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The Korean War

1) Leaders involved
President Truman
President Eisenhower
General MacArthur
(Secretary General) Stalin
(Secretary General) Khruschev
Chairman Mao Tse-tung
General Peng Dehuai
DPRK (North)
General Kim Il Sung
Republic of Korea (South)
President Rhee Syngman

2) Before the war
1. Korea and her colonial history
In the late nineteenth century, there was a general race for colonies among the major imperial powers. Korea was caught in the conflict among China, Russia, and Japan as each tried to carve out spheres of influence for trade and pursued colonial ambitions. At the last, Japan seized control over Korea on February 1st, 1906, claiming "Modernity, Legality, and Power in Korea under Japanese Rule". Under Japanese rule, Koreans struggled to maintain their culture. The Japanese banned the teaching of the Korean language and history and destroyed, or even fabricated many historical documents. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to speak and teach in the Japanese language. Further, many Korean farmers were forced off their lands while others had to fulfill grain quotas for Japan's needs. Buildings were taken over for Japanese government purposes, and businesses were handed over to the interest of Japanese immigrants. In other words, the Japanese occupation of Korea often was very oppressive.

2. Liberation of Korea: Emerging Communist and Nationalists

Even under extreme oppression, Koreans enthusiastically debated at great length regarding the shape of Korea after her liberation from Japan. Korean nationalists wanted close ties to the West and called for reforms based on democracy and capitalism. Still others, influenced by Marxism, insisted Korea founded on communist ideals. Then on August 15th, 1945, the Japanese army that had occupied Korea for 35 years finally surrendered. It was the Soviet and American troops that liberated Korea. Despite various individuals and organizations’ claims for an independent Korean government, the Soviets and Americans failed to reach an agreement on a unified Korean government. As a result, two separate Korean governments were established along the 38th Parallel as a temporary measure: the Republic of Korea in Seoul, led by Rhee Syngman in the American zone, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Pyongyang, led by Kim Il Sung in the Soviet zone. Kim Il Sung was an ambitious leader. In March 1949 Kim went to Moscow, with his secret agenda to seek Stalin’s permission to invade the South. With successful communist revolution in China and detonation of Soviet atomic bomb, Stalin, confident that the US now lacked confidence in Asia, gave Kim approve to invade South Korea. And on June 25th, 1950, the North Korean Army launched its first attack early in the morning.

3)During the war

North Korea ...................//....vs................................South Korea
USSR and China
USA, UN Alliance Forces (of 16 countries, i.e. Britain, Canada, Australia, Turkey)

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops, with the support of the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea by crossing the 38th Parallel. This was the initial event that signaled the start of the Korean War. At the United Nations Security Council, the United States declared that this advancement should be considered as an act of military aggression and that North Korea should be forced to withdraw their troops from South Korea. US President Truman proposed to use military action, as necessary, to drive out the communist, North Korean troops from South Korea and prevent South Korea from falling into communism. This decision was able to be carried out more easily because of the Soviet Union’s absence at the UN meeting. At the time, the USSR was on a temporary (six-month) boycott of all UN activities, because the US did not permit People’s Republic, China’s new communist party under Mao’s leadership, to replace the past Chinese Nationalist government, in the seats that represented China in the UN. Thus, USSR was not present to support North Korea’s stand and could not veto this claim.

The United States led the United Nations in its first involvement as a “peacemaker,” in which active military measures were to be undertaken for “global collective security.” United States’ General Douglas MacArthur, who was the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, led this mission.

On July 1, 1950, North Korean troops captured Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. The first US troops shortly arrived on July 1, 1950 to support South Korea. By September 1950, most of South Korea (except an area around Busan) was under the control of the communist North Korean troops. The port of Busan played a significant role in the South Korean’s war supplies, as this was where they received supplies from the UN. General MacArthur’s first goal was to prevent this port from falling into the hands of the North Korean troops. North Korean troops were very close to Busan; however, this gave them less access to their war supplies. On September 15, 1950 General MacArthur led an attack on the North Koreans, aiming to cut the line of supplies from the North Koreans. He was successful, and the North Koreans were unable to defend, causing them to retreat back across the 38th Parallel.

Gaining confidence after this success, the South Korean military crossed the 38th Parallel. On October 7, 1950, General MacArthur commanded the US, UK, and Australian troops to also cross and support the South Korean troops; on October 19, 1950, the UN forces took control of Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. South Korean troops continued to pursue North Korean troops that retreated into China, after crossing the Yalu River. General MacArthur believed that China would not intervene if he chased after the North Koreans; however, on November 25, 1950, Chinese troops also became involved. Although General MacArthur planned the Chinese bridges of the Yalu River to be bombed, US President Truman opposed because he wanted to avoid enlarging the field of the conflict beyond Korea. The Chinese troops pushed the UN forces back across the 38th Parallel, and on January 4, 1951, Seoul was captured again, this time by the Chinese. However, UN forces regained Seoul back on May 1951 and reached the 38th Parallel again. General MacArthur proposed to cross over, yet, this time, the UN was not in favour of crossing again. This difference in perspectives was dominant between General MacArthur and US President Truman, who later removed General MacArthur from his position and replaced him with Commander Matthew Ridgway.

During the course of the Korean War, the President of the US changed from Truman to Eisenhower, in January 1953, and USSR leader Stalin died on March 1953. From April 20 – May 3, 1953, “Operation Little Switch” is carried out at Panmunjom, in which North Korean and Chinese prisoners are exchanged with South Korean and UN prisoners. “Operation Big Switch” occurs for six weeks, starting from August 5, 1953, in which 12,000 prisoners are returned to the UN forces, and 75,000 prisoners are returned to the Communists. On July 10, 1951, the UN forces and North Korea start peace negotiations. However, it isn’t until July 27, 1953 that they sign an armistice at Panmunjom.

4) Outcome of the war
The armistice was signed between the UN forces and North Korea, after the war has evolved into a stalemate. Although the war is temporarily over, the permanent peace treaty was never signed. Thus, North and South Korea are technically still in a state of war. The 38th Parallel has once again been chosen as the border separating the communist North from democratic South Korea. This border not only serves as a division of political beliefs, but also acts as an emotional barrier for numerous families, who have been separated during the Korean War and can no longer be reunited.

North Korean Side
South Korean Side
North Korea
215,000 dead
303,000 wounded
South Korea
137,899 dead
450,742 wounded
282 dead
36,940 dead
92,134 wounded
152,000 dead
383,500 wounded
1,078 dead
2,674 wounded
312 dead
1,212 wounded
Total Civilians on Both North & South Korea: 2.5 million

5) After the war

North Korea
South Korea
Capital City
First Leader
Kim Il-Sung
Rhee Syngman
Type of Government
Communist, dictatorship
Capitalist, democracy
Political Influence
North Korea’s economy, culture, and education have drastically deteriorated due to its totalitarian state, where only select, high officials receive benefits, whereas local citizens are restricted to and live in poverty. The country is stuck in a time warp and it is referred to as the “Hermit Kingdom,” because it is a closed society, in which many internal events and information are kept hidden from foreign eyes. Citizens are constantly manipulated by the government’s propaganda; and they hold a godly image of their leaders (ex. Kim Il-Sung was referred to as the “Great Leader,” and Kim Jong-Il, his son, who succeeded him, as “Our Father”). The government’s biggest investment is in military and nuclear weapons development, where they spend $8.8 billion.
Gradual advancements have been made in economy, culture, technology, and education. Since 1960s, it has improved its status from once being one of the poorest Asian countries to a powerful, wealthy nation in the world, having now the third largest economy in Asia and the thirteenth largest economy in the world (ex. major exporter of cars and electronic goods, such as Hyundai and Samsung). Korean pop culture (known as K-pop) has increasingly become popular over the world, enabling Korean culture to be more well-known. Education is greatly valued within South Korea, and in international OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) rankings, South Korea has been rewarded with high results, ranking first in reading and math, and third in science in 2009.
The chances of unification of Korea decline as each Korea engages in differing routes, since the end of the Korean War. Because North Korea lags behind South Korea in all areas except for the military and only has one quarter of South Korea’s GDP, the costs of unification would be massive, as great measures need to be taken in order to bridge this financial gap.

6) Context to the Cold War
“Korea is a small country thousands of miles away. But what is happening there is important to all the Americans. The fact that the communist forces have invaded Korea is a warning that there may be similar acts of aggression in other parts of the world.” ─President H. S. Truman

“The feeling that I had was that the military operation of this magnitude could not have possibly taken without the support of the Russian military. In other worlds, I was concluded right at the moment that this was a something happening in the context to the Cold War.”─Niles Bond

Although many people may assume that the Korean War was a civil war between North and South Korea, it was in truth, a conflict fought indirectly between the US and USSR and their opposing political beliefs (capitalism vs. communism). Each superpower supported the Korea that shared a similar politics; US supported democratic South Korea and USSR supported communist North Korea. Knowing that if these two superpowers were to engage in a full-out war against each other, then it would possibly result in another world war, the two countries staged their wars in the conflicts of other countries. They used their reasons of spreading or eliminating communism as a justification for their involvement in Korea, a third-party country that was struggling for unification. This war was also the first time for the UN to demonstrate its role as a peacemaker and actively being involved in preserving world peace and order.

*Context to the Cold War: Cause of the War*
Superficially, it was Kim Jung Il, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) who boldly visited Moscow to seek Stalin’s permission to invade the south in March, 1949 in his desire to a unified Korea. However, both sides were to equally blame for starting the war:

  1. Korean leaders and politicians were politically divided, and therefore could not maintain unity. Nationalists wanted close ties to the West and supported capitalism. Others, influenced by Marxism, insisted Korea founded on communist ideals.
  2. As the Japanese army that had occupied Korea for 35 years finally surrendered on August 15th, 1945, the Soviet and American troops temporarily occupied Korea. Despite various individuals and organizations’ claims for an independent Korean government, the Soviets and Americans failed to reach an agreement on a unified Korean government. As a result, two separate Korean governments were established along the 38th Parallel as a temporary measure:
  • The Republic of Korea, led by Rhee Syngman, in the American zone (South)
  • Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, led by Kim Il Sung, in the Soviet zone (North)


Works Cited
Encyclopedia of The Korean War by Spencer C. Tucker (pages 315 – 318, 624 – 629, 656 – 664)
I Remember Korea by Linda Granfield (pages 121 – 124)
North Korea by Christopher Salter (pages 9 – 15, 53 – 69, 71 – 79, 95 – 100)