Seventy Years On: Remembering Korea’s Pain

The Korean people never sought war; it was thrust upon them by the ambitions of external powers.

5 mins read
Captured by American forces in the Taegu area of South Korea on Oct. 8, 1950, these North Korean girls are pictures of dejection as they are marched to a train which will take them to a prisoner of war camp at Pusan. (AP Photo/ Gene Herrick)

Amidst these precarious times, where our humanity is continuously put to the test, nothing holds greater importance than our inflexible dedication to pursuing peace. However, it is truly enraging to witness self-proclaimed guardians of peace traversing the globe, stoking the flames of conflict in countries such as Ukraine and sabotaging any attempts at negotiations between warring factions. The inferno of war, which once consumed distant lands, now threatens to engulf the Asian continent again. The impending doom looms, and it is only a matter of time before an Asian nation succumbs to the whims of a deluded comedian, masquerading as a false hero, playing with the lives of his people and trampling upon the corpses of genuine revolutionaries.

Revolution, a noble endeavour aimed at preserving human life, has been twisted and perverted by misguided social reformers who seem to have forgotten its fundamental purpose. Our present circumstances demand that we confront the harsh realities of our collective predicament in Asia. A robust and united voice must emerge, one that acknowledges the truth on the ground and demands the immediate demilitarization of foreign military bases. We must address head-on the deep-seated social and economic crises that plague our people, without further delay.

A new paradigm is emerging, as East and West Asian nations, together with their African and Latin American counterparts, gradually align their interests. Yet, in their quest to retain power, some leaders resort to oppressing their own people, entrenching corruption, and forming unholy alliances with oppressors who share their malevolent tactics. To break free from this crisis, we must draw upon local ideologies and embrace the principled institutionalization advocated by the Western school of thought, adapting it to suit our current geopolitical landscape.

Seventy years have passed since the Korean War’s conclusion, an epoch marked by the triumph of human compassion against the manipulations of world powers. As we reflect upon that historic humanitarian victory, we must bear in mind the foundational context that led to it.

Before the official onset of the Korean War in 1950, South Korea grappled with a state of armed rebellion. The conflict actually commenced in 1946 when the American military government supported the brutal suppression of dissident movements in South Korea, particularly on Jeju-do, where tens of thousands of innocent peasants were mercilessly massacred between April 1948 and May 1949. This cruelty only served to incense the North, prompting secret raids and acts of sabotage. Even the US-trained South Korean saboteurs and commandos who infiltrated the North, attempting to assassinate Kim Il-sung in the months leading up to the fateful June 25 invasion.

Regrettably, official US narratives have sought to obfuscate the horrors of war and bury the truth about the mass atrocities committed by US and South Korean forces against civilians. The yearning for secession among the majority of Koreans was virtually non-existent, but misinformation and poor media coverage during the time of the Korean War obscured this reality. Even now, after decades have passed, a deep sense of remorse lingers among the present generation, contemplating the consequences of the tragic separation.

It is high time that we rise above the shadows of our history, grasp the lessons learned from the past, and unite as one to shape a brighter future for Asia. The key lies in embracing a principled and compassionate approach, one that acknowledges the grave mistakes of the past while nurturing the collective spirit of humanity that will guide us towards a lasting and harmonious peace.

Yonghwa, a young Korean with a quiet demeanour, conceals a soul ablaze with grand aspirations. Despite being born decades after the conclusion of the Korean War, the haunting spectre of that bitter past continues to linger, casting its shadow over the present. During our recent talk, Yonghwa lamented how geopolitical realities have forced them to move further away from the dream of reunification.

The Korean people never sought war; it was thrust upon them by the ambitions of external powers. After Japan’s surrender in World War II, the Korean people ardently desired to maintain their homeland as a single sovereign state. However, this noble vision was brutally shattered to fulfill the vested interests of third parties, leaving their once-vibrant land desolated by genocide. It is crucial to dispel the false notion that the war arose from an unprovoked attack by North Korean guerrillas on the South; this narrative was a ruse orchestrated by the architects of Cold War doctrine to mask the true nature of the conflict.

George Kennan, Abraham Gordon, Dean Acheson, and others played pivotal roles during the Cold War, advocating for containment strategies to counter the spread of communism and Soviet influence. As part of these strategies, propaganda, information warfare, military assistance, and defence cooperation were formulated, all aimed at furthering their global domination agenda, including attempts to undermine the Soviet Union. Regrettably, the people of the nations caught in this power struggle paid a steep price. For the Koreans, the war turned their aspirations for reunification into another heart-wrenching tragedy, defying international laws and traditions while perpetuating blatant falsehoods worldwide.

The catastrophic toll of the war is staggering, according to United Nations estimates: between three and four million Koreans lost their lives, with one in every nine North Koreans succumbing to the conflict. The war forced six to seven million Koreans into refugee status, and the destruction was rampant, reducing thousands of factories, schools, hospitals, and hundreds of thousands of homes to ruins. The Western alliance, led by the United States, did not hesitate to drop napalm on unarmed civilians, leaving generations of Koreans to bear a price far more horrifying than the current struggles faced by Ukrainians fighting someone else’s war.

Poignant perspectives from many Korean writers shed light on the true motivations behind the conflict. They assert that the Korean War was a result of a corrupt dictator, Syngman Rhee, seeking to stroke his ego, and a weak American president, Truman, swayed by the counsel of MacArthur, an old and “faded warlord” who failed to grasp the consequences of his actions. What could have been a short and relatively bloodless civil war turned into a devastating battlefield, with Truman unwittingly unleashing genocide upon the Korean people.

The narrative of the Korean War is multifaceted, tainted by the agendas of powerful players, and sowed with the seeds of tragedy. As we confront this complex history, we must strive to unearth the truth, acknowledge the profound suffering endured, and work towards a future where peace, unity, and justice triumph over ego-driven politics and the ghosts of a tumultuous past.

A Korean child sits in smoldering ruins of his home destroyed by fire in the Suwon area on February 3, 1951, as allied troops burned dwellings that might provide shelter for red troops. Native water jars are the only possessions recognizable in ruins of other native homes in the background.[rarehistoricalphotos.com]

That is, it is now a proven fact that democracy emerged in South Korea in late eighties not because it was promoted by the United States, but because of the efforts of dedicated social activists, many of whom fought against torture, assault, and extermination. For years, the United States had built up military and police forces in South Korea, honouring the dictators who committed countless atrocities. That said, free and open expression did not come easily to South Koreans, and neither did the United States.

The evident truth is that the United States supported the oppressor, not the oppressed, leading many revolts including the May 1980 uprising led by students at Chonnam National University in Gwangju. Many people boasting about Korea’s freedom and development forget this reality. The victory was achieved by the Korean people, not through the sacrifice of a true monster disguised as an angel. With various parties in Asia trying to revive unfulfilled ambitions of the West from the Cold War era after World War II, it becomes essential for us to grasp this truth and prepare for potential challenges ahead.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a founding editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian and has been the editor until 2018.

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