A lecture was delivered last week at the Somerset Palace by the Royal Asiatic Society – Korea Branch, a non-profit organization founded in 1900 which aims to help people improve their understanding of the arts, customs, history and landscapes of Korea.
In preparation for his upcoming book, scholar Michael J. Devine spoke about the Korean War from an international perspective at the event. Having spent a forty-year career in the administration of history institutions, Prof. Devine has gained a unique perspective on Korea through broad experiences. These include serving as the director of the Harry. S Truman Library from 2001-2014, serving as a two-time Senior Fulbright lecturer in Korea in 1995 and his current lecturing position at Sogang University.
Devine, as an American who hasn’t had the opportunity to travel to North Korea or many of the other countries involved, chose to focus mainly on the American viewpoint of the Korean War while referencing China, Russia, and North Korea intermittently.
The primary assertion of the presentation was that memories of the Korean War are changing, going through a constant state of metamorphosis. “As incidents occur that are relevant to the armistice between the two countries, memories continue to change,” said Devine.
Devine went on to talk about how the outcome of the war was largely viewed as a disappointment with the signing of an armistice agreement in 1953, leaving all sides dissatisfied. Despite expecting an ending similar to that of WW2, where the Germans surrendered unconditionally, the US was left with an armistice, a military dictatorship in South Korea and little else to show for their participation in the war. The South Koreans were so infuriated with the outcome that the president, Syngman Rhee, refused to sign the armistice altogether, while North Korea and China were left with a broken country with no means to take over the South.
The sentiment towards the war was particularly poor for the United States, whose soldiers made up the majority of the United Nations troops involved in the war, and was the target of international criticism surrounding atrocities including the execution of prisoners and innocent civilians in a conflict that claimed the lives of over 10% of the population living on the Korean peninsula. This was symbolized by Pablo Picasso’s painting in his revision of Guernica, Massacre in Korea, as a criticism of the United States’ intervention in the Korean War.
Widely dubbed as ‘Truman’s War’, the conflict ended up becoming very unpopular in the US, as would follow with the Vietnam War. The war ended in an armistice and there was never a large welcoming home of troops that returned from overseas together, with all instead returning in small groups.
“Troops that did return were also criticized domestically for being considered weaker than the soldiers who participated in WW2. The troops were also seen by the older generation as lacking the fortitude that growing up in the Great Depression provided,” Prof. Devine said. Despite a relatively low (2-3%) rate of death in POW camps in Germany during WW2, nearly 42% of POWS died in captivity in the Korean War. Those that survived were considered to have been susceptible to brainwashing, and either be turncoats, traitors, or of being forced to make false confessions to war crimes they didn’t commit. Allen Dulles, head of the CIA at the time, endorsed the narrative of brainwashing, borrowed heavily from a testimony by a journalist from Florida named Edward Hunter who appeared before Congress. Allen Dulles described brainwashing as a means to, “turn American POWs into humble confessors of crimes they never committed, and make them the mouthpiece of Soviet propaganda.”
This agenda was given credence through the numerous instances of false confessions made by POWs, notably the false confessions and harsh treatment of the sailors captured on the USS Pueblo in 1968, and also after the war when 21 soldiers refused repatriation. The brain-washing narrative and American sentiment towards the war is depicted in several movies of the time including: “Steel Helmet,” “the first movie to come out, but also possibly the best,” as considered by Devine, “The Prisoner of War,” “The Bridges of Toko-Ri,” “Pork Chop Hill,” “The Rack,” “Mash,” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”
The prevailing opinion of the war, and Korea itself, began to change significantly following the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, considered highly successful largely due to having the most participating countries of any previous Olympics. The two previous Summer Olympics in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984) were both boycotted by several countries in response to Jimmy Carter’s ultimatum to the Soviets over their invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent retribution for the boycott of the previous Games. 1988 was not only a turning point in ROK history, but also in the way Korea was perceived internationally and how Americans began to perceive the Korean War.
Following the Olympics, more US memorials for veterans of the Korean War were constructed, of which there is now at least one in every state, including the biggest in Washington DC largely funded by Hyundai Corporation, as well as the construction of the Korean War Museum in Yongsan, South Korea.
“When the US was able to finally see through the Olympics how South Korea had economically thrived and developed into a successful country, the war turned into a victory in the minds of the US and many of the other Western countries who participated. South Korea also began seeing it as a victory after their rise as an economic power was recognized globally. The Chinese started to view the war as having successfully rescued a fellow communist state, while North Korea officially views the war as an absolute victory for the Kim regime. The fact that there are no longer any losers in the war may provide the basis for a peaceful settlement in the future,” speculated Devine.
The question that received the most attention after the presentation was as to whether or not President Trump could decide to attack North Korea independently, just as Truman did in the Korean War. Prof Devine responded that it was completely possible and quoted the “War Powers Act”, a law that gives the President of the United States the power to send troops and make military decisions unilaterally, but then requires him to go back to Congress within a set amount of time to receive permission for an extended war effort.
Over 50 attendees participated in the event, indicative of broad interest in the content.