Tuesday, September 13, 2005

June 5, 1950 archives

Time Magazine, June 5, 1950

In South Korea last week close to 2,200 candidates for the new nation's 175-man National Assembly were busily campaigning. From Seoul, TIME Correspondent Frank Gibney cabled this report on the U.S.-supported republic as it prepared to hold its first independent general election:

Six months ago South Korea, bedeviled by guerrilla raids, galloping inflation and the daily threat of invasion from the north, looked like a candidate for the same mortuary as Nationalist China. Now the Republic of Korea looks more like a country on its way to healthy survival.

"My Head Has Improved."
Progress has been uneven. The Korean Republic has taken its longest step toward recovery in the military field; in two years it has trained and equipped a first-rate ground army. Much of the credit goes to the U.S. Army's Korean Military Advisory Group, which set up an infantry school modeled on Fort Benning, carved out the elements of seven modern combat divisions.

The new Korean army's best officers were once Japanese majors or lieutenants, and they still maintain Oriental protocol. All ranks are salute-happy—even sergeants rate the stiff-handed Japanese salute—and one battalion commander nostalgically keeps his old samurai sword hanging above his desk. Says Major General Byong Duk Choe, the Korean army's 36-year-old chief of staff: "For the first year my head still worked Japanese style. Now it has improved. The difference between the Japanese army and ours is like the difference between the American M-1 rifle and the clumsy Japanese Type 99."

Today the hard-working Korean army has Americanized itself down to the recruiting of trimly uniformed Korean WACs. U.S. military advisers; headed by Brigadier General William L. Roberts, recall the failure of U.S.-trained armies in Nationalist China, and have tried to give the Koreans Yankee self-sufficiency as well as Yankee organization and equipment. The policy has paid off. Already Korean factories are turning out most pf the army's small arms ammunition.

The Advisory Group and ECA officials have also emphasized that a modern army needs sound ledgers as well as firepower. Korean commanders no longer receive lump sums of money for their troops, in the old warlord tradition. They are learning the most painful lesson of a democratic army—how to take a budget cut.

Most observers now rate the 100,000-man South Korean army as the best of its size in Asia. Its fast-moving columns have mopped up all but a few of the Communist guerrilla bands. And no one now believes that the Russian-trained North Korean army could pull off a quick, successful invasion of the South without heavy reinforcements. Said a Korean private manning a foxhole along the 38th parallel last week: "We expect war to come. But we aren't afraid. For every round they send over, we'll send two back."

Only lack of air power might tip the scales against the South. The Communists' North Korean air force has been estimated to have anywhere from 50 to 200 planes. The smaller figure is probably more nearly correct. The planes include Russian Yak fighters and light bombers. South Korea has only ten T-6 trainers and some Cub liaison planes; the U.S. has shown no interest in furnishing planes for the yo-odd South Korean pilots who are ready for fast fighter training.

Picking Up the Pieces.
South Korea's progress has been economic as well as military, but the ECA officials who watch Korea's economy have not performed as effectively as the Military Advisory Group. Until last January ECA and the State Department mission did little but cluck disapprovingly at the financial shenanigans of the South Korea government. Meanwhile inflation ran rampant, and most of the republic's industry, government-run since its confiscation from the Japanese, lay unproductive. By the beginning of this year the Korean won, valued at 15 to the dollar in 1945, had dropped to a black-market rate of 4,700 to the dollar.

At last, strengthened by blistering notes to the Korean government from Paul Hoffman and Dean Acheson, ECA men started to pick up the pieces of South Korea's economy. They put the government on a balanced budget, increased taxes and restricted commercial loans.

Slowly the brakes of the U.S. Government's standard model deflationary program (for export only) began to grind and squeal. By April, skyrocketing retail prices began to descend. Currency in circulation dropped from a 75 billion won high in January to a May 19 figure of 57.7 billion. Government departments and government-run factories trimmed down to economy size to fit the new budget.

South Korea's production has also taken a turn for the better. The republic, which in 1946 and 1947 imported 450,000 metric tons of cereals, is exporting 100,000 tons cf rice to Japan this year. Light industry, even though cut off from power sources in North Korea, has increased production by about 50% in the last year. New power sources are still badly needed, however; so, too, are plants to provide fertilizer for South Korea's agriculture.

Mao Tse-tung is Missing.
The political development of the republic lags notably behind its military and economic progress. Understanding of democracy comes slowly to a tradition-bound, largely rural people with a background of centuries of absolute rule.

Police terrorism, a heritage from the Japanese, has abated in the last year, but is not yet ended. Korean police cr.n still make the average citizen's life a misery of forms, identification cards, curfews and rigid interrogations. The tricky job of making the police behave is in well-intentioned hands, however. Dr. Sung Wook Paik, the Home Minister, cracks down hard on any of his cops in whose districts the people are not properly maintaining a Buddhist temple. Says Dr. Paik to his police: "Every man must first come to an understanding of spiritual reality. And all of us must order our actions as if Shakya-muni [Buddha] were on the earth."

Still dominating the entire South Korean scene from his heavily guarded residence is 75-year-old President Syngman Rhee. Shrewd, immovable Syngman Rhee has played an important role in taking a new nation through its difficult infancy. Rhee, however, is justly accused of dictatorial tendencies, and has repeatedly violated the constitution to suit his own convenience. The press does not dare to criticize him, but the rambunctious National Assembly delights in doing so. One of the major campaign issue in this week's election was a proposal for constitutional revision which would strip the President of much of his power.

In any case, South Korea's occasional similarities to a police state fade in comparison to the situation north of the 38th parallel. North Korea is, for all practical purposes, a Russian colony. Even the Chinese Communists have no representation in North Korea, and Mao Tse-tung's visage is conspicuous by its absence. Said a refugee North Korean major recently: "Russia, not Korea, is held up as the motherland. We don't even study Korean history in the schools there."

"We Hope They Will Stay."

South of the 38th parallel Koreans are flexing their muscles in a new nationalism. During 40 years of Japanese rule, the life of a conquered people had led the Koreans into venality, stealth and the habits of petty crockery. Said a Korean expatriate: "I was amazed when I returned to my country in 1945. Living under the Japanese had made my people servile and corrupt. I wanted to leave again." But almost two years of independence have made South Koreans a proud people again. "What do you think of our country? Will you come back again?" South Koreans now ask these questions of foreigners with a ring of salesmanship in their voices.

One night last week a U.S. Information Service film unit went to the schoolyard in the farming village of Manpori to show some movies. By 9 in the evening, when the program began, almost 3,000 people, the entire population of the township, had crowded into the open-air theater. After the show was over, an old and respected farmer, dignified with his pointed white beard and black undersize hat, stood up to thank the Americans. "You have left your great cities that we have seen tonight to come here," he said, "and we are grateful. We are happy that the men from America are with us—and we hope that they will stay."

All over South Korea a newly proud people were anxiously hoping the same thing. Remembering the Russians north of the 38th parallel, another Korean said, half apologetically: "We know that many American leaders- think Korea should be given up. We have trusted and hoped in you. Will you fail us?"

There is no need for the U.S. to fail Korea, for South Korea can be made a sound political and economic unit. There is every need for the U.S. to stay and succeed. Withdrawal would leave not only a shattered economy and a broken nation, but a broken moral obligation as well. Failure in Korea would cost America priceless prestige, and augur American failure elsewhere in Asia.


  1. sperwer wrote:
    "in two years it has trained and equipped a first-rate ground army"

    Boy, old Frank Gibney really punted that one. I wonder why. Incompetence? Wishful thinking?

    I wonder. Maybe they just didn't have an idea of how powerful the threat was: maybe they just thought the ROK forces had to stop small-time border incursions, never having any idea that a China- and Soviet-backed force would be barreling down soon. Back in 1950, maybe communists around the world were just seen as being a nuisance, not a full-scale invader of countries like the Nazis had been.

    I'm just guessing here.

    But what I think is interesting—and this is something I notice with other archives—is how many of the pieces about Korea sound eerily like Iraq today.

    No one in KMAG thought the Korean Army they had created was worth spit - notwithstanding the high qulaity of SOME of the officers and men - because of the lack of knowhow (among the officers - the COS was 36!!!, training generally and
    adequate equipment, especially heavy weapons.

    Do you have something widely available written prior to June 25, 1950 that backs that up?

    Maybe before 6/25/1950, people really did think that the ROK forces were up to snuff. Maybe the criticism of them as not even worth spit was a rethink after the ROK forces were so easily overrun.

    Again, just speculating. I really have no idea.

    The US could easily have rectified the last deficiency, but knew that if they had Syngham Lee would have beaten Kim Il Sung to the punch.

    I don't buy that. I have never thought that was a fair argument. Even if Rhee had been more heavily armed than he was, he was ruler of the primarily agrarian part, not the primarily industrial part. He might reasonably thought that he couldn't have defeated the industrial North?

    No, I don't think it's a given at all that had Kim Ilsung not invaded the South then Rhee would have invaded the North. Would France or England have invaded Germany in 1939 if Germany had not invaded France and attacked England? Would the US have attacked Japan in 1941 if Japan had not attacked the US? Would Kuwait have invaded Iraq in 1991 if Iraq hadn't invaded Kuwait?

    That's a bullshit argument (no offense, sperwer) that Bruce Cumings pulled out of his ass when he had to scramble for another anti-ROK, anti-US theory after the Russians released Soviet-era documents showing that his theory of a South-led invasion of the North was simply false.

    How did Gibney get it so wrong?

    I don't know. He was there and we weren't.

  2. Thanks for posting these articles - they're pretty fascinating to read. Couldn't pass this up, though:

    That's a bullshit argument (no offense, sperwer) that Bruce Cumings pulled out of his ass when he had to scramble for another anti-ROK, anti-US theory after the Russians released Soviet-era documents showing that his theory of a South-led invasion of the North was simply false.

    I'm not sure where to start. The book in which Cumings wrote about the desire of some in the ROKA and ROK Government, in 1949, to invade the North was published in 1990, quite some time before those Soviet-era documents were released (and I'm not sure how Soviet documents could shed light on anything regarding whether the south wanted to invade the north).

    Cumings quotes Ambassador John Muccio numerous times:

    "A good portion of the army is eager to get going. More and more people feel that the only way unification can be brought about is by moving North by force." "I doubt whether Rhee would actually order a move North in his saner moments. Captain Shin [Defense Minister Shin Sung-mo], I know, is dead against it. [Prime minister] Lee Bum Suk would love it." - Aug 27 1949.

    And: "The problem before me now is recommending sufficient military assistance to enable the Koreans to defend this area and at the same time to keep them from getting over-eager on moving North."
    Nov 1, 1949.

    He also quotes KMAG Commander General W.L.Roberts:
    "The South Koreans wish to invade the North. We tell them that if such occurs, all advisors will pull out and the ECA spigot will be turned off."(August 19, 1949).

    He also said, in a NYT interview July 15, 1950, "[T]o prevent the South Koreans from attacking, we gave them no combat air force, no tanks, and no heavy artillery."

    I don't think these quotes were pulled from his ass.


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