The Korean Genocide – Part 1, Before the US Occupation.
(Author’s note: I was intending to be writing a long overdue piece about why the one should
never refer to “The Iraq War” but rather “The Iraq Genocide”. It is daunting. You cannot simply
make such a case in 1000 words, at least not in any way that convince or even empower anyone
who was not already firmly of that opinion. Further, I wanted to do it properly in such a manner
that it could be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. That means that it could only be around 8000
words, and that amount, too, is shockingly little space to mount such a large challenge to orthodox
belief. In these circumstances I feel it is worth going back to another enormous brutal US genocide which is never, ever discussed as such – the Korean Genocide. A Korean had commented on my facebook page that my cover photo, Picasso’s Massacre in Korea depicted the “genocide of antiimperialists”.
It is no coincidence that I chose that painting. Korea saw the development of a style of genocide which was later to be repeated by the US in Laos, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. In a four part series (adapted from an even longer work) I will detail 1) Korea before US Occupation, 2) US Occupation Period and the US Imperial Context, 3) June 1950: Who Started It?, and (by far the longest part) 4) Korean War or Korean Genocide?)
The premise of this blog is that the most significant post-World War II US military actions are acts
of genocide. Genocide can be said to mean “war” undertaken against a whole population, not
against its military nor, in any immediate sense, its military capacity (see my previous post about
the nature and meaning of genocide). Further, the manner in which the US commits genocide is
under the guise of fighting wars. In fact, these are best viewed as “war systems” in that, far from
seeking military victory, the US sought to avoid decisions (even victorious decisions) in favour of
extending the period of violence for as long as was feasible. The prototypical example was the
Korean War, wherein attempts to achieve a military decision were abandoned in favour of an
“attrition” strategy. This was putatively aimed at forcing a negotiated settlement, but the US itself
was clearly the greatest impediment to reaching a settlement.
Korea, like Viet Nam and Iraq, was targeted because of two crucial circumstances. Firstly, it was
potentially strong independent nation state and, secondly, it was vulnerable. The Korean Genocide
served the ends of both the US and the USSR. The origins of the military advance south by DPRK
forces on June 25, 1950 that initiated the “Korean War” are still surrounded by impenetrable
mysteries and unanswered questions, and there is legitimate space for the intriguing possibility of
tacit or conspiratorial collusion between the US and USSR.
The reader may well object already to my misuse of the term genocide, but allow me to anticipate
some objections and make some observations. Genocide does not mean extermination or even
intended extermination. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the
Crime of Genocide (UNCG) specifically uses the phrase “in whole or in part”, and for good reason.
Consider what is generally held as the ultimate exemplar of genocide, the Judeocide committed by
Germany in Europe. The Germans never intended to exterminate all of the world’s Jews. Even
confining the matter to European Jewry, there was a huge problem simply in defining who was and
was not a Jew. They had to rely ultimately on confessional identification to define an alleged ‘race’.
As Yehuda Bauer wrote: “One can see how confused Nazi racism was when Jewish grandparents
were defined by religion rather than so-called racial criteria.”1 As well as the fact that many with
Jewish heritage would inevitably successfully evade detection, in the Nuremburg Laws (and later
when deciding who to kill at Wannsee), exemptions were made on various criteria, such as being a
decorated war hero. In fact, when it comes to the killing aspect of genocide, inconsistency,
hypocrisy and schizophrenic dissonances are the norm.
Equally, genocide is not the exclusive domain of irrational and evil perpetrators. The very point of
coining the term genocide, as will be explained, was to indicate a strategic paradigm with a
functional logic. Irrationality is therefore a moot point and I prefer to distinguish between
“functional” and “dysfunctional” genocides. Equally, “evil” is in the eye of the beholder. The
hateful and racist rhetoric of the Nazis is an unavoidable feature of their existence, but in most
instances of genocide there is a predilection for highlighting the evidence of fanaticism and hatred
for the official villains (those at odds with Western interests)2 while ignoring identical statements
made by Western personnel or their allies. In the case of the US there are plenty of instances of
significant officials using fanatical, hateful or exterminationist language regarding communists,
Asians, Arabs or Muslims.
Racism is a consciously inculcated trait used by the US, as by others, to harness not just hateful and
violent tendency, but also infantilisation and a elevated sense of self which conveys both the right
and duty of intervention and the wielding of imperial power (the “White Man’s Burden”). Racism
also has its own logic, which may cause dysfunction when applied by the overzealous. On the
whole, however, US genocides are highly functional strategically oriented imperial genocides. A
point I neglected to make in my previous post about the meaning of genocide, and one well worth
remembering, is that genocide is employed in order to achieve goals that cannot be achieved by
military means. Lemkin related this back to the “imposition of [the genocidal power's] national
pattern” on the victim group, or on the land which they inhabit (after they have been cleansed
therefrom). That is, however, to impose a predetermined end to genocide, whereas in empires which
are not based around contiguous land formations it is not exceptional for genocide to be used simply
as a way of weakening and immiserating a local population to facilitate the imposition of imperial
power (which is itself often defined as the replication of power structure not dissimilar to Lemkin’s
description but without reference to “nation”). In King Leopold’s Congo, for example, of an
estimated 30 million there was a population decline of ten to thirteen million people from 1885 to
1908 from “murder, starvation, exhaustion and exposure, disease, and plummeting birth rates.”
There was little effort, at that stage, to impose a national pattern on the people or the land (although
that did come later when Belgium took over). In fact, further to what has already been mentioned
with regard to genocide being used for ends which cannot be achieved with military means, it may
be obvious to some readers that in fact there is more strategic incentive to commit genocide in
instances of informal imperialism or neocolonialism. Formal imperialism can be imposed by
military means, taking over the reins of power from above. It only runs into trouble when it is
imposed on a genos with enough consciousness to expect self-determination. This is what occurred
in Iraq under the British (which I will discuss at some future time) and Korea poses similar
challenges to imperial power.
Korea has a long stable history of political unity dating from 668 CE until it was divided in 1945.3
As impressive as that is, the Koreans go further, tracing the origins of their nation to the 3rd
millennium BCE,4 and their written history (albeit initially written by Chinese) precedes political
unity by a millennium.5 Relations with neighbours Japan and China have varied considerably over
the centuries, but it is fair to say that, as with many other Asian polities a national identity cohered
sharply in reaction to the inescapable presence of China. Before there even was a Korea, there was
an established tradition of heroic resistance to foreign incursion,6 and another, seen by some as
portentous, of drawing foreign powers into internecine conflict.7 The 16th and 17th centuries saw
Korea fight off major Japanese and Manchu invasions.8 By the time Western interests turned their
eyes towards Korea, there was a general hostility towards all foreigners, which probably had its first
inklings in the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.9 The attitude of what is referred to as the
“Hermit Kingdom” is summarised by Cumings as: “We have nothing. We need nothing. Please go
Western liberal imperialists did not, and do not, recognise anyone’s right to be left alone. Kanghwa
Island, near Inchon, became a magnet for foreign gunboats. The French landed in 1866 and were
pushed back. A heavily armed US schooner in that same year sailed up the Taedong river towards
Pyongyang, opening fire on the angry crowd which gathered on the banks only to be grounded by
the tide, the crew massacred. Five years later this provided the pretext for a US attack on Kanghwa.
650 Koreans were killed in what was referred as the “Little War with the Heathen”.11 Japan, like the
Western powers, also sent gunboats to Kanghwa.12 In the end it was the US that succeeded first in
“opening” the Hermit Kingdom. Britain, France and the US imposed conditions, such as
extraterritoriality for their citizens (meaning they weren’t subject to Korean law when in Korea),
which violated Korean sovereignty. In Cumings’s words: “Korea was now fully hooked into the
system of unequal treaties….”13
Cumings makes the following comparison between liberal imperialism and the long-standing
tributary relationship between Korea and China, a summary which works equally well for
“The Sino-Korean tributary system was one of inconsequential hierarchy and real independence, if not equality. The Western system that Korea encountered, however, was one of fictive equality and real subordination. It was the British who did the most to propel the doctrine of sovereign equality around the world, confounding and undermining their imperial practice with an abstract, idealist theory that transferred notions about the free market to international politics…. [A]s Karl Polanyi put it, ‘in the liberal theory, Great Britain was merely another atom in the universe… and ranked precisely on the same footing as Denmark and Guatemala.’”14
It was Japan, however, that came to dominate, albeit in a very Western mode of domination, based
on “unequal treaties” and economic “advisers”.15 Japan felt that to even keep pace with the West, it
had to dominate Korea.16 Its initial inroads were made in pursuing the same policy as the British in
exploiting late 19th century droughts to subvert Korean sovereignty, establishing the ability to force
Korea to export food during subsequent droughts, causing devastating suffering.17 From the 1880s
onwards Japan aspired to complete domination of Korea.18 This led to war with China in 1894-5,19
and Japan’s acquisition of Taiwan.20 Russia was the next obstacle, rebuffing a Japanese offer of
accommodation over Manchuria and Korea due to what is generally held to be racist arrogance.21
The 1904-5 Russo-Japanese war, fought mostly over Manchuria,22 ended in Japanese victory. The
door was open to complete Japanese domination, and in 1910 Korea was annexed.23 Western powers
extended their blessing in exchange for Japanese recognition of their own colonial privileges.24
The Japanese occupation of Korea was brutal and it was hated. Gavan McCormack poses the
question of whether it could be considered genocide:
In the Korean context, Japanese colonialist policy was undoubtedly designed to destroy “Korea” as a “national group” by assimilating it within Japan. However, such measures by other twentieth-century colonialist regimes have not elsewhere been held genocidal. There has been, so to speak, a colonialist exemption, and if that exemption is to be now closed, both logic and morality demand that it be closed against all colonialist powers, not just Japan. In the overall context of the century, the use of the term “genocide” carrying as it does extreme legal and moral oppobrium, to describe acts committed by imperial Japan but not to describe any acts committed by the Western powers must be problematic. If Japan was genocidal in China or elsewhere in Asia, what then shall we say of the French in Algeria or Indochina, the Americans in Korea and Indochina and the Gulf, the Russians in Chechyna?25
For obvious reasons I do not believe that there should be or is a “colonialist exemption”. People do
not exempt Germany for colonialist genocide in Southern Africa nor in Eastern Europe which was
an equally colonial enterprise. What they exempt is the acts of the Western powers who were victors
in WWII which and thus have to be circumspect when (accurately) accusing Italy and Japan of
genocides which bear such a close resemblance to these unmentionable instances. McCormack is
suggesting that the norm of a politicised discourse is a definitional norm because one simply cannot
apply “extreme legal and moral opprobrium” to the actions of Western imperialists, notwithstanding
the immense death and suffering brought about. Once again “genocide” loses all meaning and
becomes simply another term for “evil” reserved for those who are official enemies.
Prior to annexation the Japanese faced considerable guerilla resistance, but this was all but wiped
out by 1910.26 When the annexation did take place:
At least half a million Koreans took part in demonstrations in March and April, with disturbances in more than
six hundred different places. In one of the most notorious episodes, Japanese gendarmes locked protesters
inside a church and burned it to the ground. In the end Japanese officials counted 553 killed and over 12,000
arrested, but Korean nationalist sources put the totals at 7,500 killed and 45,000 arrested.27
Once annexation had taken place there was a decade of particularly oppressive rule:
…[T]he Government General had grown into a powerful machine of centralized bureaucratic control that undertook the wholesale transformation of Korea’s political, educational, and social structures. It also created the institutions of a modern economy by building a transportation and communications network linking the entire country and creating new monetary and financial systems. In the process of these modernizing efforts, the Koreans were effectively deprived of freedom of assembly, association, press, and speech, and initial efforts were made to liquidate the very concept of a Korean identity. Under the draconian administration of Governor General Terauchi, Korea now entered that dark epoch of developmental shock known to its chroniclers as the “period of military rule,” a term that in English hardly conveys the crushing impact of the Japanese army and police on every aspect of Korean life.28
The memorial tablet for March 1st Movement in Pagoda park, Seoul.
The military rule period culminated in a mass mobilisation of protest in 1919 and a particularly
bloody repression, but one which provoked international outrage and a backlash in Japan itself.29
After this period the level of oppression gradually and unevenly diminished – “if neither the depth
nor the tempo of colonial reform went far in meeting the Koreans’ legitimate demands, the more
overtly arbitrary and oppressive aspects of Japanese administration were at least muted throughout
the empire during this decade, and the effort to construct modern economic facilities and
institutions in the colonies continued apace.”30 The Koreans were not to be “assimilated” as
McCormack suggests, but rather incorporated, as Koreans, under Japanese hegemony (another
indication that the “national pattern” imposed by genocide does not need to be that of the nation of
those who commit genocide). In light of this, Japan was now viewed as a “respectable colonial
power”31 which tells us something about the standards of the time. If anything the promise of
assimilation into a “Greater Japanese Race” was a false one akin to British promises to coloured
people that they too could essentially become British though they would never be accepted as such.
Even now “Koreans” who have lived in Japan for multiple generations are denied citizenship and
“Japanese families still pore over genealogies to make sure their daughters’ fiancés have no ‘Korean
blood.’”32 There were however, significant efforts to degrade Korean culture (and emplace aspects
of Japanese culture) which amply fulfil Lemkin’s cultural criteria for genocide.33
The Japanese brought considerable economic infrastructure, industrial development and education.
They acted in the developmentalist manner often falsely attributed to Western imperialists more
inclined to extraction of raw materials and the destruction of local economies. Even this, however,
was of little or no immediate benefit to the mass of Koreans whose national economy was enslaved
to the needs of Japan. Indeed, it seems inevitable that this colonial developmentalism had nothing to
do with paternalistic ideologies of empire (although the Japanese did have their own equivalent of
the White Man’s Burden) and everything to do with strategic considerations. One of two strategic
approaches in Japanese thought was the “northern advance” strategy which held sway in the Army.
This would see the Japanese project power into North East Asia, ostensibly as a defence against
Russian/Soviet threats.34 The obvious role for the Korean peninsula in such a scenario was as a form
of beachhead with a developed industrial and transport infrastructure along with a native population
capable of operating such.
Groundbreaking ceremony of Gyeongbu Line at Busan, 1901.
World War II saw an elevation of some loyal Koreans by the manpower hungry Japan to positions
of bureaucratic power and to commissions within the military.35 Simultaneously there was a surge of
active resistance with Koreans making up the largest single ethnic group among the guerillas
resisting the Japanese in Manchuria.36 Anti-Japanese activity was to become the key source of
legitimacy in the post-war era based on perceived dedication, sacrifice and efficacy. As Keith Pratt
puts it the Koreans populated their world with heroes and villains and up until June 1950 (and to a
large extent thereafter) the only significant factor in terms of leadership (notwithstanding
differences in ideology) was whether one had been a resistor (hero) or a collaborator (villain).37 This
greatly favoured Kim Il Sung, who was particularly effective as an anti-Japanese guerilla leader and
whom the Japanese had inadvertently boosted by media features pitting him against Korean
quislings such Kim Sok-won [later an important General in the Army of the Republic of Korea
(ROKA)] who was part of the “Special Kim Detachment” of the Japanese Army (specifically
formed to combat Kim Il Sung).38
The communists were aware of Kim’s standing and “just before the Manchurian guerrillas returned
to Korea, the top leaders such as Kim Il Sung, Kim Chaek, Choe Hyon, Kim Il, and Choe Yong-gon
agreed among themselves to promote Kim Il Sung as the maximum figure, for reasons that included
his wider reputation and his personal force. By some indexes the others outranked him; Kim Chaek
and Choe Hyon stood higher than Kim in Chinese communist hierarchy.”39 Kim wasn’t in the same
completely unrivalled position that Ho Chi Minh was consolidating in Vietnam, but he was a clear
front runner and was both charismatic and politically able. Years of bitter violent struggle alongside
disparate inchoate guerillas “left Kim Il Sung with a conviction: unity above all else, and by
whatever means necessary….”40 That is to say, Korean unity, not proletarian and/or peasant unity.
Something of the significance of Kim’s success as a guerilla can be gleaned from the fact that the
ROK insisted that the DPRK leader was an imposter, a criminal who had taken the famous guerilla’s
name. This lie was adhered to and believed by South Koreans until 1989.41 Indeed, it was not only
Kim who sported such nationalist credentials in the DPRK regime. The DPRK would become what
Cumings refers to as a “guerilla state” with positions of authority occupied by those who had fought
the Japanese and had “impeccable credentials” of suffering and loss.42
The DPRK regime came about due to the Soviet occupation of North Korea. The day after the
bombing of Nagasaki, the US unilaterally declared a division of Korea along the 38th parallel and an
intention to occupy the southern part.43 From the Soviet perspective this meant ceding control of
Seoul to the US. It meant that the greatest concentration of communists, in the South, would be
under US occupation while the greatest concentration of Christians would be under Soviet
occupation. It meant dividing the agricultural South from a North which was not, and is still not,
able to even securely feed its population. Yet the Soviets acceded with great willingness. To
understand why this occurred in such a manner and to understand subsequent US/USSR actions is
quite straightforward. All of these events make perfect sense if one abandons notions of the
relevance not only of ideology, but of culture and, for that matter, of leader’s personalities. If it
helps, one might abandon the baggage that is attached when discussing state acts by envisaging
instead competing criminal syndicates engaged in a constant dialectic of conflict, accommodation
and co-operation in various areas of interest.
The Soviets stood to gain access to ice free ports. This was more tangible than anything the US
might want, but fundamentally less important. Hence Stalin was quite prepared to cede the entire
peninsula to the US rather than risk the consequences of a US defeat after the Chinese entered the
war in force.44 The USSR was faced with a problem in that they stood to gain precisely nothing, in
all likelihood, from a unified Korea under Kim Il Sung. Though Kim’s faction of communist
guerillas had been based in the Soviet Union for a time, he was fiercely nationalistic and, for good
reasons, had no great love or trust for Stalin’s regime (even though Stalin was officially the “Great
Leader” to all Korean and Chinese Communists).45 Further, all Korean Communist factions had, to
a greater or lesser extent, very strong bonds with the CCP and PLA in China, whose potentially
dangerous independence was soon to loom much larger in Soviet calculations than access to Korean
ports. Thus the Soviets stood to gain far more from a constrained and dependent Communist regime
ruling a fragile half-state than it would gain with an officially ideologically aligned, but fully
independent, Communist regime ruling over a potentially strong state of unified Korea. As William
Stueck comments, “…for the present a divided peninsula served Soviet interests better than a unified
one….”46 Where I would differ from Stueck is in his clear implication that a unified Korea would
ever be likely to serve “Soviet interests” in the Cold War paradigm of imperialism.
1 Yehuda Bauer, “The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, 1933-1938,” excerpt from A History of the Holocaust, New
York: Franklin Watts, 1982. Reprinted in Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, The History and Sociology of Genocide:
Analyses and Case Studies, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990, p 345.
2 I will use the notion of “the West” which has connotations of Eurocentric culture (and cultural
imperialism), whiteness, liberalism/”capitalism” and material/economic hegemony; as well being redolent of a
hegemonic/imperial history. For consistency I do not use the alternative terminology of “the North” even in instances
where it might be more relevant.
3 Peter Lowe, The Origins of the Korean War (2nd ed.), London and New York: Longman, 1997, p 2.
4 Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, New York: W. W. Norton, 1997, p 23.
5 Ibid, p 25.
6 Ibid, p 33.
7 Ibid, p 34.
8 Ibid, pp 76-9.
9 Ibid, p 89.
10 Ibid, p 87.
11 Ibid, pp 96-7.
12 Ibid, p 99.
13 Ibid, p 107.
14 Ibid, p 95-6.
15 Mark R. Peattie, “The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945” Peter Duus (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan:
Volume 6, The Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p 225.
16 Akira Iriye, “Japan’s Drive to Great Power Status” in Marius B. Jansen (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan:
Volume V, The Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p 758.
17 Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London, New York: Verso, 2001 , p 92.
18 Peattie, “The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945”, p 224.
19 Iriye, “Japan’s Drive to Great Power Status”, p 759.
20 Ibid, p 767.
21 Peattie, “The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945”, p 226.
22 William C. Fuller Jr., “The Imperial Army” in Dominic Lieven (ed.), The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume II,
Imperial Russia, 1689-1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p 542.
23 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 145.
24 Hata, “Continental expansion, 1905-1941”, p 278.
25 McCormack, “Reflections on Modern Japanese History in the Context of the Concept of Genocide”, p 270.
26 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 146.
27 Ibid, p 145.
28 Peattie, “The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945”, pp 230-1.
29 Ibid, p 234.
30 Ibid, p 235.
32 Bruce Cumings, “Why Memory Lingers in East Asia”, Current History, September 2007, p 259.
33 Keith Pratt, Everlasting Flower: A History of Korea, London: Reaktion Books, 2006, p 225 et passim.
34 ‘Northern advance and southern advance were somewhat more ambiguous terms. The first was generally understood
to mean a policy of continental expansion from the Korean peninsula through Manchuria into China proper; the
second was understood to mean expansion from Taiwan into south China and Southeast Asia. Army-first meant that
the army would carry the main burden of expansion, whereas navy-first implied that the navy would. There was a
tendency for greater Japanism [which sought to make Japan a Great Power] to go hand in hand with northern
advance, which in turn implied continental expansion and an army-first policy. Little Japanism tended to be
associated with the southern advance and navy-first positions.’ Hata, “Continental expansion, 1905-1941”, p 271.
35 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 176.
36 Ibid, p 160.
37 Pratt, Everlasting Flower, pp 235-40.
38 Bruce Cumings, The Korean War, New York: The Modern Library, 2010, pp 53-4.
39 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p 195.
40 Cumings, The Korean War, p 55.
41 Ibid, p 46.
42 Ibid, p 56.
43 Ibid, p 104.
44 Ibid, p 30.
45 Ibid, p 57.
46 William Stueck, Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History, Princeton and Oxford:
Princeton University Press, 2002, p 33.