Page 1 of 2 The war that won't end
By Ronan Thomas
"It was the cold, the intense cold, that's what I remember. At the time we
really felt we had been forgotten". Interviewed in London's National Army
Museum, a septuagenarian British army veteran both smiles and winces at the
memory of his military service in Korea.
June marks 60 years since the start of The Korean War of 1950-1953, a
bitterly-contested conflict inspired by intense Cold War geo-strategic rivalry
and competing West/East ideologies. The history is well known yet has daily
relevance for North Asia's regional military, foreign policy and societal
discourse. Visceral North-South Korean enmities persist, left from a conflict
which ended in stalemate. Just last week, an international report concluded
that North Korea sank the South Korean gunboat
Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 of her crew. Pyongyang disputes this and
is now rattling its own sabres.
The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950 after North Korea launched a surprise
invasion of president Syngman Rhee's South Korea. Multi-national forces from 16
countries of the United Nations, led by the United States, were soon drawn in.
Within months, the fighting sucked in the North's communist allies, the
People's Republic of China and - by proxy - the Soviet Union. Over the next 37
months, an estimated three million soldiers and civilians died. Korea was
devastated; many Korean families were separated forever.
Korea was a conflict which witnessed many diplomatic and military "firsts". It
was the first - perhaps last but only thus far - instance when the United
Nations was united both diplomatically and as an active military actor. In
itself this was largely a happy coincidence - the Soviet Union having
temporarily walked out of the UN weeks earlier.
The war subsequently fought against North Korea and China was a truly
international affair: on the UN side, 40% of combatants were South Korean
(ROK), 50% American and 10% other, including forces from the British
Commonwealth, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the
Netherlands, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey.
The US committed a staggering 5.7 million military personnel, with 1.3 million
army soldiers in the field. Militarily, the war was a strange hybrid. Proven
World War II technology - massed artillery, tanks, battleships, aircraft
carriers and propeller-driven aircraft coexisted with the weapons of the new
Cold War future.
Like dragonflies, US Army helicopters began to hover over a battlefield in
significant numbers, presaging their later crucial role in Vietnam. The latest
F-86 Sabre jet fighters of the US 5th Tactical Air Force flew combat missions
from South Korean air bases such as Kimpo - today Seoul's international
airport. These dueled over the Yalu River for air supremacy with equally iconic
MIG-15 fighters flown by communist Chinese, North Korean and Russian pilots.
Infra-red night sights and napalm bombs dropped in support of infantry were
also military innovations first developed and applied in Korea. For three years
a land war of six distinct phases, offensive and counter offensive, was fought
across the 38th Parallel for command of Korea's notoriously rugged terrain
(steep hills, flooded rice fields and narrow valleys). In searing heat and
numbing cold, infantrymen on both sides bore their traditional burdens
variously with personal stoicism, heroism, fear and resentment.
In Korea, UN forces fought the North Koreans and Chinese in several famous
battles. For the British these included Gloster Hill (Hill 235) near the Imjin
River in 1951 and the Battle of the Hook in 1953. For the US it was the Chosin
Reservoir and the dogged defense of the southern Pusan Perimeter, both in 1950.
For British Commonwealth and US forces combined it was their stunningly
successful amphibious landings at Inchon in September 1950 on Korea's west
Korea was also a war drenched in competing propaganda initiatives, with the
Western democracies and international communism locked in deadly opposition. UN
prisoners of war were subjected to appalling privations and relentless
communist "re-education" by North Korean and Chinese captors. North and South,
the divided Korean people suffered dreadfully as refugees, military casualties
and participants alike. In the south, the capital Seoul was devastated,
exchanging hands four times in just nine months during 1950-1951.
At several points during the war the fighting threatened to escalate in
something even more dangerous. The United States under the leadership of
presidents Harry S Truman in 1950 and Dwight D Eisenhower from 1953 - advised
from 1950-1951 by General Douglas MacArthur and the hawkish US secretary of
state, John Foster Dulles from 1953 - seriously entertained the prospect of
using nuclear weapons to roll back a fanatical and determined Chinese enemy.
Most famously, Korea is the war that never officially ended. No formal peace
treaty has ever been signed. An armistice line bisecting the 38th Parallel -
The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ - was agreed in July 1953. It remains the most
heavily militarized land border in the world. At sea - as witnessed by the
sinking of the Cheonan - South Korean and North Korean vessels continue
to contest aggressively disputed in-shore maritime borders.
The 'tinderbox of the Orient' ignites
The origins of the Korean War of 1950-1953 can be traced directly to Japan's
surrender to Allied and Soviet forces in August 1945. The Korean Peninsula -
liberated in 1945 from 35 years of Japanese occupation - was subsequently
divided into two occupation zones by the US, Britain and the Soviet Union. The
Soviets controlled the North -with most of the minerals and heavy industry -
the US took control in the South, with most of the agricultural land and two
thirds of the national population (around 24 million).
US State Department official and regional specialist Dean Rusk was instrumental
in drawing up the new arrangements for a so-called 38th Parallel dividing line,
a notional demarcation first formally suggested by Tsarist Russia in 1896 but
eclipsed by Japan's cynical annexation of Korea in 1910. The Soviets agreed.
Both Cold War competitors were happy to accept the division of Korea: in
1947-1948 they were more preoccupied with European crises. In 1948, south of
the 38th Parallel, the US ensured Syngman Rhee became president of the post-war
Republic of Korea. In the North, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sought to exploit
the zone materially and installed Kim il-sung as premier of the new Democratic
People's Republic of Korea. During 1948-49, US and Soviet forces then withdrew
from Korea, although both supplied their proxies with military and economic
In 1949, the UN failed to reunify Korea under a joint government. North Korea
refused to permit UN observers for proposed elections. In the interim, US
foreign policy priorities in Asia shifted toward the fractious issue of Formosa
(Taiwan) and the intentions of Mao Zedong's Peoples' Republic of China, newly
forged in 1949. The political mood music from Washington also suggested that
the US was in no hurry to force the pace of Korean unification.
In a speech in January 1950, US secretary of state Dean Acheson intimated that
US support for Korea was not top of the American foreign policy agenda. In the
following months, tensions between North and South Korean forces simmered and
provocations by both sides took place across the 38th Parallel.
Critically, the crisis deepened after Kim il-sung persuaded both Joseph Stalin
and Mao that a pre-emptive attack by North Korea could seize the peninsula for
communism. Kim was adamant that the US would not respond militarily. This was a
monumental miscalculation. Even so, Stalin was won over and ordered Soviet
military advisers to assist the North Koreans with military aid and in drafting
the attack plan.
On June 25, 1950 - secretly approved by both Stalin and Mao - the North Korean
Army invaded the South at a dozen points across the 38th Parallel. At 9.20pm,
June 24, Truman was informed of the North Korean actions. The president
concluded this was a test case for US resolve and credibility, deciding that
the "domino theory" foreign policy view of Asia was now in play. If Korea fell
to communism, this theory warned, the rest of the continent could follow.
Correctly identifying Kim il-sung as Stalin's understudy, Truman called the
invasion "a threat to peace which cannot be tolerated". He ordered the US 7th
Fleet to the Taiwan Straits (blocking any potential Chinese invasion) and sent
US troops into Korea. As the wire services hummed, the American and British
news media reacted with surprise and outrage. British Gaumont newsreels
described the invasion as a fire igniting the "tinderbox of the Orient".
Both countries called for immediate United Nations Security Council action.
Fortuitously for the US and its allies, the Soviet Union's chair at the
Security Council was empty. The Soviets were boycotting the UN in June in
protest at its recognition of Taiwan as legitimate Chinese government (as
opposed to Mao's People's Republic). So, on June 25, UNSC Resolutions 82 and 83
were carried by majority, voting for a ceasefire and withdrawal to the 38th
Parallel and authorizing support for South Korea under a UN mandate.
Eventually, a UN coalition of 16 countries, led by a 1.3 million strong US
force, reinforced South Korea's desperate defense. After a British proposal for
a Unified UN Command, MacArthur was made overall UN commander.
The subsequent Korean War - from June, 25 1950 to the armistice of July 27,
1953 - followed six separate phases.
Phase 1: North Korean invasion, June 1950. As Korean refugees
flooded southwards, the capital Seoul was captured by the North Koreans on June
28. By July 1, the first US troops arrived in Korea from their occupation bases
in Japan. But the speed of the North Korean tank advance forced these initial
elements back to a pocket 130 kilometers long (north to south) surrounding the
southern port city of Pusan. This was the maximum limit of the North Korean
advance: UN air power successfully disrupted their forward supply lines.
Surrounded US and South Korean Army forces, led by US General Walton Walker,
carried out a desperate defense of this Pusan Perimeter until reinforced in
September by additional British and Commonwealth troops by sea from Hong Kong.
Phase 2: First UN Counter Offensive, September 1950. On September
15, 1950, a UN force comprised of General MacArthur's US X Corps, along with
British and Commonwealth troops, carried out a perilous amphibious assault on
the port city of Inchon, on Korea's west coast. The sea-borne approach was
difficult and critically dependent on tide levels. Under the command of General
Edward Almond, the US X Corps landed at 6.15 am. Casualties were light, the
landings stunningly successful. US forces had outflanked the North Koreans and
now moved on the capital, Seoul.
At the same time, 200 US Sherman tanks spearheaded a breakout from the Pusan
Perimeter. On September 26, MacArthur's US X Corps linked up with those driving
up from Pusan. By September 27, UN forces had inflicted 14,000 North Korean
casualties versus the UN's 671 killed and 2,758 wounded. After hard fighting,
Seoul was recaptured on September 29. UN forces now totaled around 250,000 and
had finally got a grip. They chased the North Koreans out of the South, over
the 38th Parallel, deep into North Korea and up to the Yalu River on the border
On October 12, the US 8th Army captured the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. US
X Corps landed at Wonsan, on Korea's eastern coast. At this point, President
Truman warned MacArthur not to approach the Chinese border; by October 26
unconfirmed reports of clashes with Chinese "volunteers" were coming in.
MacArthur - with the bit between his teeth - ignored them. By November 24, US
Marines had advanced to a line north of the Chosin Reservoir, close to the
Chinese border. The Korean winter was approaching; temperatures plummeted.
Phase 3: Chinese entry into the war, November 1950. On November
26, 1950, China took the UN by complete surprise, launching 300,000 men from
the Chinese border. On November 28, the US 8th Army was forced to withdraw,
fighting running battles with the Chinese and incurring large losses in men -
many from frostbite - and material as it retreated south back over the 38th
Parallel. In bitter cold, the US Marines fell back from the Chosin Reservoir to
Hungnam on Korea's east coast.