Sixty-five years after the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce, there is still no formal peace treaty between the two Koreas. Nor does one exist between North Korea and either the United States or Japan.
In 2017, it seemed that war with North Korea was a possibility after Pyongyang tested nuclear devices and launched a series of missiles. This year, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shocked and confounded North Korean experts in the West and Japan with unprecedented diplomatic overtures, topped by a meeting on South Korean soil in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then, last month, a historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Skeptics and pessimists, including Japanese and U.S. politicians, policymakers, military specialists and mainstream media, doubt the younger Kim, whose grandfather Kim Il Sung sparked the Korean War when his communist-backed forces in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula invaded the U.S.-backed southern part, is sincere about getting rid of its nuclear arsenal. Denuclearization is a precondition for turning the July 27, 1953, armistice agreement into a permanent peace treaty.
Optimists, however, hope the extremely difficult problems that block a peace treaty (not only North Korea’s sincerity in denuclearizing, they say, but also the willingness and the political ability of both Washington, D.C., and Tokyo to make their own strategic compromises in order to reach that goal) will not prevent all sides from trying to end the Korean War. The legacy of conflict continues to profoundly shape the military and strategic positions of the two Koreas, China, Russia, the United States and especially Japan, for which the Korean War is remembered as a time when certain industries flourished and when Tokyo became a firm ally of the United States, even as it left questions about Japan’s military role that remain controversial to this day.
Japan’s military role
On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an invasion of South Korea, crossing the 38th parallel and catching the world by surprise. Since the end of World War II in 1945, the U.S.-led Occupation of Japan meant U.S. troops had been based in hundreds of locations in Japan and South Korea. However, it was not North Korea but rather the intentions of the Soviet Union, and China, where the communists had seized power in 1949, that most concerned Washington and Tokyo when they looked at maps of Northeast Asia.
When the invasion occurred, the Japanese government, still under the Occupation, rushed to assure the public that World War III had yet to begin, just as the U.S. rushed to cobble together support in the United Nations for resisting the invasion militarily. In the opening weeks of the war, North Korea overran South Korean military units, capturing Seoul and pushing south. Japan would serve as a launching pad for U.S. troops and ships defending South Korea.
Thanks to a special procurement order by the Japanese government for firms to supply the U.S. military with all manner of supplies, the war created an economic boom later credited for getting Japan back on its feet, economically, and for helping lay the foundation of the economic “miracle” that Western media and scholars would write about in the 1960s and ’70s.
At the beginning of the war, however, the immediate concern on the part of the Occupation forces was on protecting Japan and stopping the North Korean attack. On July 8, 1950, the supreme commander for the Allied powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, ordered the Japanese government to establish a 75,000-strong National Police Reserve and to increase the Maritime Safety Force by 8,000 personnel. There was some expectation they could be dispatched to the Korean Peninsula. But with memories in South Korea of World War II and Japan’s brutal colonization of the peninsula in the early part of the 20th century still fresh, the South Korean government expressed opposition to that idea.
On Aug. 19, 1950, nearly two months after the invasion and at a time when U.N. forces were being pushed back to Pusan, the Japanese government announced its position on the Korean War, which was to support South Korea. Ten days later, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida sent a message to MacArthur.
“Let me assure you that the Japanese government and people are ever ready and anxious to furnish whatever facilities and services that you may require,” Yoshida wrote. “I only regret that we cannot do more by way of cooperating with the U.N. in its crusade against communist aggression.”
However, Japan’s role in the Korean War, especially its military role, was a politically sensitive problem for the Americans.
“U.S. authorities had a very ambivalent approach to the use of Japanese support in the war,” says Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of Japanese history at the Australian National University who has written about Japan’s participation in the Korean War.
“On the one hand, they needed manpower and wanted to recruit Japanese for this purpose. On the other hand, they were very anxious about the political and security issues that might arise, particularly if Japanese were taken prisoner of war, and they wanted to make sure that Japanese were used only in wartime roles where this would not happen,” she adds. “This was why they were more willing to use Japanese in maritime roles (where they were less likely to be captured by the enemy) than on land.”
On Oct. 4, 1950, Japan was ordered by the U.S. to provide minesweepers. On Oct. 17, 1950, Sakataro Nakatani, 21, was killed and 18 of his crew members were wounded during minesweeping operations at Wonsan Bay in North Korea.
Private Japanese firms also provided rear logistical support the Americans, including the dispatch of 39 Japanese-manned tank LSTs (tank-landing ships).
“Minesweeping operations by Japan off the Korean coast began in mid-October 1950 and lasted about two months,” says Hisao Ohnuma, co-editor of the 2006 book, in Japanese, titled “The Korean War and Japan.” “It’s been estimated that during the Korean War, as many as 100,000 Japanese were involved with providing UN forces with rear echelon support like minesweeping, ammunition supply, and LST and various other forms of marine transport.”
Militarily, Japan’s role in the Korean War would be minor, and not widely known by the public. Economically, however, the 1950-53 conflict would be fondly recalled as the beginning of the Japanese postwar economic miracle.
U.S. and U.N. forces fighting on the Korean Peninsula desperately needed of all manner of weapons and supplies. By the summer of 1950, Japan’s manufacturing base was on the road to recovery from World War II and the Americans put it to good use. A special procurement for the manufacture of all manner of military equipment was issued to Japanese industry.
Firms that would later become Japan’s most well-known international brand names benefited greatly from the order. Toyota Motor Co. Ltd.’s official company history notes that, as early as July 10, 1950, it received an inquiry about its trucks from the U.S. Army. It signed an agreement to deliver 200 trucks in August 1950 and 400 each in September and October of that same year.
However, that was just the beginning. Toyota then received an order for 2,329 trucks on Aug. 29 and another order for 1,350 trucks on March 1, 1951. The total value of those orders was ¥3.66 billion. In response, Toyota increased its monthly production plan from 650 units to 1,000.
Morris-Suzuki says other Japanese firms that benefited from the special procurement order included Nippon Oil and Fats Co., which manufactured explosives for mortar shells, Osaka Machine Industry Co. (mortar shells), Furukawa Denko, which conducted aircraft repairs, Shinko Metal (aircraft repairs), Shin Daido Steel (mortar shells), Okuma Iron Works (mortar shells) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, whose former president, Goko Kiyoshi, headed a grouping of Japanese companies known as the Arms Production Cooperation Council, which was formed in 1952.
“There were also U.S. companies actively involved as military contractors in Japan and Okinawa during the Korean War and are still active as U.S. military contractors today, including the (Virginia-based) Vinnell Corp.,” Morris-Suzuki says.
If the Korean War meant huge profits for Japanese industry and top business and political leaders, many of whom were purged by the American-led Occupation as war criminals after World War II, it also exposed tensions and fears in Japan — and the United States — about certain sections of Japan’s population, especially resident Koreans and Japanese labor leaders, socialists and communists.
By the spring of 1951, communist China had entered the war and the conflict was becoming a stalemate. However, there were fears in Tokyo and Washington that the Soviet Union, which was providing some support to North Korea and China but mostly watching the situation, would take advantage of U.S. involvement on the peninsula to strike at Japan.
A top-secret memo prepared by the CIA on May 16, 1951, posed questions about the likelihood of an attack by the Soviet Union. Policymakers were asked by agency officials to think about which Japanese ports and beaches Russian-led forces might seize in an initial invasion.
“Where and how could Soviet (and other communist) forces invade Japan?” the memo read. “Invasion of Kyushu from South Korea, invasion of Honshu across the Sea of Japan or invasion from the north (of Hokkaido) might be considered. We should consider what portions of Japan the USSR might estimate it could successfully seize and hold. Hokkaido alone, Hokkaido plus Honshu, etc.?”
U.S. and Japanese government and corporate leaders were also increasingly nervous about Japanese labor unions, leftist student groups and antiwar protestors whom they accused of being stooges of North Korea or communist China (and, 65 years later, their descendants still do). The same CIA memo suggested policymakers needed to think about how much Japanese would support a U.S. defense of Japan in the event of a Soviet invasion.
And then there was the Korean community in Japan, cut off from its homeland and increasingly forced to decide whether to support one side or the other. Ohnuma’s research showed that more than 600 Koreans in Japan who were university students volunteered to fight with South Korean and U.N. forces.
“North Korean residents in Japan, on the other hand, protested against U.S. and Japanese support for South Korea, and some of them engaged in sabotage,” he says.
By 1952, with the war two years old, calls were growing among many Japanese and Korean residents for an armistice while clashes between those who opposed the war and police were turning violent.
On June 24 and 25, 1952, what became known as the Suita incident took place in Osaka Prefecture. After a rally to mark the second anniversary of the start of the war attended by an estimated 1,000 Japanese and Korean residents, who called for an armistice and opposed Japan’s remilitarization, there were violent clashes between protestors and police near the city of Suita.
A front-page story in the June 26, 1952, edition of the Nippon Times (The Japan Times’ name between 1943 and 1956) reported on the incident and noted that protesters even tried to march to Itami Air Base, now Itami Airport, which was serving as a rear area base for the Korean War.
The protesters didn’t get that far but they did injure an American general.
“Japanese and Korean Communists exchanged pistol shots with the police Wednesday morning near Osaka, and an American general was attacked and injured by acid-throwing Red demonstrators five miles north of the city. The demonstrators broke into several groups and clashed with about 800 policemen at Suita, a city just north of Osaka. Molotov cocktails and stones were thrown by the mobs, and several police boxes were attacked,” the paper reported.
“Brig. Gen. Carter W. Clarke, commanding general of the U.S. Army in the Southwestern Command, was attacked by a group of demonstrators five miles north of Osaka when his car passed the mob at 6:50 a.m. Wednesday (July 25). Gen. Clarke suffered superficial burns on his face, a U.S. Army announcement reported. After receiving medical treatment, Gen. Clarke proceeded to his office,” it added.
The signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953, ended a bloody war that left North and South Korea divided almost exactly as they had been before the war. Estimates of casualties often vary greatly depending on the source, but the number of Korean civilians on both sides killed or missing may have been as many as 1.6 million. There is general agreement that perhaps more than 400,000 North Korean soldiers and over 200,000 South Korean soldiers were killed or missing, along with at least 700,000 Chinese soldiers.
Sixteen nations sent troops under the U.N. flag to aid South Korea, but the U.S. bore the brunt of the casualties, with U.S. military dead and missing on the battlefield totaling 33,741. The other nations had a total of just over 3,000 killed or missing, including 751 Turkish soldiers.
Today, as the world prepares to mark the armistice anniversary on July 27 and wonders if a permanent peace is closer than ever, the legacy of the Korean War for Japan is mixed. Memories among elder Japanese of good economic times, but also a lack of public discussion and education over the geopolitical price paid.
“It certainly helped to cement the Japan-U.S. relationship, and I think that it also deepened the political and social divide between Japan and its Asian neighbors — most notably North Korea, of course, but also China and South Korea,” Morris-Suzuki says.
“Japan was in a difficult position, as it was an occupied country when the war began. However, I do think the involvement of Japan in the war has had some negative impact on Japan’s relationship with neighboring countries, particularly because this involvement is remembered in China and North Korea but almost entirely unknown or forgotten in Japan itself,” she says.
Thus, if and when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is able to sit down with Kim, it will be interesting to see whether Japan’s politicians and media decide to also include the country’s role in the Korean War in their lengthy discussions about which “historical issues” need to be addressed before the two nations can normalize relations.