The Korean War refers to a period of military conflict between North Korean and South Korean regimes, with major hostilities lasting from June 25, 1950 until the armistice signed on July 27, 1953. Both Koreas were attempting to re-unify Korea under their respective governments, with both sides supported by external powers. While some have referred to the conflict as a civil war, many other factors were at play. The term has also been used to describe both the events preceding and following the main hostilities. After disputes arose regarding elections concerning the entirety of Korea, as well as escalating border conflicts at the 38th Parallel; the North Korean Army assaulted the South on June 25, 1950. The conflict was then expanded by the United States and the Soviet Union's involvement as part of a proxy war in the greater Cold War.
At the close of World War II, forces of both the Soviet Union and the United States occupied the peninsula in accordance with an agreement put forth by the United States government to divide the Korean peninsula. This decision, which was made without consultation of the Korean people, was made by then Colonel Dean Rusk and Army officer Charles Bonesteel, was made because the 38th parallel was already on most maps of Korea. The Soviet forces entered the peninsula on August 10, 1945 and remained north of the 38th parallel waiting for the US forces to arrive. A few weeks later, the American forces entered through Inchon led by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge and formally accepted the surrender of Japanese forces south of the 38th parallel on September 9, 1945 at Government House in Seoul.
Many Korean people had organized politically prior to the arrival of American troops.
On August 10, 1945, with the Japanese surrender imminent, the American government was unsure whether the Soviets would adhere to the proposal arranged by the U.S. government. A month earlier, Colonels Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, after deciding in their 1/2 hour session that at least two major ports should be included in the U.S. zone, had drawn the dividing line at the 38th parallel in less than one-half an hour using a National Geographic map for reference. Rusk, later U.S. Secretary of State, commented that the American military was “faced with the scarcity of U.S. forces immediately available and time and space factors which would make it difficult to reach very far north before Soviet troops could enter the area.”
The USSR agreed to the 38th parallel being the demarcation between occupation zones in the Korean peninsula, partly to better their position in the negotiations with the Allies over eastern Europe. It was agreed that the USSR would receive surrendering Japanese troops on the northern part of Korea; the U.S., on the southern side. The Soviet forces entered and liberated the northern part of the peninsula weeks prior to the entry of American forces. In accordance with the arrangements made with the American government, the Soviet forces halted their advance at the 38th parallel.
The American forces arrived in Korea in early September. One of Hodge's first directives was to restore many Japanese colonial administrators and collaborators to their previous positions of power within Korea. This policy was understandably very unpopular among Koreans who had suffered horribly under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years, and would prove to have enormous consequences for the American occupation.
A second policy set forth by Hodge was to refuse to recognize the existing political organizations that had been established by the Korean people. Hodge sought to establish firm U.S. control over events throughout the southern half of the peninsula. These policies would help give rise to the later insurrections and guerrilla warfare that preceded the outbreak of the civil war.
In December 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to administer the country under the U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission, as termed by the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers. It was agreed by the US and the USSR, but not the Koreans, that Korea would govern itself independently after four years of international oversight. However, both the U.S. and the USSR approved Korean-led governments in their respective halves, each of which were favorable to the occupying power's political ideology. Some elements of the population responded with violent insurrections and protests in the South. The USAMGIK tried to contain civil violence by banning strikes on December 8 and outlawing the revolutionary government and the people's committees on December 12. Events spiraled quickly out of US control, however, when Koreans staged a massive strike on September 23, 1946 by 8,000 railway workers in Busan which quickly spread to other cities in the South. The Daegu uprising occurred on October 1, in which police attempts to control rioters caused the death of three student demonstrators and injuries to many others, sparking a mass counter-attack killing 38 policemen. It should be noted that at this time, the vast majority of members of the South Korean police force officers had been members of the Japanese police force during the colonial period. When the US forces sided with these former collaborators, it discredited the US in the eyes of many Koreans. Over in Yeongcheon, a police station came under attack by a 10,000-strong crowd on October 3, killing over 40 policemen and the county chief. Other attacks killed about 20 landlords and pro-Japanese officials. The US administration responded by declaring martial law, firing into crowds of demonstrators and killing an unknown number of people.
In South Korea, an anti-trusteeship right wing group known as the Representative Democratic Council emerged, this group came to oppose these U.S. sponsored agreements. Because Koreans had suffered under Japanese colonization for 35 years, most Koreans opposed another period of foreign control. This opposition caused the U.S. to abandon the Soviet-supported Moscow Accords. The Americans did not want a communist government in South Korea, so they called for elections in all of Korea. Since the population of the South was double that of the North, the Soviets knew that Kim Il-sung would lose the election.
The government that emerged was led by anti-communist U.S.-educated strongman Syngman Rhee, a Korean who had been imprisoned by the Japanese as a young man and later fled to the United States. The Soviets, in turn, approved and furthered the rise of a Communist government in the North. Bolstered by his history as an anti-Japanese fighter, his political skills, and his connections with the Soviet Union, Kim Il-sung rose to become leader of this new government and crushed any opposition to his rule by the summer of 1947. In the south, those who supported Communism were driven into hiding in the hills, where they prepared for a guerrilla war against the American-supported government.
South Korean President Syngman Rhee and North Korean General Secretary Kim Il-Sung were each intent on reuniting the peninsula under his own system. Partly because of numbers of Soviet tanks and heavy arms, the North Koreans were able to escalate ongoing border clashes and go on the offensive, while South Korea, with only limited American backing, had far fewer options. The American government believed at the time that the Communist bloc was a unified monolith, and that North Korea acted within this monolith as a pawn of the Soviet Union.
On January 12, 1950, United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech declaring that America's Pacific defense perimeter was made up of the Aleutians, Ryukyu, Japan, and the Philippines, implying that America might not fight over Korea. Acheson said Korea's defense would be the responsibility of the United Nations.
In mid-1949, Kim Il-Sung pressed his case with Joseph Stalin that the time had come for a reunification of the Korean peninsula. Kim needed Soviet support to successfully execute an offensive far across a rugged, mountainous peninsula. Stalin, however, refused support, concerned with the relative lack of preparedness of the North Korean armed forces and with possible U.S. involvement.
Over the next year, the North Korean leadership molded its army into a relatively formidable offensive war machine modeled partly on a Soviet mechanized force but strengthened primarily by an influx of Korean veterans who had served with the Chinese People's Liberation Army since the 1930s. By early 1950 the possibility of reunification through insurgency seemed closed, and Rhee's regime was gaining in strength if not popularity. Kim was left with the sole option of conventional invasion if he wished to unify Korea and remove foreign control. By 1950, the North Korean military was equipped with modern Soviet weaponry, and it enjoyed substantial advantages over the Southern forces in virtually every category of equipment. On January 30, 1950, Stalin, via telegram, informed Kim Il-Sung that he was willing to help Kim in his plan to unify Korea. In the discussions with Kim that followed, Stalin suggested that he wanted lead and said that a yearly minimum of 25,000 tons would help. After another visit by Kim to Moscow in March and April 1950, Stalin approved an attack. On March 9, 1950, North Korea had agreed to send to the Soviet Union 9 tons of gold, 40 tons of silver, and 15,000 tons of monazite concentrate as payment for additional Soviet arms, ammunition and military technical equipment.
Under the guise of a counter-attack, the North Korean Army struck in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, June 25, 1950, crossing the 38th parallel behind a firestorm of artillery. The North claimed Republic of Korea Army (ROK) troops under the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee" had crossed the border first, and that Rhee would be arrested and executed. While certainly true that both Southern and Northern militaries had for the past year exchanged gunfire and crossed over the 38th parallel, the attack on June 25 was considered by some nations to be an extension of the North's plan to unify the country and not a direct result of a particular attack from the South.
The United Nations Security Council was convened in a few hours and passed the UNSC Resolution 82 condemning the North Korean aggression unanimously. The resolution was adopted mainly because the Soviet Union, a veto-wielding power, had been boycotting proceedings since January, in protest that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and not the People's Republic of China held a permanent seat on the council. President Truman had made a statement on June 27, 1950 ordering the United States air and sea forces to give the South Korean regime support. While the United Nations Security Council was convened and had been debating the issue from the invasion forward it only issued Resolution 83 on July 27 which definitively recommended member-states militarily assist the Republic of Korea. The Soviet Union's foreign minister accused the United States of starting armed intervention on behalf of the Republic of Korea before the Security Council was summoned to meet on June 27, and confronting the UN with a fait accompli.
Critics charged that the information on this resolution was based on U.S. sources referring to reports of the South Korean army. The DPRK was not invited to sit as a temporary member in the UN which some say violated Article 32 of the UN Charter. It was argued that the situation in Korea did not fall within the scope of the UN Charter since the initial clashes between North and South Korean forces would have to be classified as a civil war. Since the USSR representative decided to boycott the United Nations with the announced purpose of preventing action by the Security Council, the legality of UN action was challenged; legal scholars argued that unanimity among the five permanent members was required to take action on important matters.
At the outbreak of war, the North Korean Army was equipped with 150 Soviet-made tanks, about 40 YAK fighters, 70 attack bombers, 60 YAK trainers and 10 reconnaissance planes. These aircraft were assigned to the invasion while 114 more planes were serving in North Korea. Their navy had several small warships, and launched attacks on the South Korean Navy. North Korea's most serious weakness was its lack of a reliable logistics system for moving supplies south as the army advanced, but the South Korean forces were weak and ill-equipped compared to the North Koreans. Thousands of Korean civilians running south were forced to hand-carry supplies, many of whom later died in North Korean air attacks.
The South Korean Army had 150,000 soldiers armed, trained, and equipped by the U.S. military, and as a force was deficient in armor and artillery. The South Korean military had only 40 tanks, 14 attack planes, and few anti-tank weapons. There were no large foreign combat units in the country when the war began, but there were large American forces stationed in nearby Japan.
Within days, South Korean forces – outnumbered, outgunned, and often of dubious loyalty to the Southern regime – were in full retreat or defecting en masse to the North. As the ground attack continued, the North Korean Air Force conducted bombing of Kimpo Airport near Seoul. North Korean forces occupied Seoul on the afternoon of June 28.
However, North Korea's hope for a quick surrender by the Rhee government and the reunification of the peninsula evaporated when the United States and other foreign powers intervened with UN approval.
Despite the post-World War II demobilization of U.S. and allied forces, which caused serious supply problems for American troops in the region, the United States still had substantial forces in Japan to oppose the North Korean military. These American forces were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Apart from British Commonwealth units, no other nation could supply sizable manpower.
On being told of the outbreak of large-scale hostilities in Korea, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered MacArthur to transfer munitions to the ROK Army, while using air cover to protect the evacuation of U.S. citizens. Truman did not agree with his advisors, who called for unilateral U.S. airstrikes against the North Korean forces, but did order the Seventh Fleet to protect Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan. The Nationalist government (confined to the island of Taiwan) asked to participate in the war. Their request was denied by the Americans, who felt that it would only encourage intervention by the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The first significant foreign military intervention was the American Task Force Smith, part of the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division based in Japan. On July 5, it fought for the first time at Osan and was immediately defeated with heavy losses. The victorious North Korean forces advanced southwards, and the half-strength 24th Division was forced to retreat to Taejeon, which also fell to the Northern forces. Major General William F. Dean, commander of the division, was taken prisoner.
By August, the South Korean forces and the U.S. Eighth Army under General Walton Walker had been driven back into a small area in the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula around the city of Pusan. As the North Koreans advanced, they rounded up and killed civil servants. On August 20, MacArthur sent a message warning Kim Il Sung that he would be held responsible for further atrocities committed against UN troops.
By September, only the area around Pusan — about 10 percent of the Korean peninsula — was still in coalition hands. With the aid of massive American supplies, air support, and additional reinforcements, the UN forces managed to stabilize a line along the Nakdong River. This desperate holding action became known in the United States as the Pusan Perimeter.
In the face of fierce North Korean attacks, the allied defense became a desperate battle called the Battle of Pusan Perimeter by Americans. However, the North Koreans failed to capture Pusan.
American air power arrived in force, flying 40 sorties per day in ground support actions Strategic bombers (mostly B-29s based in Japan) closed most rail and road traffic by day, and destroyed 32 critical bridges necessary for the conduct of warfare. Trains used by military and civilians alike waited out the daylight hours in tunnels.
Throughout all parts of Korea, the American bombers knocked out the main supply dumps and eliminated oil refineries and seaports that handled imports. The bombing was designed to starve North Korean forces of ammunition and other martial supplies. Naval air power also attacked transportation choke points. The North Korean forces were already strung out over the peninsula, and the destruction caused by American bombers prevented needed supplies from reaching North Korean forces in the south.
Meanwhile, supply bases in Japan were pouring weapons and soldiers into Pusan. American tank battalions were rushed in from San Francisco; by late August, America had over 500 medium tanks in the Pusan perimeter. By early September, UN-ROK forces were decidedly more powerful and outnumbered the North Koreans by 180,000 to 100,000. At that point, they began a counterattack.
In the face of these overwhelming reinforcements, the North Korean forces found themselves undermanned and with weak logistical support. They also lacked the substantial naval and air support of the Americans. In order to alleviate pressure on the Pusan Perimeter, General MacArthur, as UN commander-in-chief for Korea, argued for an amphibious landing far behind the North Korean lines at Incheon.
The violent tides and strong enemy presence made this an extremely risky operation. MacArthur had started planning a few days after the war began, but he had been strongly opposed by the Pentagon. When he finally received permission, MacArthur activated the X Corps under General Edward Almond (comprising 70,000 troops of the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 7th Infantry Division and augmented by 8,600 Korean troops) and ordered them to land at Incheon in Operation Chromite. By the time of the attack on September 15, thanks to reconnaissance by guerrillas, misinformation and extensive shelling prior to the invasion, the North Korean military had few soldiers stationed in Incheon, so the U.S. forces met only light resistance when they landed, though extensive shelling and bombing destroyed much of the city.
The landing was a decisive victory, as X Corps rolled over the few defenders and threatened to trap the main North Korean army. MacArthur quickly recaptured Seoul. The North Koreans, almost cut off, rapidly retreated northwards; about 25,000 to 30,000 made it back.
The UN forces crossed into North Korea in early October 1950. The U.S. X Corps made amphibious landings at Wonsan and Iwon, which had already been captured by South Korean forces advancing by land. The Eighth U.S. Army, along with the South Koreans, drove up the western side of Korea and captured Pyongyang on October 19. By the end of October, the North Korean Army was rapidly disintegrating, and the UN took 135,000 prisoners.
The UN offensive greatly concerned the Chinese, who worried that the UN forces would not stop at the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China, and might extend their rollback policy into China. Many in the West, including General MacArthur, thought that spreading the war to China would be necessary and that since North Korean troops were being supplied by bases in China, those supply depots should be bombed. However, Truman and the other leaders disagreed, and MacArthur was ordered to be very cautious when approaching the Chinese border.
On October 15, 1950, Truman went to Wake Island for a short, highly publicized meeting with MacArthur. MacArthur, saying he was speculating, saw little risk. MacArthur explained that the Chinese had lost their window of opportunity to help North Korea's invasion. He estimated the Chinese had 300,000 soldiers in Manchuria, with between 100,000-125,000 men along the Yalu; half could be brought across the Yalu. But the Chinese had no air force; hence, “if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter.” MacArthur assumed that Chinese wished to avoid heavy casualties.
On October 8, 1950, the day after American troops crossed the 38th parallel, Chairman Mao Zedong issued the order to assemble the Chinese People's Volunteer Army. Seventy percent of the members of the PVA were Chinese regulars from the Chinese People's Liberation Army. Mao ordered the army to move to the Yalu River, ready to cross. Mao sought Soviet aid and saw intervention as defensive of the broader revolutionary situation in Asia: “If we allow the United States to occupy all of Korea, Korean revolutionary power will suffer a fundamental defeat, and the American invaders will run more rampant, and have negative effects for the entire Far East.” he told Stalin. Premier Zhou Enlai was sent to Moscow to add force to Mao's cabled arguments. Mao delayed while waiting for substantial Soviet help, postponing the planned attack from October 13 to October 19. However, Soviet assistance was limited to providing air support no nearer than sixty miles (100 km) from the battlefront. The Soviet MiG-15s in PRC colors did pose a serious challenge to UN pilots. In one area nicknamed “MiG Alley” by UN forces, they held local air superiority against the American-made Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars until the newer North American F-86 Sabres were deployed. The Chinese were angry at the limited extent of Soviet involvement, having assumed that they had been promised full scale air support.
The Chinese made contact with American troops on November 1, 1950. Thousands of Chinese had attacked from the north, northwest, and west against scattered U.S. and South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) units moving deep into North Korea. The Chinese seemed to come out of nowhere as they swarmed around the flanks and over the defensive positions of the surprised United Nations (UN) troops.
The Chinese march and bivouac discipline also minimized any possible detection. In a well-documented instance, a Chinese army of three divisions marched on foot from An-tung in Manchuria, on the north side of the Yalu River, 286 miles (460 km) to its assembly area in North Korea, in the combat zone, in a period ranging from 16 to 19 days. One division of this army, marching at night over circuitous mountain roads, averaged 18 miles (29 km) per day for 18 days. The day's march began after dark at 19:00 and ended at 03:00 the next morning. Defense measures against aircraft were to be completed before 05:30. Every man, animal, and piece of equipment were to be concealed and camouflaged. During daylight, bivouac scouting parties moved ahead to select the next day's bivouac area. When Chinese units were compelled for any reason to march by day, they were under standing orders for every man to stop in his tracks and remain motionless if aircraft appeared overhead. Officers were empowered to shoot any man who violated this order.
In late November, the Chinese struck in the west, along the Chongchon River, and completely overran several South Korean divisions and successfully landed a heavy blow to the flank of the remaining UN forces. The ensuing defeat of the U.S. Eighth Army resulted in the longest retreat of any American military unit in history. Mostly due to the successful but very costly rear-guard action by the Turkish Brigade at Kunuri during November 26 to 30th, which slowed the Chinese onslaught by 3-4 days, the U.S. 8th Army escaped complete anhiliation by the Chinese. In the east, at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, a 30,000 man unit from the U.S. 7th Infantry Division and U.S. Marine Corps was also unprepared for the Chinese tactics and was soon surrounded, though they eventually managed to escape the encirclement, albeit with over 15,000 casualties, after inflicting heavy casualties on six Chinese divisions.
While the Chinese soldiers initially lacked heavy fire support and light infantry weapons, their tactics quickly adapted to this disadvantage, as explained by Bevin Alexander in his book How Wars Are Won:
Roy Appleman further clarified the initial Chinese tactics as:
The U.S. forces in northeast Korea, who had rushed forward with great speed only a few months earlier, were forced to race southwards with even greater speed and form a defensive perimeter around the port city of Hungnam, where a major evacuation was carried out in late December 1950. Facing complete defeat and surrender, 193 shiploads of American men and material were evacuated from Hungnam Harbor, and about 105,000 soldiers, 98,000 civilians, 17,500 vehicles, and 350,000 tons of supplies were shipped to Pusan in orderly fashion. As they left, the American forces blew up large portions of the city to deny its use to the communists, depriving many Korean civilians of shelter during the winter.
In January 1951, the Chinese and North Korean forces struck again in their 3rd Phase Offensive (also known as the Chinese Winter Offensive). The Chinese repeated their previous tactics of mostly night attacks, with a stealthy approach from positions some distance from the front, followed by a rush with overwhelming numbers, and using trumpets or gongs both for communication and to disorient their foes. Against this the UN forces had no remedy, and their resistance crumbled; they retreated rapidly to the south (referred to by UN forces as the “bug-out”). Seoul was abandoned and was captured by communist forces on January 4, 1951.
To add to the Eighth Army's difficulties, General Walker was killed in an accident. He was replaced by a World War II airborne veteran, Lieutenant-General Matthew Ridgway, who took immediate steps to raise the morale and fighting spirit of the battered Eighth Army, which had fallen to low levels during its retreat. Nevertheless, the situation was so grim that MacArthur mentioned the use of atomic weapons against China, much to the alarm of America's allies.
UN forces continued to retreat until they had reached a line south of Suwon in the west and Wonju in the center, and north of Samchok in the east, where the front stabilized. The People's Volunteer Army had outrun its supply line and was forced to recoil. The Chinese could not go beyond Seoul because they were at the end of their logistics supply line — all food and ammunition had to be carried at night on foot or bicycle from the Yalu River.
In late January, finding the lines in front of his forces deserted, Ridgway ordered reconnaissance in force, which developed into a full-scale offensive, Operation Roundup. The operation was planned to proceed gradually, to make full use of the UN's superiority in firepower on the ground and in the air; by the time Roundup was completed in early February, UN forces had reached the Han River and re-captured Wonju.
The Chinese struck back in mid-February with their Fourth Phase Offensive, from Hoengsong in the center against IX Corps positions around Chipyong-ni. A short but desperate siege there fought by units of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, including the French Battalion, broke up the offensive; in this action, the UN learned how to deal with Chinese offensive tactics and be able to stand their ground.
Roundup was followed in the last two weeks of February 1951, with Operation Killer, by a revitalized Eighth Army, restored by Ridgway to fighting trim. This was a full-scale offensive across the front, again staged to maximize firepower and with the aim of destroying as much of the Chinese and North Korean armies as possible. By the end of Killer, I Corps had re-occupied all territory south of the Han, while IX Corps had captured Hoengsong.
On March 7, 1951, the Eighth Army pushed forward again, in Operation Ripper, and on March 14 they expelled the North Korean and Chinese troops from Seoul, the fourth time in a year the city had changed hands. Seoul was in utter ruins; its prewar population of 1.5 million had dropped to 200,000, with severe food shortages.
MacArthur was removed from command by President Truman on April 11, 1951 for insubordination, setting off a firestorm of protest back in the U.S. The new supreme commander was Ridgway, who had managed to regroup UN forces for the series of effective counter-offensives. Command of Eighth Army passed to General James Van Fleet.
A further series of attacks slowly drove back the communist forces, such as Operations Courageous and Tomahawk, a combined ground- and air-assault to trap communist forces between Kaesong and Seoul. UN forces continued to advance until they reached Line Kansas, some miles north of the 38th parallel.
The Chinese were far from beaten, however; In April 1951 they launched their Fifth Phase Offensive (also called the Chinese Spring Offensive). This was a major effort, involving three field armies (up to 700,000 men). The main blow fell on I Corps, but fierce resistance in battles at the Imjin River and Kapyong, blunted its impetus, and the Chinese were halted at a defensive line north of Seoul (referred to as the No-Name Line).
A further Communist offensive in the east against ROK and X Corps on May 15 also made initial gains, but by May 20 the attack had ground to a halt. Eighth Army counterattacked and by the end of May had regained Line Kansas.
The decision by UN forces to halt at Line Kansas, just north of the 38th Parallel, and not to persist in offensive action into North Korea, ushered in the period of stalemate which typified the remainder of the conflict.
The peace negotiations went on for two years, first at Kaesong, and later at Panmunjon. A major issue of the negotiations was repatriation of POWs. The Communists agreed to voluntary repatriation but only if the majority would return to China or North Korea, something that did not occur. Since many refused to be repatriated to the communist North Korea and China, the war continued until the Communists eventually dropped this issue.
In October 1951, U.S. forces performed Operation Hudson Harbor intending to establish the capability to use nuclear weapons. Several B-29s conducted individual simulated bomb runs from Okinawa to North Korea, delivering “dummy” nuclear bombs or heavy conventional bombs; the operation was coordinated from Yokota Air Base in Japan. The battle exercise was intended to test “actual functioning of all activities which would be involved in an atomic strike, including weapons assembly and testing, leading, ground control of bomb aiming,” and so on. The results indicated that nuclear bombs would be less effective than anticipated, because “timely identification of large masses of enemy troops was extremely rare.”
On November 29, 1952, U.S. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower fulfilled a campaign promise by going to Korea to find out what could be done to end the conflict. With the UN's acceptance of India's proposal for a Korean armistice, a cease-fire was established on July 27, 1953, by which time the front line was back around the proximity of the 38th parallel, and so a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established around it, presently defended by North Korean troops on one side and by South Korean, American and UN troops on the other. The DMZ runs north of the parallel towards the east, and to the south as it travels west. The site of the peace talks, Kaesong, the old capital of Korea, was part of the South before hostilities broke out but is currently a special city of the North. North Korea and the United States signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, with Syngman Rhee refusing to sign.
The total numbers of casualties suffered by all parties involved may never be known. Each country's self-reported casualties were largely based upon troop movements, unit rosters, battle casualty reports, and medical records.
The Western numbers of Chinese and/or North Korean casulties are based primarily on battle reports of estimated casualties, interrogation of POWs and captured documents.
The Chinese estimation of UN casualties states that the joint declaration of the Chinese People's Volunteers and the Korean People's Army said their forces "eliminated 1.09 million enemy forces, including 390,000 from the United States, 660,000 from South Korean, and 29,000 from other countries." The vague "eliminated" number gave no details to that of dead, wounded and captured. Regarding their own casualties, the same source said that "the Chinese People's Volunteers suffered 148,000 deaths altogether (among which 114,000 died in combat, incidents, and winterkill, 21,000 died after being hospitalized and 13,000 died from diseases); 380,000 were wounded and 29,000 missing, including 21,400 POWs (of whom 14,000 were sent to Taiwan, 7,110 were repatriated)." This same source concluded with these numbers for North Korean casualties, "the Korean People's Army had 290,000 casualties and 90,000 POWs; there was a large number of civilian deaths in the northern part of Korea, but no accurate figures were available.
The casulties of the various UN forces are listed in the infobox, along with their estimates of Chinese and North Korean forces.
In the initial invasion stage of the war, North Korean armor was able to establish dominance using their Soviet-supplied T-34-85 medium tanks. The WW2-vintage North Korean tanks were facing a South Korean force with no tanks of their own and few modern anti-tank weapons.
The South Korean army had anti-tank rockets but these were World War II vintage 2.36 inch (60 mm) M9 bazookas. The bazooka rocket could easily penetrate the 45 mm side armor of the T-34-85s at any range, but the bazooka was nonetheless found to be ineffective.
As U.S. forces arrived in Korea, they were accompanied only by light M24 Chaffee tanks which had been left in Japan for post-WWII occupation duties (heavier tanks would have torn up Japanese roads). These light tanks were ineffective against the larger North Korean T-34-85 tanks. U.S. 105 mm howitzers were used on at least one occasion to fire HEAT ammunition over open sights.
As the U.S. buildup continued, shipments of heavier American tanks such as the M4 Sherman, the M26 Pershing, the M46 Patton, and the British Centurion as well as American and Allied ground attack aircraft were able to reverse the Communists' tank advantage.
However, in contrast to World War II's heavy emphasis on armor, few open tank battles actually occurred over the course of the Korean War. The country's heavily forested and mountainous terrain, as well as the poor road network, meant that tanks were able to operate only in small groups.
The Korean War was the last major war where propeller-powered fighters such as the P-51 Mustang, F4U Corsair and aircraft carrier-based Hawker Sea Fury and Supermarine Seafire were used. Turbojet fighter aircraft such as F-80s and F9F Panthers came to dominate the skies, overwhelming North Korea’s propeller-driven Yakovlev Yak-9s and Lavochkin La-9s.
From 1950, North Koreans began flying the Soviet-made MiG-15 jet fighters, some of which were piloted by experienced Soviet Air Force pilots, a casus belli deliberately overlooked by the UN allied forces who were reluctant to engage in open war with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. At first, UN jet fighters, which also included Royal Australian Air Force Gloster Meteors, had some success, but the superior quality of the MiGs soon held sway over the first-generation jets used by the UN early in the war.
In December 1950, the U.S. Air Force began using the F-86 Sabre. The MiG could fly higher, 50,000 vs. , offering a distinct advantage at the start of combat. In level flight, their maximum speeds were comparable — about . The MiG could climb better, while the Sabre could turn and dive better. For weapons, the MiG carried two 23 mm and one 37 mm cannon, compared to the Sabre’s six .50 (12.7 mm) caliber machine guns. The American .50 caliber machine guns, while not packing the same punch, carried many more rounds and were aimed with a superior radar-ranging gunsight. The U.S. pilots also had the advantage of G-suits, which were used for the first time in this war. However, maintenance was an issue with the Sabre, and a large proportion of the UN air strength was grounded because of repairs during the war.
Even after the Air Force introduced the advanced F-86, its pilots often struggled against the jets piloted by elite Soviet pilots. The UN gradually gained air superiority over most of Korea that lasted until the end of the war — a decisive factor in helping the UN first advance into the north, and then resist the Chinese invasion of South Korea. The Chinese and North Koreans also had jet power, but their training and experience were limited. With the introduction of the F-86F in late 1952, the Soviet and American aircraft had virtually identical performance characteristics.
After the war, the USAF claimed 792 MiG-15s and 108 additional aircraft shot down by Sabres for the loss of 78 Sabres, a ratio in excess of 10:1. Some post-war research has been able to confirm only 379 victories, although the USAF continues to maintain its official credits and the debate is possibly irreconcilable.
The Soviets claimed about 1,100 air-to-air victories and 335 combat MiG losses at that time. China's official losses were 231 planes shot down in air-to-air combat (mostly MiG-15) and 168 other losses. The number of losses of the North Korean Air Force was not revealed. It is estimated that it lost about 200 aircraft in the first stage of the war, and another 70 aircraft after Chinese intervention. Soviet claims of 650 victories over the Sabres, and China's claims of another 211 F-86s, are considered to be exaggerated by the USAF. According to a recent U.S. publication, the number of F-86s ever present in the Korean peninsula during the war totaled only 674 and the total F-86 losses from all causes were about 230.
Direct comparison of Sabre and MiG losses seem irrelevant, since primary targets for MiGs were heavy B-29 Superfortress bombers and ground-attack aircraft, while the primary targets for Sabres were MiG-15s.
By early 1951, the battle lines hardened and did not change much for the rest of the conflict. Throughout the summer and early fall of 1951, the outnumbered Sabres (as few as 44 at one point) of the 4th FIW continued to seek battle in MiG Alley near the Yalu against an enemy fielding as many as 500 planes, although only a fraction of these were operational and active. Following Colonel Harrison Thyng's famous message to the Pentagon, the 51st FIW reinforced the beleaguered 4th in December 1951. For the next year and a half, the combat continued in generally the same fashion.
The Korean war was the first time the helicopter was used exstensively in a conflict. While helicopters such as the YR-4 were used in World War Two, their use was rare, and Jeeps like the Willys MB were the main method of removing an injured soldier. In the Korean war helicopters like the H-19 partially took over in the non combat Medevac area.
The helicopter proved to be a valuable military asset for the USA in Korea. Improvments made to helicopters since World War Two were tested in combat. The need for close air support helicopters was seen, and by the time of the Vietnam conflict gunships like the AH-1 Cobra had been produced. Helicopters like those used in the Korean war for Medevac missions and troop movment were also seen to work well in combat, and designs were also improved apon. This "combat test" for helicopters was important to the development of the military helicopter.
This viewpoint is contradicted however by the facts, as on November 30, 1950, President Truman at a press conference, remarked – no doubt extemporaneously – that the use of the atomic bomb was under active consideration, unintentionally implying to some observers that its use would be left to the discretion of General MacArthur. Even though subsequently he attempted to subdue the storm of protest and consternation which followed by pointing out that only he could authorize use of the atomic bomb and that he had not given such authorization, he could not avoid the real issue that any decision to use the bomb would be a United States, not a United Nations, decision. This led to a meeting December 4 with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (who also represented the leaders of the other Commonwealth nations) and with French Premier René Pleven and Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, to discuss their concerns over the possible use of the atomic bomb. Indian Ambassador Pannikkar recalls, "that Truman announced that he was thinking of using the atom bomb in Korea. But the Chinese seemed totally unmoved by this threat.... The propaganda against American aggression was stepped up. The 'Aid Korea to resist America' campaign was made the slogan for increased production, greater national integration, and more rigid control over anti-national activities. One could not help feeling that Truman's threat came in very useful to the leaders of the revolution to enable them to keep up the tempo of their activities."
Six days later, on December 6, 1950, after the Chinese intervention had forced the UN forces into a retreat from northern North Korea, General J. Lawton Collins (Army Chief of Staff), General MacArthur, Admiral C. Turner Joy and General George E. Stratemeyer, with key staff officers Hickey, Willoughby and Wright, met in Tokyo for a full discussion of what moves to take against the Chinese. They projected three hypothetical scenarios covering the next few weeks or months.
In the first, they theorized that if the Chinese continued their all-out attack but with the UN Command forbidden to mount air attacks against China, no blockade of China set up, no reinforcements sent to Korea by Chiang Kai-shek, and that there would be no substantial increase in MacArthur's U.S. forces until April 1951 when four National Guard divisions might be sent, then the atomic bomb might be used in North Korea.
Under the second scenario, the conferees assumed a situation in which the Chinese attack would continue but with an effective naval blockade of China put in effect, air reconnaissance and bombing of the Chinese mainland allowed, Chinese Nationalist forces exploited to the maximum, and the atomic bomb to be used if tactically appropriate. Given these conditions, General MacArthur said he should be directed to hold positions in Korea as far north as possible.
Under the third scenario, in which the Chinese would agree not to cross south of the 38th parallel, MacArthur felt the United Nations should accept an armistice. The conditions of the armistice should preclude movement of North Korean and Chinese forces below the parallel. North Korean guerrillas should withdraw into their own territory with the Eighth Army remaining in positions covering the Seoul-Inch'on area, while X Corps pulled back to Pusan. An United Nations commission should supervise the implementation of armistice terms.
So, while the U.S. had contemplated using the atomic bomb in Korea, Truman did not publicly threaten to use the bomb immediately after the Chinese intervention, but instead remarked about the consideration of using the bomb around 45 days later and only after UN forces were in retreat and had suffered some serious losses. MacArthur and other military leaders did not work on scenarios for using the bomb until after Truman's inadvertent remark during a press conference 6 days earlier. The decision not to use the atomic bomb also was not due to "a disinclination by the USSR and PRC to escalate" but rather due to pressure from UN allies, notably Britain, the British Commonwealth, and France, who were concerned that if the United States became involved in a war with Communist China, American commitments to NATO would, through sheer necessity, go by the board. China then might have little difficulty in persuading the Soviets to move into western Europe, and without U.S. resistance to this aggression, they could take all of Europe at little cost.
When parts of South Korea were under North Korean control, political killings, reportedly into the tens of thousands, took place in the cities and villages. The communists systematically killed former South Korean government officials and others deemed hostile to the communists, and such killing was intensified as North Koreans retreated from the South.
South Korean military, police and paramilitary forces, often with U.S. military knowledge and without trial, executed in turn tens of thousands of leftist inmates and alleged communist sympathizers in the incidents such as the massacre of the political prisoners from the Daejeon Prison and the bloody crackdown on the Cheju Uprising. Gregory Henderson, a U.S. diplomat in Korea at the time, put the total figure at 100,000, and the bodies of those killed were often dumped into mass graves. Recently, the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission has received reports of more than 7,800 cases of civilian killings in 150 locations across the country where mass killings of civilians took place before and during the war.
Korean forces on both sides routinely rounded up and forcibly conscripted both males and females in their area of operations; thousands of them never returned home. According to the estimate by R. J. Rummel, a professor at the University of Hawaii, some 400,000 South Korean citizens were conscripted into the North Korean Army. Before the September 1950 liberation of Seoul by the U.S. forces, an estimated 83,000 citizens of the city were taken away by retreating North Korean forces and disappeared, according to the South Korean government; their fate remains unknown. North Korea insists the South Koreans defected voluntarily and were not held against their will.
For a time, American troops were under orders to consider any Korean civilians on the battlefield approaching their position as hostile, and were instructed to "neutralize" them because of fears of infiltration. This led to the indiscriminate killings of hundreds of South Korean civilians by the U.S. military at places such as No Gun Ri, where many defenseless refugees — most of whom were women, children and old men — were shot at by the U.S. Army and may have been strafed by the U.S. Air Force. Recently, the U.S. admitted having a policy of strafing civilians in other places and times.
The North Koreans severely mistreated prisoners of war. Historical accounts report frequent communist-imposed beatings, starvation, forced labor, summary executions, and death marches on UN prisoners. North Korean forces committed several massacres of captured U.S. troops at places such as Hill 312 and Hill 303 on the Pusan Perimeter, and in and around Daejeon; this occurred during early "mopping-up" actions. A U.S. Congressional report alleges "More than 5,000 American prisoners of war died because of Communist war atrocities and more than a thousand who survived were victims of war crime (...) Approximately two-thirds of all American prisoners of war in Korea died due to war crimes. The Chinese also used brainwashing "re-education" techniques on their prisoners.
North Korean forces claimed to have captured more than 70,000 South Korean soldiers, repatriating 8,000. (In contrast, South Korea repatriated 76,000 North Korean POWs.) In addition to some 12,000 deaths in captivity, some 50,000 South Korean POWs might have been press-ganged into the North Korean military. According to the South Korean Ministry of Defense, by 2003 there were at least 300 POWs were still alive being held captive in North Korea. More than 30 South Korean prisoners managed to escape the North between 1994 and 2003, including a soldier captured in the war who escaped in 2003. Pyongyang denied holding any POWs.
The state controlled Korean Central News Agency which is frequently antagonistic to the US—claims that the United States and its allies killed at least 33,600 POWs of the Korean People's Army, and that tens of thousands more were wounded or crippled. On May 27, 1952 it was alleged that at least 800 POWs were killed by flame throwers at the 77th camp on Koje Island for rejecting "voluntary repatriation" and insisting on their repatriation to the North Korea. According to the North Korean Central News Agency, some 1,400 prisoners of war had been secretly sent to the United States to be subjected to experiments with atomic weapons. It has also been alleged that on July 19, 1951, a total of 100 prisoners of war had been shot by machine-gun fire in the prisoner-of-war camp No. 62, in order to give the machine-gunners training in shooting at moving targets.
The Korean War was the first armed confrontation of the Cold War and set the standard for many later conflicts. It created the idea of a limited war, where the two superpowers would fight in another country, forcing the people in that nation to suffer the bulk of the destruction and death involved in a war between such large nations. The superpowers avoided descending into an all-out war with one another, as well as the mutual use of nuclear weapons. It also expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe.
The Korean War damaged both Koreas heavily. Although South Korea stagnated economically in the decade following the war, it was later able to modernize and industrialize. In contrast, the North Korean economy recovered quickly after the war and until around 1975 surpassed that of South Korea. However, North Korea's economy eventually slowed. Today, the North Korean economy is virtually nonexistent while the South Korean economy is expanding. The CIA World Factbook estimates North Korea's GDP (PPP) to be $40 billion, which is a mere 3.34% of South Korea's $1.196 trillion GDP (PPP). The North's per capita income is $1,800, which is 7.35% of South Korea's $24,500 per capita income.
A heavily guarded demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the 38th parallel continues to divide the peninsula today. Anti-Communist and anti-North Korea sentiment still remain in South Korea today, and most South Koreans are against the North Korean government. However, a "Sunshine Policy" is used by the controlling party, the Uri Party. The Uri Party and President Roh, the South Korean president, have often disagreed with the United States in talks about North Korea. The Grand National Party (GNP), the Uri Party's main opposing party, maintains an anti-North Korea policy today.
According to a September 7, 2007 NPR report, U.S. President George W. Bush stated that it is his administration's position that a formal peace treaty with North Korea would be possible only when the North abandoned its nuclear weapons programs. According to Bush, "We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end — will happen when Kim verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons. Some have characterized this as a reversal of Bush's stated policy of regime change with respect to North Korea.
At the second Inter-Korean Summit in October 2007, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il signed a joint declaration calling for international talks towards a peace treaty formally ending the war.
There were several South Korean films, including:
North Korea has made many films about the war, mostly by the government supporting forceful, armed reunification of the North and South of Korea. These have been highly propagandized to portray potential war crimes by American or South Korean soldiers while glorifying members of the North Korean military as well as North Korean ideals.
Shangganling Battle (Shanggan Ling, Chinese: 上甘岭) is a depiction of the Korean War from the Chinese point of view, made in 1956. The movie is about a group of Chinese soldiers blocked in Shangganling mountain area for several days and survive until they are relieved.