Korean War

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Editor: Stanley I. Kutler
Date: 2003
From: Dictionary of American History(Vol. 4. 3rd ed.)
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 3,001 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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Page 544


KOREAN WAR. The Korean War began on 25 June 1950, when forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) attacked southward across the thirty-eighth parallel against the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Trained and armed by the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC) and substantially out-numbering

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Korean War

the South Koreans along the front, the North Koreans advanced rapidly, capturing Seoul, the ROK capital, on 28 June.

The U.S. administration of Harry S. Truman reacted sharply. With Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson taking the lead in advising the commander-in-chief, the United States rushed the Korean issue to the United Nations Security Council in New York. The Soviet Union was boycotting that body over its refusal to grant China's seat to the recently founded PRC under Mao Zedong, thus making possible the quick passage of U.S.-drafted resolutions on 25 and 27 June. The first called for a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of DPRK forces north of the thirty-eighth parallel, the second for assistance from member states to the ROK "necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area." Already the United States was aiding the ROK with arms, ammunition, and air and naval forces. On 30 June, as the North Koreans advanced south of Seoul, Truman committed to the battle U.S. combat troops stationed in Japan. On 7 July the UN Security Council passed another U.S.-drafted resolution creating a United Nations Command (UNC) in Korea under American leadership. Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur, the commander-in-chief of U.S. Forces, Far East, to head the UNC.

The Korean War lasted for over three years. Although the United States and ROK provided over 90 percent of the manpower on the UN side, fourteen other governments sent forces of some kind and unofficially Japan provided hundreds of laborers in critical Korean industries and in its former colony's harbors operating American vessels. On the North Korean side, the PRC eventually committed over a million troops, and the Soviet Union contributed large-scale matériel assistance and hundreds of pilots and artillery personnel. United States forces suffered in battle alone over 142,000 casualties, including 33,000 deaths; the Chinese nearly 900,000 casualties, including 150,000 deaths. Koreans on both sides endured far greater losses. Total casualties in the war, military and civilian combined, numbered over 3 million.

Origins of the War

The war originated in the division of the peninsula in August 1945 by the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea had been under Japanese rule since early in the century. American leaders believed that, with its defeat in WORLD WAR II, Japan should lose its empire but that Koreans would need years of tutelage before being prepared to govern themselves. The United States surmised that a multipower trusteeship over the peninsula, to involve itself, the Soviet Union, China, and perhaps Great Britain, would provide Koreans with the necessary preparation while averting the great-power competition that had disrupted northeast Asia a half century before. Yet as the Pacific war approached its end, the Allied powers had not reached precise agreements on Korea. On the eve of Japan's surrender, President Truman proposed to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin that their governments' forces occupy Korea, with the thirty-eighth parallel as the dividing line between them. Stalin agreed.

At the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in December 1945, the United States did advance a trustee-ship proposal, but the Soviets watered it down to include merely negotiations toward trusteeship in a joint commission made up of representatives of the two occupation commands in Korea. The new body soon became stalemated, adjourning in May 1946. The Americans aligned with the Korean right in the south, while the Soviets sided with the extreme left in the north. Despite a second attempt to resolve differences in the joint commission in the spring and summer of 1947, the Soviet-American stalemate continued, as the escalating COLD WAR in Europe and the Middle East dampened prospects for accommodation in other areas. In September the United States referred the Korean issue to the UN General Assembly.

By this time South Korea was in considerable turmoil. Since the beginning of the occupation, the Americans had favored conservative Korean groups who had either collaborated with the Japanese or spent most of the period of Japan's rule in exile. The economic division of

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On the Offensive. An American tank crests a hill, followed by U.S. Army troops. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION On the Offensive. An American tank crests a hill, followed by U.S. Army troops. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

the country, the influx of over a million Koreans into the territory south of the thirty-eighth parallel from Japan, Manchuria, and North Korea, and poorly conceived occupation policies combined to produce widespread discontent. Meanwhile, the extreme right, led by Syngman Rhee, agitated aggressively for establishment of an independent government in the south. With support in Congress waning for the U.S. occupation, the Truman administration decided to refer the Korean issue to the United Nations.

The Soviets refused to cooperate in creating a unified government in Korea, so the United States persuaded the international organization to supervise elections below the thirty-eighth parallel. These occurred on 10 May 1948, and the boycott of them by leftist and some rightist leaders ensured a victory for Rhee and his allies. When the ROK came into being on 15 August, Rhee stood as its president and the conservative Democratic party dominated the National Assembly. Less than a month later, the Soviet Union brought into existence the DPRK in the north, led by the Communist Kim Il Sung as premier. Confident of the relative strength of their creation, the Soviets withdrew their occupation forces at the end of the year. Given the widespread turmoil in the south, which included guerrilla warfare in mountain areas, the Americans did not withdraw their last occupation forces until June 1949. Even then, they left substantial quantities of light arms for the ROK army and a 500-man military advisory group to assist in its development.

Beginning in March 1949 Kim Il Sung lobbied Stalin for approval of and matériel support for a military attack on the ROK. Stalin initially demurred. At the end of January 1950, with the Communists having won the civil war on mainland China, with Mao in Moscow negotiating a military alliance with the Soviet Union, and with support for the ROK in the United States appearing less than firm, he changed his mind. Over the next several months, Stalin approved the shipment to North Korea of heavy arms, including tanks, thus giving the DPRK a clear military advantage over the ROK. North Korea was also strengthened by the return of tens of thousands of Korean nationals who had fought on the Communist side in China. In meetings with Kim in Moscow in early April, Stalin explicitly approved a North Korean attack on South Korea, provided Mao also gave his blessing. Although he believed that the United States would not intervene, especially if the North Koreans won a speedy victory, he made it clear that, if Kim ran into difficulty with the Americans, he would have to depend as a counter on direct Chinese, not Soviet, intervention. When in mid-May Mao endorsed Kim's proposal for an early attack on the ROK, the plans proceeded to their final stage.

The Course of the War

Even with the intervention of U.S. troops in July, the DPRK nearly drove the enemy out of Korea. By early August forces fighting under the UN banner were squeezed into the Pusan perimeter, on the southeastern corner of the peninsula. At the end of the month DPRK forces launched an offensive that over the next two weeks inflicted more enemy casualties than in any other comparable period during the war.

Yet UN troops now outnumbered their opponents and, on 15 September, General MacArthur launched a counteroffensive at Inchon, the port for Seoul. By month's

Korean War

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On the Defensive. Members of the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division man a machine gun in a foxhole, 1950. On the Defensive. Members of the U.S. Army's Second Infantry Division man a machine gun in a foxhole, 1950.

end UN forces had broken out of the Pusan perimeter and retaken Seoul. DPRK forces were in headlong retreat northward and the United States had altered its objective from reestablishing the thirty-eighth parallel to destroying the enemy and reuniting the peninsula under a friendly government. ROK units began crossing the old boundary on 1 October and other UN units followed a week later, by which time the UN General Assembly had given its endorsement.

Long anticipating such developments, the PRC now moved decisively toward intervention. The DPRK appealed to Beijing for aid on 1 October and Stalin urged Mao to comply. The "Chinese People's Volunteers" (CPV) under General Peng Dehuai commenced large-scale movements into Korea on 19 October.

Despite contact with CPV soldiers from 25 October on, UN ground forces did not stop their movement northward. General MacArthur was determined to win a quick and total victory and, despite reservations in the Pentagon and the State Department, Washington proved unwilling to order him to halt. On 24 November UN forces began what they hoped would be an "end-the-war offensive." Four days later, with CPV forces over 200,000 strong engaged in a strong counterattack against severely overextended UN units, MacArthur declared that he faced "an entirely new war."

Over the next month UN troops retreated to the thirty-eighth parallel. On New Year's Eve CPV units crossed the old boundary in an attempt to push enemy forces off the peninsula. MacArthur told Washington that the U.S. choice was between expanding the war to air and naval attacks against mainland China and accepting total defeat.

Adhering to a Europe-first strategy and faced with allied pressure to both persevere in Korea and contain the war there, the Truman administration refused to follow MacArthur's lead. During the second week of January the CPV offensive petered out below Seoul in the face of severe weather, supply problems, and the regrouping of UN forces under the leadership of General Matthew B. Ridgway, who had taken over the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea in late December. Over the next three months, UN forces, outnumbered on the ground but controlling the air and enjoying a sizable advantage in artillery, gradually pushed the enemy northward, retaking Seoul in mid-March. A month later UN units held a line slightly north of the thirty-eighth parallel in all sectors except the extreme west.

This evolving situation produced a final showdown between Truman and MacArthur. The president was content, if possible, to settle the war roughly where it had begun the previous June, and he was under steady pressure

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Korean War

to do so from allies and neutrals in the United Nations. Dissatisfied with less than total victory, the UN commander continued to scheme for an expanded war. Anticipating a Chinese spring offensive at any moment and facing continued public dissent from MacArthur, Truman on 11 April removed his field commander from all his positions, appointing Ridgway in his place. The action set off a storm of protest in the United States, but Truman held firm, aided by UN forces in Korea, which repulsed massive Chinese offensives in April and May. Following consultations in Moscow in early June, the Communist allies decided to seek negotiations for an armistice.

Peace Negotiations

On 10 July negotiations began between the field commands at Kaesong, just south of the thirty-eighth parallel. Despite restraint on both sides from seeking major gains on the battlefield, an armistice was not signed for over two years.

The first issue negotiated was an armistice line, and this took until 27 November to resolve. The Communists initially insisted on the thirty-eighth parallel; the UN command, which was dominated by the United States, pressed for a line north of the prevailing battle line, arguing that this would be reasonable compensation for its agreement in an armistice to desist its pounding of North Korea from the air and sea. After much acrimony, the suspension of the talks for two months, and small battle-field gains by the UN side, the parties agreed to the existing "line of contact"—provided, that is, that agreement on all other issues was reached within thirty days.

Two main issues remained on the agenda: "arrangements for the realization of cease fire and armistice … including the composition, authority, and functions of a supervising organization for carrying out the terms;" and "arrangements relating to prisoners of war." With the UN command relaxing its military pressure on the ground and the Communists securing their defensive lines as never before, neither side had a compelling reason to give way. Nonetheless, by April 1952 essential agreement had been reached on the postarmistice rotation of troops in Korea, the replacement and introduction of matériel, and the makeup and authority of a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. The one remaining item was the fate of prisoners of war (POWs).

The POW issue was bound to be difficult, as it involved captured personnel on both sides who had participated in the ongoing civil conflicts in Korea and/or

POWs in North Korea. One of the American and South Korean prisoners of war being paraded through the streets of Pyongyang on 3 October 1950 is forced to dress as Adolf Hitler and to drag an American flag on the ground. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC. POWs in North Korea. One of the American and South Korean prisoners of war being paraded through the streets of Pyongyang on 3 October 1950 is forced to dress as Adolf Hitler and to drag an American flag on the ground. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC.

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China. Many of the prisoners held by the United Nations had begun the war in South Korea, been captured by the DPRK army, and eventually been impressed into it. Others had fought in Nationalist armies during the Chinese civil war and later been integrated into the CPV. Not all of these prisoners wanted to return to the DPRK or PRC at war's end. Negotiations eventually became stalemated over the fate of Chinese prisoners. In October 1952, after months without progress, the UNC suspended talks.

Negotiations did not resume until April of the following year. By this time Dwight D. Eisenhower had replaced Truman as president of the United States (20 January) and Stalin had died (5 March). When negotiations failed to achieve quick success, the American president ordered the bombing of dikes in North Korea, which threatened the DPRK's food supply; he also threatened to terminate the talks and expand the war. In early June the Communists finally accepted the U.S. position on POWs. The centrality of Eisenhower's actions in this out-come remains uncertain.

The fighting would have ended in mid-June had it not been for the action of Syngman Rhee, who opposed an armistice without Korea's unification. His wishes ignored, he ordered ROK guards to release over 25,000 anti-Communist Korean POWs held in the south. This action on 18 June led to strong protests from the Communists and a crisis in U.S.-ROK relations. After the Communists launched successful limited offensives against ROK forces along the battlefront and the Americans promised to negotiate a defense treaty with the ROK immediately following the conclusion of fighting, Rhee finally agreed not to disrupt—but not to sign—an armistice. The Communists joined the UNC in signing the agreement on July 27.

Impact of the War

The war left Korea at once devastated and less likely than at any time since 1945 to become the focal point of international military conflict. Unlike the thirty-eighth parallel, the armistice line based on established battlefield positions was defensible on both sides. More important, while leaders of the divided country refused to rule out forceful unification—indeed, Rhee positively craved it—the great powers were now sufficiently committed to preventing its success by the other side to discourage their clients from initiating the effort.

Although the war was limited almost entirely to Korea, its impact was global. Fearful that the North Korean attack of June 1950 represented the beginning of the Soviet Union's use of force to achieve its purposes, the United States instituted a fourfold increase in defense spending; signed military pacts with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and the ROK; added Greece and Turkey to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); created a NATO command led by an American general; increased the U.S. troop presence in Europe from two to six divisions; and pushed for the rearming

Ending the Fighting. Lieutenant General William K. Harrison (seated at left) and General Nam Il, spokesman for the Communist delegation (seated at right), sign multiple copies of the armistice at Panmunjom, just below the thirty-eighth parallel, on 27 July 1953. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC. Ending the Fighting. Lieutenant General William K. Harrison (seated at left) and General Nam Il, spokesman for the Communist delegation (seated at right), sign multiple copies of the armistice at Panmunjom, just below the thirty-eighth parallel, on 27 July 1953. ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC.

of West Germany. The United States also intervened to save Taiwan from the Communists, eventually signing a defense pact with the Nationalist government there, and initiated formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which in the following decade played a pivotal role in the direct U.S. military intervention in Indochina.

If the prudence of some of these actions may be questioned, there can be little doubt that the long-term impact of the war was contrary to Soviet interests. The Soviet Union was in a poor position economically to compete with a U.S.-led alliance system partially mobilized for war on a permanent basis. Furthermore, although the Korean War brought the Soviet Union and the PRC closer together for the short term, it helped tear them apart within less than a decade of its end. China's intervention in Korea to prevent a total U.S. victory greatly enhanced the PRC's self-confidence and prestige. The limited scope and initial delay of Soviet aid to the Chinese effort produced resentment in Beijing and reinforced its determination to develop an independent capacity to defend itself and project power beyond its borders.

Yet the war also produced both short-and long-term problems in Sino-American relations. In addition to augmenting feelings of bitterness and fear between the PRC and the United States, the conflict led to American intervention to save Taiwan from conquest by the Communists. U.S. involvement in the island's fate represents the single most acrimonious issue in Sino-American relations to the present day.


Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Chen, Jian. China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

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Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War. Vol. 1, Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945–1947. Vol. 2, The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947–1950. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981–1990.

Goncharov, Sergei N., John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Kaufman, Burton I. The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Pierpaoli, Paul G., Jr. Truman and Korea: The Political Culture of the Early Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Stueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Thornton, Richard C. Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao, and the Origins of the Korean War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000.

West, Philip, and Suh Ji-moon, eds. Remembering the "Forgotten War." Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Zhang, Shu Guang. Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950–1953. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

William W. StueckJr.

See also China, Relations with ; Cold War ; Korea, Relations with ; Southeast Asia Treaty Organization ; United Nations ; and vol. 9: General Douglas MacArthur's Speech to Congress; A Personal Narrative of the Korean War; War Story.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3401802271