Korea: The Cold War’s Deformed Legacy

By Prof. Inderjeet Parmar | 24 November 2010



The most recent ‘skirmish’ or ‘incident’ in the continuing ‘cease-fire’ between the northern and southern parts of Korea raises the broader question of how these ‘states’ came to be. Their histories highlight the case that external imperial interference in domestic affairs rarely leaves behind legacies that enhance political stability and good governance.

Imperial interference normally reinforces certain groups’ influence or power by co-optation into the ruling powers’ institutions, excluding or marginalising others. Frequently, imperial powers follow the tried and tested divide et impera – policies that divide and rule.

Asia abounds with examples of such imperial behaviour: the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 which led to over a million deaths as huge population movements occurred, people desperate to get to the ‘right’ side of new national borders drawn by one imperial master or another; Afghanistan’s tragic history is further testament to the iniquities of foreign rule and the spirit of nationalist resistance.

Korea is another tragic case. Colonised by the Japanese in 1910, the Soviets and Americans decided they’d (‘temporarily’) divide Korea between them so as to facilitate Japan’s surrender in 1945. Without any geographical, economic, strategic or any other logic, the Americans and Soviets drew a line at the 38th parallel: to the north, Soviet territory; American to the south. The national-popular committees that the Koreans themselves had set up, and the provisional government that spanned Korea they declared, were pointedly ignored as both superpowers sought to use Korea as a pawn in their own developing power game in Asia.

American forces not only ignored and then declared illegal the new People’s Republic Government – which was a broad-based coalition encompassing liberals and socialists and communists – they set up a right wing regime under Syngman Rhee, a recently returned exile. The Soviets supported a communist regime under Kim Il-Sung which was, by all accounts, fairly popular across the northern area and committed to land and social reform.

What was supposed to be Soviet-American temporary power over Korea hardened into separate ‘states’ once the US managed to win UN General Assembly backing for the Republic of Korea, and the Soviets recognised the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). By going through the small (ca 50 members only in those days, and mainly western-dominated) General Assembly, the Americans avoided the Soviet veto power at the UN Security Council.

Yet the overwhelming sentiment in north and south was for national unity, not division, and each side threatened to invade the other in order to unify the country. Korea was a civil war waiting to happen. But for President Truman and PM Attlee, Korea was little more than a pawn in their rivalry with communism. At one time or another, both leaders declared that Korea was neither an economic nor strategic interest for Britain and America.

Nevertheless, too much prestige and credibility was at stake should the country be unified under one government, especially after the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949, the same year that witnessed the successful Chinese revolution.

Thus, when the North attacked the South in June 1950, with Soviet and Chinese connivance, Truman sent in air and naval units to support the South against “aggression”, defining the conflict as a test case of UN authority, as akin to fascist aggressions of the 1930s, and which, if appeased, would lead only to world war three. Attlee shared that analysis. Neither recognised the civil war character of the conflict; they saw it straight cold war, zero-sum terms. Truman’s forces were sent into Korea before a UN resolution and without constitutionally-stipulated authorisation. Later, Truman declared that he would have sent in US forces regardless of UN decisions. (So much for latter-day liberal, pro-multilateral Truman-ites who contrasted their hero with the unilateralism of George W. Bush).

The politics of Korea for the Anglo-Americans is fascinating – especially as it acted as the “crisis” that served as the excuse for massive programmes of rearmament that pre-dated the outbreak of the war. But that’s beyond the scope of this particular article.

The main point I’m making here though is that after three years of warfare, which left almost 4 million dead (ca 2.5 million Koreans; almost 1 million Chinese; 35,000 Americans; 1,000 Britons), a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, was agreed at the 38th parallel, precisely where it had all begun. More significantly, after initally being overwhelmed by the North in June-July 1950, the American-led UN forces had reached the 38th parallel in September 1950. The war could have come to a close there and then.

Instead, the Americans decided to press home ‘their’ advantage and crossed the 38th parallel and then the Yalu River, dismissing China’s warnings that they would enter the war should this happen. The war then went on for almost 3 years during which a staggering 80% of all casulaties in the Korean War actually occurred.

The two states of Korea today are creatures of the Cold War, of imperial rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. Neither is considered a model to be emulated.


Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, Vice Chair of the British International Studies Association,


This post first appeared at his excellent US Blog.

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