Many of us learned from IF Stone's indispensable The Hidden History of the Korean War that it is far from clear that the Korean was started because of an invasion by the North as advertised. Now I come to find that Professor Bruce Cumings has written extensively on the matter suggesting, as Stone indicated, that the matter was far more complicated. In a letter to the NYRB, he cogently summarizes some of the evidence indicating that the war was essentially started by the South Korean military leadership, put in place and supported, as we learned from Stone by the US (MacArthur).
New York Review of Books
Bruce Cumings writes:
To the Editors:
In his review of David Halberstam's book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter [NYR, October 25], Richard Bernstein mentions the thesis "advanced in particular by Bruce Cumings" that Syngman Rhee or the South Korean military might have provoked Kim Il Sung's attack in June 1950. In a long chapter entitled "Who Started the Korean War?" I examined just about every thesis on how the war started including this thesis, first advanced not by me but by I.F. Stone in his Hidden History of the Korean War. I used formerly secret archival documents in English and Korean (including a large captured North Korean archive) to conclude this chapter by saying that all the theses were wrong, because civil wars do not start, they come along after years or even decades of internecine conflict—as in Korea.
Because the top US commander in Korea had secretly told his superiors that South Korean military forces started the majority of fighting along the 38th parallel in 1949, with attacks from the South beginning in May and ending in December and with a near war in August, it was incumbent upon me to examine Stone's thesis in any event. The South Korean commander of the parallel in the summer of 1949 was Kim Sok-won, a quisling who had chased after Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s, on behalf of the Japanese Kwantung Army—an army well known for provoking incidents, such as the one resulting in Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931. My main point, though, was that the commanders of the respective Korean armies had chosen different sides in the long anticolonial struggle against Japan, and it should not have been surprising that once they had the means to do so, they would again clash with each other. What is more surprising is the direct American role, during the US occupation of Korea from 1945 to 1948, in putting in power an entire generation of Koreans in the military and the national police who had served Japanese imperialism.
David Halberstam and I spent an afternoon together before his tragic death, talking about this war, and his warmth and generosity did not hide the fact that he was entirely unaware of what might be found in an archive, apart from selected documents that came out after the Soviet Union collapsed. Neither is Richard Bernstein, whose last review lauded a completely shoddy book on North Korea by Jasper Becker, Rogue Regime [NYR, March 1], a book rife with elementary errors and thus a laughingstock among scholars. I don't believe The New York Review would treat many other fields of scholarship as if anyone can come along and offer their judgments without the slightest evidence that they know what they are talking about.
Professor and Chair, History Department
University of Chicago