|It never changes|
|A view to kill|
“”If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help.
|—General Secretary Joseph Stalin to President Kim Il-Sung of the DPRK, April 1950|
|—General Douglas MacArthur, 1951.|
The Korean War (25 June 1950 - 27 July 1953) was an internationalized civil war fought between North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union and Red China) and South Korea (backed by the United Nations but mostly the United States). It was the first of many proxy clusterfucks of the dick-swinging contest between the US and USSR that is now known as the Cold War. It has often been bitterly called "The Forgotten War" by many of the Americans who fought in it but felt their experiences were forgotten. It's not really forgotten by the Koreans who saw one of East Asia's deadliest conflicts, with millions of civilians dead (with a worse proportional civilian death toll than World War II or the Vietnam War) and all major cities bombed, and the war is still not formally concluded, but just in recess.
After the defeat of Japan's empire in World War Two, Korea was "liberated" from Japanese colonial rule and split into two halves. The northern chunk was the relatively more industrialized region ruled by Kim il-Sung as a communist dictatorship, and the southern chunk was a dirt-poor mostly backwards agricultural region ruled by Syngman Rhee as an anticommunist dictatorship. Both governments claimed to be the sole authority in Korea, and both governments refused to acknowledge the other. Tensions exploded into warfare in 1950 when North Korea's military invaded the south with the blessing of Stalin and Mao; the UN responded by authorizing a military expedition to stop them. After a years-long back-and-forth, the war finally ended with an armistice agreement establishing a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the Koreas, but no peace treaty was ever signed. This lack of a peace treaty is unfortunate, as the North occasionally likes to sabre-rattle by pretending to nullify the armistice and reenter a state of war.
Half-a-century later, South Korea has evolved into a modern and prosperous democracy while North Korea is a destitute totalitarian hellhole whose leaders amuse themselves by firing rockets, testing nuclear weapons, and pissing off whoever happens to be the American president at the given moment.
Another glorious success story for communism!
Division of Korea
At the outset of World War Two, Korea had been a colony of Japan since 1910 and had experienced harsh military rule. The war saw conditions become even worse for the Koreans, who were forced to work as slaves in Japanese factories, fight on the front lines of the war, and, in the case of attractive women, even become sex slaves (called "comfort women") for Japanese soldiers. During this period, Syngman Rhee studied in the United States in the hopes of convincing the government to back the cause of Korean nationalism; he returned to Korea in 1945 to a hero's welcome from the conservative military government the US had placed in charge of South Korea.
Near the end of the war, the Soviets invaded northern China and made their way into Korea. The effort to establish loyal leftist movements in Korea was complicated by the fact that Korea had few leftists, none of whom were willing to be Russian puppets; the Soviets instead encouraged the Korean leftist diaspora abroad to return home and appointed Kim il-Sung as a leader loyal to Moscow. Fearing that the Soviets would be able to conquer all of Korea, the US proposed a division across the 38th parallel pending a reunification agreement which the Soviets quickly accepted. In 1948, however, the Soviets refused to participate in the UN's plan for democratic elections for a unified Korean government, leading the UN to rule that Syngman Rhee's government was the sole legitimate authority on the peninsula.
Collaboration with Imperial Japan
Chinilpa (친일파) means Koreans who cooperated with Imperial Japan. Chinilpa means "Pro-Japanese Group" in Korean language. They were hated by many Koreans because they suppressed Koreans by cooperating with Japan's colonialist policies. The Soviet Civil Administration and the North Korean government purged police and military Chinilpa, but the USAMGIK and the South Korean government did not purge them and appointed them as they were. In particular, Kim Il-sung was angered by the fact that during the colonial period of Imperial Japan, imperial Japanese collaborator soldiers and generals who tried to hunt anti-Japanese guerrillas related to Kim Il-sung and Kim were key figures in the South Korean troops.
"The Loss of China"
“”There is not a single unit in the United Democratic Forces now driving the Kuomintang from Manchuria that does not have my troops in it [...] at the end of the Manchurian campaign these troops will be seasoned, trained veterans. When the Americans and the Russians withdraw, we will be able to liberate [southern] Korea immediately.
|—Ch'oe Yonggon, DPRK Defence Minister|
After the war with Japan, the Nationalists and Communist governments of China went back to war with each other. This time around, the communists had a number of advantages: the Stalinist-backed North Koreans provided supplies and manpower, and the Soviets handed over the recently "liberated" Japanese Manchuria over to the communists to act as a base of operations.
In the US, the so-called "China lobby" attempted to convince the Truman administration to send troops to China on behalf of the Nationalists. The eventual victory of the Chinese communists became a major political issue in the US, with critics blaming the "avoidable catastrophe" on the Truman administration. "The Loss of China" entered US political lexicon as the event was used by Joseph McCarthy to rile up a new Red Scare. McCarthy gave speeches claiming that "Communists and queers" had infiltrated the State Department and sabotaged the US' attempts to aid the Nationalists. These conspiracy theories were inflamed further with the publication of The Shanghai Conspiracy by General Willoughby, a book which claimed that a Soviet-aligned cabal was taking over the US government and had been responsible for Mao's victory.
“”The Korean War was fought for a just cause. After North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, U.S. forces were rushed into battle from Japan, joined later by many thousands of Americans, 36,000 of whom lost their lives in battle to defend freedom.
|—US Rep. William Cohen, 2001.|
North Korea invades
Multiple strategic factors tipped the global balance in favor of communism in the months prior to the Korean War. Most significantly, in 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear weapon, ending the US' monopoly on the Bomb and removing the fear that they could be nuked with no chance of retaliating. And, of course, the communists had come to power in China, putting the Korean peninsula on the border of two friendly commie countries. That event had a secondary importance; Stalin reasoned that if the United States had not sent troops to China, they would be even less likely to send them to Korea. His assessment here was bolstered when the United States Congress bickered over and temporarily refused to pass a foreign aid bill for South Korea.
With this in mind, Kim il-Sung sought approval from Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong for his plan to invade the South; both leaders signed on and guaranteed a supply of arms and equipment in support. Their policy of arming North Korea quickly led to the North gaining military superiority over the South; the United States supplied Rhee's army with small arms but no armor or heavy weaponry.
The North invaded in June, 1950, catching both South Korea and the United States completely by surprise. Kim's secret preparations had paid off, and he had managed to get his army to the 38th parallel without being noticed. This example, along with the Tet Offensive when the Vietnamese managed a similar feat, just goes to show how shockingly bad US foreign intelligence is when it truly matters.
Due to the complete surprise of the attack, South Korea was unable to marshal its defenses in time to save its own capital city of Seoul; Rhee and his government were forced to evacuate the city. The only really effective resistance was put up by UN-aligned air forces in the area, such as Australia's No. 77 Squadron (the poor bastards had been on the verge of returning home). The Rhee government, meanwhile, blew up a bridge to cover its retreat while refugees were crossing it and killed hundreds of their own people.
Hand-wringing in Washington
Stalin had actually been correct about the US's reluctance to intervene in Korea. The Truman administration had been most focused on Europe, a priority seen most keenly by the 1949 negotiation and signing of the treaty that created NATO. Apart from a simple lack of preparation, the State Department worried that the attack on Korea was actually a diversion and that the Soviets would strike somewhere else in Europe once the US committed the bulk of its forces to Korea. Truman's advisers were most concerned about Yugoslavia being a target of the Soviets; it was not aligned with the West, and Josip Tito was a personal enemy of Stalin's. This scenario was deemed unacceptable due to the proximity of Yugoslavia to NATO-member Italy and the Western-aligned Greece, which had recently emerged from a civil war against communism.
Japan is the factor that settled the decision to intervene. Truman's advisers reckoned that a friendly Korea was essential to the security of Japan, which the United States had guaranteed and certainly did not want to expose to a communist threat. Adding to that several days later was a communication from within the Soviet government indicating that the Russians were not about to commit ground troops to Korea either, allowing the US to keep its involvement limited.
The UN strikes back
After the North's invasion, the UN Security Council quickly adopted Resolution 83, authorizing international military action to defend South Korea. The Soviet Union, despite having veto-power in the Security Council, declined to use it. Why? The Soviets were boycotting the Security Council to protest the fact that Taiwan still had the Security Council vote which they felt should have belonged to the People's Republic. Far from being a mistake, this was actually a gamble on the part of the Soviets; they hoped to draw the Western powers into a Korean quagmire while also making them out to be the aggressors and to deprive the UN Security Council of legitimacy.
With international intervention approved, sixteen nations sent fighting forces, and five more sent military hospitals and ambulances. The largest contributor was the United States, whose forces reached a maximum of 140,000 soldiers. However, it would be offensive and stupid to chalk the war up as an entirely American effort. Along with the US, the countries which committed soldiers to Korea were:
Meanwhile, these nations sent hospitals and medical personnel:
International assistance arrived just in time, as the North Koreans had pushed US forces into a pocket surrounding Busan. The UN safe-zone around Busan allowed South Korea's forces to recover while UN forces launched counter-attacks; General MacArthur's naval invasion at Inchon cut off the North Korean forces and allowed the allies to break out of their defensive lines and begin to advance.
China has logged in
Having reversed the defeats suffered during the opening phase of the war, the allies made the mistake of pursuing the North Koreans back into their homeland, largely at the urging of General MacArthur. This essentially forced China's hand. Mao and Zhou Enlai were not only concerned about the threat posed by the northward allied advance, but they also realized that if the West captured North Korea, China would be forced to divert huge amounts of manpower and equipment to guard their border, an effort China's war-torn economy could not afford. The most egregious fact here is that Mao's government straight-up told the UN that they were about to intervene in the war for "national security" reasons, but Truman chose to dismiss the warning as an empty threat.
Thus, China snuck huge numbers of "volunteer" soldiers across the border into North Korea (and once again going largely unnoticed by US intelligence). Chinese forces launched devastating surprise attacks during the winter of 1950-51, and the US and her friends got to learn how ugly it is to fight huge numbers of commies while it's snowing outside. The Chinese attacks were initially very effective, and they even managed to capture Seoul once again. Being caught off-guard by a numerically superior enemy left the UN forces with no choice: get the fuck out of there. UN forces retreated southward, but were able to eventually halt the Chinese advance south of the 38th parallel. At this point, the front lines stopped changing so rapidly.
MacArthur loses his goddamn mind
“”The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.
|—General Omar Bradley, reflecting on MacArthur's shenanigans|
During the war, General MacArthur began announcing his plans to push into Northeast China. However, the last thing Truman wanted was an all-out war in Asia, as that would distract him from his primary concern: defending Western Europe. MacArthur went on to repeatedly and publicly complain that Truman was tying his hands by not allowing him to attack north into China. The conflicting statements from Truman and MacArthur were confusing to ally and enemy alike: who was deciding American military strategy, and why the fuck was that person allowing the other to mouth off? Things came to a head when Truman fired MacArthur's uppity ass, an unprecedented act which caused public outrage and Congressional inquiries. Ultimately, it was the section quote delivered by General Bradley in front of the Senate paused the furor. However, classified testimony from General Bradley was even more damning: he revealed that the US' military capabilities were stretched thin, and that an invasion of Manchuria could get the Russians involved, a catastrophic scenario that could see the entirety of East Asia, if not practically the whole of continental Eurasia, lost to a Sino-Soviet attack that the US had no way of stopping.
Wanting to invade Manchuria? That only scratches the surface of MacArthur's batshit insanity. The good general wanted to drop between 30 and 50 atomic bombs across China's supply depots in Manchuria, which would cut off Chinese troops in Korea and eventually allow MacArthur to lead a crusade to retake China for the Nationalists. In other words, MacArthur came up with one of the worst military plans in US history, one that almost certainly would have resulted in Mutually assured destruction.
Accept the bloody ceasefire, you idiots
After two years of rapid movement, the war settled into something reminiscent of the First World War: trenches, no-mans-land, minefields, barbed wire, and lots and lots of artillery fire. Tiring of the stalemated conflict, but unable to agree on actual peace conditions, all three major powers desired a ceasefire.
The Chinese intervention very quickly convinced the allies that a negotiated settlement was the only way to end the war, although Rhee's government opposed that conclusion. Negotiations to end the war resulted in a ceasefire in 1953 which allowed both sides to exchange prisoners, but little progress was made after that. Dickering continued over the next two years while the ceasefire was often violated. The 1954 Geneva Conference, which divided Indochina, also attempted to find a settlement for Korea. It was not successful.
Luckily, the US elected Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and the president-elect personally visited the front lines in Korea to assess for himself the possibility of winning in Korea. He spent days touring trenches and bunkers, and he concluded that "small attacks on small hills" would not bring any victory, and that "we could not stand forever on a static front and continue to accept casualties without any visible result.”
Convinced that the war needed to end ASAP, Ike began threatening to expand the war to involve the Nationalist Chinese and even insinuated that he would start using nukes if the commies didn't agree to an armistice. The Soviets very much didn't want that, particularly since the leadership was busy engaging in a power struggle following the death of Stalin, and they pressured the North to just accept the goddamn armistice already. The armistice terms created the existing border between the North and South as well as the demilitarized zone.
War crimes and atrocities
There were numerous atrocities and war throughout the Korean War committed by both sides.
UN and South Korea
War crimes committed by South Korea began on day one. Syngman Rhee's government had previously enrolled 300,000 suspected leftist sympathizers in a reeducation camp program; when North Korea invaded, Rhee's forces executed many of these people by marching them to trenches and shooting them so they rolled in. General MacArthur knew about the ongoing massacre as did top military brass and the Pentagon. Information about the massacre was classified and filed away; the US did nothing to stop it. Estimates of the total count range from 100,000 to 200,000. The British, however, took action by seizing execution zones and were able to save some lives.
In the early days of the war, the flood of refugees heading southward presented a problem for US forces: how did they know North Korean agents weren’t being slipped in among them? Instead of setting up any sort of screening process, the United States military's solution to this problem was to shoot any refugees who approached their positions, including women and children, killing in total about 400 people.
The U.S. military dropped more bombs on Korea (635,000 tons), including napalm (32,557 tons), than were deployed during the entirety of the Pacific Theater of World War II. These bombing campaigns turned Korea into what the head of the UN Korean Relief and Reconstruction Agency called "the most devastated land and its people the most destitute in the history of modern warfare."
South Korean and UN forces fought over Korea as a total war. Between three and four million Koreans died, six to seven million became refugees, and the UN estimates that about 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, and 600,000 homes were destroyed. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay estimated that the bombing campaigns and fighting resulted in at least 3 million deaths, 20% of the Korean population, and caused the destruction of "every town in North Korea".
North Korea and China
North Korean forces also committed numerous atrocities. Most infamous were the massacres committed at hospitals, such as the Seoul National University Hospital massacre where North Koreans killed about a thousand doctors, nurses, and wounded soldiers. North Korean policy was to forcibly recruit South Korean civilians using kidnapping, impressment, and even murder for those who refused.
North Korea routinely abused, tortured, and massacred Western and South Korean POWs, this on top of using them as slaves. While the Chinese rarely executed the prisoners they took, they also didn't feed them well either, and the resulting starvation became a tool used by Chinese to force prisoners to accept communist indoctrination. The use of indoctrination strategies by both China and North Korea against Western POWs was disturbingly successful, to the point that the US military created the Code of Conduct on how soldiers are expected to behave when they are taken prisoner.
Mutual war crimes
The "Sinchon Massacre of civilians" (신천 양민학살) is an incident in which anti-communists and communists massacred each other. Although North Korea distorts that the incident was led by the U.S. military, most of the Sinchon Massacre was led by right-wing Christians from South Korea. North Korean and Chinese forces carried out a retaliatory massacre. (Most neutral scholars believe the Sinchon massacre has nothing to do with the United States.)
“”Over the next three years of fighting, about 37,000 Americans lost their lives. They fought for the freedom of Koreans they did not even know, and thanks to their sacrifices, the peace and democracy of the republic were protected...
|—Lee Myung-bak, South Korean president from 2008 to 2013.|
“”Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — twenty percent of the population of Korea as direct casualties of war, or from starvation and exposure?
|—General Curtis LeMay.|
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 is 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.
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