From the July 1953 issue of the Socialist Standard
Many of those who have been fighting in Korea probably do not understand the reasons why they have been called upon to risk life and limb in this particular theatre of war; a large number probably had not even heard of that country before. It may be just as well for the interests of the great powers concerned that their workers have been kept in ignorance of the role of Korea in world affairs otherwise it might have been difficult to induce them to fight.
An Ancient Culture
With a history of 4,000 years the Koreans are an old civilised group with a high cultural level linked with that of China. They have substantially contributed to the cause of progress—printing was first brought to Europe from Korea. Korean celadon ware is considered to be amongst the most beautiful pottery to have been produced anywhere in the world.
A veritable Korean renaissance followed the founding in 1392 of a new dynasty (which dynasty has lasted until modern times) and in order to emancipate the population from the burden of learning Chinese ideographs an alphabet of 26 letters was invented so simple in outline and of such phonetic adaptability that they can learn to read in less than a month. They also invented the first metal movable type anticipating Europe by 50 years. Astronomical instruments of a high order were made and a whole new literature flourished. It cannot therefore rightly be said of the Koreans as it has been said of other people subjugated and exploited by capitalist powers, that they are in need of the civilizing influence of the West.
It is only since the eighteen seventies, that is. since industrial capitalism opened up Asia, that Korea has been a cradle of conflict. The Chinese ruling class considered that control of the peninsula was necessary for defence of their Empire and up to this time exercised a suzerainty over it. As Li Hung-chang, the famous Chinese viceroy put it in 1879, “Korea is the wall protecting China's Provinces, the lips protecting the teeth.”
China has been constantly threatened by the rising powers of Russia and Japan, both being busily engaged in wresting territory and concessions in Manchuria from the Chinese.
China has had the fear that Korea would “ripen like a pear and then drop into the jaws of Russia.” There were ice-free harbours for ice-bound Asiatic Russia and a footing on the mainland for Japan to be obtained as a result of successful adventures in Korea. A French expedition under Admiral Rose was severely handled by Korean forces and forced to retire from the scene. Again in 1871 an American flotilla was sent to repeat Commodore Perry's exploit in Japan but after killing a number of Koreans the American fleet left. In 1876 the Japanese succeeded in forcing Korea open. In 1894 through the Japan-China war Japan succeeded in forwarding Japanese influence at the expense of the Chinese.
The Japan-Russian war began with Japan guaranteeing the independence of Korea but ended with the Treaty of Portsmouth when the United States assured the Japanese that they would look favourably on the Japanese assumption of authority in Korea. In 1905 the Japanese by force instituted a virtual protectorate and finally annexed Korea to the Japanese Empire in 1910.
A Valuable Consolation Prize
Quite apart from the strategic value of the peninsula the wealth of the gold, copper, coal iron and tungsten resources and the profit obtained from exploiting the 19 million population is quite a considerable consolation prize for the successful “liberator” of Korea. Tungsten is used for hardening steel and is an essential in present day armament making, and as it can be found in but a few places in the world, the output from Korea is particularly sought after.
The Korean War
In 1945, after the defeat of Japan, the U.S.S.R. seized their chance when, by an apparent blunder on the part of the Allies, they were able obtain a belligerent occupants’ mandate in North Korea. The Chinese have for long been well aware of these aims. Even in 1894 when Russia was making friendly overtures to China Li Hung-chang wrote:—
“Russia is to-day our greatest friend and our most to-be-feared enemy. She is our friend because Great Britain and France pose as our friends also. She is our greatest enemy because what the Russians call the trend of her destiny makes her so. She dominates all Northern Asia and hopes some day to have preponderating influence in China. She will help us to keep Japan out because she herself wants to get in."
In 1950 the American forces in South Korea defeated the North Koreans. This was the moment for China to step into the breach in North Korea to prevent, firstly, the Americans seizing the whole peninsula and possibly eventually installing a puppet Japanese control and, secondly, to forestall the Russians from completely taking over in North Korea.
Development of Chinese Patriotism
There were, however, further advantages for the Chinese in engaging in a foreign war. The Peoples' Republic of China, which had wrested control from the Chiang Kai-shek regime in 1949, were faced with many problems in carrying out their policy of developing China along Western lines. One of the legacies they had to take over from the past was the absence of patriotism. It is necessary for the protection of any capitalist ruling class if they are to survive in the jungle of world capitalism to have a working-class willing to fight for the fatherland. The war in Korea provided a chance for developing the beginning of Chinese patriotism. The Government succeeded in getting popular support for the war by identifying the maintenance of the rising standard of living in China with the necessity of repelling foreign enemies. The task was made easier by the U.S. being the supporters of the former discredited and very unpopular Chiang-Kai-shek clique.
There was the added advantage in giving the government a chance to glorify the Chinese army. Their armed forces are a great help to any ambitious capitalist group who wish to continue exploiting their own workers and if they can also seize the preserves of other national groups. But unfortunately for the rulers in China, soldiering is a despised occupation, and this attitude on the part of the general population has a harmful effect on the maintenance of reliability and efficiency of the armed forces. The internal propaganda which accompanied the military adventure in Korea helped to reform this view which was so harmful to the armed forces and therefore against ruling class interests. Many workers get killed or maimed in the war; the workers pay the price but the rulers obtain the benefit.
Was it worth fighting for?
An armistice has been arranged and there is a prospect that the war to “liberate” Korea will come to an end. Devastation, disease and death are the lot of many of the unfortunate inhabitants of this war-ravaged country, and together with the casualties of the many foreign nationals involved the military adventure in Korea has exacted a heavy toll. But it has been worth it—for the ruling class. China has obtained part control of North Korea at the expense of the U.S.S.R. and has driven into the Chinese working class a measure of patriotic spirit. The U.S.A. have retained control of South Korea with its strategic importance and vast mineral wealth. The U.S.S.R. have retained a large measure of control over the civil administration of North Korea, and in exchange for arms and ammunition supplied to China for use against the U.S. has obtained the bulk of Chinese exports at low prices. Japan has made plenty of profit on war supplies to the Allies, and may in addition, eventually be allowed by the U.S.A. to extend her influence in South Korea.
So in conclusion, Korea—cradle of conflict—is a pawn in power politics.