A global war broke out, but nobody seemed to notice. In July 1950, soldiers from Britain, the United States, Singapore, Turkey, Belgium, China and the Soviet Union streamed into the Korean Peninsula, turning the country into a literal war zone. Yet, barely a year later, U.S. News and World Report had already dubbed the struggle the “forgotten war.” The reasons for this are relatively straightforward: for the West, South Korea was on the other side of the world, and the general public had been wearied by the Second World War. Still, the Korean War was of tremendous significance. It was the first modern-day military intervention backed by the United Nations, it had the potential to become the world’s first nuclear conflict and it saw hundreds of thousands of young men sacrificed.
In the final hours of the Second World War, the Soviet Union advanced down the Korean Peninsula, ejecting Imperial Japanese forces from the colony. The Soviets were soon contacted by the United States, which, already suspicious of its ally, requested a share of the Japanese Empire. When the Soviets asked how the Americans proposed dividing the Peninsula, two state department officials, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, drew up the only map they had available, which so happened to have the 38th Parallel as a demarcating line.
America suggested it would control the South (including the ancestral capital Seoul) while the Soviets would dominate the north, but it is important to note this was only intended to be a temporary division. Nevertheless, the Americans and Soviets had begun a divide that remains to his day: in the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and in the south, the Republic of Korea (ROK).
From the start, relations between North Korea and South Korea were never completely peaceful. Frequent quarrels over land, especially over the Ongjin region and some disputed uninhabited islands, often erupted into violent clashes. During this time, Kim Il-sung, the communist dictator ruling North Korea, was eyeing an invasion of his southern neighbour. Similarly, Syngman Rhee, the anti-communist dictator ruling South Korea, was considering a campaign to reunite the two nations. The latter, however, was firmly restrained by America, and so had to be content with inflammatory rhetoric. The former was also initially rebuffed by Stalin, but eventually managed to convince the Soviet premier to endorse his plans.
Stalin’s motives at this time are a mystery. Some argue his change of heart was inspired by the Soviet development of an atomic bomb, while others suggest he foresaw US involvement, and invited the costly conflict as a way to drain American strength in the European theatre. Regardless, Stalin gave Kim the green light to assault South Korea, which he did on 25 June 1950.
The North Koreans had an enormous military advantage over their southern counterparts. The Korean People’s Army, known as the Imingun, was made up of battle-hardened ex-rebels, who had fiercely resisted the Japanese Imperial Army in Korea and Manchuria. South Korean forces, in contrast, consisted of poorly trained soldiers under the command of officers who had been collaborators or police in the colonial era. Moreover, the Imingun had received a special dispatch of T-34s, one of the strongest tanks of the Second World War, which posed a lethal threat to infantry divisions. The North Koreans stormed south. Resistance was weak; Seoul fell while Rhee ignominiously fled, leaving behind his people for his personal safety. The ROK army was annihilated, with a mere fifth of its original prowess remaining at the time of the fall of Seoul.
The United States, initially caught on the back foot by the sudden start of the Korean War, swiftly retaliated on the international stage. They forced condemnation of North Korean aggression through the newly created United Nations Security Council, which was possible because the USSR was boycotting communist China’s absence from the council, meaning it was unable to veto proceedings. The UN, desperate to avoid making the mistakes of its predecessor the League of Nations, effectively sanctioned an armed invasion of the Peninsula. It was a clear PR victory for the Americans – a Soviet ally had been caught in a blatant act of aggression and the US had the backing of the international community.
While the invasion force was indeed comprised of a coalition of nations, and was operating under the aegis of the United Nations, most of the soldiers (and virtually all of the leadership) were American. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur had almost exclusive control over the operation. However, despite an influx of foreign help, the South Koreans did not seem to be faring that much better. The Americans, armed with largely defunct bazookas, struggled to dent the armour of the T-34s. Unable to defend themselves, the Allies had no option but to retreat alongside the people they were meant to be saving from the onslaught.
The ROK soldiers were pushed to the brink of the Peninsula. Barely holding their ground, they were confined to the city of Busan. It was at this moment that General MacArthur’s military insight shone, for just below the 38th Parallel, less than 30km west of Seoul, lay the port city of Incheon. The North Koreans, despite knowing full well of their vulnerability, had left the region relatively unguarded, instead placing their faith in the city’s natural defences. Jagged rocks and unpredictable currents made the surrounding waters very dangerous for ships. Yet MacArthur decided to take a gamble by sending a mission to recapture the city.
The operation was a resounding success; the Imingun was completely taken by surprise, and a pincer movement from Incheon to Busan neutralised the immediate threat to the ROK. As the North Koreans retreated, the Allied forces passed beyond the 38th Parallel and began driving northwards. The American decision to invade North Korea is in many ways confusing: in crossing the line they risked losing international support, gambled their soldiers’ lives and courted both a conventional Chinese counter-attack and a nuclear Russian response.
Neither superpower had any interest in permitting the loss of a satellite state, and Mao especially feared that America may continue to its advance to Beijing. The best explanation for the United States’ bizarre decision is that it was not the United States that made the decision – rather, the ego of one man was to blame. General MacArthur, fuelled by a desire to leave his mark on the world and buoyed by his success at Incheon, alone had taken the decision to cross the Rubicon – despite this being diametrically opposed to President Truman’s wishes.
The Allies rolled through North Korea, and by October 1950, ROK soldiers were on the Yalu river. Yet it was here that they were faced by a horde of Chinese soldiers, poorly armed but overwhelming in number. That winter, the Allies were driven back down the Peninsula. Thousands were killed by the enemy, thousands of others froze to death. Eventually, they managed to regroup, and hold the Chinese advance at the 38th Parallel, but not before Seoul repeatedly changed hands. For another year and a half, fighting continued as sporadic and inconclusive gestures at finding a settlement were aired but never acted on. During these deliberations, two soldiers died for every minute of peace talks.
The Korean War, overshadowed by the triumph of the Second World War and the horrors of Vietnam, has often been overlooked. Yet it has had an enormous impact on the modern world. It was an enormously bloody struggle, with America losing 33,000 soldiers, far fewer than the 47,000 lost in Vietnam, but these casualties were sustained in three years rather than twenty. By advancing into North Korea and changing its strategic aims, the US set itself a precedent of diplomatic duplicity; henceforth, future interventions would be justified under America’s terms rather than those of the native country.
The United States invasion of North Korea still polarises inter-Korean relations to this day; the seeds of resentment over the stalemate were never addressed through a proper armistice or agreement, which had prevented any meaningful catharsis from being achieved. While it is tempting to put the blame for this stagnation solely on the governments of the two Koreas, we ought to note nearby China has forged a strong economic relationship with Taiwan, despite the two being diplomatically and politically at odds. Ultimately, we will never know for sure what would have happened if MacArthur had not pushed into North Korea, nor will we see the full scope of the long-term effects that the war will have on future interventions and relations. However, it is clear that this was a case of unwise military advances, unnecessary sacrifice and unintended consequences.
Halberstam, D., 2007. The Coldest Winter. Pan Publishing
Cumings, B., 2010. The Korean War. Random House Publishing