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History

June 25 1950 North Korea invades South Korea


A Herblock cartoon in the Washington Post, April 1951, satirising Macarthur's view of the world

A Herblock cartoon in the Washington Post, April 1951, satirising Macarthur’s view of the world

The two introductory paragraphs from an article I posted last April, titled Is the 1950 Korea Mess Relevant to the New Korean Mess are provided below:

The North Korean invasion of South Korea began on June 25, 1950 when North Korean troops — many of them battle-hardened veterans of Mao’s fights against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists — crossed the thirty-eighth parallel to invade South Korea, initially at the Ongjin Peninsula. They met with little resistance as they took Seoul and proceeded largely unimpeded and quickly south, driving the miserably armed and led South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) forces before them. Five hundred or so members of the Korea Military Advisory Group (KMAG) were stationed in South Korea, many of the officers on leave elsewhere on the twenty-fifth.

The invasion came as a surprise to General MacArthur, whose duties had little to do with Korea. KMAG was in any event principally a responsibility of the Department of State and General MacArthur had been advised by his chief of intelligence (G2), General Charles Willoughby, that there was no danger of invasion. The principal function of KMAG was to prevent ROK forces under ROK President Syngman Rhee from starting a war by invading north. The ROK forces were a ragged collection of poorly trained and ill equipped troops. The far better trained (although not well equipped) North Korean forces were able to augment their slim supplies of weapons, ammunition, food and other necessities with the stuff left unsecured or discarded by the ROK forces as they fled south. I wrote a lengthy article about the Korean Conflict here. It provides some useful context for the current situation, but not much.

For a bit of local colour on the situation in South Korea on the day the conflict began, Stanley Weintraub’s book titled MacArthur’s War observes,

American ambassador John J. Muccio, at fifty a veteran of prewar foreign service assignments in China, had been in Korea since August 1948. The night before the attack he had reportedly enlivened a boring evening by playing strip poker with several embassy staffers, and had not had much sleep when he was awakened with the invasion news and groggily called the State Department in Washington. Then he telephoned MacArthur to request air cover for the immediate evacuation of American dependants by ship, which the general promised to furnish although he thought the haste was premature. (page 54)

Weintraub’s book appears to be well researched and provides a thirteen page list of sources, to which I unfortunately lack access. It sometimes unnecessarily critical of General MacArthur, particularly in the context of his short flying trips to Korea, taking as efforts at self-aggrandisement what I consider to have been efforts to improve troop morale and to persuade the military chiefs in Washington (to all of whom he was senior in rank or date of rank as a five star general) to give him the free rein he needed. Weintraub also offers many valid criticisms of MacArthur and of his G2 (chief of intelligence), General Willoughby. There were no bits of intelligence that General Willoughby could not and would not fudge to make them consistent with the preconceptions of his boss. There are equally valid criticisms of the Truman Administration and the military chiefs at the “Puzzle Palace” in Washington, of whom President Truman was of course the Commander in Chief.

The Korean Conflict was a first class “clusterdunk” from start to finish, with one bright but short interlude, the Inchon invasion.

Much is very different now than in 1950

In the April 2013 article quoted above, I argued that the events of 1950 probably have little relevance to what is happening now. In 1950, North Korea had not publicly announced its military intentions and had neither nuclear capabilities nor any way to use them if it did. Nor was it in a position to share nuclear technology with another incipient nuclear power, Iran. Nor did the North make a show of threatening South Korea, let alone the United States, with military devastation while twirling begging bowls and seeking handouts. Now it does those things, apparently whenever the urge to do so strikes. It also has nuclear as well as missile technology and shares both with Iran.

In 1950, China was a little industrialised, substantially agrarian, Communist venue. Despite urging from Russia’s Stalin, she did not get much involved in North Korea’s problems until they seemed likely soon to become China’s problems. That happened months after the June 25th invasion when, following General MacArthur’s highly successful September 15th Inchon invasion, his forces had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel and appeared likely to approach and possibly even to cross the border between North Korea and China. In 1950, the “renegade” province in Formosa (Taiwan), and only secondarily North Korea, were China’s principal external interests. 

Now, China appears to be North Korea’s principal benefactor and to a limited extent ally. However, she is substantially more focused on lands and countries further distant, in the South China Sea. China may well now view North Korea as a bothersome orphan child, useful only as a distraction from, and means of smoothing over by acting as a mediator, her own South China Sea adventures.

In 1950, Stalin’s Russia — a more industrialised Communist venue — provided all of the assistance initially needed by North Korea’s Kim Il-sung until China later took the reins that Stalin had shoved in her direction and acted to prevent invasion of her own territory.

Despite the general lack of assistance from China in the events leading up to and immediately following the June 25th invasion, many of the indigenous North Korean troops who in June of 1950 invaded the South had fought as components of Mao Zedong’s forces that had pushed Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland into exile in Formosa. Well trained (both militarily and ideologically), they were expected to live off the land and to scrounge replacement arms and ammunition from dead South Korean troops. They had ample opportunity to do so. Dead or aged and infirm now, they are no longer a factor.

With the initial help of Russian advisers — few if any of whom participated directly in the invasion lest they be captured and Russian complicity discovered — and continued availability of Russian equipment, North Korean forces rapidly advanced deeply southward and soon came very close to taking the shrinking Pusan Perimeter. The southern port city of Pusan appeared likely to provide the only exit strategy for fleeing South Korean troops as well as for US/UN forces initially sent to Korea. Many of the latter had been garrison troops in Japan and elsewhere, ill trained to fight as infantry. Supplying them presented substantial logistical difficulties.

General MacArthur’s September 15th Inchon invasion — a stroke of genius combined with uncommon good luck — changed the course of the war until the late Fall-early Winter. Then, with approximately three hundred thousand Chinese troops “unexpectedly” intervening in North Korea, the course again changed, for the worse.

What’s next? And how do Iran and our Islamist buddies fit in?

Source: Wikipedia. Gross Domestic Product is shown on the vertical axis

Source: Wikipedia. Gross Domestic Product is shown on the vertical axis

Both North and South Korea were dirt poor in 1950. Following the conflict, South Korea began to prosper and is now a substantial economic power.

North Korea, after a burst of relative affluence, is back pretty much where she was just after the Korean Conflict. What resources she has she uses to perfect her nuclear arsenal and delivery mechanisms. That continues. According to an article at 38 North today,

Recent satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site has revealed new tunnelling work being done at the West Portal area, the site of the 2009 and possibly 2013 nuclear tests. This activity appears to have begun by late April 2013 and gathered momentum over the next few months. Imagery from June 1 shows a large new spoil and tailings dumpsite along the road between the West Portal and the old dump site that went into a canyon to the east. The light grey colour of the new spoil/tailings indicates that it is rock from inside the mountain and not the surrounding brown dirt.

It is apparently part of a continuing long-term project.

The people? Pretty miserable, I assume, but there have been no signs that rebellion is likely.

Next verse? Same as the First?

North Korea GDP Per Capita. Source: WikiPedia

North Korea GDP Per Capita. Source: WikiPedia

What is North Korea likely to do now? The Obama Administration apparently does not know and may even realise that it neither knows nor understands how to find out. It seems to have no better ideas about what is going on in the Middle East but tries to pretend that it does.

Barry Rubin published another fascinating article yesterday generally dealing with what the Obama Administration does not know about Iran and the rest of the Islamist states — a massive topic. There, the problem as Mr. Rubin sees it boils down to radical ideology.

As a result, the masses of the Middle East don’t care about deficits but mainly about conformity, hatred of the “Other,” killing, revenge, and–to borrow a term–what is Politically Correct, not Factually Correct. As for the rulers, they know how devastating in terms of stability the kind of policies naive Westerners are.

Remember, the West saw the fall of Communism as the blooming of democracy; the Middle Eastern leaders see it as the wilting of empires. The West remembers the passing of the Soviet bloc as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Middle East leaders saw it as the fall of their counterparts, and the putting of Romania’s dictatorial couple, the Ceausescu’s, in front of a firing squad. Now, 20 years later, Mubarak is in prison and Qadhafi was killed.

Is Syria in a state of civil war because the regime failed its people or because it tried to ride the tiger by toying with the promotion of Sunni Islamism? Perhaps the regimes inevitably must fail their people because of a lack of resources, the state of their societies, the nature of the dominant ideas, and the era of anarchy that would have to be unleashed by even the best attempt to address the “deficits.”

And perhaps there is a Western”deficit” in understanding the Middle East, a failure to take religion, ideology, and radicalism seriously; the inability to grasp truly that one is dealing with a different history and culture.

Back to Korea

Might a “radical ideology,” the unifying factor in North Korean culture for more than sixty years, also embrace “politically correct” rather than factually correct “truths?” That seems likely, even for the “little people” and almost certain at the top of the governmental cow pie.

North Korean ideology is also known as the Religion of Kim, which the masses are required to accept and, after more than sixty years of indoctrination, most probably do. As noted here at The American Spectator,

The regime claims the whole person, just like Christianity and other religions. And in North Korea any competition with the state must be destroyed. That’s why believers are treated as “hostile elements,” according to Human Rights Watch. The architect of the North Korean state, Kim Il-sung, reportedly explained: “we came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.”

With the Religion of Kim as their principal if not only solace, the regime’s frequent (and usually fungible) promises of change the “little people” had better can believe in have likely been principal factors in avoiding rebellion. As Barry Rubin observed in the article linked above,

[T]he masses of the Middle East don’t care about deficits but mainly about conformity, hatred of the “Other,” killing, revenge, and–to borrow a term–what is Politically Correct, not Factually Correct. As for the rulers, they know how devastating in terms of stability the kind of policies naive Westerners are.

Might the same be said about the masses and rulers in North Korea? I think so. Do our own powers-that-be — and those that “wanna-be” — realise that? Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.

Whatever the situation may be, knowing one’s enemy is essential

The Chinese long ago learned of the need to understand their enemies as well as themselves. Sun Tzu, a Chinese General and military philosopher of the sixth century, wrote in The Art of War,

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

He also wrote,

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

The powers-that-be in China, and possibly even in North Korea, seem to have mastered both precepts. Ours don’t seem to have. That may, at least in part, be because sources of on-site intelligence about North Korea are minimal at best, while the United States are for the most part — at least for China — “an open book.” If we do, in fact, have competent and otherwise useful intelligence, it seems likely that those who advise President Obama (and others working for him) realise that the President has perceptions at least as strong as did General MacArthur and does not want to hear anything inconsistent with them. Hence, they simply do not present anything he would not want to hear. While unfortunately sharing that vice, President Obama has few if any of General MacArthur’s virtues.

Unless we are trying to deceive our enemies by lulling them into a false but nevertheless soporific conclusion that we are incompetent and indecisive, in hopes of summoning vast reserves of competence and decisiveness while they slumber — and are capable of doing so — to take advantage of their blissful slumber, we in the West can look forward to continuously deteriorating situations, not only in Asia.

First published at Danmiller’s blog.
 
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About danmillerinpanama

I was graduated from Yale University in 1963 with a B.A. in economics and from the University of Virginia School of law, where I was the notes editor of the Virginia Law Review in 1966. Following four years of active duty with the Army JAG Corps, with two tours in Korea, I entered private practice in Washington, D.C. specializing in communications law. I retired in 1996 to sail with my wife, Jeanie, on our sailboat Namaste to and in the Caribbean. In 2002, we settled in the Republic of Panama and live in a very rural area up in the mountains. I have contributed to Pajamas Media and Pajamas Tatler. In addition to my own blog, Dan Miller in Panama, I an an editor of Warsclerotic and contribute to China Daily Mail when I have something to write about North Korea.

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