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Misremembering the Korean War

The profound difference in quality of life on opposing sides of the 38th parallel today offers a rebuke to those who portray the US-led intervention in Korea as immoral or futile.

· 15 min read
Misremembering the Korean War
With her brother on her back a war weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-46 tank, at Haengju, Korea. Photographed by Maj. R.V. Spencer, UAF (Navy). U.S. Army Korea on June 9, 1951. Wikicommons.

The Korean War was among the deadliest of the Cold War’s battlegrounds. Yet despite yielding millions of civilian deaths, over 40,000 US casualties, and destruction that left scars which persist on the peninsula today, the conflict has never received the attention (aside from being featured in the sitcom M*A*S*H) devoted to World War II, Vietnam, and other 20th-century clashes.

But like other neglected Cold War front-lines, the “Forgotten War” has fallen victim to several politicized and one-sided “anti-imperialist” narratives that focus almost exclusively on the atrocities of the United States and its allies. The most recent example of this tendency was a Jacobin column by James Greig, who omits the brutal conduct of North Korean and Chinese forces, misrepresents the underlying cause of the war, justifies North Korea’s belligerence as an “anti-colonial” enterprise, and even praises the regime’s “revolutionary” initiatives. Greig’s article was preceded by several others, which also framed the war as an instance of US imperialism and North Korea’s anti-Americanism as a rational response to Washington’s prosecution of the war. Left-wing foreign-policy thinker Daniel Bessner also alluded to the Korean War as one of many “American-led fiascos” in his essay for Harper’s magazine earlier this summer. Even (somewhat) more balanced assessments of the war, such as those by Owen Miller, tend to overemphasize American and South Korean transgressions, and don’t do justice to the long-term consequences of Washington’s decision to send troops to the peninsula in the summer of 1950. By giving short shrift to—or simply failing to mention—the communist powers’ leading role in instigating the conflict, and the violence and suffering they unleashed throughout it, these depictions of the Korean tragedy distort its legacy and do a disservice to the millions who suffered, and continue to suffer, under the North Korean regime.

Determining “who started” a military confrontation, especially an “internal” conflict that became entangled in great-power politics, can be a herculean task. Nevertheless, post-revisionist scholarship (such as John Lewis Gaddis’s The Cold War: A New History) that draws upon Soviet archives declassified in 1991 has made it clear that the communist leaders, principally Joseph Stalin and North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung, were primarily to blame for the outbreak of the war.

After Korea, a Japanese imperial holding, was jointly occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945, Washington and Moscow agreed to divide the peninsula at the 38th parallel. In the North, the Soviets worked with the Korean communist and former Red Army officer Kim Il-Sung to form a provisional “People’s Committee,” while the Americans turned to the well-known Korean nationalist and independence activist Syngman Rhee to establish a military government in the South. Neither the US nor the USSR intended the division to be permanent, and until 1947, both experimented with proposals for a united Korean government under an international trusteeship. But Kim and Rhee’s mutual rejection of any plan that didn’t leave the entire peninsula under their control hindered these efforts. When Rhee declared the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1948, and Kim declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) later that year, the division was cemented. Each nation threatened to invade the other and began preparing to do so.

What initially prevented a full-scale attack by either side was Washington’s and Moscow’s refusal to provide their respective partners with support for the military reunification of the peninsula. Both superpowers had withdrawn their troops by 1949 to avoid being dragged into an unnecessary war, and the Americans deliberately withheld weapons from the ROK that could be used to launch an invasion.

However, Stalin began to have other ideas. Emboldened by Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese Civil War and frustrated by strategic setbacks in Europe, the Soviet premier saw an opportunity to open a “second-front” for communist expansion in East Asia with Beijing’s help. Convinced that Washington was unlikely to respond, Stalin gave Kim Il-Sung his long-sought “green-light” to reunify the Korean peninsula under communist rule in April 1950, provided that Mao agreed to support the operation. After Mao convinced his advisers (despite some initial difficulty) of the need to back their Korean counterparts, Red Army military advisers began working extensively with the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to prepare for an attack on the South. When Kim’s forces invaded on June 25th, 1950, the US and the international community were caught completely off-guard.

Commentators like Greig, who contest the communists’ culpability in starting the war, often rely on the work of revisionist historian Bruce Cumings, who highlights the perpetual state of conflict between the two Korean states before 1950. It is certainly true that there were several border skirmishes over the 38th parallel after the Soviet and American occupation governments were established in 1945. But this in no way absolves Kim and his foreign patrons for their role in unleashing an all-out assault on the South. Firstly, despite Rhee’s threats and aggressive posturing, the North clearly had the upper hand militarily, and was much better positioned than the South to launch an invasion. Whereas Washington stripped Rhee’s forces of much of their offensive capabilities, Moscow was more than happy to arm its Korean partners with heavy tanks, artillery, and aircraft. Many KPA soldiers also had prior military experience from fighting alongside the Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War.

Moreover, as scholar William Stueck eloquently maintains, the “civil” aspect of the Korean War fails to obviate the conflict’s underlying international dimensions. Of course, Rhee’s and Kim’s stubborn desire to see the country fully “liberated” thwarted numerous efforts to establish a unified Korean government, and played a role in prolonging the war after it started. It is unlikely that Stalin would have agreed to support Pyongyang’s campaign to reunify Korea had it not been for Kim’s persistent requests and repeated assurances that the war would be won quickly. Nevertheless, the extensive economic and military assistance provided to the North Koreans by the Soviets and Chinese (the latter of which later entered the war directly), the subsequent expansion of Sino-Soviet cooperation, the Stalinist nature of the regime in Pyongyang, Kim’s role in both the CCP and the Red Army, and the close relationship between the Chinese and Korean communists all strongly suggest that without the blessing of his ideological inspirators and military supporters, Kim could not have embarked on his crusade to “liberate” the South.

Likewise, Rhee’s education in the US and desire to emulate the American capitalist model in Korea were important international components of the conflict. More to the point, all the participants saw the war as a confrontation between communism and its opponents worldwide, which led to the intensification of the Cold War in other theaters as well. The broader, global context of the buildup to the war, along with the UN’s authorization for military action, legitimized America’s intervention as a struggle against international communist expansionism, rather than an unwelcome intrusion into a civil dispute among Koreans.

The historical record challenges another fundamental part of the revisionist argument: that the war was caused by US “imperialism.” On the contrary, the conflict demonstrated what can happen when America sends mixed signals about its willingness to defend its allies. After all, one of the principal reasons Stalin granted Kim permission to invade the South was that he believed Washington wouldn’t come to Seoul’s rescue. The Truman administration’s failure to save its Chinese nationalist allies and its decision to withhold heavy weaponry from the ROK military suggested a strong aversion to intervention on the Asian mainland. In January 1950, Stalin’s convictions were reinforced when US Secretary of State Dean Acheson excluded South Korea when he announced the American defensive perimeter in Asia. Even after the North Korean invasion, Truman waited almost a week before committing US ground troops, initially hoping that communism could still be contained in Asia without direct American involvement.

America’s reluctance to “provoke” its rivals and get dragged into confrontation inadvertently set the stage for the very scenario it had been so desperate to avoid (a lesson with important implications for the current debate about “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan and the role of NATO in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war). Despite the failure to discourage a North Korean attack, Truman and his advisers correctly concluded that deploying US troops was the only way to repel the KPA’s onslaught. General Douglas MacArthur’s successful establishment of a defensive perimeter at Pusan and amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950 are key examples of the US military’s vital role in preventing the ROK from being wiped off the map. President Truman’s ability to put together an international coalition to resist the attack, and the subsequent transformation of NATO from an abstract and disorganized framework into a robust military alliance, reinforced the strategy of containment that would deter future acts of unprovoked aggression.

To be sure, the Korean War also provides a cautionary tale of US overreach. After MacArthur drove the KPA forces back across the 38th parallel in October 1950, he was granted permission by Washington and the UN to pursue military operations above the dividing line to bring about a full and unconditional North Korean surrender. Though it initially favored a restoration of the status-quo, the Truman administration eventually became optimistic that eliminating the North Korean military threat for good—and potentially establishing a unified, Western-aligned Korea—was a feasible undertaking. This ambition to strike a decisive defeat against global communism proved disastrous when Chinese forces entered the conflict a few weeks later and soon forced a UN retreat back across the 38th parallel.

But while Washington’s miscalculation did play a role in prolonging the war beyond the fall of 1950, Truman learned from his mistake of expanding American war aims. The president’s decision to fire Douglas MacArthur from his post as commander of US forces in Korea, following the latter’s persistent calls to bring the war to China (and numerous attempts to publicly humiliate Truman), has been widely regarded as an important precedent for civil-military relations.

Critics who pin the extension of the war primarily on the US decision to cross the 38th parallel tend to overlook other important developments between 1951 and 1953. In March 1951, the fighting reached a stalemate with neither side able to make significant military gains. Mao eventually expressed willingness to accept a ceasefire in light of mounting Chinese casualties in June, but Stalin refused, arguing that a prolonged war “shakes up the Truman regime in America and harms the military prestige of the Anglo-American troops.” By deliberately preventing a ceasefire on the basis of such a cold-blooded calculation, the Soviet premier bears significant responsibility for the continued destruction inflicted on the peninsula over the next two years, much of which was avoidable.

Of course, all sides deserved a degree of blame for the slow progress of negotiations after June 1951, particularly over the prisoner of war controversy. And as usual, Rhee and Kim refused to accept any plan that didn’t see Korea unified under their respective vision (and even attempted to sabotage some of the armistice talks finally held in 1953). Nonetheless, as historian Odd Arne Westad outlines in The Cold War: A World History, Stalin’s death in March 1953 was decisive in enabling the signing of the Korean armistice later that year. It left other communist leaders, including Stalin’s successors, able to accept the provisions that had been holding up negotiations.

While much of the “anti-imperialist” framework regarding the origins of the Korean War is inaccurate, these critics are nonetheless correct that the conduct of the American and ROK military throughout the fighting was often morally dubious. The US dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula during the conflict than it had dropped over the entire Pacific theater during World War II. Indiscriminate air raids and napalm strikes, including the targeting of dams in May 1953, left many North Korean cities in ruins and inflicted hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. The South Korean government was also guilty of numerous crimes during the conflict such as the Bodo League massacre, and it repeatedly engaged in notorious anti-communist crackdowns before and after the war. While communist ideology largely explains the North Korean regime’s inherent anti-Americanism, such actions no doubt exacerbated the population’s fear and mistrust of the outside world.

But it is telling that those who boast of their particular concern about human suffering and political repression are so reluctant to notice the sheer brutality of the North Korean regime (not to mention its Chinese and Soviet allies). In addition to the original crime of initiating a war of aggression in the first place, North Korean atrocities included large-scale massacres of POWs and South Korean civilians. The North also subjected its captives to particularly egregious conditions, including human experimentation, deprivation of food and medical care, “death marches,” and summary execution. The KPA engaged in “class cleansing” of the ROK intelligentsia, government officials, and suspected family members in the zones under its control. According to William Stueck, recent evidence even suggests that the North Koreans and Chinese intentionally fabricated evidence to falsely accuse the Americans of experimenting with bacteriological warfare—one of the wartime violations that Greig attributes to the US without any substantiation.

Then there is the abysmal record of the communist political regimes themselves, such as the “revolutionary” land distribution programs (which Greig lauds as one of the redeeming characteristics of the DPRK). These led to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to the South, murderous purges of regime opponents by the Stalinist security apparatus, widespread famines that killed millions, the execution of citizens for trivial offenses, the imprisonment of entire families—and even successive generations—in detention camps, and the creation of an eccentric personality cult around Kim and his successors. According to North Korean defectors who spoke to the UN, many of these human rights violations are still ongoing at an alarming scale and scope.

One can still question the wisdom of the US-led intervention while acknowledging the horrors of communist rule. Though the DPRK may have been despotic and violent, its southern neighbor was hardly a paragon of virtue either at the time. Should America and its allies really have risked a potential nuclear war, endured tens of thousands of casualties, and subjected much of the Korean peninsula to ruthless bombing campaigns, all to save an authoritarian regime that seemed to have little strategic value to Washington? Don’t the numerous strategic miscalculations, as well as the fact that the dividing line hardly budged from where it was at the beginning of the conflict, ultimately mark the war as a wasted effort?

Arguments like these might have been convincing were it not for the vastly different trajectories of both countries since the 1953 armistice was signed. Though South Korea began its journey as an autocracy and the poorest country in East Asia, over time it miraculously transformed into one of the world’s most advanced economies. The country then transitioned to liberal democracy in the 1980s during the global “Third Wave” of democratization. By intelligently mobilizing domestic labor and other production inputs, opening its trade policy to promote exports, and deregulating its trade and financial sectors, Seoul experienced a rapid rise in GDP per capita, education rates, and living standards from the 1960s onwards. Economic growth, institutional development, and the emergence of a well-educated labor force helped to lay the foundations of the nation’s successful transition to representative governance in 1987.

Though it was ultimately South Koreans who set themselves on the path to freedom and prosperity (a crucial detail omitted by leftists who denigrate the country as a “client state” of US “imperialism”), America’s role in the success of the “Asian Tiger” shouldn’t be overlooked. Political pressure from Washington encouraged Rhee to engage in much-needed land reforms in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which helped the country address its staggering inequality (albeit not fully). As had been the case with Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, South Korea received significant amounts of US economic aid, and successive American administrations facilitated Seoul’s access to international markets to boost the nation’s export-led growth. And though critics are correct that the Korean War itself wasn’t directly about “spreading democracy”—the Truman administration also had an eye on US strategic positions in East Asia, and the ROK’s importance to Japan’s economic recovery—from the start, Washington sought to gradually enable the country to adopt American-style freedoms. As it was able to do with numerous other “friendly autocracies,” the US used its military and economic links with Seoul to guide the country towards political liberalization. When the Reagan administration decided that the ROK was ready for the transition to democracy, it used its leverage over President Chun Doo Hwan in 1987 to successfully convince him to find a peaceful resolution to the ongoing demonstrations.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has remained a one-party totalitarian dictatorship, and its centrally planned economy still struggles to provide its population with basic needs. The DPRK’s policy of “Juche,” or self-containment, has proved disastrous. It left the country economically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world, and its population remain immiserated and subjected to rampant human rights violations. Few North Koreans have access to electricity, and only 0.1 percent of them have access to the Internet. On several metrics (based on whatever little reliable data from North Korea is available), such as GDP per capita, export volumes, homicide rates, life expectancy, and infant mortality rates, North Korea falls considerably short of its southern counterpart. And instead of investing in meaningful efforts to ameliorate these conditions, Pyongyang has resorted to hiding and distorting the truth about its underperformance. The regime also places disproportionate emphasis on military resources, and according to data gathered by the Guardian, its military expenditures constitute around 20 percent of its GDP, whereas South Korea’s is only about three percent—something that ought to be considered by those lambasting the US and the ROK for “warmongering” and militarization.

Perhaps the most noteworthy way in which South Korea has distinguished itself from its less inspiring neighbor is that it has made several notable attempts to shed light on and own up to its own dark past. Since World War II, Seoul has implemented more than 10 truth commissions to investigate atrocities committed throughout various stages of the country’s history, including Japanese colonization of the peninsula, the Korean War, and the authoritarian governments that succeeded the Rhee regime. These efforts were invigorated after the transition to democracy in 1987, leading to two particularly prominent inquiries. The Jeju Commission was established in 2000 to study the bloody anti-communist counterinsurgency campaign on Jeju Island between 1948 and 1954 that killed over 15,000 people. And the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 2005 to investigate other notorious incidents such as the Bodo League and Geochang massacres. Though activists argue that more needs to be done, it is nonetheless worth noting that, after the commissions concluded, the government did take laudable steps to atone for these crimes by issuing formal apologies, establishing memorials and museums, providing subsidies for some victims’ families, and revising textbooks to offer a more honest account of these infamous occurrences.

Ironically, the leftists who vilify and delegitimize South Korea’s success due to its past brutality fail to acknowledge that many of their criticisms are only possible because the country’s embrace of political freedom eventually brought details of its own atrocities to light in the first place. No such effort has been replicated in the North. The DPRK continues to stifle criticism at home and abroad over its historical record, and to propagate a distorted narrative of the Korean War to foment anti-Americanism and maintain the regime’s tight grip over society.

The profound difference in the quality of life on opposing sides of the 38th parallel today rebukes portrayals of the US-led intervention in Korea as immoral or futile. While the wrongdoing of the Americans and South Koreans must continue to be acknowledged and addressed, critics shouldn’t conflate the prosecution of the war itself with the underlying decision to intervene in the first place. Just as the bombing of Dresden and other destructive attacks carried out by the Allies don’t delegitimize the defeat of fascism during World War II, Washington and Seoul’s misdeeds throughout the Korean War don’t undermine the rightness of resisting communist expansionism in East Asia. The Truman administration certainly made several miscalculations between 1950 and 1953, but abandoning the ROK would have been far more inimical in terms of the broader strategic and humanitarian pictures. Absent a direct American response to the DPRK’s invasion, the outcome would have been a complete North Korean domination of the peninsula, and the subjugation of millions more Koreans to the harsh and incompetent rule of the Kim dynasty.

This possibility is certainly not forgotten by South Koreans today. According to polling data from August 2022, 89 percent of the population holds a favorable view of the United States—the second highest behind Poland at 91 percent—and over 80 percent see Washington as a reliable partner. The vast majority of South Koreans also favor closer ties to America than to any other country. Despite some recent disagreements between the two nations over cost-sharing burdens for hosting US troops, Seoul still regards its American security presence as crucial to maintaining regional stability and deterring North Korean and Chinese advances. (This is a major reason why calls for a US withdrawal from the peninsula so that Koreans “can decide their own future” are fundamentally misguided.) These positive views of Washington have many underlying reasons, namely common liberal and democratic values, a close economic partnership, and shared geopolitical visions, but there is little doubt that gratitude towards the United States for the ROK’s very existence is a leading factor.

America’s intervention in Korea had lasting consequences for the rest of East Asia and for the global Cold War more broadly. South Korea not only ended up being essential to Japan’s post-war recovery, it also bolstered market dynamics and the trade architecture in East Asia that enabled the economic growth of many other countries, thereby undermining the appeal of communism in the region. Moreover, had the DPRK succeeded in its attempt to conquer the South, the historical record strongly suggests that Stalin, Mao, and Kim wouldn’t have stopped there. After all, Stalin’s hope had been that the communist success in China, and Kim’s potential victory in Korea, would lead to other revolutionary gains in Asia (and possibly even Europe). But by coming to South Korea’s defense, Washington sent its rivals a clear message that the West was willing and able to fight against the global spread of communism. This display of American resolve, combined with the consolidation of NATO and the emergence of a concrete policy of “containment,” would fortify the framework of post-war international security for the coming decades.

At a time when countries like Ukraine and Taiwan find themselves existentially threatened by revisionist, expansionist powers, it’s important not to distort the legacy of the Korean War. The United States and its allies successfully defended an indispensable partner against authoritarian belligerence and secured the future of the liberal international order. Hubris, intransigence, callousness, paranoia (in the form of McCarthyism), and the militarization of the Cold War are no doubt parts of this narrative, and the conflict was longer and more destructive than it needed to be. But the final outcome of the Korean War was the opportunity for the majority of Koreans to achieve freedom and prosperity, and, most importantly, to come to terms with their own troubled past.

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