by Gerald Boerner
“My God, maybe there’s a real war going on!”
— Unknown American Soldier
“We thought the North Koreans would back off once they saw American uniforms.”
— Phil Day, Task Force Smith
“The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
— Omar Bradley
“Panic sweeps my men when they are facing the American Marines.”
— Captured North Korean Major
“The seat in Hell closest to the fire is reserved for those who knew this but kept it quiet.”
— 2nd Lt. Ollie Conner
“If there is any necessity for Congressional action, I will come to you. But I hope we can get those bandits in Korea suppressed without that.”
— Harry S. Truman
“You cannot exaggerate about the Marines. They are convinced to the point of arrogance, that they are the most ferocious fighters on earth – and the amusing thing about it is that they are.”
— Father Kevin Keaney, Chaplin
“We have a little action up here. All we need is some men who won’t run when they see tanks. We’re going to move you up to support the ROKs [Republic of Korea soldiers] and give them moral support.”
— Brig. Gen. John H. Church, U.S. Army
“[Korea is] the clearest test case that the United Nations has ever faced. If the United Nations is ever going to do anything, this is the time, and if the United Nations cannot bring the crisis in Korea to an end, then we might as well wash up the United Nations and forget it.”
— Senator Tom Connally
“A month or so before this we had undergone an ordnance inspection and half of our rifles were condemned. They were all left over from World War II, retrieved from Okinawa, or places like that. The same went for the mortars and machine guns. I don’t remember ever seeing anything new.”
Lt. Jack Doody, U.S. Army
“I’m more worried about other parts of the world. The Middle East, for instance. [Iran] is where they will start trouble if we aren’t careful.
Korea is the Greece of the Far East. If we are tough enough now, if we stand up to them like we did in Greece three years ago, they won’t take any next steps. But if we just stand by, they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East. There’s no telling what they’ll do, if we don’t put up a fight now.”
— Harry S. Truman, President, two days after the invasion
“People say to us, look, it may well be the case that there are fewer wars and fewer genocides, but surely more people are being killed. But when we look at this, the number of people killed in wars involving a state every year, all the wars, and you can see there’s a high point, that’s the Korean war, and it keeps on going down and down and down. If you look at the average number of people killed per conflict per year, it goes from 37-thousand in 1950 to just 600 in 2002.”
— Andrew Mack
Veterans Day: Remembering the Korean War
The Korean War was a war that started between North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) and South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) on 25 June 1950 and paused with an armistice signed 27 July, 1953. To date, the war has not been officially ended through treaty, and occasional skirmishes have been reported in the border region.
The Korean peninsula was politically divided as a legacy of the geopolitics of defeating the Japanese Empire on the peninsula in 1945. Soviet forces fighting the Japanese advanced up to the 38th Parallel, which later became the political border between the two Koreas. Despite talks in the months preceding open warfare, continual cross-border skirmishes and raids at the 38th Parallel, and the political frustration of failed all-Korea elections in 1948, escalated to warfare. The reunification negotiations ceased when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950.
The United States and the United Nations intervened on the side of the South. After a rapid UN counteroffensive that repelled North Koreans past the 38th Parallel and almost to the Yalu River, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) came to the aid of the North. With the PRC’s entry into the conflict, the fighting eventually ceased with an armistice that restored the original border between the Koreas at the 38th Parallel and created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 2.5 mile wide buffer zone between the two Koreas. North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the armistice on 27 May 2009, thus returning to a de facto state of war; as of this date, no conflicts have erupted.
Korea often changed hands
early in the war, until the
During the war, both North and South Korea were sponsored by external powers, thus facilitating the war’s metamorphosis from a simple civil war to a proxy war between power involved in the larger Cold War.
From a military science perspective, the Korean War combined strategies and tactics of World War I and World War II — swift infantry attacks followed air bombing raids. The initial mobile campaign transitioned to trench warfare, lasting from January 1951 until the 1953 border stalemate and armistice.
The Setting of the Conflict
Early accounts of the Korean War almost without exception focused on events beginning with the North Korean invasion of South Korea. This was because few people doubted that the Soviet Union had ordered the attack as part of its plan for global conquest. President Harry S. Truman provided support for this assumption just two days after the start of hostilities. On June 27, 1950, he told the American people that North Korea’s attack on South Korea showed the world that "communism has passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war."
This assessment reflected Truman’s firm belief that North Korea was a puppet of the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung was acting on instructions from Moscow. In his memoirs, Truman equated Joseph Stalin’s actions with Adolf Hitler’s in the 1930s, arguing that military intervention to defend the Republic of Korea (ROK) was vital because appeasement had not prevented but ensured the outbreak of World War II.4 Top administration officials, as well as the general public, fully shared these assumptions. This traditional interpretation provided the analytical foundation for early accounts of the war, perpetuating the most important myth of the Korean conflict.
In the US, the war was officially described as a police action (a Korean Conflict, not a Korean War) owing to the lack of a legitimate declaration of war by the US Congress. Colloquially, it is also The Forgotten War and The Unknown War, because it ended in stalemate, and unlike the Second World War and the Vietnam War, it is culturally forgotten.
In South Korea the war is usually referred to as the 6-2-5 War (yuk-i-o jeonjaeng), reflecting the date of its commencement on June 25. In North Korea the war is officially referred to as the Choguk haebang chǒnjaeng ("fatherland liberation war"). Alternately, it is called the Chosǒn chǒnjaeng ("Joseon war", Joseon being what North Koreans call Korea). In People’s Republic of China the war is officially called the Chao Xian Zhan Zheng (Korean War), with the word "Chao Xian" referring to the name of North Korea in Chinese.
The term Korean War can also denote the skirmishes before the invasion and since the armistice.
Korea divided (1945)
At the Potsdam Conference (July–August 1945), the Allies unilaterally decided to divide Korea—without consulting the Koreans—in contradiction of the Cairo Conference (November 1943) where Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek, and Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Korea would be a free nation and an independent country. Moreover, the earlier Yalta Conference (February 1945) granted to Joseph Stalin European "buffer zones"—satellite states accountable to Moscow- as well as an expected Soviet pre-eminence in China and Manchuria, as reward for joining the US Pacific war effort against Japan.
The UN Offensive: North Korea invaded (September–October 1950)
On 1 October 1950, the UN Command repelled the KPA northwards, past the 38th parallel; the ROK Army crossed after them, into North Korea. Six days later, on 7 October, with UN authorization, the UN Command forces followed the ROK forces northwards. The X Corps landed at Wonsan (SE North Korea) and Iwon (NE North Korea), already captured by ROK forces. The Eighth US Army and the ROK Army drove up western Korea, and captured Pyongyang city, the North Korean capital, on 19 October 1950. At month’s end, UN forces held 135,000 KPA prisoners of war; the North Korean People’s Army appeared to disintegrate.
Taking advantage of the UN Command’s strategic momentum against the KPA, Gen. MacArthur (and some US politicians), believed it necessary to extend the Korean War into Communist China to destroy the PRC depots supplying the North Korean war effort. President Truman disagreed, and ordered Gen. MacArthur’s caution at the Sino-Korean border.
On 27 June 1950, two days after the KPA invaded and three months before the October Chinese intervention to the Korean War, President Truman dispatched the 7th US Fleet to the Taiwan Straits, to protect Nationalist Republic of China from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On 4 August 1950, Mao Zedong reported to the Politburo that he would intervene when the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) was ready to deploy. On 20 August 1950, Premier Zhou Enlai informed the United Nations that “Korea is China’s neighbor … The Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question”—thus, via neutral-country diplomats, China warned the US, that in safeguarding Chinese national security, they would intervene against the UN Command in Korea. President Truman interpreted the communication as “a bald attempt to blackmail the UN”, and dismissed it. The Politburo authorized Chinese intervention in Korea on 2 October 1950—the day after the ROK Army crossed the 38th-parallel border. Later, the Chinese claimed that US bombers had violated PRC national airspace when on en route to bomb North Korea—before China intervened.
Across the parallel: Chinese Winter Offensive (early 1951)
In January 1951, the PVA and the KPA launched their Third Phase Offensive (aka the “Chinese Winter Offensive”), repeating night attacks—stealthy infiltration of UN Command fighting positions, from behind the front lines, then a numerically-superior, overwhelming assault to capture it. The tactic’s psychological warfare component was accompanying the attack with disquieting loud trumpets and gongs, played as tactical communication and as mental disorientation of the enemy. UN forces initially had no familiarity with this tactic, resulting in some soldiers’ resolve became “bug-out fever”; some soldiers “bugged-out”, abandoning their weapons, while rapidly retreating south. The Chinese Winter Offensive overwhelmed the UN Command forces and the PVA and KPA conquered Seoul on 4 January 1951.
Stalemate (July 1951 – July 1953)
For the remainder of the Korean War the UN Command and the PVA fought, but exchanged little territory; the stalemate held. Large-scale bombing of North Korea continued, and protracted armistice negotiations, began 10 July 1951 at Kaesong. Yet combat continued while the belligerents negotiated an armistice; the ROK–UN Command forces’ goal was recapturing all of South Korea, to avoid losing territory.
The PVA and the KPA attempted like operations; later, they effected military and psychological operations testing the UN Command’s resolve to continue the Korean War—the principal battles of the stalemate include the Battle of Bloody Ridge (18 August – 15 September 1951) and Battle of Heartbreak Ridge (13 September – 15 October 1951), the Battle of Old Baldy (26 June – 4 August 1952), the Battle of White Horse (6–15 October 1952), the Battle of Triangle Hill (14 October – 25 November 1952) and the Battle of Hill Eerie (21 March – 21 June 1952), the sieges of Outpost Harry (10–18 June 1953), the Battle of the Hook (28–29 May 1953) and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill (23 March – 16 July 1953).
The Korean War (1950–53) was the first proxy war in the Cold War (1945–91), the prototype of the following sphere-of-influence wars, e.g. the Vietnam War (1945–75). The Korean War established proxy war as one way that the nuclear superpowers indirectly conducted their rivalry in third-party countries. The NSC68 Containment Policy extended the cold war from the occupied Europe of 1945 to the rest of the world.
Fighting ended at the 38th parallel, now the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)—248×4 km (155×2.5 mi)—peninsular demarcation between the countries. Moreover, the Korean War affected other participant combatants; Turkey, for example, entered NATO in 1952.
Post-war recovery was different in the two Koreas; South Korea stagnated in the first post-war decade, but later industrialized and modernized. Contemporary North Korea is spartan, while South Korea is a consumer society. In the 1990s North Korea faced significant economic disruptions. The North Korean famine is believed to have killed as many as 2.5 million people. The CIA World Factbook estimates North Korea’s GDP (PPP) is $40 billion, which is 3.0% of South Korea’s $1.196 trillion GDP (PPP). North Korean personal income is $1,800 per capita, which is 7.0 percent of the South Korean $24,500 per capita income.
Anti-communism remains in ROK politics. The Uri Party practiced a "Sunshine Policy" towards North Korea; the US often disagreed with the Uri Party and (former) ROK Pres. Roh about relations between the Koreas. The conservative Grand National Party (GNP), the Uri Party’s principal opponent, is anti-North Korea.
“In May of 1945 the U.S. Army had reached its peak of 8,290,000 men (including, of course, the Army Air Force). Five years later, by the summer of 1950, it had dwindled to 592,000 men or about 7 percent of its former strength. Even at the time of Pearl Harbor, usually regarded as the classic example of American unpreparedness, the Army had 1,600,000 men under arms. Worse, this 1950 army of 592,000 men was top heavy with technicians and service people, for the Maginot Line mentality had produced the myth of the push-button war and so downgraded the foot soldier.
"In all this army there were only ten combat divisions, plus the equivalent of one more in the European Constabulary, and perhaps the equivalent of another three in nine independent regimental combat teams – an optimistic total, in all, of fourteen divisions of which only the Constabulary was up to strength.
"Of these forces, four divisions were in Japan under General MacArthur. . . . They were at about 70 percent of wartime strength . . . [and] deficient in such modern arms as 57mm and 75mm recoiless rifles, 4.2-inch mortars and 3.5-inch rocket launchers.”
— Robert Leckie, CONFLICT: THE HISTORY OF THE KOREAN WAR
Korean War Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
The Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., presents in granite what for many remains its most powerful lesson— that "Freedom Is Not Free." Tourists can buy T-shirts sporting a map of Korea over which appears the judgment that this was "The Place Where Communism Was Stopped." But since 1981 a swelling stream of books and articles reexamining not only the war itself, but U.S. policy toward Korea before June 1950, has shattered traditional beliefs about the conflict.2 This essay revisits the Korean War with the purpose of exposing old myths and replacing them with current realities of a no-longer-forgotten conflict.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Korean War that can be found at…