War historians consider it appropriate to refer to the Korean War as the ‘Unknown War’ or ‘Forgotten War’. This in essence due to that fact that up until the collapse of the USSR and subsequent declassification of Soviet documents on the war, the events leading to the conflict were largely shrouded in mystery. On the 25th of June, 1950, the North Korean military attacked South Korea and as such, varying motivations for the war led many countries to support either the North or South. This may shed more light as to the underlying causes of the war and more so, shed more light as to why it is still improbable to have a single peaceful Korean nation. This paper seeks to investigate the contrasting objectives for war between the North Korean leader, Kim II-Sung and Syngman Rhee of South Korea. Both leaders sought to work towards a unified Korea though their two opposing allies the USSR and China supporting the North and the US and the UN supporting the South opposing ideological beliefs tended to repel any attempts for its reunification.
It is most appropriate to look into the primary causes of the 1950-1953 Korean War in two fronts, the political front and the ideological front. From the ideological perspective, the USSR and its allies, North Korea and China sought to ensure the entire Korean peninsula was secured and became a member of the communist bloc. From a political standpoint, the USSR perceived the Korean Peninsula as a region which could be used by the anticommunist west to attack its allies and ultimately, the USSR . As such, the Stalin government in Russia made the assertion that the unified Korea ought to be ultimately loyal to the USSR.
The Korean War is said to have stemmed from an incidence of civil unrest in the South which led the North to stage a counter offensive. The conflict quickly turned into an international; affair after the US and UN supported the capitalist South which the USSR and China aided the North. As such, this became the Asian front of the Cold War.
Korea has a rich and unique historical, cultural and linguistic identity though it has consistently suffered intrusions from its neighbors. For instance, Imperial China throughout its expansive history regarded the Kingdom of Korea as its tributary state. As such, Japan and China fought for superiority on the peninsular from 1894-1895. Similarly, the war between Russia and Japan which the latter eventually won was mostly fought on the Kingdom of Korea. Furthermore, in 1910, Japan officially annexed the region as its colony up until the culmination of the Second World War.
As the Second World War tended towards its climax, the Allies deliberated on Korea’s impending future after the War. the US, Great Britain and China concurred that after World War II, all colonies ruled over by Japan would be liberated, Korea included. As the War neared its end, to senior US army officers presented a proposition allowing for the USSR to accept obligation for accepting surrender of the Japanese army to the North while the US did the same in the South. This resulted in the division of the Korean Kingdom into the North and South along what is now referred to as the 38th parallel. As a result, communities were split along the new boundaries and families separated.
Planners of the post Second World War had hoped for the 38th Parallel to be a transitory administrative solution. As such, the UN offered to supervise over the Korean Kingdom’s elections in 1947. It was envisaged that a successful and peaceful election process would once again result in a quick and long lasting reunification of the North and South. The elections were aimed at bringing about the democratically elected Korean government. The two main contenders in these defining elections were Kim II-Sung from the North and Syngman Rhee from the South.
Kim II-Sung strongly supported communist ideals and was thus supported by the Chinese and Soviet governments wary of the intentions of the western countries. As such, after the 38th parallel was demarcated, the Soviets championed the formation of an administrative government to the North and found trust in Kim II-Sung. Therefore, even as the elections were being prepared for the elections, the North already had a functioning Soviet backed government. Given the strategic importance of the Korean peninsula to USSR’s security objectives and more so, the Soviet’s policy that the North remain loyal to the USSR, such elections were seen as counterproductive to Stalin’s underlying interests. North Korea’s leader, Kim, took full advantage of the USSR and Communist China’s fears of the West and UN to call for the arming of his military forces and furthermore, full support for his efforts towards nation building. After Kim II-Sung realized a more superior army as compared to that of the South, he sought for Stalin’s permission to spearhead a conflict to retake the South from the US and the UN with the aim of unifying the North and South under the soviet banner.
Syngman Rhee on the other hand, was an individual who had little grass root backing from the populations in the South. As such, there were many contenders who sought support from the US to become lead administrators of South Korea. The sole issue that led the US government to support Syngman Rhee to become the leader of South Korea’s military government was that he had no affiliations whatsoever with anti-Japanese sentiments. As such, he was seen as the best candidate to oversee a quasi-authoritarian government that was not only anocratic so as to fail on abilities to counter insurgencies. These eventualities led to many insurgencies occurring in the South and as such, the US army had to use its military personnel to resolve conflicts and resolve order.
One of the insurgencies south of the 38th parallel finally brought about the start of the Korean War. According to some historians, Kim II-Sung was keen to use the backing of his Soviet and Communist Chinese allies towards the unification of Korea. As such, Stalin called on his patience to ensure that a counterattack was better as other nations would be able to stand by the North as an outcome of any provocation. The small insurgency thus led the North to invade the South which was militarily weaker. The US championed for support to the South against the UN Security Council thus leading to many other countries entering the War in support of the South.
In conclusion, therefore, the docile political qualities of Syngman Rhee and the markedly lack of political goodwill from the American administration as well as the Soviet’s and Chinese fears of the West and support for Kim led the War. The War ended up as a Cold War remnant that still remains to date.
Campbell, Joel R. "The Wrong War: The Soviets and the Korean War, 1945-1953." International Social Science Review (Online) 88, no. 3 (2014): 0_1.
Sandler, Stanley. The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished. Lexington, Ky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Van Evera, Stephen. Causes of war: Power and the roots of conflict. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.