Over the course of recorded history, mankind has created, and survived, a large number of global catastrophes. Out of all these catastrophes, the most devastating was the Second World War. The scale of its barbaric and treacherous destruction was unprecedented. As the parties to the war refused to back down, multiple lives were lost every minute in some parts of the world. When the dust settled, 85 million people had perished and many more had become homeless. Those who were fortunate enough to survive lived the rest of their lives under the weight of unbearable trauma. The memories of such a brutal and punishing global event should have been enough to stir the conscience of warmongers. War should have been denounced as an instrument of achieving political goals. This was not to happen. As the emergence of the cold war became inevitable, forces clashed on the Korean peninsula, and it was North Korea vs South Korea leading to the Korean War of 1950, less than 5 years after the end of World War II. 

To understand the Korean War (1950-53), it is important to be aware of the historical background of the region. 

At the start of the 20th century, Asia saw the rise of a resurgent Japan with unquenchable imperial ambitions. Japan had set out to conquer Asia. In line with this policy, it invaded the Korean peninsula in 1910. This act of Japan antagonized China, its all-weather nemesis. But China was far too occupied with its own domestic turmoil to prevent the invasion from happening. In fact, towards the late 30s, Japan managed to invade large tracts of China as well. 

But in August 1945, the Japanese dream of Asian domination came to a crashing end as it was defeated by the allied forces. Soviet forces marched in from the North to liberate a part of Korea while the southern part was liberated by US forces. The area liberated by the Soviets was designated as North Korea while the US-liberated area was named as South Korea. Hence, the Korean peninsula was divided into two parts along the 38th parallel. It is important to note here that this division was meant to be temporary.

UN had decided that after a degree of political and economic normalcy was restored, free elections would be held to elect a single, unified government for the entire Korean peninsula. But this proposal never morphed into reality. While democratic elections were held in South Korea, its northern counterpart became an ally of the Soviet Union and structured its institutions along the lines of communism. No agreement was reached and the artificial division continued. A reason for this was that the Soviet-backed leader of North Korea (Kim Il Sung) and the US-backed leader of South Korea (Syngman Rhee) both claimed leadership of the entire peninsula. They scorned at each other and wanted to gain full control over the peninsula by unifying the two Koreas. A clash was imminent. But despite the possibility of a war, both Soviet and US forces withdrew from the peninsula in early 1949.

The stage was set. On paper, the two Koreas represented two sovereign nations, however, their relationship had a strain, it was North Korea vs South Korea. But the situation was considerably more complicated than that. Not only were the leaderships of these nations at odds with each other, but this conflict also represented a much larger ideological confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union. With the victory of Mao’s communist party in the Chinese Civil war, the situation in the region had become even more confusing and uncertain. Perhaps one of the first triggers of the Korean war was a statement made by Dean Acheson, American Secretary of State, in 1950. This statement implied that in the case of military conflict in the peninsula, the American involvement would be restricted to extending economic and moral support to the state of South Korea. As far as all the parties were concerned, he effectively ruled out American military intervention in the peninsula under any circumstances.

This served to bolster the confidence of Kim Il Sung and Stalin. The latter had faced global humiliation because of the Berlin airlift and was determined to teach the US-led bloc a lesson. In line with this perception, Stalin supplied tanks and other types of equipment to North Korea and gave Kim Il Sung his blessings for an invasion. Mao, who wasn’t a fan of the Soviet Union despite their ideological alliance, reluctantly assented to the plan. Stalin did not trust Mao one bit and was quite unsettled by Mao’s claims of autonomy and refusals to accept the Soviet Union as the communist leader of the world. Therefore, Stalin secretly believed that if the USA intervened, China wouldn’t sit quietly and would seek the support of the Soviet Union to resist the US army. This would increase China’s reliance on, and submission to, the Soviet Union. Hence, the situation was a win-win for the Soviets regardless of whether the USA intervened or not. 

In this backdrop, Kim Il Sung launched a major offensive against South Korea in June 1950. The strength of the North Korean forces was overwhelming in the face of the brave, yet fragile, defense of South Korea. As North Korean forces continued to march on, a South Korean defeat became inevitable. Faced with this situation, Truman backtracked on the statement made by his Secretary of State and decided to militarily support South Korea. He believed that if South Korea was allowed to be defeated, the communist expansion would continue until all the nations in Asia were under its firm control. This was the inception of the ‘domino theory’ which was to shape US foreign policy for the next 40 years. The South Korean domino could not be allowed to fall. USA moved a resolution in the UN Security Council to seek permission to use force to repel North Korean aggression. The resolution was passed unopposed. 

A Soviet veto would have stalled this resolution but its delegation remained absent to protest against the UN’s decision of giving a permanent Security Council seat to Taiwan (Republic of China) instead of the People’s Republic of China. A UN coalition force, overwhelmingly American, was formed with fourteen countries contributing their soldiers. This force was placed under the leadership of the great US general, Douglas MacArthur.

In September, just as North Korea was about to invade the entire peninsula, the coalition forces arrived in Pusan (South-East part of the peninsula) to resist its march. After thwarting North Korean attempts to capture the country, MacArthur ordered an ambitious amphibious landing in Inchon to outflank the North Korean forces. Inchon is located towards the Northern end of South Korea. The landing was successful and the North Korean forces were sandwiched between the coalition forces. By the end of September, South Korea had been liberated. The UN objective had been achieved. But Truman wanted more. He sought, and got, permission from the UN to move into North Korea, unify the country and hold free elections. By October, the UN forces had captured Pyongyang and marched on towards the Yalu River, the North Korean frontier with China. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese foreign minister, had warned of Chinese retaliation in the event of the capture of North Korea but his warnings had been ignored by Truman. 

The Americans believed that China’s People’s Liberation Army was not equipped to fight the relatively advanced US forces and was tired of its exertions in the Chinese Civil War. They were wrong. In November, China, with a force of 300,000 soldiers, launched a major offensive against the UN forces and drove them out of North Korea in quick fashion. By mid-January 1951, the Chinese forces had crossed the 38th parallel and captured Seoul. This shocked MacArthur who famously claimed that the only way to stop China was to nuke Manchuria. After this radical suggestion, MacArthur was removed from his command by Truman who did not want a large-scale war. The UN forces managed to recover from the initial Chinese onslaught and once again reclaimed South Korea in June 1951. Thereafter, peace talks were convened that went on for two years. Finally, In July 1953, an armistice was signed that brought an official halt to the hostilities. The 38th parallel was recognized as the border between North and South Korea and this division continues to exist even today. 

The Korean war had devastating consequences. About 4 million people lost their lives and many more were rendered homeless. Even though the Korean war ended in a military stalemate, there were widespread political consequences. Firstly, it announced the emergence of China as a major power that had prevented the US forces from overrunning North Korea. China, building on this confidence, would prove to be a major player in the Cold War. The USA claimed that it had successfully managed to stop the expansion of communism and used this example to intervene in many more civil wars during the cold war era, most notably in Vietnam. Moreover, many hardliners in the USA claimed that Truman had lost the opportunity to invade and decimate Mao’s China by not giving in to MacArthur’s suggestions. This perception was one of the founding blocks of McCarthyism. In this shrewd game of geopolitics, it was the Korean people who had lost the most. The trauma of the Korean War which pitted North Korea and South Korea against each other continues to live on in the minds of the Korean people. 

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