by Salome Tsikarishvili
The Korean war was a conflict between the two parties, these being the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka the North, and the Republic of Korea aka the South. Around 2.5 million people lost their lives to the conflict. It eventually turned into a sort of proxy war between the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States, into a clash of opposing ideologies.
The fighting finally ended in July 1953. The end result was Korea still being divided into two hostile parts and a front line has since been accepted as the de facto border separating the two states. Now the question is how do we get to that ending and for that we have to look back to history.
Years between 1945 and 50
We start our countdown in the 40s. The collapse of the Japanese empire can be named as the immediate cause of the war. Japan had amassed a large empire in the early 20th century due to its special ambitions. Unlike its Chinese territories however which had spent significantly less time under the Japanese rule Korea had found itself within the empire since 1910.
Because of that fact, there was no native government waiting to take control. This is important because of the time most of the new would-be leaders of Korea spent in exile in different countries they had become segmented.
They were divided into two camps. One was the Marxist revolutionaries who fought alongside the Chinese forces and the other was also a revolutionary group but this one was less keen on Marx and keener on the traditional capitalist economic model. To boil it down on one side we had communists and on the other, we had capitalistic nationalists.
This is a very big simplification but it illustrates the struggle well as the two parties had very different ideas about in which direction New Korea should have gone in.
In black and white: Kim II-sung & in color: Syngman Rhee
On the red side, one of the more powerful leaders was Kim Il-sung while on the other side we had Syngman Rhee. These are important names.
Things would be complicated either way but to make it even harder in the future the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily divide the country along the 38th parallel to help in sending the remaining Japanese forces back to their country, the number of these forces was around 700,000.
The Americans did see this as only a temporary deal but then the Soviets started a reign of terror in the north and made the division political by driving away thousands of refugees south. The divide worsened and the two sides could no longer hope to agree on how the new unified Korea was supposed to be created.
Both sides continued to build up their forces. In the South, the U.S military continued to be a growing force to be a sort of barrier to the spread of communism from the north while in the North Kim Il-sung was strengthening his control over the communist forces.
In early 1948 the creation of an independent South Korea became a UN policy and this was heavily objected by the communists in the south. By autumn partisan war gate engulfed every province below the 38th parallel. It turned into a limited border war between the two states.
The uprisings in the South failed and the Republic of Korea or ROK was formed in August of 1948. And Syngman Rhee was the new president, remember one of the important names from earlier. But the partisan uprisings left their mark. Because of them, a number of soldiers had been lost and small atrocities had become a way of life along the border. This also delayed the training for the South Korean army.
In early 1949 Kim Il-sung pressed his case with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the time had come for a conventional invasion of the South. Though he initially refused after gathering enough forces and strengthening his army Kim did get approval the second time around.
On June 25 the North Korean troops snuck across the border and advanced to enter Seoul on the 28th. Though they took the city they didn’t accomplish their goals of quick surrender instead the remaining forces formed defensive lines and started to wait for reinforcements and help from US forces.
President Harry Truman
Initially, Truman ordered MacArthur to transfer munitions and to protect the evacuating US citizens but then he started to use some political power to protect the South.
General Doughlas McArthur
He approached the UN and through his efforts UNcalled for the invasion to halt on the 25th and then the member states were tasked to provide military assistance to the state.
Initially, the US troops weren’t very successful with the Southern forces. They were weakened by limited numbers, bad weapons, and uncertain leadership many fled and died and on top of that there were also unfortunate attacks on Korean civilians.
For example, there was one instance where they fired on hundreds of refugees at a railroad near the hamlet of Nogun-ri. It wasn’t till august that they started to actually slow down the North Koreans.
The Pusan perimeter was born and there the South’s position was strengthened. From the port, they had a steady stream of supplies and they were able to regroup well around that area. Soon they were in a good position to go on the offensive and MacArthur took advantage of the opportunity and did exactly that.
In September they launched an ambitious offensive and by the end of the month, they had recaptured Seoul as well as the whole of South Korea. They had even managed to push back the enemy entirely off of the 38th parallel. The general wanted to go beyond that and despite Truman being worried about the potential Chinese response, he okayed the advance.
Eventually, the Southern forces took Pyongyang and came to the border with China, and at that point, China sent their own troops to assist the North to protect their own borders.
From here we go back to the 38th parallel again. Chinese and North Korean combined forces ended up not only pushing the South Korean troops out of the North but also ended up re-taking Seoul again. At this point, Truman and MacArthur started to disagree.
The general wanted to drop some nukes on China and Truman going back on his earlier policies of containment and remembering what a nuclear bomb could do wasn’t really keen on that idea. He thus didn’t let the general go through with his idea. In June more troops arrived and the border was pushed to the parallel yet again.
After this, a stalemate set in. Both sides had given up on uniting through force and the movement on the ground wasn’t as fluid as in the first year of the war but nonetheless the tensions and the stakes were high.
In late October 1951, the communists agreed to move the truce negotiations to a more secure area, a village named P’anmunjŏm. Within two months they accepted the current border; they also accepted related measures for the creation of a demilitarized zone. Much work on these items remained to be done, but the outline of an agreement was becoming apparent as the year ended—with one major exception: the handling of prisoners of war.
Questions of Prisoners of War
People first assumed that the things were going to go according to the Geneva Convention of 1949, according to which any authority that helps the POWs had to return them to their homeland as rapidly as possible when the war ended. The South was against this as they knew that thousands of the detainees in the South were actually its own citizens who had been forced to fight by the Northern forces.
Indeed, the North Koreans knew that they had much to answer for regarding their impressment, murder, and kidnapping of South Koreans. The Chinese army leaders, meanwhile, knew that some of their soldiers, impressed from the ranks of the Nationalist army, would refuse repatriation if it was not made mandatory.
The names of the POWs were exchanged but the numbers were shocking to all participants. The U.S. armed forces were carrying 11,500 men as missing in action (MIA), but the communists reported only 3,198 Americans in their custody. The accounting for the South Koreans was even worse: of an estimated 88,000 MIAs, only 7,142 names were listed.
These numbers fueled the fears that the murder rate for the POWs had been worse than expected. In truth, most of the ones MIA died in battle but mayhaps 15,000, all but 2,000 of the South Korean had died in communist hands from torture as well as starvation, execution, and medical mistreatment.
The communists, too, found little comfort in the numbers. The official list produced 95,531 North Koreans, 20,700 Chinese, and 16,243 South Koreans, for a total of 132,474. The UNC reported that the 40,000 “missing” men were South Koreans who had already passed loyalty investigations and would not be counted as potential repatriates.
Because of this Trumen decided that no POW in UNC custody would be forced to return against their will and those that wished to go North would be exchanged on a 1 to 1 formula.
Such a process, however, would require extensive screening of individuals about their preferences, a condition that soon created open warfare in the camps. On top of that Guerrilla warfare still continued along the mountainous provinces in the South causing even more problems for South Korea and the US.
From September to November 1952, the Chinese force staged its sixth major offensive of the war, this time to force the allies back to the 38th parallel and to inflict unacceptable casualties on them.
At this point, both Eisenhower and secretary of state-designate Dulles viewed continuation of the Korean War as incompatible with U.S. national security interests. In their eyes, the People’s Republic of China was indeed the enemy in Asia, but Korea was only one theatre in the struggle. They agreed to let an international agency conduct screenings for the POWs and to exchange of sick and disabled POWs as goodwill gestures.
By sheer chance, Stalin died in march of 1953 and within weeks it was decided in USSR that the war in Korea should have ended. Mao was dismayed at their response but knew that advancing without soviet support would have been unwise so he also backed off. With a speed that amazed the negotiating teams on both sides, the Chinese accepted voluntary repatriation.
POWs who wanted to return to their homelands would be released immediately, and those who chose to stay would go into the custody of a neutral international agency for noncoercive screening. The Chinese and North Koreans also agreed to the exchange of sick and disabled POWs, which took place between April 20 and May 3.
But the president of South Korea had never really given up on his “unify and take the North” position. Privately he had hinted that he would accept the current terms if the US would agree to increase their presence in the region and their aid in South Korean economics.
On May 25 the P’anmunjŏm negotiators had worked out the details of the POW exchange, making provisions for “neutral nation” management of the repatriation process. On July 9 Rhee agreed to accept the armistice, though no representative of the ROK ever signed it.
On July 27 Mark W. Clark for the UNC, Peng Dehuai for the Chinese, and Kim Il-sung for the North Koreans signed the agreement. That same day the shooting stopped (well more or less not completely at least), and the armies began the awkward process of disengagement across what became a 4-km wide DMZ.
The first armistice in 1953 stopped the fighting buy it didn’t buy a permanent peace for the people. The war was the third most destructive war in the 20th century and while it was a civil conflict, a conflict taking place and concentrated on the Korean peninsula it did have a global reach and it turned into an event most of the world was participating in.
In fact, more than 25 states took part in it one way or another. After the slaughter of millions of soldiers and civilians, the Korean War thus cemented the hostile partition of the peninsula, a division that would create the characters of North and South Korea.
Both states started out with dictatorships that aimed to legitimize their respective rules and to stabilize the conditions in their countries. And to ensure peace both got caught in a struggle and a competition of sorts to surpass each other. To be a better country. To prove that their way was the better way. Eventually, South Korea broke this pattern but this would prove to bring a tragic future to those in the North.
This created an event that split the future histories of the two countries. As most things are the Korean war was the culmination and the ending point to many events before it and the starting point for the new future developments. Result as well as the catalyst of change.
Since the division of the Peninsula the two in charge, the US and USSR created regimes that snuffed out and took the voice away from the oppositions.
This meant that they created two extremist regimes that would never go for a compromise with each other. And the divide that was cemented after the war was over shaped the future of South and North Korea in key ways. The ways that we are seeing and looking at today.
Kyung Moon Hwang. Enlarge A History of Korea. 2nd edition ed., Macmillan International Higher Education, 2010.