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Korean Succession - Korean War


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With the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, it is worth noting the men and women who gave their lives 60 years ago to keep South Korea from the hands of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung (pictured left). Kim Il-sung lead North Korea from 1948 until 1994 and was the driving force behind the Koran War, the first major conflict of the Cold War. Korea was divided after the defeat of the Imperial Japanese in World War II. Korea had been under Japanese rule since 1910, but was divided by the Allies after the war. The United States and other western powers administered the south while the Soviets administered the north and established a communist-friendly regime. As tensions grew between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, the United States formed the Korean Military Advisory Group, which helped the South Koreans form an army and working constabulary. Robert Gammage, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and Cemetery plotholder served with KMAG. It was evident that the Soviets and the Western World were not going to be Allies for long. Tensions escalated and in June of 1950, North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel.  Kim Il-sung sought for Soviet support and military intervention to bring Korea fully under his control. Joseph Stalin approved in principal and gave limited support, but recommended Kim Il-sung go to the Chinese, which is what he did.

The 38th parallel had been established as the border between north and south as early as 1945. There were always small skirmishes and trading of artillery fire along the border, but on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops poured across the border behind fierce artillery fire and the Korean war began. South Korean troops absorbed most of the casualties with more than 135,000 dead, but the United Nations intervened and led by the United States, fought back. The advance of the North Korean Army was shocking and American and South Korean forces were almost kicked off the peninsula, controlling only about 10 percent of Korea. However, American troops from Japan along with strategic bombing and naval bombardment crushed the North’s supply lines and forced a retreat in late 1950. After the Communist reversal, China intervened in October 1950 and for the next three years Korea bled. On June 27, 1953 fighting stopped after both sides signed an armistice. The armistice basically went back to status quo, though the 38th parallel was abandoned as a border and a new more intricate border was established. The new border still cut the peninsula in half.

As South Korea grew and evolved into the technological and fiscal giant it is today, North Korea sank further and further into secrecy and isolation. The North-South (the Korean Demilitarized Zone) border is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Behind the North’s walls are cities with huge highways but no cars (below, capitol of North Korea Pyongyang), huge hotels with no guests (left, the Ryugyong Hotel) and severe starvation. Nutrition in the North is so bad that North Koreans are in general shorter and weigh less than their Southern brothers and sisters.

Many Americans gave their lives in the Korean War, almost 37,000 men never left Korea. It was a bloody war for both sides. US estimates have the Koreans, Chinese and a very reluctant Soviet Union losing up to 400,000 men. The Soviets really only gave supplies and air support, but still lost some 300 men. While some died, others proved their bravery on the battlefield and were recognized for their heroism. More than a dozen men who are either buried at the Cemetery or have plot reservations fought in the Korean War including Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. Two men buried at the Texas State Cemetery, Robert Edward Galer and George Herman O’Brien were recognized for extraordinary gallantry. Galer, already awarded the Medal of Honor in 1942 for his skills as a pilot, was awarded a Gold Star in Korea for air combat gallantry. O’Brien was awarded the medal for bravery at the Battle of the Hook.

Just a few days ago, Kim Jong-il died, leaving the entire world guessing what is happening behind the DMZ. When Kim Il-sung died, he had already designated his heir, Kim Jong-il and there was no question who would lead the North Koreans. Now, the secession is not so clear. He named his youngest son, Kim Jong-un as his heir earlier this year, but there is speculation that many others are lined up for a possible coup d'état. It looks as if Kim Jong-il’s designated heir will be taking power, but there has to be ongoing behind the scenes machinations, there always are in these kinds of regime changes. Kim Jong-il has two other sons and an ambitious general and a few others lined up to take the helm. Some believe that this could be a good thing, that a new leader would mean a fresh start in diplomacy with the world. Others think it could devolve into civil war or even worse a regional conflict that could draw in many other factions including the US, the Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans, the United Nations and any other country with an interest in the region. Let’s hope that the bravery of men like Galer and O’Brien will not be necessary to find the answer.


- Will Erwin