3 Million People Possibly Dead: Why the Korean War Still Haunts Asia

Sebastien Roblin

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Question: The Korean War is variously estimated to have claimed between 1.2 and three million lives, most of them civilian. Who was responsible for this tragedy?

For Western nations, the answer is uncomplicated: North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, launched an unprovoked invasion of its southern neighbor in 1950.

An alternate history has been presented in Chinese textbooks, one in which the illegitimate lackeys of Western imperialists in the South attacked first, but China and the Soviet Union intervened to prevent an aggressive American invasion that threatened to sweep into China. The fact that a significant portion of North Korea’s population perished due to extensive U.S. bombing has made some sympathetic to the suffering of the small nation.

Let’s assess the persuasiveness of these competing understandings of an admittedly complicated conflict. Korea was a formerly unified state that was occupied by Japan early in the twentieth century, then divided by the Soviet Union and United States at the end of World War II under improvised circumstances. Was the government in North or South more authentic and legitimate, and thus justified in attempting to overthrow the other?

In truth, both governments had effectively been installed by their respective backers to the exclusion of ideologically inconvenient opponents. Opposing political factions were simply not permitted in the North; in the South, there was a left-wing opposition, but its leaders were mostly arrested or assassinated.

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