on 11 February 2016
A well-researched, nicely illustrated and highly readable book about the Korean peninsular's troubled history. Its narration of the Korean War itself is gripping, combining a strong analysis of the political backdrop, a detailed description of the military campaigns and key battles, and personal anecdotes from some of the participants in the war. The author then sets out how the war itself triggered, to a great extent, the ensuing Cold War, and influenced regional geopolitics for many years to come, including the Vietnam War, Sino-Soviet-US relations, and China's recent emergence as a major global economic power. The book closes with a brief analysis of North Korea's increasing but ambivalent dependence on China, and the prospects for reunification of the peninsular. Writing this review on the day that Kaesong Industrial Complex has closed, in response to recent North Korean nuclear tests and missile launches, reunification seems as remote a prospect as it has been for much of the last 60 years. I think there could have been a little more analysis of the changing nature of South Korean society in the book - the author alludes to the increasing indifference, particularly amongst younger South Koreans, to reunification, but maybe there is enough material in that subject area for an entirely new book altogether!
on 3 February 2014
Korea, like Vietnam, was a single, united country until 1945. In 1945 Soviet forces entered Manchuria and the north of Korea to create a defensive barrier against any renewed Japanese aggression. The USA, Britain and the Soviet Union recognised Korea’s unity and independence at the Cairo and Moscow conferences. The three allies agreed that the country would be divided only for a short time and pledged that no foreign troops would stay in Korea. The Soviet Union honoured its agreement and withdrew its forces in December 1945.
The US government proposed a temporary division of Korea at the 38th parallel, which Stalin accepted. Jager writes, “Why did he agree when Soviet forces could have easily occupied the entire peninsula? Rather than territorial gain, Stalin’s main concern was to eliminate Japanese political economic influence in the region. ‘Japan must be forever excluded from Korea’, stated a June 1945 Soviet report on Korea, ‘since a Korea under Japanese rule would be a constant threat to the Far East of the USSR.’ Stalin accepted a divided occupation in Korea because the Americans could help in neutralizing Japan.”
But the USA proceeded to install a fascist government in South Korea. The US and British governments have always claimed that the Korean War started in June 1950, but there was war well before then. Jager notes that on the island of Cheju-do, “whole villages became targets, innocent suspects were beaten and hanged, and women and children massacred. A reign of terror largely perpetrated by government forces, the police, and the Republic of Korea Army … gripped the island. … By the end of June 1949, an estimated thirty thousand had been killed in Cheju-do, many of them innocent civilians massacred by government forces.”
As Jager observes, “Some of the worst atrocities were committed by South Koreans against South Koreans. … Caught in the roundup of suspected leftists and communists were innocent civilians, including women and children who were summarily executed in the thousands in the name of fighting the communists. It is estimated that at least a hundred thousand South Koreans were killed in the summer of 1950.”
President Eisenhower’s May 1953 threat to use nuclear weapons did not cause the armistice agreement. China and North Korea had agreed to voluntary repatriation of POWs in March.
on 25 September 2013
Because this book had good reviews I read it. I was disappointed. I spent 26 months in the front lines in Korea starting with the Inchon invasion and a second tour during the last year of the war. So I have read about every book on the Korean War as well as many of the unit histories. Almost all books about the War are disappointing. There is a tendency to emphacize the first year of the War and say little about the rest of the War. This book says even less.
It is not that the book is not interesting. It is just incomplete. It covers Korea from the end of WWII until the rise of Kim Chong-Un, the current leader of North Korea. But there are large gaps in the coverage. One problem is that the book too often digresses from coverage of major events to chapters on events that were really side issues and had little to do with the flow of history, such as what happened in the prison camps and the atrocities committed during the war. While of interest, they were included at the expense of major events which were either omitted or were glossed over. It may be that part of the author's problem is that she doesn't have any military background that would help her better understand what happened during the War and why. But that often is the problem with academics who try to write about the Korean War or write reviews of books written about the War.
The worst example is that she omits almost everything about the fighting that took place between the 1951 truce and the armistice in July 1953, yet some of the heaviest fighting occured during that time. But it gets little coverage because there were no significant advances by either side. Nevertheless, the last three months of the War were as eventful as the first three months as the Chinese and the Americans jockeyed to establish the final battle line which would mark the demilitarized zone, particularly in the West north of the South Korean capitol Seoul. The Chinese wanted to push the lines south of the Imjim River, the last obstacle to capturing Seoul.
The prelude to the battles was the withdrawal of the First Marine Division, which had held the line for almost two years, from the front lines, and its replacement with the 25th Army Division, which the Chinese saw as weak. They were right because they quickly pushed the Army back by taking the Vegas-Reno-Carson City outpost line which the Marines had fiercely defended. The reason that the Marines had been withdrawn was because the strategists wanted the Chinese to believe that the Marines would engage in an amphibious operation. At the same time the 3rd Marine Division was aboard ships on its way to Korea which enhanced this deception. However, there was no plan for an amphibious assault. It was only a ploy to get the Chinese to sign a truce.
However, when South Korean President Sygman Rhee gummed up the Armistice in June by releasing all the prisoners, the First Marine Division was rushed back into the lines because intelligence indicated that the Chinese were going to launch a major assault, which they did. First, they drove the Marines off outposts Berlin and East Berlin which had been between the Vegas outpost complex and the main battle line. When the Marine commanders wanted to counterattack, their normal tactic, President Eisenower said "No" and that left the Marines open to a major attack which came during the last eight days of the war in what is known the Battle of Boulder City. In that battle both the 3d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, and the 3d Battalion, First Marine Regiment, were virtually knocked out of action and the Marines were barely holding on when the truce was announced. It was estimated that the Chinese lost 25,000 men in the battle. I could see dead bodies littering the landscape for a long way and I remember seeing the Chinese stacking bodies in a six foot high row that was at least a quarter mile long. Life Magazine published photos of the hill that I defended showing it covered with Chinese bodies. This was the worse battle for the Marines during the entire Korean War.
The author did not see the significance of this for if the Marines had been pushed back, the UN troops would have had to withdraw their entire front and the Chinese would have been at the front door of Seoul. As it was, Chinese casualties were so high they opted to sign the Armistice.
The author does catch some little known insights into the War such as General Walker missed a golden opportunity to staunch the Chinese advance in failing to establish a defensive line north of Pyongyang during the December 1950 Chinese offensive. But she misses too many others such as MacArthur's glory seeking decision to take Seoul after the Inchon invasion rather than send the Marines to cut off the retreat of the North Korean Army. The Marines suffered heavy casualties in taking the city which would never have happened if the NKA had been cut off because the NKA would have abandoned Seoul.
The author also doesn't mention the counter-insurgency operations that commenced in January 1951 to eliminate a large number of guerrillas left in South Korea when the Chinese retreated.
While the book has its good points, if a reader is interested in reading about the korean War, this is not the book one should read.