Korea? It’s Always Really Been About China!

Photo by Joe Hunt | CC BY 2.0

How many citizens have ever asked themselves what the United States is doing in Korea in the first place?

In November of 1945, two months after the surrender of Japan, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall spoke to President Truman and the chief figures of his cabinet about his fears of a “the tragic consequences of a divided China” as Chinese Nationalist forces and Communists resumed their struggle for power and Soviet forces seized control of large areas of Manchuria. The resumption of Soviet power in Manchuria Marshall emphasized would result “in the defeat or loss of the major purpose of our war with Japan (emphasis added).

What could the general have meant by such a statement? What WAS the “major purpose” of the Pacific war? Most Americans are taught that the foremost reason the United States went to war with Japan was the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the reality was that the U.S. and Japan had been on a collision course since the 1920s and by 1940, in the midst of the global depression, were locked in a mortal struggle over who would ultimately benefit most from the markets and resources of Greater China and East Asia. Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was steadily closing the “Open Door” to American penetration of and access to the profitable riches of Asia at the critical moment. As Japan militarily took control of East Asia the U.S. moved the Pacific Fleet to Hawaii in striking distance of Japan, imposed economic sanctions, embargoed steel and oil and in August 1941 issued an overt ultimatum to quit China and Vietnam “or else.” Seeing the latter as the threat it was Japan undertook what to Tokyo was the pre-emptive strike at Hawaii. The real reason the U.S. opposed the Japanese in Asia is never discussed and is a forbidden subject in the establishment media as are the real motives of American foreign policy writ large.

The U.S. had long envisioned profitable management of client regimes throughout greater East Asia. After Japanese surrender the U.S. wished to occupy as many of the numerous industrial plants Japan had built in East Asia the most important of which were in Manchuria and Korea.  Washington was also keenly anxious to preempt Soviet occupation of these territories. That is one major reason Truman decided to use the Atomic Bomb on a nation already reduced to cinders. It was also intended to induce Tokyo’s formal surrender only to the U.S. and not also to the Soviet Union since that would have enabled Soviet co-occupation of Japan itself and led to similar problems as were occurring in occupied Germany.

Politicians never use the term any more but the Open Door Policy remains the bedrock guiding strategy of American foreign policy writ large. Applicable to the entire planet the policy was enunciated specifically about the “great China market” (actually greater East Asia) but has evolved to encompass the planet. Simply stated it asserts that American finance and corporations should have untrammeled right of entry into the marketplaces of all nations and territories and access to their resources and cheaper labor power on American terms, sometimes diplomatically, often by armed violence. Consider the frame of reference of Edward Said who questioned in 2003 “if the principal product of Iraq were broccoli would the United States be in Iraq?” The U.S. has intervened militarily and covertly in so many nations it is impossible to recount them all but in every case the American military is protecting some investments of value to American corporations, or a strategic position or both.

Formulated in response to Japan’s war with China of 1894 that resulted in Japanese control of key Chinese and Korean territory and resources, the policy was announced in 1899 to forestall the establishment of autarkic “spheres of influence” across other areas of China and coastal Asia. Anxiety abounded among American business classes that beside Japan Russia was encroaching in Manchuria, that Britain would capitalize on its control of Hong Kong and Shanghai to enlarge its sphere, and that rapidly emergent Germany would also gain concessions, all circumstances potentially combining to close the door to the detriment of American desires to exploit China. Further south the French and Dutch were busy conquering territories later known as Vietnam and Indonesia.

Benign as they appeared the centrality of the Open Door notes cannot be overstated. The policy eventually extended the American “frontier” to the entire world. As enunciated its liberal language also asserted that such rights should also apply to all other nations. Yet as American financial and industrial dominance intensified in the early 19th Century it soon became apparent to the U.S.’s rivals that Washington and Wall Street held most of the advantages and the policy would enable the U.S. effectively to outcompete them in the scramble for East Asia.

But the outbreak of World War I in 1914 soon eliminated most European empires as great powers. The prime beneficiaries of that self-inflicted calamity were the U.S. and Japan, and, some may say, ultimately the Soviet Union. The future of China and its environs was thereafter to be contested between the U.S., Japan, the USSR and the Chinese themselves.

In 1799 the American Museum of the China Trade was established by Boston sea captains calling themselves the East India Marine Society and is well visited today in Salem, Massachusetts. The members regularly undertook the dangerous journey around both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope to profit themselves and their investors by opening commercial relations with a then powerful and integrated China which had not yet succumbed to the British predation that would undermine and fatally weaken that nation’s independence until the mid-Twentieth Century. Thus American interest in and, ultimately, obsession with China began more than two centuries ago.

By the mid-1840s the London based East India Company had wrested control of what is now modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and then set its sights upon China. The principal weapon involved was a peculiar agricultural commodity native to India that ultimately served to undermine Chinese sovereignty as surely as the cannon the company unleashed upon China’s ports. Unwilling to open their commercial doors to what in their own version of an open door the British called “free trade,” the Brits simply battered those portals down in a series of “Opium Wars” that progressively enfeebled China’s central authority and led inexorably to the addiction of millions of Chinese, all to the great profit of London’s elites. Greater East Asia would soon succumb also to the incursion of the French, Germans, Russians, Japanese, even the Italians, and ultimately the Americans. The Age of Imperialism had commenced and soon Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines would be targets as well. The seeds of the 20th Century’s Asian Wars were being sown.

Lagging behind much of Europe in industrializing and stifled by the Civil War the United States, like Japan and Germany, was a latecomer to the great game of imperialism but by the turn of the 20th Century the U.S. was poised to make its move toward what most of its elites believed was America’s fated destiny.

In 1853-54 President Millard Fillmore dispatched naval Commodore Mathew Perry to Japan with the mission to “open” that nation to American commerce and to serve as a staging area for further penetration of the continent itself. The Japanese had resisted relations with the West (as did Korea and Vietnam). When the Japanese refused Perry’s demands he demonstrated the power of American cannon, an event that shattered the complacency local daimyos had about their ability to resist western incursions. Under duress from a technologically and militarily more advanced society Japanese leaders undertook the total transformation of Japanese society, leading Japan to “modernize” along western lines in every respect to overnight became a formidable military power poised to compete with Europeans and Americans on their own terms in the “scramble” to occupy and exploit East Asia. When Japan occupied much of that very territory after 1932 the Pacific War became inevitable.

Immediately after the Civil War the U.S. Navy maintained a sustained presence throughout the Pacific Ocean especially in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam where it undertook numerous armed interventions. This Asiatic Squadron’s mission was, as historian William Appleman Williams wrote, “to ensure law and order and ensure economic access…while preventing European powers…from obtaining privileges that would exclude Americans.”

By the 1890s ruling opinion demanded outlets beyond the landed frontier, to the Pacific and on to the Great China Market. Since native regimes would resist the rapacity of American penetration, as would imperial rivals, the strategy to expand markets would also require military exploits. The leading ideological exponent of the military approach was Alfred Thayer Mahan of the U.S. Navy whose work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History had enormous influence upon political elites like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge.  Mahan coupled his analysis of the economic and social crisis facing the U.S. to the anxieties of the business elites about their inability to sell their growing surpluses of industrial production and called upon political leaders to leap beyond the landed frontier to the oceans and establish “colonies” as markets for the surplus and bases from which to protect and administer them. This, in turn, would require the expansion of naval power, a proposition the emerging steel and ship building trusts and their Washington confederates, especially Roosevelt, leapt to initiate. Mahan’s gaze fell upon China whose population he considered “sheep without a shepherd.” Seeing the vast land as “inefficient” he contended that its people were not entitled to control their own country, and even proposed that its capital Peking (Beijing) be moved southward out of Russian influence to become “the core around which to develop a new China.” American efforts to that end would be pursued right up to 1949.

Responding to the international dissection of their country Chinese nationalists rose against all foreigners in what became known as the “Boxer Rebellion,” during which the U.S. and others dispatched troops to crush the insurrection. Casting themselves as unselfish the Open Door policymakers cared little about what the Chinese thought but were concerned only to stake the American claim and ensure that other imperial competitors could not close the door. Meanwhile its imperial competitors understood that the U.S. was now the most powerful industrial nation, able to out produce and undercut their own rivalry and therefore to close the door and doom themselves “to an inferior position.” Left purely to economic circumstances the outcome would ensure American predominance. But none of East Asia’s imperial plunderers, especially the Japanese, were willing to accept that. Nor, most importantly, were the Chinese themselves.

In response to the the weakness of the imperial Manchu throne to counter western and Japanese predation Sun Yat-Sen and the Kuomintang, or Chinese nationalists, overthrew the monarchy and declared China a republic. But China was highly fractured and the Kuomintang soon splintered. After World War I the Chinese communist Party began to grow in influence and power and after World War II would engage in a civil war won by the communists. In the immediate aftermath of WWII General Marshall was dispatched to China to broker a government composed of both communists and nationalists but this was a fool’s errand even though simultaneously he and others had received a promise from Stalin that the Soviets would not aid the Chinese communists. They had fought the Japanese as the Nationalists had not and popular support and the tide of history carried them to victory in 1949. Having sacrificed more than 150,000 American lives in mortal combat with Japan for control of China Washington was about to lose China to the Chinese. Of course they were the wrong Chinese from the perspective of America’s ruling elites, especially the Republicans who immediately charged the Truman Administration with the loss of China. Truman refused to recognize the new communist government and supported the regime of Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi) who had retreated to the island of Formosa, today Taiwan.

Perceiving the hostility of the United States and fearing inevitable armed attempts to overthrow communist power in China the new leaders of that nation prepared its defenses. They would soon require them in Korea.

The Soviet Union entered the war in Asia in its last phase. Russia had plenty of reason to war with Japan since Tokyo’s government had delivered that nation a humiliating defeat in 1904-1905 and annexed Russian territory in the Far East. So it was the Red Army that delivered the death blows to Japan on the mainland of Asia as an ally of the United States. American troops played no land combat role in China or Korea. Hoping for amicable relations with the U.S. given the agreements he had reached with President Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta Stalin agreed to a co-occupation of Korea under the auspices of a United Nations mandate to work out an agreement to reunify the tiny nation. Korea had existed as a unified and cohesive country, with its own unique language and culture, despite being almost enveloped by China’s land mass, for more than a millennium.

By 1910 however, Korea had been conquered and occupied as a Japanese slave colony Theodore Roosevelt actually endorsed Japanese rule as a means of “civilizing” Korea. The Japanese sought to annex Korea entirely as they later would in Manchuria. During the period of Japanese rule (1910-1945) a resistance movement grew eventually led by Kim Il-Sung, who had fled to Moscow and turned to Soviet communism, much as Ho Chi Minh had done in disgust at Woodrow Wilson’s dismissal of the nationalist aspirations of colonized Asians. The resistance in Korea won widespread support among Koreans. Most were deeply nationalistic partisans, not committed communists but, as in the case of Vietnam, turned their loyalties toward those leaders who resisted Japanese dictatorship and not those who collaborated with their subjugators. The Japanese found willing Koreans to serve as armed police to suppress their fellow Koreans. As events unfolded from 1945-1950 the forces of Kim remained largely in the north in the Soviet zone, though his movement also had widespread support in the south where numerous armed rebellions broke out against the southern regime sponsored by Washington and their right-wing South Korean clients.

As early as 1945 the American commander in the U.S. zone, General John Hodge, “declared war” on communists whom he identified with all hostile nationalists tied to Kim Il-Sung or not. Americans employed Japanese trained armed police who violently repressed those who resisted this extreme affront. The UN had called for a plebiscite throughout the peninsula but the north refused to participate primarily because the elections in the south were forcibly controlled by American occupation forces and their southern minions and voting was limited to landowners and taxpayers thereby eliminating most ordinary peasants and factory workers, the very people who would have voted for reunification under Kim (shades of Vietnam). Shortly after the government of Syngman Rhee was inaugurated as a result of this provocative and incendiary election a major revolt broke out on the southern island of Jeju. The response by the new extremely right-wing government, was swift and exterminative. Approximately 30,000 South Koreans were slaughtered.The Jeju massacre, as it came to be known, and numerous similar atrocious purges, were among the principal motivations that led Kim Il-Sung to attempt to unify Korea by force and remove the American client government in the south. In June 1950 Kim’s forces crossed the 38th parallel, the artificial border decided in Washington and agreed by the Soviets thus precipitating the three-year long Korean War that resulted in the deaths of three million Koreans and nearly 50,000 Americans

But Rhee’s government had been attempting to cross the border itself and on the very day that the war began South Korean forces also attacked the north. Which incursion was first is still debated. At first the North Koreans swept in and almost unified the peninsula on their terms. The American press demonized to the northern Koreans seeking to reunify what had for at least a millennium an integrated, single nation as “hordes” and “barbarians” illegally invading a separate and independent nation. Then calling upon the UN to authorize a military response by forces largely composed of American troops Truman intervened in this incipient civil war and thereby initiated a large scale and utterly cataclysmic one.

The northern forces overwhelmed both the Republic of Korea troops and the limited number of American soldiers already in the south. The UN Supreme Commander, Douglas MacArthur rapidly introduced numerous combat ready troops and air power and routed the northerners and drove them back across the border. Though the UN mandate limited the military response to repelling the North Koreans MacArthur ignored orders and drove toward the Chinese border, believing that the communists would not react. But China’s foreign minister, Zhou En-Lai, warned in no uncertain terms that China would not allow American troops anywhere near China and on June Chinese troops crossed the border. Eventually numbering almost a million these forces inflicted what the U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, described as the “worst defeat since Bull Run.” Actually the rout was the worst defeat in American history for American forces by foreign troops. The legendary 1st Marine Division was sent reeling but insisted they were “advancing to the rear.”

In truth the Chinese, under ordinary military circumstances could have driven the UN Army off the peninsula entirely but the atomic bomb had changed the nature of large scale land war. Both Truman and MacArthur and, later, President Eisenhower, threatened the use of the Bomb and that resulted in Chinese withdrawal to roughly the original border. What followed was an armistice (merely a ceasefire: a technical state of war still exists) that remains in effect today although numerous infractions of its terms have been committed by both the U.S. and the Koreans on both sides. The one of most relevance to the crisis ongoing today is the U.S. repudiation of Paragraph 13(d) which obliged both sides not to introduce new weapons on the peninsula. In 1956 Eisenhower, with full support of the National Security Council, unilaterally abrogated Paragraph 13(d). By 1958 short range nuclear capable missiles were deployed in South Korea.

No threat worthy of nukes emanated from North Korea. Nor was it capable of launching another cross border attack. At least 20 % of the north’s population had been killed. All of its cities and towns were destroyed; its crops inundated and ruined in 1953when the American Air Force destroyed the dams along the Yalu River (a violation of the Geneva Convention. Nazis had been tried for exactly that war crime). North Korea was never weaker than during this period.

The message Washington wished to send was directed at both China and the Soviet Union, which had just launched Sputnik, effectively demonstrating its capacity to launch Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles that intense Cold War propaganda continued to claim were intended to pose an existential threat to the national security of the United States though Soviet ICBMs were developed in response and as a deterrent to the overwhelming air superiority and threat of the U.S.’s nuclear armed fleet of B-52 bombers, the Strategic Air Command.

The message broadcast unmistakably stipulated that America’s foot was still in the door where Washington intended it to stay and which stance it intended to defend by any means necessary. There it remains today. For their part responding in grave alarm to this deadly game of atomic chess the Chinese, and later North Korea, initiated the processes by which both would acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

Which leads us finally to today’s crisis.

A Gallup poll issued last week showed that a majority of Americans, 58%, favor war with Korea if a peaceful resolution fails. The figure climbs to 82% among Republicans. This is madness of the first order. A peaceful resolution is more than possible if the American public wakes up to realities (of the present and past) and demands such an outcome. Diplomacy actually stopped North Korea’s earlier efforts to build nukes and then in each case the U.S. violated the terms. It can happen again but the United States government will not do what is necessary owing to the longstanding commitment to the Open Door. Just this week Defense Secretary and former Marine Corps General James Mattis proposed the use of tactical nuclear weapons with his South Korean counterparts though his pronouncements to the American public insist that diplomacy is the first choice. An attack on Korea will be unimaginably cataclysmic and has every potential to threaten China and Russia and enflame nuclear apocalypse. Either we accept a nuclear armed North Korea, and that means also in all probability a nuclear armed Japan, and perhaps even South Korea, with all the increased and acute jeopardy that entails, or we accede to a catastrophic, destabilizing and potentially all out cataclysm, or the American public somehow awakens from its fantasies of exceptionalism, and realizes that the essence of U.S. foreign policy has always been aggressive and exploitive in contradiction to our claims. Eisenhower’s warning about the “Military-Industrial Complex” has become a cliche but he was dead serious. The most powerful, and decisive branch of the American ruling class is that faction and it has held sway since 1945. Unless the public comprehends that this reality has brought us to the brink of global catastrophe, and then demands a fundamental reordering of our national priorities we face a  future fraught with extreme jeopardy.

The latest heir to the North Korean throne, Kim Jong-Un, like all despots, wishes above all to remain in power. The North Koreans are not jihadists intent on martyrdom. It is perfectly clear to any rational observer that North Korean nukes are intended as a deterrent to Washington’s nukes, which, history demonstrates, is based on obvious reality. They are not a means to suicide. At the same time if Kim believes his avowed enemy will try to overthrow his rule he will unleash what we now know is a formidable arsenal of conventional weapons on the southern capital of Seoul, where more than 20 million people live including about 200,000 Americans, civilians and military personnel. A conventional attack alone will result in millions of deaths and injuries and will destroy the 5th largest economy on the planet, in which American capital has been heavily invested, both in the military-industrial complex and, since the 1950s the creation of the modern Korean industrial and financial system (Think Hyundai auto and steel, Samsung. Where did their capital originate? Why did American capital abandon what is now the Rust Belt for better financial and profit climes in Asia?). Such a war will involve millions of refugees, many streaming into China and Russia, both of which share borders with Korea. But since we also know that the northern regime has nuclear weapons which will be launched at American bases and Japan, we ought to be screaming from the rooftops that an American attack will unleash those nukes, potentially on all sides, and the ensuing desolation may rapidly devolve into a nightmarish day of reckoning for the entire human species.

Korea remains divided today because the armistice that ended warfare in 1953 was enacted because of China’s intervention and because the U.S. could not wage total war on China because that would have set off World War III and very possibly nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Absent those facts and overwhelming American firepower would have crushed North Korea. Under no circumstances, however, would China or Russia, have allowed this outcome then or now. Nor will they sit passively and allow a colossal inferno and nuclear radiation to envelop much of northeast coastal Asia today though if that commences then catastrophe follows. To be frank, an American attack on North Korea, even with conventional weapons, will immediately turn nuclear on the North Korean side. South Korea, Japan and American bases within range will be targeted and the American response will also be nuclear. I doubt that any bookie would take bets that China and Russia will remain passive and neutral.

For more than a century China has resisted and fought against foreign domination and intervention, as have most of the nations of Asia. China is now a superpower and despite calling itself communist it is a formidable capitalist competitor with the West and Japan. When American policy strategists finally had to concede that China had indeed been lost to American financial and commercial dominance in the early 1950s they immediately turned their attention to the remainder of East Asia. Thus the calamity visited upon Vietnam: Thus massacres and purges in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, East Timor. If China itself closed the open door then American ruling class strategy resolved to keep it open throughout the rest of Asia. That is why the Obama Administration (with much influence from Hillary Clinton) conceived the military “pivot to Asia” paralleled by the Trans Pacific Partnership, which aimed at corporate supremacy over governmental regulations, both foreign and domestic, and now on hold in the Trump administration

The U.S. will always be able to trade with any other nation if it accepts that this cannot be on rigidly American terms. That policy is dead in Asia. While Washington has sought global dominance since the end of WWII, it has never achieved it and never will. The attempt will bring on nuclear catastrophe. I am always telling my students that the very existence of nuclear weapons in the current framework of the world’s international relations is like leaving a loaded handgun in a childcare center. Sooner or Later! But some students answer: A child care center has responsible adults who will ensure the threat is removed! Listening to the overt threats emanating from Trump himself, Secretary Mattis, UN ambassador Haley, National Security Adviser General McMaster, and Senator Lindsay Graham leaves one reeling with profound apprehension and incredulity about the sanity of such “leaders.”

All signs indicate that global warming and climate change will in the near future bring increasing human-made disasters that have every potential to increase refugees, political ruptures and more potential for war.  The only sane response is an all-out effort at global cooperation to minimize this worldwide threat and a repudiation of the geo-politics of the past. Trump’s speech to the United Nations this week repudiates the very founding basis of that institution.

The only rational and sane policy as a foundation for de-escalation is for diplomatic talks to begin among North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and the U.S with a firm commitment from Washington to sign a formal peace treaty and to withdraw its troops and armaments from South Korea in exchange for the disassembly of North Korea’s nuclear program. China especially, also Russia would oversee the north’s nuclear disarmament. South Korea is well armed itself and does not need the U.S. to protect it and neither China nor Russia wants another war on the Korean peninsula. Nor, most importantly, do most Koreans. The U.S. has been there since 1945 to keep its foot in the door to Asia and safeguard what it has long seen as its entitlement to profit, not to protect democracy. The Open Door Policy on American terms can never be achieved. China, like it or not, will be the dominant power in East Asia and most of the other nations of Asia are coming round to accept this because the alternative is a losing proposition. The U.S. and China can find grounds for further mutually advantageous and amicable political and economic relations but these will have to be on reciprocal and honest grounds. The U.S. can also continue mutual relations with all the other nations of Asia but not on terms dictated by Washington and the major banks and corporations. The best start is for Washington to take its foot out of the door in Korea before it is too late but only a determined and truthfully informed public can make this happen.

Paul Atwood is the author of War and Empire: the American Way of Life.