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Korean War

The Korean War was a conflict between North Korea and South Korea that served also as an arena of war for Cold War juggernauts China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. It officially began on June 25, 1950, when the Korean People’s Army (KPA) of North Korea invaded South Korea to spread communism across the Korean peninsula. It ended on July 27, 1953, when both sides signed the Korean Armistice Agreement that still technically holds the Korean peninsula in a stalemate today.

The Korean War had roots in pre-World War II conquest. The entire peninsula was annexed together by what was then the Empire of Japan in 1910. Japan lost these claims upon defeat in the second World War on August 15, 1945, at which point the peninsula was split along the 38th parallel into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the First Republic of Korea (South Korea). From September 8, 1945 to August 15, 1948, the United States governed South Korea as a capitalist state under authoritarian president Syngman Rhee via the United States Army Military Government in Korea. During this time, the Soviet Union (USSR) ruled North Korea as a communist regime under totalitarian Kim Il-sung via the Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea. Thus, two fierce Cold War rivals, the Americans and the Soviets, shared a contentious border in East Asia as both governments claimed exclusive authority over the entire peninsula as their own.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung sought to unify both nations under his communist regime and would do so by any means necessary, prompting his 1950 invasion of South Korea with 135,000 troops across the 38th parallel. (1) This immediately spurred a reaction from the United Nations Security Council, within which the United States was a prominent voice. During this period of the Cold War, the U.S. wanted to stop the spread of communism via containment in all areas of the world, so they were fervently opposed to North Korea’s military actions. Together with 20 other U.N. allies, they helped compel the U.N. to form an international military coalition called the United Nations Command to aid the South Korean Army (ROKA) in their defense effort against Kim Il-sung’s invasion. This was the first chance for the United Nations to occupy a significant role in an armed international conflict. Some 90 percent of the United Nations Command forces were Americans. The U.S. never officially declared for war as they were still recovering from the military expenditures throughout World War II. Nonetheless, Congress authorized the contribution of $12 billion and 1,780,000 total troops to the conflict.(2) Only China utilized more troops overall, sending 2,970,000 to fight alongside Soviet and North Korean forces.

Just three days into the war, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) had captured Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, and continued advancing dangerously south. The Americans sent Task Force Smith of the 24th Infantry Division to meet the KPA north of Taejon, South Korea. On July 5, 1950, Task Force Smith, comprising mostly teenagers with little more experience than basic training, met the advancing forces at the village of Osan in the Battle of Osan. The Americans were overrun by North Korean tanks and artillery firepower because the U.S. troops had no weapons capable of destroying tanks. They were also outnumbered 10 to 1 and lost 180 men. The KPA pushed further south to Taejon where there was a major transportation hub and the 24th Division was headquartered. On July 14, 1950, the Battle of Taejon began as American forces defended the city. Again, the underskilled Americans were overtaken by KPA firepower and training and subsequently lost the city by July 21. U.S. Major General William F. Dean was one of 2,962 captured by the KPA, while another 3,602 members of the 24th Division died.

All was not lost, however; the week at Taejon had delayed the North Korean army enough to give the American and South Korean forces time to gather a perimeter around Pusan, a major South Korean coastal city. Meanwhile, the KPA made their way steadily down the peninsula, capturing all but the area to the southeast around Pusan. On the way, they executed South Korean intelligentsia and other members of the elite. In the ensuing Battle of Pusan Perimeter, the UN forces defended the southeastern population centers with great help from daily U.S. Air Force bombings of KPA supply networks. This forced KPA soldiers to operate mainly under cover of darkness until they were spread too thin to keep fighting. Both sides lost nearly 60,000 soldiers in the battle. U.S. General MacArthur orchestrated the Battle of Incheon later in September 1950 to pull KPA forces away from Pusan. This freed up U.S. forces to mount a counteroffensive from the southeast, resulting in a capturing of Seoul from North Korean control on September 25. Only some 30,000 KPA troops made it back to North Korea as others died in battle or were executed by South Korean officials.

On October 1, 1950, the United States and the United Nations Command forces pushed into North Korea alongside South Korea, despite warnings from China and the Soviet Union against such an invasion. By the end of the month, 135,000 KPA fighters were captured and another 200,000 were dead. China and the Soviet Union intervened, and by January 4, 1951, the KPA had recaptured Seoul, Republic of Korea. General MacArthur considered using nuclear weapons as a result, but was ordered not to. This counterattack by North Korea led to US and allied French forces being surrounded on all sides and outnumbered by some 20,000 troops. In the Battle of Chipyong-ni, from February 13 to February 15, the KPA and Chinese forces lost in what is called the “Gettysburg” moment of the Korean War.

As 1951 progressed, both sides fought to an effective stalemate, with neither side gaining an advantage over the other. The extensive bombing campaigns did not stop, however. Thus, truce talks began on July 10, 1951, but went through many iterations in new locations and contexts as the war progressed. After 2 years of on-and-off again meetings between leaders, an agreement was finally made. On July 27, 1953, representatives from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), China, and the United States (via the United Nations Command) signed the Korean Armistice Agreement. A cease-fire was in place within 12 hours. Notably, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) never signed the armistice. The armistice created a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which both sides still patrol today, extending 2,200 yards north and south of the 38th parallel. Although current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declared the armistice invalid in 2013, he met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018, agreeing to work together towards a resolution to the unofficial end to their conflict in 1953.

The Korean War has a different place in each country’s history. On the Korean peninsula, the Korean War has a bloody legacy. The 2 million civilian deaths comprised a higher percentage of war fatalities than either World War II or the Vietnam War. An estimated 1.2 - 1.5 million North Koreans died during the war, equal to 12-15 percent of their population at the time. This is proportionally similar to the Soviet civilians who died during World War II. During the course of the conflict, gruesome practices took place on both sides, with prisoners of war tortured and abused in North Korea while the South Korean government massacred people accused of being communists. Since the 1950s, however, popular (state-approved) North Korean films dramatize the war as a glory for their nation with frequent ugly depictions of American and South Korean war crimes.

In the United States, this war is an unofficial afterthought of an addendum to the Cold War, but a conflict that American forces joined only in the political and imperial interests of the U.S. government. They lost far fewer in the conflict, suffering 54,200 deaths. The Korean War has never been officially recognized by the United States, even though it contributed nearly 2,000,000 troops and $67 billion to fight across the Pacific. Uncle Sam also dropped around 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea, making North Korea the third-most bombed nation in the world after Laos and South Vietnam.

See Korean War Time Table for dates of significant events in the war.

Sources and Further Reading

15th Field Artillery Regiment. Korean War History: Korean War Timeline. www.15thfar.org/kortime.html

Armed Forces History Museum. Interesting Facts About the Korean War. www.armedforcesmuseum.com/interesting-facts-about-the-korean-war

CNN Editorial Research. (2021). Korean War Fast Facts. www.cnn.com/2013/06/28/world/asia/korean-war-fast-facts/index.html

Cumings, Bruce. (2011). The Korean War: A History. Modern Library, New York City, New York

Hogan, Michael. (1995). America in the World: The Historiography of American Foreign Relations since 1941. New York: Cambridge University Press

Schnabel, James F. (1972). Policy and Direction: The First Year. Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, DC.

Weathersby, Kathryn. (2002). "Should We Fear This?" Stalin and the Danger of War with America. Cold War International History Project