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Although it was fought on the Korean Peninsula, it was actually more of a test run for future wars like the Vietnam War — in other words, it was a dick-swinging match between the Communist governments of China and the Soviet Union, and the capitalist countries operating under the aegis of the United Nations (most notably the United States).
The Korean civil war can be traced (effectively) to World War II, when Imperial Japan conquered the Korean Empire in 1910 with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty (Korea was already militarily occupied, and was about as much of a free agent in the decision as France was in the actions of Vichy 20 years later). After WWII ended Korea was divided into North-South along the 38th North Latitude, commonly called the 38th Parallel. The north of the country was under Soviet control, and the South was under the control of the US. This system was basically the same as what happened in Germany post-WWII.
The war actually started in 1950 when North Korean soldiers stormed across the 38th parallel. The United States convened an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and got a resolution allowing for the US to fight against the communist forces (the Soviet Union could have vetoed the resolution, however, they were boycotting the UN at the time and Security Council Resolution 84 passed). In the early stages of the war North Korean soldiers rapidly advanced south, capturing Seoul (the capital) and forcing the South back to a relatively small pocket around the city of Pusan. The tide of the war changed when US Army General Douglas MacArthur led an amphibious assault led by US Marines at Incheon, and the UN forces managed to push the North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border.
 The five-star general fucks up
“”The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.
|—General Omar Bradley, reflecting on McArthur's shenanigans|
During the war, General MacArthur began announcing his plans to push into Northeast China. However, President Harry Truman did not think that it was proper to expand the war into China (citing the Security Council resolution which only gave them authorization to fight in Korea). MacArthur did not want to listen to orders, believing China was just "temporarily allied with Soviet Russia" and that Stalin wouldn't fully support them if they were invaded. The Chinese, believing that an American invasion was imminent and troubled by the influx of retreating North Korean troops and refugees, launched a surprise attack against the UN forces, something MacArthur boasted would never happen.
He was relieved of command as a result. Because of his previous military achievements, the narrative that he was "betrayed by the politicians" has been etched into American culture, despite the possibility that he could have started World War III if someone didn't try to hold him back (although people are finally starting to realize this, thankfully).
Eventually the situation stabilized along the 38th parallel and a bloody stalemate set in. In 1953, the two sides met at Panmunjom to accept a fragile ceasefire.
Technically speaking, the Korean War has never actually ended. Since 1953, the peninsula has lived under a ceasefire agreement and not a proper peace treaty. That's why there are still heavily armed North Korean troops staring down heavily armed American and South Korean troops along the "Demilitarized Zone." This is tested every now and then, typically by North Koreans who take potshots at US and ROK soldiers or use their submarines to sink ROK navy ships. The DMZ is so heavily fortified that North Koreans trying to flee south have to sneak into China first if they want to make it safely.
The Korean War has been called a "police action," although very few speeding tickets were issued. In US military terms "police action" is when troops are deployed without a formal declaration of war. This is possible because the POTUS can deploy troops without having to declare war as a part of the balance of power. These actions are (normally) things like enforcing peace treaties, aiding in the enforcement of international law, and protecting US officials, civilians and territory. That it also used as a term for entire wars that were never declared is usually ignored.
Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain it was debated in the West whether or not Stalin actually gave the order to Kim Il Sung to commence the invasion of the South. Later records indicated that Stalin "planned, prepared, and initiated" the war after occupying North Korea and setting up its current government in 1945. The war cost nearly a million Korean and Chinese lives, and possibly 2.5 million lives in all, almost all of whom died as a result of the decision by Mao Zedong to militarily intervene in order to save North Korea from collapse.
- ↑ Why is Korea the "Forgotten War"?, American History
- ↑ The text of UNSC 84, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- ↑ The full quote on Bartelby
- ↑ You could technically argue that he was later proven correct in regards to the Sino-Soviet split, but in that case it was a matter of the Soviet Union not being hardline enough for Mao's taste (not the other way around).
- ↑ There was also rumors about the disagreement over the usage of nuclear weapons, but no documented evidence exists whether either Truman or MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons. They have a whole article at Wikipedia on this.
- ↑ "What are the chances for Chinese or Soviet interference?" "Very little. Had they interfered in the first or second months it would have been decisive. We are no longer fearful of their intervention." Whoops.
- ↑ Kind of like The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3.
- ↑ The President's News Conference, June 29, 1950, UC Santa Barbara
- ↑ Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War, University of Minnesota, Morris
- ↑ Korea and the 38th Parallel, National Geographic