With the Korean Peninsula being ever present in current media I feel it is necessary to understand some background of both North and South Korea. The Korean War is perhaps the greatest level of tension the world has experienced since World War II. As Malkasian argues it was the closest the world has ever been to a third World War. The Korean War set out the current borders between North and South Korea which serve as a centre of world tension today. The Korean war drew in world powers including China and the USA engaging in battles throughout Korea with the threat of nuclear destruction ever present.
The origins of the Korean war lie in the dismantling of the Japanese empire after World War Two. Korea formally under Japanese control found itself carved up between the powers of the Cold War. North Korea was now under Soviet control with a communist regime now in power. The Soviets eventually transferred their influence over Korea to China, a fellow communist power. Opposing the communist North was South Korea which was controlled by the US, which created a democracy in the South. The two nations were now the centre of fierce cold war relations, separated by a border along the 38th parallel. Both governments believed they were the rightful and legitimate government to Korea. This division was never seen as permanent but no side was willing to budge to their ideological opposites. This ultimately caused great tension among the Cold War powers but also between the people of Korea. Due to the division 10 million Koreans were separated from their families. Growing pressure between the divided states boiled over on the 25th June 1950.
Partisan attacks had already occurred in the South prior to the war when in 1948 UN policy was to achieve a unified South Korea. This resulted in anger among communists in the South and attacks occurring from disgruntled communists. In a show of support the North Korean army launched 10 cross border incursions to draw the South Korean’s army away from fighting in the South. The Republic of Korea was formed in August 1948. Kim IL- sung, the leader of North Korea, pushed for an invasion backed by Stalin in 1949 but Stalin refused on the basis that the North Korean army was unprepared and Stalin himself was wary of US involvement.
North Korea eventually built up a powerful and large army which was modelled after a Soviet mechanised army, with armaments being given by the Soviets. As such the North Korean army was far superior to their rivals across the border. In early 1950 Stalin approved the invasion. The North Korean army was given the green light, backed by the Soviets to take over and install a communist regime in the South. On the 25th June 1950 75,000 North Korean troops poured across the 38th parallel into South Korea. The North Korean troops with the effective and ruthless Soviet tanks quickly overran and pushed quickly South.
The effective assault by North Korean troops demanded a reaction. The UN recognised the vulnerability of South Korea and faced the potential reality of a fully communist Korea. On 27th June 15 nations responded by sending troops with the majority of the troops being American. General MaCarthur commanded the US led offensive in response to North Korean aggression. By the end of August 1950 North Korean troops had taken Seoul and everything else but the Pusan Perimeter, a 140 mile defensive line in the southern peninsula of Korea. In under 3 months’ North Korean troops had all but conquered the entirety of Korea. But with United Nations forces now engaging the advances were gradually stopped as MacArthur ordered the troops to stop the advances and bog down at Pusan. The battle at Pusan took place between August 4th and September 18th. The North Korean’s were now struggling to break through the lines of UN forces who were supported by vital imports from ports such as the one in Pusan.
North Korea was only pushed back after an effective strategical decision by General MacArthur. An amphibious invasion was launched on the 10th September 1950 at the Eastern port city of Inchon. The assault involved around 75,000 troops and 261 naval vessels. This dissected the North Korean offensive and cut off the supply lines for many North Korean troops. The resulting battles led to a North Korean retreat as they looked to avoid being cut off entirely. A huge victory for the US led allied troops meant from the initial invasion of Inchon Seoul had been recaptured within 2 weeks. It then resulted in the North Koreans being pushed back past the 38th parallel. Not content with this General MacArthur ordered the UN troops to push on up through North Korea to the Northernmost provinces.
The US led UN forces pushed up through North Korea, in an attempt to eliminate any future aggression which could have potentially taken place. Both President Truman and General MacArthur wanted to ‘liberate’ the North from the communists. Similar to North Korean advances the UN troops push was swift and decisive and came close to the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. The Chinse government became anxious about the armed aggression that was on their doorstep. Fearing danger in November 1950 Chinese forces numbering approximately 150,000 crossed the river, with a stark warning to the US to keep away from the Yalu boundary unless it wanted full-scale war.
With the Chinese now entering the battle the stakes were much higher as the thought of full scale war and even nuclear destruction was a very real possibility. The Chinese armies were now unleashed and the UN forces were pushed heavily back past the 38th parallel, and by the new year far south of Seoul. But with the UN forces being now led by a new commander, General Ridgway, the UN forces slowly pushed back north in the spring of 1951. From this point the war stabilised around the 38th parallel, entering a fierce stalemate where both sides were not willing to give up strategic ground.
By the middle of the 1951 both sides were willing to enter negotiations. Peace talks slowly took place at Panmunjom lasting around 2 years. Two occurrences helped the advancement towards a final decision, both the death of Stalin and the replacement of Truman as president for Eisenhower. Truman did not want to appear weak and had a policy of containment so was not eager to allow any expansion of communist influence in the region. However, Eisenhower was much more willing to offer concessions to the end of war. The talks were increasingly halted by the decision over a number of communist prisoners held in camps on Koje Island. In July 1953 calm descended on the battlefields and Operation Big Switch took place with thousands of prisoners on each side being returned to their original nation.
Ultimately the war ended with a signing of an armistice between the United Nations, the Chinese and the North Koreans on the 27th July 1953. It created a set border between the two Korea’s not at entirely dissimilar to the 38th parallel which split the two sides 3 years prior. However, both sides agreed on a demilitarised zone which was to be 2.5 miles wide. There have only been estimates for the number of casualties however it is not an exaggeration to conclude that millions of lives were lost in the fighting. The heaviest losses were felt by the civilians with approximately one million and 600,000 in South and North Korea respectively killed due to the war. Similarly China suffered 600,000 military deaths to South Korea’s 210,000 and US forces 37,000.
Therefore the Korean war was a profound moment in history as tensions grew as the world perhaps became closer than any time before or since to experiencing all of out nuclear war. With millions of casualties and virtually no movement in international boundaries as a result of the war, Korea was a victim, as many others were of the great powers of the world squabbling over ideology and influence in regions during the Cold War. The effects of such a war remain today as the same existing boundary near the 38th parallel with the demilitarised zone remain. This area of the world continues to be the centre of global conflict, politics and attention today. With military, politics and ideology all reaching a critical point, the Korean War of 1950-1953 serves as a useful basis for the divisions within the region and the potential devastation which can be caused as a result.