The Reasons Why

Korea: The Limited War

by David Rees
St. Martin’s Press, 511 pp., $10.00

It is, of course, a mere coincidence that it was exactly one hundred years ago, with the accession of the regent Taiwon-kun, that the modern history of Korea began. But it is a fact it would be an error to ignore. Nothing is easier than to discuss the Korean war of 1950, as Mr. Rees does, as a phase of what he calls “the world struggle against communism”; nothing could be more misleading. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Korea was an object of conflict between the powers, and what occurred after 1945 was simply a continuation of the old conflict in new circumstances by new means.

When the imperialist age opened in the Pacific, Korea soon assumed a key position. One has only to look at the map to see why. Scarcely a hundred miles from Kyushu, it was Japan’s obvious means of access to the Asian mainland. For Russia it was a sensitive area because it bordered on Vladivostok and the Maritime Province. England and France were interested also, and so was the United States. Indeed, it was the United States, by sending the General Sherman to Pyongyang in 1866, that propelled Korea into the modern world, with consequences from which Koreans have suffered ever since. It was the United States, also, which by the secret agreement between Taft and Katsura in July 1905 gave Japan a free hand in Korea in return for a Japanese undertaking not to interfere in the Philippines. It was aided and abetted by the British who, a few days later, made a parallel agreement in return for a Japanese undertaking to respect British imperialism in India.

From the start, therefore, none of the powers had clean hands in regard to Korea, and when the Japanese empire collapsed in 1945 it was not difficult for anyone with knowledge of the previous history to foresee a revival of the old conflicts. The situation was altered as a result of the successive elimination of Germany, France, Britain, and Japan. But it was self-evident that Russia, thrown back since 1905, would seek to use the elimination of its Japanese rival to reverse the decision of the Russo-Japanese war, and it was a fair guess also that China—whether under Chiang or under Mao—would attempt to restore its traditional relationship with Korea. It was also apparent that the elimination of the second-class powers, leaving only the United States and Russia in the field, was likely to result in an intensification of the conflict. What had been a multilateral now became a head-on bilateral struggle for position between two superpowers—until a resurgent China turned it into a triangular confrontation.

At the same time, it was evident that the conflict would not simply take the form of a resumption of the brash imperialism of the late nineteenth century. Neither Russia, with its heritage of Leninist anti-colonialism, nor the United States, with its heritage of Wilsonian self-determination, could afford—since both were angling for Asian approbation …

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