The Korean War is a war between the Republic of Korea (South Korea), supported by the United Nations, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), at one time supported by the People’s Republic of China. It was primarily the result of the political division of Korea by an agreement of the victorious Allies at the conclusion of the Pacific War at the end of World War II. The Korean Peninsula was ruled by the Empire of Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II. Following the surrender of the Empire of Japan in September 1945, American administrators divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, with U.S. military forces occupying the southern half and Soviet military forces occupying the northern half. At the Potsdam Conference (July–August 1945), the Allies unilaterally decided to divide Korea—without consulting the Koreans—in contradiction of the Cairo Conference.
On 8 September 1945, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge of the United States arrived in Incheon to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel. Appointed as military governor, General Hodge directly controlled South Korea as head of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK 1945–48). He established control by restoring to power the key Japanese colonial administrators and their Korean police collaborators. The USAMGIK refused to recognise the provisional government of the short-lived People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) because he suspected it was communist. These policies, voiding popular Korean sovereignty, provoked civil insurrections and guerrilla warfare. On 3 September 1945, Lieutenant General Yoshio Kozuki, Commander, Japanese Seventeenth Area Army, contacted Hodge, telling him that the Soviets were south of the 38th parallel at Kaesong. Hodge trusted the accuracy of the Japanese Army report.
In December 1945, Korea was administered by a United States–Soviet Union Joint Commission, as agreed at the Moscow Conference (1945). The Koreans were excluded from the talks. The commission decided the country would become independent after a five-year trusteeship action facilitated by each régime sharing its sponsor’s ideology. The Korean populace revolted; in the south, some protested, and some rose in arms; to contain them, the USAMGIK banned strikes on 8 December 1945 and outlawed the PRK Revolutionary Government and the PRK People’s Committees on 12 December 1945.
On 23 September 1946 an 8,000-strong railroad worker strike began in Pusan. Civil disorder spread throughout the country in what became known as the Autumn uprising. On 1 October 1946, Korean police killed three students in the Daegu Uprising; protesters counter-attacked, killing 38 policemen. On 3 October, some 10,000 people attacked the Yeongcheon police station, killing three policemen and injuring some 40 more; elsewhere, some 20 landlords and pro-Japanese South Korean officials were killed. The USAMGIK declared martial law.
The right-wing Representative Democratic Council, led by nationalist Syngman Rhee, opposed the Soviet–American trusteeship of Korea, arguing that after 35 years (1910–45) of Japanese colonial rule most Koreans opposed another foreign occupation. The USAMGIK decided to forego the five-year trusteeship agreed upon in Moscow, given the 31 March 1948 United Nations election deadline to achieve an anti-communist civil government in the US Korean Zone of Occupation.
On 3 April what began as a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to Japanese rule ended with the Jeju Uprising where between 14,000 and 60,000 citizens were killed by South Korean soldiers.
On 10 May, South Korea convoked its first national general elections that the Soviets first opposed, then boycotted, insisting that the US honor the trusteeship agreed to at the Moscow Conference.
North Korea held parliamentary elections three months later on 25 August 1948. The resultant anti-communist South Korean government promulgated a national political constitution on 17 July 1948, elected a president, the American-educated strongman Syngman Rhee on 20 July 1948. The elections were marred by terrorism and sabotage resulting in 600 deaths. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established on 15 August 1948. In the Russian Korean Zone of Occupation, the Soviet Union established a Communist North Korean government led by Kim Il-sung. President Rhee’s régime expelled communists and leftists from southern national politics. Disenfranchised, they headed for the hills, to prepare for guerrilla war against the US-sponsored ROK Government.
As nationalists, both Syngman Rhee and Kim Il-Sung were intent upon reunifying Korea under their own political system. The North Koreans gained support from both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. They escalated the continual border skirmishes and raids and then prepared to invade. South Korea, with limited matériel, could not match them. During this era, the US government assumed that all communists (regardless of nationality) were controlled or directly influenced by Moscow; thus the US portrayed the civil war in Korea as a Soviet hegemonic maneuver.
In October 1948, South Korean left-wing soldiers rebelled against the government’s harsh clampdown in April on Jeju island in the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion. The Soviet Union withdrew as agreed from Korea in 1948. U.S. troops withdrew from Korea in 1949, leaving the South Korean army relatively ill-equipped. On 24 December 1949, South Korean forces killed 86 to 88 people in the Mungyeong massacre and blamed the crime on communist marauding bands. The failure to hold free elections throughout the Korean Peninsula in 1948 deepened the division between the two sides; the North established a communist government, while the South established a right-wing government. The 38th parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Korean states. Although reunification negotiations continued in the months preceding the war, tension intensified. Cross-border skirmishes and raids at the 38th Parallel persisted. The situation escalated into open warfare when North Korean forces invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. In 1950, the Soviet Union boycotted the United Nations Security Council, in protest at representation of China by the Kuomintang/Republic of China government, which had taken refuge in Taiwan following defeat in the Chinese Civil War. In the absence of a dissenting voice from the Soviet Union, who could have vetoed it, the United States and other countries passed a Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Korea.
The United States of America provided 88% of the 341,000 international soldiers which aided South Korean forces in repelling the invasion, with twenty other countries of the United Nations offering assistance. Suffering severe casualties within the first two months, the defenders were pushed back to a small area in the south of the Korean Peninsula, known as the Pusan perimeter.
In the first half of 1950, Kim Il-sung travelled to Moscow and Beijing to secure support in a war with the South. The Soviet military became extensively involved in North Korea’s war planning. There are differing accounts of the degree of Soviet support, ranging from support if the North was attacked, to approval, to actually initiating the war. Similarly, some accounts indicate that Chinese support was stronger than Soviet support, and some say it was reluctant. In the months leading up to the initial North Korean attack, the Central Intelligence Agency noted the southward movement of the NKA, but said it was a “defense measure” and concluded an invasion was “unlikely”. When the war broke out, the Chinese were in the process of demobilizing half of the PLA’s 5.6 million soldiers.
On 7 June 1950, Kim Il-sung called for an election in whole Korea on 5–8 August 1950 and a consultative conference in Haeju on 15–17 June 1950. On 11 June, the North sent three diplomats to the South, who were later arrested by the South. Fourteen days later on 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) attacked South Korea.
With the claim of counter-attacking a South Korean provocation raid, the KPA crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire at dawn on Sunday 25 June 1950. The KPA said that Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) troops, under command of the régime of the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee”, had crossed the border first, and that they would arrest and execute Rhee. Both Korean armies had previously harassed each other with skirmishes and staged raids across the border. Fighting began on the strategic Ongjin peninsula in the west, where South Korea claimed to have captured the city of Haeju, and rapidly developed into an Northern attack all along the parallel. This sequence of events has led some scholars to argue that the war was started by an Southern attack in this area.
On 27 June, Rhee evacuated from Seoul with government officials. Rhee ordered the Bodo League massacre on 28 June.
On 28 June, South Korea bombed the bridge across the Han River to stop the North Korean army. However, Seoul fell that same day. North Korean soldiers then committed the Seoul National University Hospital Massacre. A number of members of the South Korean National Assembly remained in Seoul and 48 of them subsequently pledged allegiance to the North.
Early on in the fighting, South Korea put its forces under the authority of the United Nations Command (Korea).
The Truman Administration was caught at a crossroads. Before the invasion, Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Acheson. Military strategists were more concerned with the security of Europe against the Soviet Union than East Asia. At the same time, the Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well.
One facet of the changing attitude toward Korea and whether to get involved was Japan. Especially after the fall of China to the Communists, “…Japan itself increasingly appeared as the major East Asian prize to be protected”. U.S. East Asian experts saw Japan as the critical counterweight to the Soviet Union and China in the region. While there was no United States policy that dealt with South Korea directly as a national interest, its proximity to Japan pushed South Korea to the fore. “The recognition that the security of Japan required a non-hostile Korea led directly to President Truman’s decision to intervene… The essential point… is that the American response to the North Korean attack stemmed from considerations of US policy toward Japan.” The United States wanted to shore up Japan to make it a viable counterweight against the Soviet Union and China, and Korea was seen as integral to that end.
The other important part of committing to intervention lay in speculation about Soviet action in the event that the United States intervene. The Truman administration was fretful that a war in Korea was a diversionary assault that would escalate to a general war in Europe once the U.S. committed in Korea. At the same time, ” there was no suggestion from anyone that the United Nations or the United States could back away from [the conflict]”. In Truman’s mind, this aggression, if left unchecked, would start a chain reaction that would destroy the United Nations and give the go ahead to further Communist aggression elsewhere. Korea was where a stand had to be made, the difficult part was how. The UN Security council approved the use of force to help the South Koreans and the US immediately began using air and naval forces in the area to that end. The Administration still refrained from committing on the ground because some advisors believed the North Koreans could be stopped by air and naval power alone.
Also, it was still uncertain if this was a clever ploy by the Soviet Union to catch the U.S. unawares or just a test of U.S. resolve. The decision to commit ground troops and to intervene eventually became viable when a communiqué was received on 27 June from the Soviet Union that alluded it would not move against U.S. forces in Korea. “This opened the way for the sending of American ground forces, for it now seemed less likely that a general war—with Korea as a preliminary diversion—was imminent”. With the Soviet Union’s tacit agreement that this would not cause an escalation, the United States now could intervene with confidence that other commitments would not be jeopardized.
On 27 September, MacArthur received the top secret National Security Council Memorandum 81/1 from Truman reminding him that operations north of the 38th parallel were authorized only if “at the time of such operation there was no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcements of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily…” On 29 September MacArthur restored the government of the Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee. On 30 September, Defense Secretary George Marshall sent an eyes-only message to MacArthur: “We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel.” During October, the ROK police executed people who were suspected to be sympathetic to North Korea, and same massacre carried out until early 1951.
On 30 September, Zhou Enlai warned the United States that it was prepared to intervene in Korea if the United States crossed the 38th parallel. Zhou attempted to advise North Korean commanders on how to conduct a general withdrawal by using the same tactics which had allowed Chinese communist forces to successfully escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Encirclement Campaigns in the 1930s. North Korean commanders did not utilize these tactics effectively.
By 1 October 1950, the UN Command repelled the KPA northwards, past the 38th parallel; the ROK Army crossed after them, into North Korea. MacArthur made a statement demanding the KPA’s unconditional surrender. Six days later, on 7 October, with UN authorization, the UN Command forces followed the ROK forces northwards. The X Corps landed at Wonsan (in southeastern North Korea) and Riwon (in northeastern North Korea), already captured by ROK forces. The Eighth United States Army and the ROK Army drove up western Korea and captured Pyongyang city, the North Korean capital, on 19 October 1950. The 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (“Rakkasans”) made their first of two combat jumps during the Korean War on 20 October 1950 at Sunchon and Sukchon. The missions of the 187th were to cut the road north going to China, preventing North Korean leaders from escaping from Pyongyang; and to rescue American prisoners of war. At month’s end, UN forces held 135,000 KPA prisoners of war.
On 27 June 1950, two days after the KPA invaded and three months before the Chinese entered the war, President Truman dispatched the United States Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, to prevent hostilities between the Nationalist Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). On 4 August 1950, with the PRC invasion of Taiwan aborted, Mao Zedong reported to the Politburo that he would intervene in Korea when the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Taiwan invasion force was reorganized into the PLA North East Frontier Force. China justified its entry into the war as a response to “American aggression in the guise of the UN”.
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, through neutral-country diplomats, China warned 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.
1 October 1950, the day that UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, was also the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On that day the Soviet ambassador forwarded a telegram from Stalin to Mao and Zhou requesting that China send five to six divisions into Korea, and Kim Il-sung sent frantic appeals to Mao for Chinese military intervention. At the same time, Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces themselves would not directly intervene.
In a series of emergency meetings that lasted from 2–5 October, Chinese leaders debated whether to send Chinese troops into Korea. There was considerable resistance among many leaders, including senior military leaders, to confronting the United States in Korea. Mao strongly supported intervention, and Zhou was one of the few Chinese leaders who firmly supported him. After General Lin Biao refused Mao’s offer to command Chinese forces in Korea (citing poor health), Mao called General Peng Dehuai to Beijing to hear his views. After listening to both sides’ arguments, Peng supported Mao’s position, and the Politburo agreed to intervene in Korea. Later, the Chinese claimed that US bombers had violated PRC national airspace on three separate occasions and attacked Chinese targets before China intervened. On 8 October 1950, Mao Zedong redesignated the PLA North East Frontier Force as the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA).
In order to enlist Stalin’s support, Zhou traveled to Stalin’s summer resort on the Black Sea on 10 October. Stalin initially agreed to send military equipment and ammunition, but warned Zhou that the Soviet Union’s air force would need two or three months to prepare any operations. In a subsequent meeting, Stalin told Zhou that he would only provide China with equipment on a credit basis, and that the Soviet air force would only operate over Chinese airspace, and only after an undisclosed period of time. Stalin did not agree to send either military equipment or air support until March 1951. Mao did not find Soviet air support especially useful, as the fighting was going to take place on the south side of the Yalu. Soviet shipments of matériel, when they did arrive, were limited to small quantities of trucks, grenades, machine guns, and the like.
Immediately on his return to Beijing on 18 October 1950, Zhou met with Mao Zedong, Peng Dehuai, and Gao Gang, and the group ordered two hundred thousand Chinese troops to enter North Korea, which they did on 25 October. After consulting with Stalin, on 13 November, Mao appointed Zhou the overall commander and coordinator of the war effort, with Peng as field commander. Orders given by Zhou were delivered in the name of the Central Military Commission.
On 25 November at the Korean western front, the PVA 13th Army Group attacked and overran the ROK II Corps at the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, and then decimated the US 2nd Infantry Division on the UN forces’ right flank. The UN Command retreated; the U.S. Eighth Army’s retreat (the longest in US Army history) was made possible because of the Turkish Brigade’s successful, but very costly, rear-guard delaying action near Kunuri that slowed the PVA attack for two days (27–9 November). On 27 November at the Korean eastern front, a US 7th Infantry Division Regimental Combat Team (3,000 soldiers) and the U.S. 1st Marine Division (12,000–15,000 marines) were unprepared for the PVA 9th Army Group’s three-pronged encirclement tactics at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, but they managed to escape under Air Force and X Corps support fire—albeit with some 15,000 collective casualties.
By 30 November, the PVA 13th Army Group managed to expel the U.S. Eighth Army from northwest Korea. Retreating from the north faster than they had counter-invaded, the Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel border in mid December. U.N. morale hit rock bottom when commanding General Walton Walker of the U.S. Eighth Army was killed on 23 December 1950 in an automobile accident. In northeast Korea by 11 December, the U.S. X Corps managed to cripple the PVA 9th Army Group while establishing a defensive perimeter at the port city of Hungnam. The X Corps were forced to evacuate by 24 December in order to reinforce the badly depleted U.S. Eighth Army to the south.
During the Hungnam evacuation, about 193 shiploads of U.N. Command forces and matériel (approximately 105,000 soldiers, 98,000 civilians, 17,500 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of supplies) were evacuated to Pusan. The SS Meredith Victory was noted for evacuating 14,000 refugees, the largest rescue operation by a single ship, even though it was designed to hold 12 passengers. Before escaping, the U.N. Command forces razed most of Hungnam city, especially the port facilities; and on 16 December 1950, President Truman declared a national emergency with Presidential Proclamation No. 2914, 3 C.F.R. 99 (1953), which remained in force until 14 September 1978.
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. On the Chinese side, Zhou Enlai directed peace talks, and Li Kenong and Qiao Guanghua headed the negotiation team. Combat continued while the belligerents negotiated; the UN Command forces’ goal was to recapture all of South Korea and to avoid losing territory. The PVA and the KPA attempted similar operations, and later effected military and psychological operations in order to test the UN Command’s resolve to continue the war.
The principal battles of the stalemate include the Battle of Bloody Ridge (18 August – 15 September 1951), the 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), the Battle of Hill Eerie (21 March – 21 June 1952), the sieges of Outpost Harry (10–18 June 1953), the Battle of the Hook (28–9 May 1953), the Battle of Pork Chop Hill (23 March – 16 July 1953), and the Battle of Kumsong (13–27 July 1953).
Chinese troops suffered from deficient military equipment, serious logistical problems, overextended communication and supply lines, and the constant threat of UN bombers. All of these factors generally led to a rate of Chinese casualties that was far greater than the casualties suffered by UN troops. The situation became so serious that, on November 1951, Zhou Enlai called a conference in Shenyang to discuss the PVA’s logistical problems. At the meeting it was decided to accelerate the construction of railways and airfields in the area, to increase the number of trucks available to the army, and to improve air defense by any means possible. These commitments did little to directly address the problems confronting PVA troops.
In the months after the Shenyang conference Peng Dehuai went to Beijing several times to brief Mao and Zhou about the heavy casualties suffered by Chinese troops and the increasing difficulty of keeping the front lines supplied with basic necessities. Peng was convinced that the war would be protracted, and that neither side would be able to achieve victory in the foreseeable future. On 24 February 1952, the Military Commission, presided over by Zhou, discussed the PVA’s logistical problems with members of various government agencies involved in the war effort. After the government representatives emphasized their inability to meet the demands of the war, Peng, in an angry outburst, shouted: “You have this and that problem… You should go to the front and see with your own eyes what food and clothing the soldiers have! Not to speak of the casualties! For what are they giving their lives? We have no aircraft. We have only a few guns. Transports are not protected. More and more soldiers are dying of starvation. Can’t you overcome some of your difficulties?” The atmosphere became so tense that Zhou was forced to adjourn the conference. Zhou subsequently called a series of meetings, where it was agreed that the PVA would be divided into three groups, to be dispatched to Korea in shifts; to accelerate the training of Chinese pilots, to provide more anti-aircraft guns to the front lines; to purchase more military equipment and ammunition from the Soviet Union; to provide the army with more food and clothing; and, to transfer the responsibility of logistics to the central government.
According to the data from the U.S. Department of Defense, the United States suffered 33,686 battle deaths, along with 2,830 non-battle deaths during the Korean War and 8,176 missing in action. South Korea reported some 373,599 civilian and 137,899 military deaths Western sources estimate the PVA suffered about 400,000 killed and 486,000 wounded, while the KPA suffered 215,000 killed and 303,000 wounded.
Data from official Chinese sources, on the other hand, reported that the PVA had suffered 114,000 battle deaths, 34,000 non-battle deaths, 340,000 wounded, 7,600 missing and 21,400 captured during the war. Among those captured, about 14,000 defected to Taiwan while the other 7,110 were repatriated to China. Chinese sources also reported that North Korea had suffered 290,000 casualties, 90,000 captured and a “large” number of civilian deaths. In return, the Chinese and North Koreans estimated that about 390,000 soldiers from United States, 660,000 soldiers from South Korea and 29,000 other UN soldiers were “eliminated” from the battlefield. Recent scholarship has put the full death toll on all sides at just over 1.2 million.
Post-war, about 100,000 North Koreans were executed in purges. According to Rummel, forced labor and concentration camps were responsible for over one million deaths in North Korea from 1945 to 1987; others have estimated 400,000 deaths in concentration camps alone. Estimates based on the most recent North Korean census suggest that 240,000 to 420,000 people died as a result of the 1990s North Korean famine and that there were 600,000 to 850,000 unnatural deaths in North Korea from 1993 to 2008. The North Korean government has been accused of “crimes against humanity” for its alleged culpability in creating and prolonging the 1990s famine. A study by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age due to malnutrition.
Korean anti-Americanism after the war was fueled by the presence and behavior of American military personnel (USFK) and U.S. support for the authoritarian regime, a fact still evident during the country’s democratic transition in the 1980s. However, 74% of South Koreans have a favorable view of the U.S., making South Korea one of the most pro-American countries in the world.
In addition a large number of mixed race ‘G.I. babies’ (offspring of U.S. and other U.N. soldiers and Korean women) were filling up the country’s orphanages. Korean traditional society places significant weight on paternal family ties, bloodlines, and purity of race. Children of mixed race or those without fathers are not easily accepted in South Korean society. International adoption of Korean children began in 1954. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1952 legalized the naturalization of non-whites as American citizens, and made possible the entry of military spouses and children from South Korea after the Korean War. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially changed U.S. immigration policy toward non-Europeans, Koreans became one of the fastest growing Asian groups in the United States.