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Remembering the Forgotten War

In the last 70 years the US has embarked on an intentional effort to forget the Korean War and obscure its role in the brutality. But for people on the peninsula, the war never really ended – and neither has the American empire.

A Korean girl passes a stalled M-26 tank at Haengju, on 9 June 1951. (Library of Congress)

The one thing people tend to know about the Korean War is that they don’t know much about it. On the rare occasions it is mentioned, it’s typically described as a ‘forgotten war’—a term that has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the conflict. Yet the third season of Blowback, a podcast about the history of American imperialism, makes a compelling case that alongside the events which preceded it, the Korean War is far more significant than is typically credited.

To Noah Kulwin, who co-hosts Blowback with Brendan James, this cliché of the conflict as a forgotten war is ‘used to consign what America actually did as something so minor as to not be worthy of our attention.’ If the conflict itself has been turned into a historical footnote, however, its legacy has never been more prominent: in the past few years, satires of South Korean hyper-capitalism like Parasite and Squid Game have exploded in popularity across the globe, while North Korea’s status as the West’s favourite bogeyman remains potent. As Blowback explores, the Korean War set the stage for the Cold War, ushered in the development of the US national security state, and helped to create the playbook which still characterises America’s foreign policy to this day.

The title of Blowback, which co-opts a CIA term used to describe the unintended consequences of a covert operation, is tongue-in-cheek. ‘We’re trying to illustrate how American imperialism has functioned by design, rather than being a series of misguided fuck-ups,’ Kulwin tells Tribune. ‘Using that perspective shift, we then consider the intentions of the people carrying out these policies, the interests they had, and the kinds of social histories which have generally been neglected.’

Blowback is something different to the kind of low-effort podcast where the hosts sit around riffing about current affairs. There are moments of dry humour, but it’s deeply researched and sweeping in scope. There’s a cinematic quality to both its atmospheric score (composed by James himself) and extensive use of archival clips—it feels like a slick, sculpted work of narrative art. ‘We don’t want it to be too didactic,’ says James. ‘We are coming from a specific point of view, but ultimately we want it to be compelling.’

Across each of its three seasons, the first and second of which explored the Iraq war and the Cuban revolution, Blowback reveals recurring motifs within US foreign policy. ‘One of the big themes is maldevelopment,’ says Kulwin. Just as anti-colonial scholars like Walter Rodney have argued that Africa’s underdevelopment today is a direct consequence of European imperial extraction from the eighteenth century onwards, Blowback makes a similar case for the US in the post-war period.

‘America was the great power,’ says Kulwin. ‘It was called “the American century” for a reason.’ And with that power, the hosts argue, came its widespread abuse. ‘We shepherded the poor development of so much of the globe under a “Pax Americana”,’ he goes on, ‘enforced at the barrel of a gun.’ Because each season goes backwards in time, it’s possible to see certain through-lines in reverse. ‘During the Iraq war, there was the use of the UN as the “fig leaf” for legal justification, even though there were all kinds of corners being cut around international law. There was also the weaponisation of the idea of human rights, and the manipulation of intelligence and public opinion. These are all repeated themes, incidents, and events you can see in each season.’

Criticisms of the ‘forgotten war’ framing aside, it’s undeniable that the Korean War has left a smaller cultural imprint than comparable conflicts. M*A*S*H—both the 1970 Robert Altman film and its sitcom spin-off—is a major exception. But although it was set in Korea, it was released during the Vietnam period and commonly interpreted as an allegory for that war. There are a number of reasons for the lack of explicit cultural representation at the time—chief among them being that it was difficult to depict the US in a flattering light. ‘It was easy for Hollywood to portray World War Two as what we still popularly think of as the “good war”,’ says James. ‘Even if it was brutal, there was no question that we were doing the right thing. Whereas the Korean War was so much uglier, and there was so much to cover up at the time about why it was really happening, which made it much harder to pump out cultural propaganda.’

To understand the mood of time, it’s more helpful to look at the sci-fi genre. ‘There was a crop of releases which were not literally about Korea, but which concerned an Americanized human population exploring red planets and coming across savages who wanted to enslave mankind,’ says James. Just as often these films would involve aliens infiltrating American society, reflecting a broader paranoia that the enemy was not just at the gates, but living next door or sleeping in your bed. As Blowback explores, the Korean War raged at the same time as McCarthyism, the war proving integral to the construction of domestic reaction against the communist movement both in America and abroad.

Central to this was the idea that the USSR was the aggressor. The conventional narrative of the Korean War is that following World War Two, the West was deeply invested in a long peace. These hopes were dashed when the Soviet Union, along with its lackey Kim Il-Sung, decided to invade South Korea in an unprovoked attack. According to this version of events, Kulwin says, ‘it’s possible to suggest that we stayed too long, or that we didn’t do it the right way, but we were ultimately responding to a crisis caused by the North Koreans on 25 June 1950.’

Blowback refutes this narrative. For a start, the war—which is typically historicised as having taken place within a neat, three-year timeframe—began long before 1950. By this point, there had been years of conflict on the peninsula and over 100,000 Koreans had already been killed. Aided by the US, the government in the South—effectively a client state—had massacred suspected communists and brutally suppressed a socialist uprising in the supposedly autonomous Jeju Island.

The North, meanwhile, had embarked on a revolutionary programme, instituting literacy programmes, labour law reforms, land redistribution, industry nationalisation, and a popular movement for women’s equality. The event which sparked the beginning of what we understand as ‘the Korean War’’ came when North Korean troops breached the 38th parallel which cleaved the peninsula in half. But rather than being an internationally recognised border, this was an arbitrary line which had been drawn up by the American military just five years earlier. When the North ‘invaded’, they saw themselves as liberating the South from the vestiges of colonialism, with the ultimate goal of reunifying the peninsula.

What surprised Kulwin and James while researching the show was the sheer extent of the US’s brutality when the war commenced. One of their interviewees, historian Bruce Cumings, has argued that the US’s conduct rose to the level of genocide. This involved indiscriminate bombing campaigns by US air forces and a number of civilian massacres, many of which were either observed or directly carried out by American troops. While the US were running the show, the war was billed as a collective UN effort and there also were around 60,000 British soldiers deployed there—some of whom were also, allegedly, complicit in these atrocities. By the end of the war in 1953, it’s estimated that between forty and ninety percent of North Korea’s towns and cities had been destroyed. Its capital Pyongyang was reduced to rubble, and twenty percent of the North’s population had been killed, with a staggering number of these casualties being civilians.

Alongside these more well-documented atrocities, there is evidence—stronger than is commonly asserted—which suggests that the US committed a more insidious form of war crime. According to Kulwin, ‘The preponderance of evidence points to the fact that the American military had the capabilities to wage biological and germ warfare, and that they ran an East Asian ‘Operation Paperclip’ programme akin to what they did with the Nazis, where they pulled out the most important Japanese bio-weapon researchers and put them to work with the CIA. We know that teams of CIA officials who were studying these methods in the US were sent to East Asia, during the Korean War, to carry out experiments.’

Blowback, while interested in excavating history, is ultimately about how these events and strategies still shape politics today and continue to determine which countries the US positions as villains. When you consider the extent of the destruction North Korea experienced during the war, the fact that it has since pursued a nuclear deterrent begins to seem somewhat more rational.

As with any country deemed ‘evil’ by the US government, its position as a pariah is less to do with its real flaws—no-one is claiming it’s a perfect state—and more to do with its failure to bend the knee. Kulwin suggests there is an element of projection at play in the US’s attitude towards the country it once destroyed: ‘With the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the closest times the world has come to global nuclear war was during the Korean War,’ he says. ‘As I see it, that is not unconnected to the fact that we have made North Korea out to be the most dangerous nuclear state in the world.’

According to James, it’s a matter of record that North Korea developed its nuclear programme because the US had spent the previous decades threatening them with nukes: not just in rhetoric, but by physically relocating them to its southern neighbour. None of this chimes with the popular perception of North Korea as unaccountably hostile and cartoonishly malicious.

As with Cuba, its status as a rogue state has been assiduously maintained through decades of vilification—something which Blowback satirises in its opening episode with a montage of absurd, hysterical coverage (one news anchor makes the chilling allegation that the country, presumably as opposed to the US, suffers under a class system.) ‘There’s a big series of logical assumptions that America has to leave out of the narrative for us to continue to paint North Korea as a pariah state—rather than a country which has imbibed the lessons of the world,’ says Kulwin.

For people in Korea itself, the war is far from forgotten. ‘When you start to interrogate the war’s impact, you realise that it’s effectively ongoing,’ says Kulwin. ‘It’s a continuing trauma.’ Its legacy has prevented peaceful co-existence on the peninsula and allowed the US an extraordinary degree of direct control over South Korea. The economic legacy is even more stark. Following the war, North Korea was for a long time more developed than the South—its fortunes only changed in the nineties, due the collapse of the USSR, harsh sanctions imposed by the West, and a series of natural disasters.

‘The way that South Korea has developed in the years since and North Korea has fallen off is a great example of how, under American hegemony, we have developed a world economic system that punishes one kind of state and incentives hyper-capitalism in others. It’s an ongoing dynamic that replicates itself almost endlessly across the globe,’ Kulwin says. What Blowback does so well, I think, is convey just how comprehensively the world we live in continues to be shaped by US imperialism. The Korean War never truly ended and, for all the talk of its decline, neither has the American empire.