Korea: The First War We Lost

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Preface to the Updated Edition

Who would have thought that the only important conflict of the Cold War that would cast its terrible shadow into the twenty-first century would be Korea? All the other major problems that seemed more intractable at the time have been resolved for years---the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, the Iron Curtain has disappeared, Germany has reunified, Red China is back in the comity of nations, even the United States and Vietnam have reconciled. But the problem of a divided Korea seems as intransigent today as it did that fateful day of June 25, 1950, when North Korean tanks rolled over the 38th parallel and commenced a war exceeded in violence, death, destruction, and despair only by the First and the Second World Wars.

More than half a century has passed since that wretched war was fought, yet its ramifications are as palpable today as they were during the darkest days of the fighting. Indeed, the so-called Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that separates North Korea from South Korea is only the former main line of resistance or MLR of the actual war. The MLR has gone silent, but the front line is still there, just as it was on the last day of the war, July 27, 1953. Troops still line both sides of the DMZ. Guns point in both directions. The fighting has stopped, but the war goes on; it’s merely suspended. This is an armistice, not a peace. The only things that have changed along the front are the hills. During the war they were stripped bare of their trees and their vegetation by shellfire. Now the trees and the shrubs have grown back. The hills, at least, have recovered from the war. But North and South Korea still lie locked in a strange love-hate relationship. The animosity is tangible and inescapable, but the people on both sides yearn for reunion, for an end to the horrible separation, enmity, and invective.

This yearning is shown in the tremendous efforts in recent years to bring about reunions of families separated by the war and division, of numerous demonstrations on the streets of South Korea calling for unity, and by efforts of South Korea to open rail and road communications with North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s totalitarian regime has prevented public expressions in the north, but much evidence points to the same longing for close ties with the south among the North Korean people.

Since the fighting stopped, South Korea has grown into a tremendously successful, democratic, industrial state. Its capital, Seoul, is a vibrant city of eleven million people, filled with Korean-made cars, prosperous citizens, dynamic businesses, and a downtown that looks like Atlanta. North Korea has remained a closed Communist dictatorship, its economy paralyzed by rigid production quotas and tightly controlled by rules that give the people no freedom and few incentives. For onwards of a decade, North Korea has been unable to feed its people or to provide them even a modestly adequate standard of living. North Korea is slowly dying as a state. But its tyrannical leader Kim Jong Il, son of the late first dictator, Kim Il Sung, is still defiantly trying to follow the Communist ideology of a command economy, a system long since proven to be ineffective and long since rejected by Russia and China.

The North Korean leadership is trying desperately to survive by developing long-range rockets and other weapons it can sell abroad, especially to the few other rogue states left on the planet. It has been threatening to produce atomic weapons, in order to leverage economic and political concessions from the United States. How bizarre! Here is a nation that is menacing war as a way of obtaining food for its starving people! Kim Jong Il’s choice of confrontation rather than cooperation with the rest of the world demonstrates the same illogical madness that made his father defy the United States and try to conquer South Korea.

Thus, in a real sense the Korean War has not ended at all. It has entered a new and quite dangerous phase. There’s no indication Kim Jong Il harbors dreams of conquering South Korea. But his threat to renounce the armistice of July 1953 and his labeling as an act of war any move the United States might make to counter him is extremely confrontational. Hopefully, sane voices will prevail on both sides, and the terrors and tragedies of another armed conflict will not come to pass. Nevertheless, the divisions that split the peninsula half a century ago still exist with all their venom. This poison must be drained away, and the divided people must find a formula to come together. Korea was known for a thousand years as the Land of the Morning Calm. It is long since past time for serenity to return to this tragic, tortured country.

Reunion could come about in a number of ways, by two separate states that work together in the manner Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg cooperated for years, a confederation on the Swiss model, a closer federal union, or even a return to a single unified state. It will be up to the Korean people, south and north, to seek their own destiny. The whole world hopes that the process will be happy, peaceful, and tranquil.

The sad situation in which Korea finds itself can be traced back directly to the conflicts and disagreements that precipitated the Korean War. Most Americans today know little of the war’s origins or its dramatic course. For this reason, it seems to be an especially appropriate time to bring out this revised edition of the story of the war, for the two generations that have arrived since the conflict was fought.

The Korean War endured for three years as an official, international act of violence. It ended only after one and a half million men, women and children had died and two and a half million people had been wounded or injured. It was the third most devastating war in history, and, as we see all around us, the consequences of its hate, distrust and division abide with us today. This book is an attempt to show that the war need not have been protracted for so long, nor to have demanded so much in lives and treasure, nor to have left behind such hostility between nations that had much to lose and little to gain by enmity.

This book is an effort to demonstrate that Western leaders, especially those from the United States, received ample signals that, had the leaders responded to them, could have prevented the entry of Red China into the war and, even after Communist China did enter, could have ended the war much sooner and at much less cost.

This book attempts to show that the United States---with the aid of South Korea and the support of some United Nations members---won one war against the North Koreans, and lost another war against the Red Chinese. The causes of these two wars were essentially and totally different. The North Koreans were bent on overt aggression and were thwarted. The Red Chinese were trying to protect their homeland from the potential threat of invasion and were successful.

Finally, this book tries to show the Korean War as it actually was fought and as the tactical and strategic decisions, good and bad, were made. In this, the dedication and devotion of men on both sides to what they believed to be their nations’ needs were demonstrated in such full measure as to suggest the awesome powers of human sacrifice and endeavor that leaders everywhere hold in their hands, and what immense responsibility for the exercise of those powers they assume.

The Korean War became the arena for the fateful clashes of national wills, in which leaders at all levels made decisions ranging from remarkable sagacity to desolating error. Korea thus is a human story of mortals in high and low places acting in crisis as their individual lights directed them.

Bevin Alexander
June 2003
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