by Oliver Lee
Apr. 5, 2013 (TSR) – When war broke out in Korea 44 years ago, the U.S. government accused North Korea of having committed “brutal, unprovoked aggression.” The Truman Administration spread the word that it was convinced that this action had the prior approval of Moscow, and that this appeared to be Stalin’s first post-World War II move in his plan for world conquest.
On the basis of this series of allegations the U.S. engaged North Korea and then-Communist China in a terrible three-year war, which the Truman-Acheson administration used as an opportunity to accomplish a number of major objectives having little to do with Korea, foremost being the long-term boost to the U.S. military budget and the military build-up of NATO.
As for the charge about North Korean aggression, it was based on no credible evidence, keeping in mind that North Korean troops being present in the South does not necessarily mean North Korean aggression. They may have entered there in reaction to a prior South Korean incursion into North Korea. The South may have done this for the purpose of provoking a North Korean counterattack and thus drawing the U.S. military into Korea so as to guarantee the South Korean regime’s political survival. There is, in fact, much circumstantial evidence for precisely such provocation, as I will show presently.
But first let me refute the assertion by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, made three days after the outbreak of the war, that “all reliable witnesses on the scene at the time, including the United Nations Commission, have established that the North Korean forces were the aggressors.”
The fact is that the U.N. Commission was not on the scene at the time. A two men observer team from the Commission was at the 38th parallel from June 9 to 23, 1950, leaving two days before the war broke out. Being one of America’s foremost lawyers, Acheson obviously was aware of this important fact, yet he started the opposite in public.
Although there were 500 U.S. military advisers attached to South Korean units, some stationed near the parallel, most of these advisers were spending the weekend in Seoul. In fact, the only American near the front line that fateful morning was an Army captain, who woke up too late to witness any of the initial action, jumped into his jeep and drove southward to Kaesong, which the North Koreans had already reached then.
Others “on the scene at the time” were certain South Korean units, but they obviously were under strict orders to parrot the official line, and therefore were not “reliable witnesses.”
Now some of the circumstantial evidence pointing to South Korean initiation of the war:
1. Syngman Rhee’s government in Seoul was extremely unpopular and insecure, able to rule only by imposing upon South Korea “a cloud of terror that is probably unparalleled in the world,” according to a New York Times reporter on March 6, 1950. Despite the terror, Rhee’s party was dealt a disastrous defeat in the parliamentary election held four weeks before the war broke out. Rhee thus had a plausible motivation to start the war so as to create a totally new ball game.
2. Rhee had several times announced his ambition to “regain” North Korea, boasting in January 1950, for example, that “in the new year we shall strive as one man to regain the lost territory.”
3. Rhee received encouragement from certain U.S. high officials, such as John Foster Dulles, who said in Seoul six days before the war broke out, “You are not alone. You will never be alone so long as you continue to play worthily your part in the great design of human freedom.”
4. There had been a long pattern of South Korean incursion into North Korea. The official U.S. Army history of the American Military Advisory Group in Korea, referring to the more than 400 engagements that had taken place along the 38th parallel in the second half of 1949, reports that “some of the bloodiest engagements were caused by South Korean units securing and preparing defensive positions that were either astride or north of the 38th parallel. This provoked violent actions y North Korean actions.”
5. South Korean troops were reported by the Seoul government as having captured Haeju, one mile north of the parallel, on June 26. While we can accept this as an acknowledgement of their troop incursion into the north of the 38th parallel, such acceptance does not require us to believe their report as to the timing. They may well have made the capture one day earlier, touching off the counterattack.
6. The two captured North Korean documents which allegedly prove that the North had started the war exist only in English, supposedly translated from the Korean original. Ostensibly titled “Reconnaissance Order No. 1” and “Operation Order No. 1,” the original were never made public, nor have they subsequently ever been found.
7. Rhee made a self-incriminating statement when he said to U.S. News & World Report in August 1954, “We started this fight in the first place in the hope that Communist would be destroyed.” Although the context of this statement was not explicitly military, certain American leaders knew enough about Rhee to understand what he meant, and indeed to be worried about his possible provocation of yet another Korean War.
Thus Dulles said in October 1953 to the National Security Council that “all our efforts” must be to forestall a resumption of war by Rhee, and admitted in 1957 to the same group, “If war were to start in Korea… it was gong to be very hard indeed to determine which side had began the war.”
Although Acheson was not directly involved in encouraging Rhee to provoke the war, he was quick to seize the opportunity to blame the war on North Korea regardless of the evidence. He thus convinced President Truman not only to fight in Korea but to ask Congress to triple the military budget. Acheson and his men thus had ulterior motives.
Though the current controversy over inspection of North Korea’s nuclear facilities is not likely to result in another Korean War (pray that I’m right), let us be alert to the likelihood that elements of the CIA and the Pentagon are again pursuing a hidden agenda.
Dr. Oliver Lee is an Affiliate Graduate Faculty in Political Science at University of Hawaii and specialises on the geopolitics of Central Asia, U.S.-China relations, America’s strategic culture and on China’s strategic culture. For 38 years, he served as Professor of Political Science at University of Hawaii at Manoa as well as an Instructor in Government and Politics at University of Maryland. He was also a Far Eastern Analyst at Congressional Research Service in the 1962-3.
This article was published in Honolulu Star-Bulletin on June 24, 1994 in order to give historical context to the present North-South tension.