Rethinking the Korean War
When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, I was a college freshman. My mechanical engineering class initially had 48 students; only eight graduated. Three million Korean people perished during the war. Many died before they could utter, “aigo” (Oh my gosh).
This tragedy befell us because we were a weak, small nation. Powerful neighbors had decided our future ``for us” in 1945. Few of us understood why the United States had to divide us. We just had to face up to what they had done.
Korea was ``one nation under God, indivisible,” as much as or more so than the United States. We address strangers on the streets as uncles (ajeossi) or aunts (ajumma) as if we are all one big family. We share a common language and cultural heritage throughout the peninsula for eons.
If there was one country in the world that should never have been divided, it was Korea. In 1945, the United States offered what is now North Korea to the Soviets as if to split the spoils of the war. I wish the United States had given the entire Korean Peninsula away if only to avoid the Korean War.
Dean Acheson officially tossed South Korea outside the U.S. defense perimeter in January 1950. So, the U.S. occupation of South Korea in 1945-49 was an unnecessary harebrained move. It sowed, however, the seeds of the Korean War. Korea became a double-victim, first by Japan and then by post World War II U.S. arrogance that treated Korea like a pawn.
The United States won the right to be arrogant in 1945. But for how long? I sensed the musty odor of this now 66-year-old arrogance, lurking in the book, ``Rethinking the Korean War, A New Diplomatic and Strategic History,” by William Stueck. Its front cover has two flags, which look like a North Korean flag and a South Korean one.
Both were, however, erroneous or ``genuine fakes,” comparable to a U.S. flag that had 44 stars and 12 stripes. This fake South Korean flag not only adorned the front cover and the spine but also was interspersed throughout the book.
I would have just forgiven the errors if they had been made by a layman. I was enraged, however, because they were made by a ``distinguished research professor of history,” who specializes in Korea during the Cold War. I sent the author an email, reproduced in part below.
``I demand that you recall all your books out there with a wrong flag of Korea. If you are a scholar, you would not sell any book that is wrong. What a shame! In my opinion, your kind of (Westerner’s) attitude, a total disregard for the welfare of the people who lived in Korea, begat policies that divided the land and the people without any qualms simply because it was politically and militarily convenient to do so at the time. That (Westerner’s mindset) was the cause of the war in Korea that messed up my life and several million other lives.”
In his reply, Stueck only expressed regrets without apologies for the errors with the flags. His reply also included the most ludicrous joke about Korea’s past I had ever heard, as follows:
``I also understand how a Korean in the South today would prefer that the United States and the Soviet Union had left Korea united in Japan's hands in 1945 rather than liberate and divide it.”
Nonsense! Stueck will never understand how we hated the occupier (Japan). He must be arrogant or self-conceited, or both. Yes, we thought of the United States as a liberator, who turned out to be actually another occupier. What liberator would divide Korea? The strong only exploited the weak to gain global hegemony.
In addition to the errors with the Korean flags, Stueck erred with more than a dozen Korean names in his book. What is ``history” with wrong names of people and places? He had to have known these errors, including the fake flags, since the publication. He has taken, however, no remedial action such as inserting an errata sheet into the book.
Stueck must think he can display fake Korean flags on his Korean War book and can get away with them probably because no one has publicly criticized his errors as a U.S. professor. Unless this kind of arrogance is rooted out from U.S. historians like Stueck, the United States will never learn anything from the history of the real people who were victimized by the powerful. The United States will likely repeat the same mistakes as what led to the Korean War, during which 37,000 GIs also had to die.
The United States should have been able to prevent the Korean War. This could have been possible only if Western policymakers had the mindset that would respect Korea’s well-being as equal to their own, not as a pawn that they would discard as needed. We cannot have another Korean tragedy because of miscalculations by powerful neighbors. As a historian, Stueck owes us to point this out in his new book on Korea-U.S. relations.
The writer is a retired engineer living in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.