First published in Boston Review.
Peace has always been a tortured, malleable term. Similar to “democracy” or “freedom,” its political usage has been stretched beyond the breaking point. Consider most recently when President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un met at a luxury resort in Singapore, the site of a former British colonial post, and signed a short statement promising that “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
“Peace regime” is a particularly contrived usage, instructive in its tensions. A regime is imposed from without, which begs the questions: whose peace, in this peace regime, is being insured, and who is subject to its imposition? To insist that such a regime is a kind of peace is to willfully forget the violence you are, in fact, wreaking.
Nonetheless, the idea of a “peace regime” has long been employed in US–Korean relations. The many meanings have, in this context, been the battleground for discussing US power, wartime violence, and US racial politics. The US military occupation in South Korea after partition (1945–1948) kept the Cold War peace through suppressing dissent. The Korean War — which was devastatingly violent for all sides — was described as a “war for peace” by President Truman. And most tellingly, during the Korean War, US antiwar sentiment organized around the war and Jim Crow through a competing version of “peace.”
As we potentially enter the fourth “peace regime” for Korea, it is important to understand the competing claims that have been made and to ask what a true peace on the peninsula might entail. As Korean activists have themselves argued repeatedly, a truly democratic reconciliation isn't going to come from either Trump or Kim, but from a real reckoning with the civil war violence and division that has been wrought on the peninsula in peace’s name.
The first US peace regime in Korea was a military occupation. After the end of World War II, Korea — which had been a Japanese colony — was divided at the 38th parallel into two states, with the Soviet Union overseeing the north and the United States, the south. On August 15, 1945, the United States Army’s 24th Corps moved from Okinawa to take over from the departing Japanese colonial government in Seoul.
The country’s division, which was decided without Korean input, prompted thousands of Koreans to enter mass democratic politics, since many Koreans had hoped the end of colonialism would mean an independent, unified Korean state. A network of people’s committees rapidly formed a provisional government and called for progressive reforms, including land redistribution and women’s rights.
US foreign policy, however, was interested in the fitful peace of communist containment, not popular democracy. The “basic principle” of US forces in Korea was, as an official Army history expounded in 1947, “an orderly, efficiently operated, and politically friendly Korea,” which was “more important than pleasing and winning the enthusiastic cooperation of all the Korean people.”
The character of the first peace regime was colonial. Commanding US General John Hodge quickly set the tone by calling Koreans “the same breed of cats” as the Japanese. In his initial statement to the Korean people, Hodge warned that “Hasty and ill-advised acts on the part of its residents will only result in unnecessary loss of life [and] desolation.”
Hodge told Koreans that Americans’ “long heritage of democracy” would guide their transition toward a new government, but the new military government’s peace regime borrowed much from Japanese colonial institutions. One of Hodge’s first acts was to set an 8pm curfew for Koreans celebrating their liberation from thirty years of colonial control.
After several popular revolts threatened the military government’s legitimacy, Hodge instituted highly systematized surveillance, the prohibition of political meetings, counterinsurgency tactics in the countryside, and mass preemptive arrests. As a US officer told journalist Mark Gayn in 1946, “The machine is the same we found when we got here. For our purposes, it’s an ideal setup....All you have to do is push the button, and somewhere some cop begins skull cracking. They’ve been learning the business under the Japs for thirty-five years.”
In insisting that US military officers knew how to run the government better than Koreans, the peace regime was white man’s burden redux. As Hodge once wrote, “our imperialism hasn't been a bad imperialism” — and to the cold warriors in Washington, that imperialism kept the peace.
By 1947, President Truman declared in his famous “Truman Doctrine” speech that US military force would be employed to prevent communism anywhere in the world, even if it meant supporting corrupt or dictatorial regimes.
“The free peoples of the world,” Truman argued, “look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.” To keep the peace, US military bases spread rapidly around the globe.
The official military occupation in Korea lasted three years (though US soldiers are still stationed there to this day). By late 1947, Washington turned the Korea situation — still mettlesome with popular unrest — over to the United Nations. The UN sponsored a series of elections that helped elect the conservative Korean diplomat Syngman Rhee, who had built a sycophantic career in the halls of Washington rather than the streets of Seoul.
Under Rhee, the nominally independent new Republic of Korea developed into an authoritarian state built around a proto-fascist political philosophy of Korean racial purity and a reliance on US military forces and rightist vigilante youth groups. The United States relied on the continuance of the peace regime and Rhee supplied it, as his authoritarian successors would do until South Korea’s mass movement for democracy swept them from power in 1987.
The second US peace regime in Korea was a war.
The Korean War was essentially a civil war over the fate of the newly independent Korea. But it was overlain by the US–USSR global rivalry, and it soon involved a newly communist China fighting alongside North Korea. This was a war fought by the United States from 1950–1953 to maintain a western sphere of influence in East Asia: militarization was the method of the peace’s export.
Several months after the start of the war, the US ambassador to the United Nations called on the General Assembly to “unite for peace” against the Soviet threat. They did, and this language of a war for peace appeared throughout all three years of official communications, wartime newsreels, and television news specials.
But the peace secured through wartime violence was not meant for Korean civilians, on any side of the conflict. This was a war fought for territory and control, and — because of the prevalence of communist guerillas in the South and North Korea’s use of guerrilla tactics — it quickly became a counterinsurgent war. In the first few months of the war, the lines of battle moved up and down the peninsula. Seoul changed hands four times and was left in ruins.
For those living in the battle zones, which was everyone at some point, it meant you were on the wrong side at least part of the time. US and South Korean forces began forcibly evacuating towns thought to be sympathetic to communist guerillas, a tactic later used in Vietnam.
Eventually, “no man’s land” zones of destruction were created around all United Nations lines to ensure the absence of guerrilla troops. Sometimes, whole villages were burned to keep them safe. As the New York Times reported, US soldiers used their cigarette lighters on the thatched-roof huts while occupants were still inside. The U.S Air Force was ordered to shoot any refugees moving toward military positions. They did. Chun Choon-ja, who was ten years old when US warplanes strafed her evacuating village, said, “It looked like heaven crashed on us.”
The South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission study, begun in 2005, found evidence of 1,461 massacres of Korean civilians by all military forces during the war. “My Lais,” US intelligence chief General Charles Willoughby later argued, happened “all the time” in Korea.
Unlike the ground combat in the South, in the North the United States fought the war through massive bombing campaigns that specifically targeted infrastructure. By 1952, nearly all of northern and central Korea was destroyed, and the surviving North Korean population had to form an underground society in caves, creating complexes of schools, factories, hospitals, and living spaces. An estimated 3 million Koreans were killed in the war — roughly 10 percent of the total population — with five million more displaced.
Nor did the war ensure a peace for the US soldier. Young, largely untrained, exhausted, frightened, and dropped in the middle of a guerrilla war, the majority of US combat troops were said to get “the combat spooks” or “bug out” and to fall into the habit of shooting at any perceived threat.
African American soldiers, though in a technically “integrated” US military, were ordered into dangerous combat more often and with less time for psychological rest. When they tended to “bug out,” racism helped make sense of the situation, as superiors chalked up their reaction to racial cowardice.
Racism also structured the Korean War’s violence. As British war journalist Reginald Thompson drove out of Seoul in a US Army jeep that plowed through Korean refugees, he realized that, to the Americans, the Koreans “had to be ‘Gooks,' for otherwise these essentially kind and generous Americans would not have been able to kill them indiscriminately or smash up their homes and poor belongings.”
The stress of the early months of the war was palpable: between inexperience, fear, and racist terror, many soldiers panicked, shot in fear, or shot civilians in a frenzy. The work of LIFE photographer David Douglas Duncan, who died last week, portrayed the psychic toll on young Americans as the most meaningful experience of the war.
The psychic toll was certainly prevalent: in the first month of the war, more US soldiers were evacuated for psychiatric casualties than for bodily wounds. In 1987, a survey by the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that 35 percent of diagnosed PTSD patients who fought in Korea had attempted suicide, four times the rate of those from World War II.
After armistice in 1953, the Cold War peace regime in South Korea was an alliance reliant on a substantial US military presence in South Korea. Since the earliest occupation days, the Pentagon had trained, bankrolled, and maintained South Korea’s military (and, later, its CIA), and the United States maintained its political and practical support of the dictatorial regimes of Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan — all of whom used repressive force against their own people.
When, in 1980, pro-democracy protests in the southwestern city of Gwangju were brutally attacked by national troops, many activists hoped the United States might intervene on their behalf, given President Carter’s emphasis on human rights. The peace regime, however, did not allow it.
As journalist Tim Shorrock’s painstaking research shows, the United States was informed of the events and chose not to prevent, comment, or apologize for them, instead preferring to maintain, in the words of US officials, “law and order.”
Official figures put Gwangju’s death toll at 200, but critics have argued it is more likely in the thousands.
The third US peace regime took place in the United States; it was known as anticommunism.
After World War II, US peace activists — including a diverse array of concerned scientists, civil rights organizers, labor leaders, communists, and liberals — joined together to oppose nuclear weapons and Cold War militarization. Some saw new international organizations such as the United Nations as the best arena for this work. Others worked through the global network of World Peace Congresses established by local Communist Parties — an initiative begun in Moscow that quickly became broad left centers for activism. The anti-nuclear Stockholm Appeal, signed by 100 million people around the world (including 1 million Americans) was one measure of their reach.
When Chinese forces entered the Korean War, in late fall of 1950, Truman threatened the use of nuclear weapons to protect “a just and peaceful world order.” What had seemed like a quick US victory in Korea now began to stretch into a bloody and violent stalemate, and public opinion began to turn. Radical peace activists organized protests for an immediate cease-fire in Korea.
In late November 1950, Paul Robeson, the famous concert singer and communist, led a sit-in of 150 teenagers at the United Nations headquarters at Lake Success. That same afternoon, an additional twenty-one busloads of women and children unloaded and demanded to be heard in the Economic and Social Council meeting.
“Housewives from all five boroughs of New York City, the majority of them Brooklynites,” the New York Times reported, “filled every seat and packed the aisle,” while “children holding colored balloons stamped ‘Peace’ chased one another.”
This second protest was the work of American Women for Peace, a coalition that emphasized women’s particular stake in peace activism as mothers and potential mothers. AWP began framing peace as an issue of class and social welfare. Eleanor Roosevelt called the day’s protests “silly” and told the women and children to “go home and be quiet.” The AWP argued that they could not: “Every penny spent for war preparations and atom bomb stockpiling means food and shelter and adequate schools taken from our children.”
The peace regime, they argued, was not securing peace for their families. They urged women to send the President Mother’s Day postcards lobbying an end to the war in Korea and the stockpiling of bombs.
Black women were most consistently against the war than any other part of the US population. Leading activists and cultural figures such as Beulah Richardson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, and Claudia Jones became leaders in the AWP and formed other organizations (such as the Sojourners for Truth and Justice and the Harriet Tubman Association) to connect US militarism with US racism. Thousands of buttons reading “Bring the Boys Home to fight Jim Crow” were sold in these years. One year into the war the AWP’s newsletter, the Peacemaker, reported that “One elderly Negro woman, when polled on the Korean War, said ‘Young woman, you need not ask me how I feel about peace. Why, we Negro people have been at war all the time.’”
It didn’t take long for this anti-militarist, progressive activism to be seen as inherently subversive. Peace activists were arrested, picketed, harassed, and accused of being Communist Party members. Some were Party members and some were not, but it was the isolation of the threat and the legitimation of its suppression that was the point of this particular peace regime.
Two months into the war, a handful of activists were jailed for six months for painting “Peace” and “No Hydrogen Bombs” in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. When the New York City Labor Conference for Peace held a rally of several thousand (the police estimate was 2,000; organizers counted 15,000) the crowd was charged by horse-mounted police swinging clubs.
The McCarran Internal Security Act passed in September 1950 legally allowed the arrest and deportation of foreign-born leftists, and required any agencies suspected of communist sympathies to register with the Attorney General as foreign agents. “Subversives” such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham, and Claudia Jones were denied travel visas, and existing communist and pacifist peace organizations alike were forced to register as foreign agents, leading to their dissolution. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, which infamously and zealously investigated those suspected of being “disloyal,” published a 1951 report in the “Communist Peace Offensive,” describing it as “the most dangerous hoax ever devised.”
The legalization of political suppression quickly turned into vigilante violence. Two UAW members at a plant in Linden, New Jersey, were beaten and chased by fellow workers for handing out peace pamphlets. When one 55-year-old worker in Milwaukee handed out the Stockholm Appeal he was carried from his factory and dropped from a third-story window, fracturing his back. In a “Georgia country town” one anonymous writer to activist centers in New York described collecting Stockholm Appeal signatures and receiving a beating from the Ku Klux Klan.
In The Hidden History of the Korean War (1952), muckraking journalist I. F. Stone drew exclusively from military communiqués and news reports to explore the lies and evasions of the wartime peace regime. The story of the Korean War, he argued, was actually one of “keeping the peace from breaking out.” Though Stone meant to emphasize the warmongering push of US policymakers and military officials, he was right in one other aspect: the peace regime at home was also meant to contain this other, alternate peace, from surfacing.
The curious thing about the peace regimes in Korea, from a US perspective, is that stories of their violence were told as they were happening — from inside the State Department, from the mainstream press, on the floor of the United Nations, by leftists, pacifists, radicals of all stripes.
During the occupation period, LIFE photojournalist Carl Mydans portrayed the leftist rebels who had been savagely beaten and imprisoned by the South Korean National Police in Yeosu and Sunchon. Mydans mourned alongside families whose relatives had been left as “charred corpses” in the street.
As early as 1945, State Department Korea hand and respected scholar George McCune had scribbled “white man’s burden” in the margins of a memo on potential trusteeship schemes for post-independence Korea, and in a posthumous publication in 1950 decried the “prolonged and deepening antagonism” US policies had created in Korea.
Writing for the New York Times in spring 1950 just before the war broke out, Walter Sullivan reported that the impending civil war dynamic in Korea was a “cloud of terror that is probably unparalleled in the world.” In the middle of the war, Nation journalist Freda Kirchwey termed the war an “orgy of agony” and “liberation by death.”
An international group of progressive women who toured wartime North Korea brought their report of bombings, civilian devastation, and sexual violence by US and South Korean troops to the floor of the United Nations. A visiting Danish doctor reported that a US-run refugee hospital in Korea was an “inconceivable sight,” while Greg MacGregor of the New York Times wrote that refugees in the military camps “are forced to live worse than any animal kept by an American farmer.”
In March 1951, Harold Ickes reported on the strafing of Korean civilians in The New Republic: “We were deliverers, bringing aid and comfort and unity. Apparently we were bringing other things — wounds and dismemberment and death.”
One truth, of course, is that bringing devastation to light doesn’t necessarily condemn its authors. Another is that the language of the peace regime became a conceptual strategy for disavowal. To use peace to describe policies reliant on violence is to craft a story about ends that justifies all possible means.
Another truth, though, is that peace was always contested terrain. As much power as these peace regimes had, the fractious and shifting cohorts of journalists and activists and veterans, of dissident officials and refugees and civilians, of scholars and historians and photographers, of Korean survivors and adoptees and their children, hold out the possibility of peace as a future to struggle toward.
This other peace is not found in the slick videos and toothless statements of the Singapore Summit, nor in an emboldened US–South Korean military partnership. It is embodied in the messages South Koreans write to loved ones on ribbons and hang on the barbed fences of the demilitarized zone; it is in the testimony of the thousands of Koreans to the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission; it is the gardens and community centers of Korean farmers displaced by the building of US military bases; it is courageous Korean scholars like Kim Dong-choon and Lee Jae-eui who document the violence of the successive peace regimes.
It is both the US soldier who refused orders to shoot, and the one who did shoot and later gave voice to his complicity. The possibility of peace is in all who look and do not refuse to see. This is no regime: this is the peace yet to come.
Jessie Kindig is an editor at Verso Books and is writing a book about the Korean War.