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Korean War
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Korean War

Military history of North Korea
Military history of South Korea
Military history of Australia
Military history of Canada
Military history of China
Military history of the United Kingdom
Military history of the United States
Conflict Korean War
Date 1950–1953
Place Korean peninsula
Result Continued Partition of Korea
Battles of the Korean War
South Korea,
United States of America, Australia,Canada, United Kingdom, Turkey, other allies
North Korea,
Chinese volunteers, Soviet Union
unknown unknown
136,935 U.S. soldiers 600,000 Koreans

The Korean War, from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, was a conflict between communist North Korea and anti-communist South Korea. It was also a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The principal combatants were North and South Korea. Principal allies of South Korea included the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, although many other nations sent troops under the aegis of the United Nations. Allies of North Korea included the People's Republic of China, which supplied military forces, and the Soviet Union, which supplied combat advisors and aircraft pilots, as well as arms, for the Chinese and North Korean troops. In the United States, the conflict was termed a police action under the aegis of the United Nations rather than a war, largely in order to remove the necessity of a Congressional declaration of war.

Table of contents
1 Origins
2 The War Begins
3 Western Reaction
4 Inchon Landing
5 Entrance of the Chinese
6 Stalemate
7 Legacy
8 Artistic Depiction
9 Further reading
10 External links


Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. The Allies agreed that Japanese forces north of 38° north latitude (the 38th parallel) would surrender to the Soviet Union and those south of 38° would surrender to the USA. The Allies pledged that Korea would be a unified, independent country under an elected government but failed to specify the details.

The United Nations held an election in 1948, but the Soviet Union refused to allow participation in their occupied zone. Instead, they handed over power to the North Korean Communist Party under Kim Il-Sung, who had been in exile in Moscow. The south elected the nationalist exile Syngman Rhee.

The origins of the Korean War have long been a matter of debate. At the time, the American government believed in a unified communist bloc, with North Korea acting as only a pawn of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s the view that the war was just as much caused by western and South Korean provocation became popular. Today, with the opening of Soviet archives, the war is most often blamed on Kim Il-sung who convinced a reluctant Joseph Stalin into supporting the venture.

On January 12, 1950 United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson told the National Press Club that America's Pacific defence perimeter was made up of the Aleutians, Ryukyu, Japan, and the Philippines implying that the U.S. would not fight over Korea, and that the country was outside of American concern in the Pacific. This omission, which was not deliberate, encouraged the North and the Soviets.

Both South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and Kim Il-Sung were intent on reuniting the peninsula under their own system. Because of Soviet support the North Koreans were the ones able to go on the offensive, while South Korea with only limited American backing had far fewer options.

The People's Republic of China was wary of a war in Korea. Mao Zedong was concerned that it would encourage American intervention in Asia and would destabilize the region and interfere with plans to destroy the Kuomintang forces under Chiang Kai-Shek which had retreated to Taiwan. He was not consulted on the decision for war. However, he supported the North Koreans once the war began.

See also: Division of Korea

The War Begins

On June 25, 1950 North Korean forces moved south in force. Using Soviet equipment and with huge reserves of manpower their surprise attack was a crushing success. Within days South Korean forces were in full retreat. Seoul was captured by the North Koreans in early July. Eventually the South Korean forces, and the small number of Americans in Korea, were driven into a small area in the far South around the city of Pusan. With the aid of American supplies and air support the ROK forces managed to stabilize this frontier. This became a desperate holding action called the Pusan Perimeter. Although more UN support arrived the situation was perilous, and it looked as though the North could gain control of the entire peninsula.

Western Reaction

The invasion of South Korea came as a complete surprise to the United States and the other western powers; Dean Acheson of the State Department had told Congress on June 20 that no war was likely. However, a CIA report in early March had predicted a June invasion.

On hearing of the invasion, Truman agreed with his advisors to use U.S. airstrikes, unilaterally, against the North Korean forces. He also ordered Seventh Fleet to protect Taiwan, thereby ending the policy of the United States of acquising to the defeat of the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. The United States still had substantial forces in Japan that allowed for a quick intervention. The actions were put under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, who was in charge of American forces in the Pacific. The other western powers quickly agreed with the American actions and volunteered their support for the effort.

The Americans organized Task Force Smith, and on July 5 engaged in the first North Korean-U.S. clash of the war.

American action was taken for a number of reasons. Truman was under severe domestic pressure for being too soft on communism. Especially vocal were those who accused the Democrats of having "lost China." The intervention was also an important implementation of the new Truman Doctrine, which advocated the opposition of communism everywhere it tried to expand.

The western powers gained a United Nations mandate for action because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council over the admission of Mongolia while the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China held the Chinese seat. Without the Soviet veto and with only Yugoslavia abstaining, the UN voted to aid South Korea. U.S. forces were eventually joined during the conflict by troops from fifteen other UN members: Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg. (Truman would later take harsh criticism for not obtaining a declaration of war from Congress before sending troops to Korea. Thus, "Truman's War" was said by some to have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the United States Constitution.)

U.S. forces were suffering from problems caused by demobilization which had been going on since 1945. Excluding the Marines, the infantry divisions sent to Korea were at 40% of paper strength, and the majority of their equipment was found to be useless. Other powers were even further demobilized, and apart from Commonwealth units (see: 1st Commonwealth Division) it was many months before sizeable forces arrived from other coalition partners.

The Chinese Nationalists, now confined to Taiwan, asked to participate in the war, but their request was denied by the Americans who felt they would only encourage Communist Chinese intervention.

Inchon Landing

In order to alleviate pressure on the Pusan Perimeter, MacArthur, as UN commander in chief for Korea, ordered an invasion far behind the North Korean troops at Inchon. This was an extremely risky operation, but once the American and other UN troops gained a foothold on the beach, it was extremely successful. United Nations troops landed at Inchon, faced only mild resistance and quickly moved to recapture Seoul. The North Koreans, finding their supply lines cut, began a rapid retreat northwards and the ROK and UN forces that had been confined in the south moved north and joined those that had landed at Inchon.

The United Nations troops drove the North Koreans back past the 38th parallel. The goal of saving South Korea had been achieved, but because of the success and the prospect of uniting all of Korea under the rule of Syngman Rhee the Americans were convinced to continue into North Korea. This greatly concerned the Chinese, who worried that the UN forces might not stop at the end of North Korea. Many in the west, including General MacArthur, also thought spreading the war to China was a good idea. Truman and the other leaders disagreed, however, and MacArthur was ordered to be very cautious when approaching the Chinese border. However, MacArthur disregarded these concerns.

Entrance of the Chinese

The Communist Chinese had issued warnings that they would react if the UN forces encroached on the frontier at the Yalu River. Mao sought Soviet aid and saw intervention as essentially defensive. "If we allow the U.S. to occupy all of Korea... we must be prepared for the US to declare... war with China", he told Stalin. Zhou Enlai was sent to Moscow to add force to Mao's cabled arguments. Mao delayed his forces while waiting for Russian help, and the planned attack was thus postponed from 13 October to 19 October. Soviet assistance was limited to providing air support no nearer than sixty miles (96 km) to the battlefront. The MiG-15s in PRC colours were an unpleasant surprise to the UN pilots; they held local air superiority against the F-80 Shooting Starss until the newer F-86 Sabres were deployed. The Soviet role was known to the U.S. but they kept quiet to avoid any international and potential nuclear incidents.

A Chinese assault beginning on October 19, 1950, under the command of General Peng Dehuai with 380,000 CPV troops (officially named Chinese People's Volunteers, indeed they were People's Liberation Army regulars) repelled the United Nation troops back to the 38th parallel, the pre-conflict border. The Chinese assault caught U.S. troops by surprise, as war between PRC and the United States had not been declared. The battle of Chosin Reservoir in winter forced the UN troops to withdraw from North Korea. The United States X Corp retreat was the longest retreat of a U.S. unit in history. The Marines, on the eastern side of the peninsula, fared better, mainly due to better training and discipline.

On January 4, 1951, Communist Chinese and North Korean forces captured Seoul. The situation was such that MacArthur mentioned that atomic weapons might be used, much to the alarm of America's allies.

MacArthur was removed from command by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. The reasons for this are many, and well documented. They include MacArthur meeting with ROC President Chiang Kai-shek in the role of a U.S. diplomat. MacArthur also was wrong at Guam when President Truman asked him specifically about Chinese troop buildup near the Korean border. Furthermore, MacArthur openly demanded nuclear attack on China. He was also rude and flippant when speaking to Truman. MacArthur was succeeded by General Matthew Ridgway.


, Border between South and North Korea at the DMZ]] The rest of the war involved little territory change and lengthy peace negotiations (which started in Kaesong on July 10 of the same year). A cease-fire established a demilitarized zone (DMZ) around the 38th parallel, which is still defended today by North Korean troops on one side and South Korean and American troops on the other. No peace treaty has yet been signed, fifty years later. Newly-elected U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower on November 29, 1952 fulfilled a campaign promise by traveling to Korea to find out what could be done to end the conflict


The Korean War was the first armed confrontation of the Cold War, and it set a model for many later conflicts. It created the idea of a limited war, where the two superpowers would fight without descending to an all out war that could involve nuclear weapons. It also expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe.


600,000 Koreans died in the conflict. The war left the peninsula permanently divided with a garrisoned pro-Soviet Communist state in North Korea and a pro-American capitalist one in the South. American troops remain on the border today, as do a large number of Koreans. It is the most heavily defended border in the world.

United States

U.S. troops suffered about 44,000 fatalities, slightly less than to the Vietnam War, but in a much shorter time. For service during the Korean War, the United States military was issued the Korean Service Medal.

Later neglect of remembrance of this war, in favor of the Vietnam War, World War I and II, has caused the Korean War to be called the Forgotten War or the Unknown War. On July 27, 1995 in Washington, DC, a museum called the Korean War Veterans Memorial was built and dedicated to veterans of the war.

The war was instrumental in re-energizing the U.S. military-industrial complex from its post-war slump. The defense budget was boosted to $50 billion, the Army was doubled in size, as was the number of Air Groups, and they were deployed beyond American soil in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, including Vietnam, where covert aid to the French was made overt. The Cold War became a much stronger state of mind for American policy makers.

The war also changed America's view of the Third World, most notably in Indochina. Before 1950 the Americans had been very critical of the French actions there; after Korea they began to heavily support the French.

The United States still maintains a heavy military presence in Korea, as part of the effort to uphold the armistice between South and North Korea. A special service decoration, known as the Korea Defense Service Medal is authorized for U.S. service members who serve a tour of duty in Korea.


Western sources claimed that around a million Chinese were killed in the Korean War. And Chinese official numbers are: Over 115,000 KIA, over 25,000 died of wounds and accidents, over 221,000 wounded, and over 29,000 MIA and POW. The war also led to other long lasting effects. Until the North Korea invasion of the South, the United States had largely abandoned the government of Chiang Kai-Shek, which had retreated to Taiwan, and had no plans to intervene against the expected invasion of Taiwan by the Communist Party of China. The start of the Korean War rendered untenable any policy that would have caused Taiwan to fall under Communist control and Truman's decision to send American forces into the Taiwan straits saved the Republic of China from defeat and ended any immediate hopes for the PRC of conquering that island. The anti-communist atmosphere in the West in response to the Korean War was contributed to the unwillingness to diplomatic recognition of the PRC by the West and by the United Nations until the 1970's.

The war also was used as an excuse for PRC authorities to crack down on dissent and impose stronger censorship. It also contributed to the decline of Sino-Soviet relations. The Soviets had used the Chinese as proxies. They had given them out of date and often shoddy equipment and had forced the Chinese to pay for it. However, the fact that Chinese forces had held its own against American forces in this war heralded that China was once again becoming a major world power.


Japan was a key beneficiary of the war. The U.S. material requirements were organized through a Special Procurements system, which allowed for local purchasing without the complex Pentagon procurement system. Over $3.5 billion was spent with Japanese companies, peaking at $809 million in 1953, and still significant amounts in 1955. Other foreign non-military investment was less than 5% of this. U.S. Aid Counterpart Funds gave Japan, by 1956, the most modern shipyards in the world and a 26% share in launched tonnage. Left-wing organizations were closed down, and the zaibatsu went from being distrusted to being encouraged - Mitsui, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo were amongst the zaibatsu that thrived, not only on orders from the military but through American industrial experts, including W. Edwards Deming. Japanese manufacturing grew by 50% between March 1950 and 1951. By 1952, pre-war standards of living were regained and output was twice the level of 1949. The 1951 peace treaty returned Japanese sovereignty (excluding Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands) and the non-belligerency clause in the constitution was being considered a "mistake" by 1953.

Artistic Depiction

Artist Pablo Picasso's painting Massacre in Korea (1951) depicted violence against civilians during the Korean War. By some account, civilian killings committed by U.S. forces in Shinchun, Hwanghae Province was the motive of the painting. In South Korea, the painting was deemed anti-American, a longtime taboo in the South, that it was prohibited for public display until the 1990s.

In the United States far and away the most famous artistic depiction of the war is the book, movie and television series M*A*S*H, which depicts the misadventures of the staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as they struggle to keep their sanity through the war's absurdities through ribald humour and hijinks when not treating wounded.

Although M*A*S*H gave a fairly accurate depiction of the Korean War, there were a few flaws in the tv series. For instance, there were far more Korean doctors in the M A S H units than shown in the series. In the series, nearly all the doctors were American. Also, in the first few episodes there was a character named Spearchucker Jones who was black. There were no black doctors in the M*A*S*H units. Futhermore the television series lasted nine years, while the actual war lasted only three.

The Korean War was also the backdrop of the movie the Manchurian Candidate.

See also: Korean War order of battle

Further reading

External links