The Korean War (1950-1953)
The Long Path of Negotiations
The Kaesong talks dragged on through the summer of 1951 without much progress. In late July, the US started bombing Pyongyang in an effort to speed up the negotiating process, but the bombings had little effect. On August 19, the Communists complained to the UN that UN forces had illegally entered the neutral Kaesong area. Matthew Ridgway called the Communist delegates liars, and refused to apologize for the supposed violation of the Kaesong zone. Following this insult, the Communists stopped negotiating and the talks at Kaesong ended without any compromises having been worked out.
By October, the Communists were ready to resume talks, but both sides agreed to move them to a new location, at Panmunjom. The talks initiated there on October 25. Some concessions were immediately made. For instance, the Communists gave up demanding a dividing line directly on the 38th Parallel and accepted a line slightly to the north. The US, for its part, agreed that North Korea would get Kaesong, important symbolically as an ancient capital of Korea.
The talks bogged down, however, over the issue of what to do with POWs (Prisoners of War), and even by 1952 the issue wasn't resolved. The Communists, whose forces had suffered a severe disease epidemic, accused the US of using "germ bombs" to make them sick. Tensions soared and little progress was made in the first half of 1952. Admiral C. Turner Joy, an American negotiator at Panmunjom, became so sick of the negotiations that he asked to be replaced.
On April 28, the US finally decided to offer new terms to the Communists. If the USSR would drop its claim of neutrality and the Communists would allow the US/UN/ROK to give their POWs a choice as to whether to return to the Communist bloc, the US was prepared to allow North Koreans to repair and maintain air bases. When the negotiations remained slow, the US started more bombing in June, this time against hydroelectric power plants on the Yalu River. In July, the US sent bombers against Pyongyang again. Nonetheless, by October of 1952, a peace treaty seemed as far off as ever.
The 1952 Presidential election in the US, which pitted Democrat Adlai Stevenson against World War II hero and former NATO commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, was seen as a referendum on Korea. Truman, who had by now served almost 8 years as President, had decided not to run again. In November, Eisenhower won by a landslide, and took his easy victory as a mandate to "get out of Korea" as soon as possible.
Why did the negotiations take so long? By the time talks at Kaesong began, Truman wanted to end the war. However, some people in his administration may have wanted to see the war drag on, so that they would have further reason to push for military budget increases as suggested by NSC- 68. The Communists also contributed to the deadlock, partially because they did not want to back down from their initial demands for fear of losing face. Since neither side wanted to make concessions and appear weak, both sides were responsible for drawing out the talks.
The question of whether or not UN forces really did enter the Kaesong area is open to some speculation. While making the claim that the area's neutrality had been violated might have been a Communist tactic to suspend the negotiations, it is also is possible that Syngman Rhee, still obsessed with the idea of a unified Korea under his control, sent in a UN/ROK force to deliberately sabotage the talks, which he feared might bring about a settlement including a divided Korea.
The POW issue was such a problem because the US/UN/ROK had about ten times as many POWs as the Communists, which made a one-for-one exchange impossible. The US wanted to give POWs the opportunity to choose to remain in the "Free World", while the Communists wanted all their POWs repatriated into North Korea and the PRC. To strike back at the US, the upset Communists tried to indoctrinate and brainwash US/UN/ROK POWs so they would refuse to return to the US or ROK; US fears of Communist brainwashing were very real during the cold war, with Korea figuring prominently, as portrayed by the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. The paranoia was not completely unfounded. Some Communists purposely got themselves captured, and then tried to foment unrest and disturbances in POW camps, especially the largest US/UN/ROK POW camp, Koje Island.
As always throughout the negotiations, bombing efforts against Northern Korea failed to intimidate the Communists into giving into US demands. If anything, bombing only strengthened Communist resolve.
A fiscal conservative, Eisenhower was concerned by the vast amount of money being spent on the Korean War. Yet although Eisenhower took his election in 1952 as a mandate to get the US out of Korea, he had not presented any specific plan for doing so before being elected. Still, upon taking office, Eisenhower did not dally. Immediately after his election, Eisenhower secretly flew to Korea to meet with US officers there and to see the situation for himself. Because he was a Republican and a war hero, Eisenhower was immune from the troubles that had plagued Truman. Eisenhower did not have to worry about Republican criticism or about appearing soft on Communism, and yet as a universally respected general backed by a hawkish secretary of state in John Foster Dulles, his negotiating threats held more credibility than Truman's. Upon taking office, Eisenhower was prepared to fulfill his "mandate" to get the US out of the Korean War.