Korean War I: Who fired the first shot?

vintage 38th parallel Korea photo

With the tension building on the Korean Peninsula today, it helps to reexamine why the first Korean War started, especially if the model is subsumed under the number of current defensive operational plays. Interestingly research on the Korean War yields the idea that in comparison with 1950, the United States is much more brazen today both in its demands and in its belligerency towards North Korea (DPRK).

Could it be that the endless accelerating ideological wars since the 2000s have inculcated a mindset of Olympian invincibility?

A key characteristic of the prelude to Korean War I was that there were many border skirmishes between the North and the South especially during 1948-1950. In the aftermath of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel, with the northern mountainous half backed by the U.S.S.R., while the southern agricultural region was backed by the U.S.A.

The demarcation became a symbolic fulcrum in ideological differences particularly in the era of McCarthyism. Many Republicans in the U.S. backed a full-takeover or “roll-back” of Northern Korea. The Secretary of State under President Truman, Dean Acheson, quailed at the possibility of having to conduct two wars. One desired “rollback” would be for Nationalist China (Taiwan) where defeated former China President Chiang Kai-shek had fled and continued to seethe over his losses in China. Another “rollback” would be for South Korea (ROK), where the puppet-President Syngman Rhee presided over a corrupt pro-colonialist government. Unable to control popular hostility to his political repressions, Rhee supported a war that would divert political attention away from himself while funneling more American dollars towards the ROK.

The fact is that during 1948-1950, there were quite a few cross-border skirmishes and battles between the North and the South. Partly this is attributable to the fact that in 1945 the 38th parallel was a latitudinal line with no sensitivity to topography or landforms. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) established in 1953 by the Armistice Agreement created a border belt about 2-1/2 miles wide by 160 miles in length.

It is this border, still commonly referred to as the 38th Parallel which continues today to serve as a juncture point for travel, trade, illegal tunnels, and border incidents. The Far-East counterpart of the Berlin Wall, most Koreans realize that the Armistice Agreement only means a cessation of hostilities.

Especially today, the hopes for Korean Unification and a final peace treaty are becoming overshadowed by the drumbeats and increasing crescendo towards war.

Between 1948-1950 Skirmishes Along 38th Parallel were frequent

The fact is that during 1948-1950 border skirmishes became increasingly more frequent and intense. More than anything the Korean War was first and foremost one of internecine strife. It also represented a battle of ideologies—the choice between a communist-style democracy versus a neocolonialist-capitalist democracy became an international conflagration due to the nascent imperialistic ambitions of the United States.

According to author William Blum in Killing Hope:

The two sides had been clashing across the Parallel for several years. What happened on that fateful day in June could thus be regarded as no more than the escalation of an outgoing civil war. The North Korean government has claimed that in 1949 alone, the South Korean army or police perpetrated 2,167 armed incursions into the North to carry out murder, kidnapping, pillage and arson for the purpose of causing social disorder and unrest, as well as to increase the combat capabilities of the invaders. At times, stated the Pyongyang government, thousands of soldiers were involved in a single battle with many casualties resulting.

As military training camps, bases, and exercises were practiced on both sides at the border, the ease with which conflagrations occurred increased over time. It appears that during this period, very few if any peace overtures were made by the United Nations. Amid developing Cold War policies no peace conference talks were scheduled.

Much like today, the absence of peace efforts signifies a willingness to go to war.

Whether it was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, or Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Tom Connally, the official ambiguity around Korea seemed designed to encourage an incident precipitating the need for the U.S. to go to war. The strategy of a fortified American defense system operating behind the scenes awaiting a blunder by North Korea was alluded to by Connally in reference to Washington policy-makers:

A lot of them believe this: They believe that incidents will transpire which will maneuver around and present an incident which will make us fight. That’s what a lot of them are saying: ‘We’ve got to battle sometime, why not now?’ (The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 2, Bruce Cumings, p. 431)

Much like today, too many in Congress or the White House agree with that sentiment. And indeed the departure of U.S. troops in 1950 from Korea may well have been the planned tactical maneuver which sparked the Ongjin invasion allegedly by North Korea on the morning of June 25, 1950.

According to Times of India (“Dangerous Frontier in Korea in Cold War: Frequent Large-Scale Clashes at 38th Parallel” June 26, 1950), while South Korea had the advantage in terms of agrarian population and resources, North Korea was a mountainous stronghold of miners and factory workers.

A day after the war began Times of India (“Dangerous Frontier” June 26, 1950):

With two-thirds of Korea’s total population, south Korea has the advantage over the north in man-power, but the Republic harbours a powerful anti-government force. Officials of the American State Department estimated last year that upwards of 50,000 Communist Koreans from North Korea had infiltrated into the south to mingle with two million political and social refugees from the north.

South Korea’s strength lay in a vast and more diverse civilian population, however its limitations included a huge peasantry, lack of employment, and discontent with the Rhee regime which stalled on land and social reform. Korean officials worried that with so many refugees and communist-party recruiters, they “would form the vanguard of any invasion from the north.”

In 1950, many hardened Korean fighters had returned to the North from war-service in China. Their strength and expertise was often superior to those of the South, and they retained rifles, mortars, heavy guns, and ammunition from World War II. These men doubled the fighting power in the North and were undoubtedly inured to the dangers of provoking full-scale war.

However the number of Russian advisors and observers in North Korea were small compared to those sent to monitor events at the 38th Parallel from the South. The U.S. sent numerous observers whether working for the Defense Department or the C.I.A. According to the Times of India (“Dangerous Frontier” June 26, 1950):

In the south where a 500-strong American military team is assigned to advise the army, those of the army and police force who are armed probably number fewer than 90,000, including a small mechanised section trained to operate American jeeps and transport vehicles.

In a typical incident, Washington Post (“Border Battle Reported by South Korea” February 1, 1949) reported that in January 1949 severe battles between the North and South forces involved thousands of troops taking and retaking border villages. South Korean forces recaptured a nearby village which the North Koreans had held for a day. The North Korean forces ranged from 400 to 3000 troops. Furthermore, South Korean troops staged a revolt:

Sixty soldiers of the South Korean Sixth division revolted at Pohang, 160 miles southeast of Seoul, and killed one officer and six enlisted men who refused to take part. They marched to the eastern port of Kuryunto, where they were attacked by 240 police and 80 loyal soldiers. The rebels used American rifles and ammunition, Choi said.

The growing number of South Korean rebels using American rifles and ammunition would have had American intelligence alarmed and this could be why Secretary of State Acheson initially discouraged more militarization in South Korea.

The growing discontent with the policies and practices of South Korean President Syngman Rhee’s democratic regime was also expressed by American newspapers.

According to the New York Herald Tribune (“Syngman Rhee denies a Crisis in South Korea” July 1, 1949) political turmoil within South Korea on the eve of Korean War I had its sources. For instance, a prominent leading critic of the government and head of the Independence Party, Kim Koo, was assassinated. Rhee tried to defend himself on the report that at least seven National Assembly members were arrested. Rhee claimed that “they were acting in concert with the South Korean Labor party, which is Communist and has been outlawed.” The Herald noted that Rhee failed to address why the government ordered the shutdown of sixteen newspapers and magazines.

Interestingly, the New York Herald Tribune reporter defended the censorship:

The attitude of the best qualified American observers here is that these were not newspapers in any real sense but were propaganda sheets engaged in inciting the people to violence.

During the McCarthy era, too many mainstream newspapers were willing to make wide-spread generalized condemnations.

However today, one sprig of hope lies in the fact that no such discontent exists against ROK President Moon Jae-in. In fact, the liberal Moon favors a peaceful reunification between the two Koreas.

Nevertheless, there is an ongoing parallel revolving around the debate on “Fake News” today. Not only has RT.com been banned at some public institutional libraries, but Google search engine algorithms have been altered. The top communications industries CEOs are also working closely with the White House to improve surveillance, and develop private government servers.

In 1950, just as today, the United Nations actions and opinions were generally cast in favor of the United States. Just days before the war, not only had the U.S. withdrawn all troops, but the U.N. finished a tour at the border.

The absence of instruments for peace by the United Nations played a profound role in the steady escalation of the Korean Peninsula tensions. Furthermore the open condemnation of North Korea with sanctions, and the preparedness of the United States to enter the war (within two days) serves as an earlier outline of what can easily happen today.

The date and time of the official invasion by North Koreans into the South was 0400am on June 25, 1950. However one might surmise that the start of the war began a few years earlier. In any case, there is really no question who fired the first shot, especially if the question is re-framed: Why would anyone bother to shoot?

As for the date and time Korean War II officially begins, it will be difficult to say except in hindsight. And as to when it will end, judging from the world supply of over 15,000 nuclear weapons, maybe it is safe to say that ever is a long time.

Photo from all-that-is-interesting.com