The Korean War from Postmodernist Perspective

Negate the Negation, a phrase conceptualised by Hegel and popularised by a breed of philosophers known as the Postmodernists, captures the crux of postmodernism in its entirety. In this article, the theoretical tool of Postmodernism will be used to obtain insights on the 1950s Korean War.

Postmodernism was a strong movement that emerged in the 1960s. It revamped philosophical thought by breaking it from the shackles of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment and its tenets had completely captured the 20th century modernist thinkers. The four basic tenets of enlightenment are truth, knowledge, reason and progress. Truth highlights absolutism, which means that there is only one reality. Knowledge signifies objectivity and a unit explanation for reality, while reason underlines the importance of logic. Finally, progress refers to human endeavour in any field and it is the systematic effort towards achieving human progress.

The four tenets of Enlightenment mentioned above hold true for the nature of warfare and conflict that was present during the era of Enlightenment. If one were to apply these in warfare, truth would mean the universally uncontested and absolute pursuit of victory. Knowledge would mean that war could be divided only into two types—offensive or defensive. Reason would suggest a very one dimensional objective to engaging in warfare, while progress or the idea of rationality behind war lies only in achieving victory. The fundamental idea is that victory brings more power and legitimacy to a state thereby guiding its progress.

One of the most famous modernist philosophers Carl Von Clausewitz, in his book On War, defines war as a situation of chaos but where the principles of speed, precision decisiveness, intellect, efficiency and reason take the central position. He views war as not just an act of aggression but as a systematic endeavour to achieve the end objective, victory. Thus, according to the modernist idea, war is two equal groups fighting against each other with utmost scientific efforts. However, Clausewitz, back in the 18th century, was prompt to realise that these principles would not be relevant to the coming world. In his theory, he writes about the “clash of wills” which represents a departure from the modernist principles. Although they were written in 1790, they have found a unique relevance in the world politics post-1960 and form the crux of postmodern era.

Various factors contributed to the end of modernist ideology after Second World War. One of the most important factors is the change in the nature of the conventionality of war. After the Second World War, the warfare changed into a sub-conventional and non-traditional form. Ideology played a very important role in determining war. Thirdly, technology made a big contribution. Development in technology not only brought in sophisticated weaponry, but also improved the means of communication. This made the world come together and exchange ideas at a tremendous magnitude. In the postmodern world, it was easy to construct and deconstruct identities making them very fluid. Finally, the nature of actors involved in warfare was such that there was an inherent inequality of status. This inequality brought about asymmetry which is completely against modernism. The modernists who essentially crave categorisation and a strong sense of symmetry could no longer relate to these newer forms of warfare.

Postmodernism easily made its entry into softer fields such as literature, philosophy, art, music, paintings, etc. However, its entry into academia only started after 1960s. The Korean War took place in 1950 which is almost a decade before the entry of Postmodernism. So does Postmodernism give any valuable insights on the Korean War? Although not all the factors of the paradigm apply, there are three major inferences that could be drawn with respect to the following—ideology, dependence and identity.

The Korean War took place immediately after the Second World War. It was the primary manifestation of the Cold War. The Cold War itself was an epitome of unconventionality. In the Korean Peninsula, the Soviet exported their communist ideology to the northern part and established a regime under Kim Sung Ⅱ. As a reaction to Russian influence in North Korea and as a part of its policy of containment, United States established a puppet government in the South under Syngman Rhee. Thus, ideology played a crucial role in the Korean War.

The second feature is dependence. South Korea was dependant on USA, so much so that, Rhee did not feel the need to develop a national military. The President of South Korean was under a false assurance that in any given situation, if North Korea were to attack its Southern adversary, then United States would not only reach out with support but also use its nuclear bombs on North Korea. This was a unique case of complete submission to a foreign super-power.

Thirdly is the issue of identity. One of the most important features of postmodernism is the treatment of human nature as a product of social construct. Since postmodernists do not believe in universal ideas and objectivity, attributing human nature to a societal variable gives them the liberty to change it the way one wants. One of the most important examples of postmodernist leaders was Mao. Mao, when he came to power in China, his primary task was to wipe out the century long history of China. For this, every trace of Chinese literature, archives and tradition was destroyed. He sought to create a “New Man” by destroying the old Chinese traditions. Similarly, in the case of Korea, the Korean War represents a complete deconstruction of the Korean identity. When the Peninsula was divided into two parts, the identities got distributed into North and South, Communist and Liberal, etc. Today, almost 70 years after the War, although there is conscious memory of a shared bloodline, race, ethnic origin, culture, language between the two countries, there is hardly any relevance of the unified-Korean identity.

Thus, although Korean War took place a decade before postmodernism made its advent in academia and hard-fields, there are features that suggest the departure from the modern warfare methodology in the Korean War. This article was thus an attempt to bring out the theoretical relevance of postmodernism in Korean War.

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