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The Korean War (Korean: 한국전쟁/韓國戰爭), from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953, was a conflict between North Korea and South Korea. It was also a Cold War proxy war between the United States and its United Nations allies and the Communist powers of the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union (also a UN member nation). The principal combatants were North and South Korea. Principal allies of South Korea included the United States, Canada, Australia, 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 (as the Korean Conflict) under the aegis of the United Nations rather than a war, largely in order to remove the necessity of a Congressional declaration of war.
2 War begins
3 Western reaction
4 Incheon landing
5 Entrance of the Chinese
7 Air War
8.2 United States
9 Atrocities and war crimes
10 Artistic depiction
The country of Korea was invaded and effectively ruled by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. After liberation from Japanese rule, the peninsula was divided into North and South by the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States, and was occupied by them. After dividing the nation of Korea, the leading powers of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, established governments in their respective halves, each one favorable to their political ideology. 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 (김일성), who had been in exile in Moscow, Russia. The south elected the nationalist exile Syngman Rhee (이승만), though some observers considered the elections unfair or even fraudulent.
As for the American government, they believed at the time that the communist bloc was a unified monolith, and that North Korea acted within this monolith as 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 to support 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.
South Korean President Syngman Rhee and North Korean General Secretary Kim Il-Sung were each intent on reuniting the peninsula under their own systems. Partly 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. That said, hundreds of forays by South Korean forces into the north may have convinced North Koreans that an all-out invasion was imminent. Documents show that both leaders were eager to escalate hostilities.
The People’s Republic of China was wary of a war in Korea. Mao Zedong (毛泽东) was concerned that it would encourage American intervention in Asia and would destabilize the region and interfere with plans to destroy the Kuomintang (國民黨) forces under Chiang Kai-Shek (蔣介石) which had retreated to Taiwan. In early 1949 Kim Il-sung pressed his case with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the time had come for a conventional invasion of the South. Although he approved of the idea of a united Korea, Stalin refused, concerned about the relative unpreparedness of the North Korean armed forces and about possible U.S. involvement. In the course of the next year, the communist leadership built the North Korean army into a formidable offensive organization modeled after a Soviet mechanized force. By 1950 the North Koreans enjoyed substantial advantages over the South in every category of equipment. After another visit by Kim to Moscow in March–April 1950, Stalin approved an invasion.
In the predawn hours of June 25, 1950 North Korea struck across the 38th parallel behind a thunderous artillery barrage. Advised and equipped by the Soviets and with huge reserves of manpower, their surprise attack was a devastating success. Within days South Korean forces were in full retreat. Seoul was captured by the North Koreans on the afternoon of June 28. Nevertheless, the North Koreans had not accomplished their goal of a quick surrender by the Rhee government and the disintegration of the South Korean army. The US’s response to these events was to order MacArthur to transfer munitions to the ROKA and to use air cover to protect the evacuation of U.S. citizens.
By August 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 (Republic of Korea) forces managed to stabilize this frontier. This became a desperate holding action called the Pusan Perimeter. Although more UN support arrived, the situation was dire, and looked as though the North could gain control of the entire peninsula.
The invasion of South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) 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 did not agree 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 acquiescing 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.
Instead of pressing for a congressional declaration of war, which he regarded as too alarmist and time-consuming when time was of the essence, Truman went to the United Nations for approval. The western powers did gain a United Nations mandate for action because the Soviets were boycotting the Security Council over the admission of Mongolia to the UN while the (Nationalist controlled) Republic of China held the Chinese seat — the Republic of China refused to acknowledge the independence of Mongolia, and thus blocked its entry into the UN. Without the Soviet veto and with only Yugoslavia abstaining, the UN voted to aid South Korea on June 27. U.S. forces were eventually joined during the conflict by troops from fifteen other UN members: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Although American opinion was solidly behind the venture, 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 British Commonwealth units, 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.
In order to alleviate pressure on the Pusan Perimeter, MacArthur, as UN commander-in-chief for Korea, ordered an amphibious invasion far behind the North Korean troops at Incheon (Inchon 인천 仁川). 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 Incheon, 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, thought that spreading the war to China would be necessary. However, Truman and the other leaders disagreed, while MacArthur was ordered to be very cautious when approaching the Chinese border. Eventually, MacArthur disregarded these concerns, arguing that since the North Korean troops were being supplied by bases in China, those supply depots should be bombed.
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 (Chinese 鸭绿江). 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 Stars 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 —?) their equipments were poor and were described as “Millets plus bolt action rifle”(小米加步枪),there were no mechanised units such as tanks and only a few artillery &mdash, but their large numbers usually made up the difference; 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. In March 1951, Operation Ripper repelled the North Korean and Chinese troops from Seoul.
MacArthur was removed from command by President Truman on April 11, 1951. The reasons for this are many and well documented. They include MacArthur’s meeting with ROC President Chiang Kai-shek in the role of a U.S. diplomat; he was also wrong at Wake when President Truman asked him specifically about Chinese troop buildup near the Korean border. Furthermore, MacArthur openly demanded nuclear attack on China, while being rude and flippant when speaking to Truman. MacArthur was succeeded by General Matthew Ridgway who managed to regroup the UN forces for an effective counter offense that managed to slowly drive back the opposing forces.
The rest of the war involved little territory change and lengthy peace negotiations (which started in Kaesong on July 10 of the same year). Even during the peace negotiations combat continued, for the South Korean and allied forces the goal was to recapture all of what had been South Korea before an agreement was reached in order to avoid losing any territory. The Chinese did a similar operation at the battle of “The Hook” where they were repelled by British forces.
Eventually a cease-fire was established on July 27th, 1953, by which time the front line was back in the proximity of the 38th parallel, and so a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established around it, which is still defended today by North Korean troops on one side and South Korean and American troops on the other. The DMZ passes to the north of the parallel towards the east, and to the south as it travels west. The site of the peace talks, Kaesong, the old capital of Korea, was part of the South before hostilities broke out but is currently a special city of the North. No peace treaty has yet been signed to date. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower on November 29, 1952 fulfilled a campaign promise by travelling to Korea to find out what could be done to end the conflict.
The Korean War was the last major war where propeller fighters such as the United Nations air forces’ P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair, A-1 Skyraider, and F4U-5N were used, and it was the war in which jet fighters came to dominate the skies. These, initially, were US Air Force F-80s, and US Navy or US Marine Corps Grumman F9F Panthers, and McDonnell F2H Banshees, which overwhelmed North Korea’s propeller-driven Yakovlev Yak-9s and Lavochkin La-9s. Other UN air combat capability came from propeller planes like the Supermarine Seafire, Fairey Firefly, and Hawker Sea Fury, based on aircraft carriers deployed by the British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy.
From 1950, North Korea introduced MiG-15 jet fighters, piloted by Soviet Air Force pilots, which was — on the face of it — a casus belli, if it were not for the reluctance of the UN to become involved in open war with the Soviet Union and China. At first UN jet fighters, which now included Royal Australian Air Force Gloster Meteor Mk.8s, had some success against inexperienced Soviet pilots, but the superior quality of the MiGs soon held sway over the first generation jets used by the UN.
Even after the USAF introduced the more advanced F-86, its pilots often struggled against the Soviet jets. The MiG-15 still had better high altitude capability, rate of climb, longer range and more powerful armament (3 cannons vs. 6 machine-guns) although dive speed and roll rate were inferior. However, the U.N. gradually gained a numerical advantage, which gave them an air superiority that lasted until the end of the war. The Chinese had jet power, but the American forces had superior training for their pilots. This was decisive in helping the U.N. first advance into the north, and then resist the Chinese invasion of South Korea.
Among other factors which helped tip the balance toward the U.N. Jets include the F-86s’ better radar gunsight, better stability and control at high speed and high altitudes, the introduction of some of the first radar warning receivers, which allowed F-86 pilots to be warned if a MiG was on their tail, and the introduction of the first G-suits. The U.N. pilots achieved impressive success with the F-86, claiming to shoot down 792 MiG-15s and 108 additional aircraft for the loss of 78 Sabres, a ratio in excess of 10:1. Post-war research was only able to confirm 379 victories and recently exposed Soviet documentation admits only 345, but even with the lower figures the advantage was still clearly with the U.N. fighter pilots with a kill ratio of at least 4.4:1.
Throughout the conflict, the United States maintained a policy of heavy bombing, especially using incendiary weapons, against any and all North Korean settlements. Although images of the civilian victims of the weapon were to be ingrained upon the memory of the world in Vietnam, significantly more napalm was dropped on North Korea, despite the relative short length of the conflict. During the second half of 1950 alone, close to a million gallons of the weapon was used to destroy dozens of settlements in North Korea.
In May and June of 1953, the United States Air Force undertook a mission to destroy several key irrigation and hydroelectric dams, in order to critically hamper agriculture and industry in the North. The Kusǒng (구성), Tǒksan (덕산) and Pujǒn (부전) River dams were all destroyed, severely flooding vast areas of land, drowning thousands and ultimately starving many more.
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 according to US estimates. The whole number, including all civilians and military soldiers from UN Nations and China, amount to the order of 2,000,000 deaths. More than a million South Koreans were killed, 85% of them civilians. According to figures published in the Soviet Union, 11.1% of the total population of North Korea perished, which indicates that 1,130,000 people were killed. In sum, about 2,500,000 people were killed, including north and south together. More than 80% of the industrial and public facilities and transportation works, three-quarters of the government offices, and one-half of the houses were destroyed. Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) was bombarded with more than one thousand bombs per square kilometre. When the armistice was settled, there were only two buildings left in the city where 400,000 people had lived. The air photograph that was taken in 1953 shows that the condition of Pyongyang was like that of Hiroshima in Japan, bombed with a nuclear bomb (see Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The misery and the damage meted out to it were palpable.
The war left the peninsula permanently divided with a garrisoned pro-Soviet, Communist party led 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.
U.S. troops suffered about 36,000 fatalities, less than in the Vietnam War, but in a much shorter time. However, advances in medical services such as the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the use of rapid transport of the wounded to them such as with helicopters enabled the death rate for UN forces to be much lower than in previous wars. 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 French endeavours to reestablish its presence there against local resistance; after Korea they began to heavily support the French against the Viet Minh and other nationalist-communist local parties, paying for up to 80% of the French military budget in Vietnam.
The Korean War also saw the beginning of racial integration efforts in the US military service, where African Americans fought in integrated units. President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen. The extent by which Truman’s 1948 orders were carried out varied among the branches of the military, with segregated units still in deployment at the start of the conflict, and eventually integrating towards the end of the war.
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.
Various credible Western and Eastern sources agree that about 500,000 Chinese soldiers were either killed in action or died of disease, starvation, exposure, and accidents. The overall total of Chinese killed, wounded and missing equal to about 1 million. The Korean War also led to other long lasting effects. Until the conflict in Korea, 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 contributed to the unwillingness to diplomatically recognize the PRC by the West and by the United Nations until the 1970s.
It also contributed to the decline of Sino-Soviet relations. Although the Chinese had their own reasons to enter the war (i.e. security of Manchuria), the view that the Soviets had used them as proxies was widely shared in the Western bloc. The Soviets 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 held their own against American forces in this war heralded that China was once again becoming a major world power. The war is also generally seen as an honour in the PLA’s history by many Chinese as it was the first time in a century a Chinese army was able to withstand a Western army in a major conflict, in spite of China’s heavy losses.
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. On the other hand, left-wing organizations were closed down for fear of destabilising actions in support of North Korea or even of an internal revolution, 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 in the eyes of some American policy makers, the non-belligerency clause in the constitution was already being considered a “mistake” by 1953.
Atrocities and war crimes
North Korean troops, South Koreans, Chinese and United States personnel targetted civilians and/or mistreated POWs in some cases . Specifically, there is extremely strong evidence to suggest:
- North Korean and Chinese troops tortured and executed prisoners on a number of occasions, including shooting wounded soldiers lying at their feet.
- American troops were under orders to consider any unidentified people on the battlefield approaching their position as hostile and eliminate them. The reason for these orders was that communist infiltrators frequently hid among Korean refugees. On some occasions (No Gun Ri) hundreds of refugees caught in the fighting were shot and strafed. Whether this qualifies an “atrocity” is in dispute as the U.S. claims it did it for defensive measures.
- Communist forces rounded up and executed thousands of civilians in captured villages. It is claimed that more than 100,000 were killed in 1950 during the capture of Seoul alone.
- South Korean forces executed without trial tens of thousands of “Communist Sympathizers”.
Many consider these events to be atrocities and some refer to them as “war crimes”. It is of little doubt that the killing of prisoners of war or wounded soldiers by signatories of the Geneva conventions (especially GCIV) are war crimes, as these conventions specifically disallow it. However, no conventions of the time forbade the killing, purposefully or accidentally, of enemy civilians. Whilst it is extremely distasteful and unpopular to do so there does not seem to be any legal basis in calling these actions “war crimes”. It is more reasonable to label them as crimes against humanity. There are Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention formed in 1977 which call for the protection of civilians, as do several UN Security Council Resolutions, but these all appear to post-date the war in Korea.
There are many more cases than those listed above but evidence, rather than accusations, is hard to come by. At the time, many of the killings were felt justified because of the fear of infiltration by irregular forces by the South Koreans and as a terror tactic by the North Koreans. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Korean war began only five years after the Second World War ended, a war during which targeting of civilians was severe and routine by all major parties involved.
All parties have denied these actions during the war and afterward, but the U.S. has admitted their policy on strafing certain refugee groups.
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, and thus was prohibited for public display until the 1990s.
In the United States far and away the most famous artistic depiction of the war is M*A*S*H, originally a novel by Richard Hooker (pseudonym for H. Richard Hornberger) that was later turned into a successful movie and television series. All three versions depict 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 a US Army field hospital in 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. The first few episodes featured an African-American doctor, Spearchucker Jones. This character was removed upon the revelation that there were no African American doctors serving in Korea. Furthermore, the television series lasted for eleven years, while the actual war lasted only three (of course, one cannot blame the screenwriters and the producers for creating a popular show); among other things, the characters aged far more visibly over the course of the series than they might have done during the actual three-year conflict. Additionally, the series was filmed in California, which has a very different physical environment than the Korean peninsula.
The Korean War was also the backdrop of the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate. The backdrop for the 2004 remake of the movie was the Persian Gulf War (1991).
The name ‘Korean War’ is the English language name for the war. In South Korea, the war is called the “June 25th Incident (육이오 사변; 六二五 事變)”, although some use the term “한국전쟁” (韓國戰爭), which means Korean War. In North Korea, the war is called the “Fatherland Liberation War (조국해방전쟁; 祖國解放戰爭)”. In China the war is called 抗美援朝 (kàng měi yuán cháo), which can be translated to “The Resisting American War to Aid Korea”.
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