreed Framework is a great example of North Korea’s unique survival skills: for the ultimate result of that agreement was that North Korea was able to avoid economic collapse while still keeping its nuclear programme intact.

Brothers at War by Sheila Miyoshi Jager is published by Profile Books (£25.00)

Show comments