The famous 38th parallel
The War between the North and South Koreas lasts three years. In a mix between a civil and an ideological war, millions of lives are taken in a drama that involves the USA, China and the USSR. More than half a century after the military conflict, the enmity remains: a north and a south back to back, that is in truth a separation between the West and the East.
THE 38TH PARALLEL
The calendar marked June 25th of 1950 and Jack James, a United Press reporter, was about to enter the press room of the north-American embassy in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, when a soldier asked him about news from the border. James didn’t know anything, but the tension between North Korea and South Korea was well known among the reporters settled in Seoul. However, the conversation with the soldier revealed as productive: later the journalist came to realized that there had been an invasion.
After two frenetic hours trying to confirm the information, James sent a bulletin, just in time for the Sunday editions in the United States, reporting “general attacks along the 38th parallel”, but advising not the use the word “war”. By that time, neither the north-American government nor the United Nations had been informed about the attack. In New York, the news was received with caution, since there had already been false alarms about Korea.
The Associated Press used the expression “we are checking reports”, in order to protect its reputation, in the case the news were false. Without the confirmation of the news agency, The New York Times refused to print the story. Other media weren’t that cautious and gave front page emphasis to the invasion.
The news about the Korea’s conflicts also arrive to Portugal. Diário de Notícias, on June 26th, 1950, announces the beginning of the conflict.
«The radio of Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, announced early today that that country had declared war to South Korea»..
The invasion arrived after years of tension in the Korean peninsula. With the end of the Japanese domination, after the World War II, the territory was divided. In South Korea was created the Republic of Korea, led by Syngman Rhee, with North-American influence (western). In North Korea appeared the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, led by Kim Il-Sung, pro-soviet. In 1948, they were two independent nations, divided by the famous 39th parallel.
AND BREAKS THE WAR….
The United States’ geopolitical strategy didn’t see South Korea as a priority: in January of 1950, it wasn’t event part of the states protected by its defensive perimeter in Asia. “No person can guarantee these areas against military attack”, guaranteed the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson.
Kim Il-Sung, who had already manifested the desire of conquering South Korea and to unify the peninsula, concluded that the hypothetical invasion wouldn’t find north-American resistance. His plans went ahead on June of 1950. UN’s Security Council emitted a recommendation aimed to the retreat of the north-Korean troops, being that the Soviet Union wasn’t part of it, due to another disagreement.
Two days after the invasion, on June 27th, the north-American president, Harry S. Truman discloses an announcement: “I have ordered United States air and sea forces to give the [South] Korean Government troops cover and support.”
In a press conference, Truman insisted that the United States weren’t at war. “Mr. President, would it be correct, against your explanation, to call this a police action under the United Nations?”, a reporter asked. “Yes. That is exactly what it amounts to”, answered the president.
The north-American congress never would declare war, opening a precedent in the country’s political system. The President’s solitary decision, which Truman claimed being supported on by the UN’s recommendation, was praised by some political commentators, whom found it “courageous”. In the north-American context, the word “war” would come to loose precision and war declarations would come to be seen as unnecessary or inconvenient. On Sunday, June 25th, Communist forces attacked the Republic of Korea. This attack has made it clear, beyond all doubt, that the international Communist movement is willing to use armed invasion to conquer independent nations.
The General MacArthur was the chosen to lead the operations in Korea. A World War II hero, MacArthur enjoyed a big popularity next to the north-Americans due to the victories conquered in the battlefield by the army led by him. The General, his triumphs – and even his family – were target of a big media attention.
The north-American media followed closely the developments in Korea. It was the first conflict that happened during the Cold War, a period of anxiety and doubts regarding the “red danger”.
The dominant media coverage reflects this anti-communist spirit, based on an opposition scenario between «us» [the Americans] and «them» [the communists]. There was an official narrative, created according to the ideological context at the time: the army difficulties were undervalued and the victories were exacerbated, noting an acritical coverage of the American actions. The media reported news of a communist nation invading a poor and helpless democratic nation.
The incipient technology made that some journalists had to fly to Tokyo, in Japan, to send their information. Due to technological and logistic setbacks and the difficulties in obtaining information, the reporters had as main sources the high military ranks, without contesting their veracity. In the initial phases of the war, The New York Times even published verbatimas daily information disclosed by the military, usually occupying almost entirely the second page.
Among reporters, dissent voices rose. Richard Johnson wrote, in July of 1950, in The New York Times: “in the last few bloody days of fighting, the bravado and self-assurance have given way to the sober realization that at best the United States troops face a long and costly campaign to drive the invaders from South Korea.”
The British media were also the more critical, at least in a first phase, questioning the American acts e the numbers disclosed by the military. A big part of the English reporters who covered the conflict had been at World War II, thus having already experience in the war report, revealing a more cynical approach about the conflict.
In September of 1950, the Inchon battle happened, which interrupted a series of victories from North Korea, marking a twist in the development of the war. With the success of the north-American troops, the media in the country were enthusiastic. “Since it became apparent that their Korean satellite was lost, the Russians talked more loudly than ever about peace”, Newsweek wrote. “Korea had looked like a sure thing and it had blown up in Stalin’s face”, it was possible to read in Time.
The trajectory of the north-American marines to the enemy territory of Inchon was followed by Marguerite Higgins. The reporter from the New York Herald Tribunewas an exception. Female journalists had been banished from the warfront, for being considered that there weren’t available equipment to accommodate them. Despite the guideline, the north-American newspaper was able to convince MacArthur to authorize Higgins to remain in the front of the battle. By this time, Higgins was one of the 330 registered reporters.
Marguerite Higgins wasn’t a beginner in the coverage of the Korean War. The reporter wrote about the south-Korean capital in the days before the invasion.
When the newspaper sent Homer Bigart, a more experienced reporter, to cover the conflict, Higgins refused to leave Korea, starting a competition with Bigart for the best stories.
Her status as war correspondent was established next to the public, especially due to the fact of being a female reporter. Even though media would referrer that, “in her ‘working clothes’ as a war correspondent in Korea, Marguerite Higgins still manages to look attractive”, the journalist became the first female journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize for her international story.
Marguerite Higgins wasn’t the only woman to report from the war stage. «The correspondent of O Globo saves herself by parachutes in Korea», it is possible to read in headline of O Globo on June 5th, 1951. It was the Portuguese Fernanda Reis, special envoy of the Brazilian newspaper to the Korean War. The reporter accompanied an air retaliation operation led by ONU, after the north-Korean forces attacked its position, in a dramatic scenario that Fernanda wouldn’t forget: «Piles of flesh and bones, bloody, without the form of people that they once had, mutilated, disperse, seeming – God forgive my comparison – pieces of a monstrous puzzle».
THE TV HIGHLIGHT
In 1950, television started to give its first steps. Newspapers weren’t the only means to take war news to the public. Satellite technology wasn’t yet available, so recordings had to be sent by air to the stations. A long process, which made the news lose their up-to-dateness. So, newspapers and the radio remained as the main information media.
During the Korean War, television was an emerging media, thus stations weren’t ready to cover a conflict resorting to image and sound. They resorted to newsreel production agencies, more used to audiovisual production.
Televisions also used images captured in the warfront by the photographers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, but these weren’t taken according to a journalistic criterion: once again, they were what the military wanted for Americans to see of the war.
The media didn’t had technical nor financial conditions to send special envoys and showed a big dependency of military sources. Even the reporters sent to the frontline counted with military support for transport and assistance, a close relationship that put at stake the journalists’ objectivity. Despite the military protection, 11 registered reporters died during the coverage of the Korean War.
Edward Murrow was the key player of CBS’ coverage, with See it Now the show, where he was able to show the human side of the conflict.
In August of 1950, only seven weeks after the start of the war, Murrow commented the devastation caused in the north-Korean villages: “Their pitiful possessions have been consumed in the flames of war.”Will our reoccupation of that flea-bitten land lessen, or increase, the attraction of Communism?”
Murrow’s words were recorded, but didn’t reach the screen. CBS censured the story, for considering that it could harm war efforts. In the end of 1950, General MacArthur imposed censorship over the information that reached journalists sent to Korea. Until then, reporters weren’t subject to restrictions about what to publish, but, even so, not all information was written in paper. George Herman, special envoy to Korea, had as policy not to write any information that could help the enemy. “All of us in the press corps, knew there was going to be an invasion at Inchon in a couple of weeks […] without censorship there was no restriction on us, but nobody leaked the story.”
In North Korea, media were extremely controlled, contributing for Kim Il-Sung’s cult of personality and becoming a propaganda vehicle. Freedom of the press was also a myth in South Korea. On November 1st, 1950, The Korea Times was founded, a daily newspaper writeen in English with the goal of covering the war, in and outside borders. The president Rhee, whom kept favourable relationships with the publication in an initial phase, showed intention of pressuring the newspaper for the editorial line that favoured him the most.
In the battlefront, the conflict aggravated. Truman authorizes north-American troops to go beyond the 39th parallel, which marked the division between the territories. In October, Chinese communists join the fight against the American troops. A victory that seemed too easy for the United States starts to become a fight to not be defeated. Ahead of the north-American army, General MacArthur manifested his frustration for Truman’s strategy in maintaining the war limited to Korea, which kept him from attacking China. It was, defended MacArthur, “an enormous handicap, without precedent in the military history”.
On April 11th, 1951, MacArthur is pushed aside. Truman communicates the decision to the country. “I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea […] A number of events have made it evident that General MacArthur did not agree with that policy. I have, therefore, considered it essential to relieve General MacArthur.”
From Tokyo, the General finds out about this change through a phone call from a subordinate, who heard the news on the radio minutes before. In an initial phase, north-Americans became solidary with MacArthur, with Truman’s public approval decreasing.
The General returns to the United States as a hero. His speech before the Congress was interrupted 30 times with ovations. The sentence “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” became History. But the myth that involved MacArthur also vanished. The General’s reputation would come to be harmed with the auditions of the Senate’s committees of international relations and armed services, in May of 1951.
In Korea, the battle seemed to have calmed down. In the beginning of 1951, fights have reached an impasse. In August, after the emission of a resolution from the United Nations, the United States, China, North Korea and South Korean being peace negotiations. In the media, the Korean War was overshadowed by the growing tensions of the Cold War.
THE SHOOTS CEASE BUT THE CONFLICT CONTINUES
In November of 1951, Dwight D. Eisenhower is elected President of the United States, having as one of his commitments the removal of the American army from Korea as soon as possible. The president visits Korea on the 29th of November, 1951. The war was about to reach its end.
The armistice was signed on the 23rd of July, 1953, after two years of negotiations.
Eisenhower tells the country the news: “An armistice was signed almost an hour ago in Korea. It will quickly bring to an end the fighting between the United Nations forces and the Communist armies.”
In the media, the consensus was that the truces weren’t a victory nor a defeat for the United States, but instead a part of a much bigger conflict with the communist forces. In the armistice, signed in 1953, it was agreed a cease-fire until it is reached a “final peaceful settlement”, which is still to be found.
The tension between nations didn’t dissipate with the decades. On June 25th, 2015, in the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, North Korea appealed to the world to join it to “dismember the gangster US imperialists.”
The group Guardians of Peace hacked Sony’s computer system, disclosing internal information and data about future launches and demanding to Sony to cancel the launch of The Interview, to which they called “the movie of terrorism” [North Kora complaint to the United Nations about The Interview, with the justification that it promotes terrorism against the country]. A few days from the premiere, hackers threatened to fulfil terrorist attacks at the cinemas that showed the movie, but it didn’t happened. The Interview would become the most profitable online launch in the history of Sony..
More than 60 years after the end of the Korean War, wounds are yet to be healed. The political, social and cultural differences between both countries create constant tension in the peninsula. Korea continues divided at the 39th parallel.