Background to the war
- The origins of the war lay in the fact that Korea had been under Japanese occupation since 1910.
- When the Japanese were defeated (August 1945), the USA and the USSR agreed to divide the country into two zones along the 38th parallel (the 38-degree-north line of latitude), so that they could jointly organize the Japanese surrender and withdrawal – Russia in the north (which had a frontier with the USSR) and the Americans in the south.
- As far as the Americans were concerned, it was not intended to be a permanent division. The United Nations wanted free elections for the whole country and the Americans agreed, believing that since their zone contained two-thirds of the population, the communist north would be outvoted.
- However, the unification of Korea, like that of Germany, soon became part of Cold War rivalry: no agreement could be , and the artificial division continued.
Why did the North Koreans invade the South?
- Even now it is still not clear how the attack originated, or whose idea it was. The following suggestions have been offered:
- It was Kim 11 Sung’s own idea, possibly encouraged by a statement made by Dean Acheson, the American Secretary of State, earlier in 1950. Acheson was talking about which areas around the pacific the USA intended to defend, and for some reason he did not include Korea.
- Kim 11 Sung may have been encouraged by the new Chinese communist government, who were at the same time massing troops in Fukien province facing Taiwan, as if they were about to attack Chiang Kai-she.
- Perhaps Stalin and the Russians were responsible, wanting to test Truman’s determination; they had supplied the North Koreans with tanks and other equipment. A communist takeover of the south would strengthen Russia’s position in the Pacific and be a splendid gesture against the Americans, to make up for Stalin’s failure in West Berlin
- The communists claimed that South Korea had started the war, when troops of the ‘bandit tr Probably the most widely accepted view nowadays is that Kim II Sung himself pressed the idea of a campaign to unify the peninsula, and that both the USSR and China approved the plan and promised help in the way of war materials, but made it clear that they had no desire themselves to become directly.
The USA takes action
There were several reasons for President Truman’s decision to intervene:
- He was convinced that the attack was Stalin’s doing; he took it as a deliberate challenge and saw it as part of a vast Russian plan to spread communism as widely as possible
- Some Americans saw the invasion as similar to Hitler’s policies during the 1930s. Appeasement of the aggressors had failed then, and therefore it was essential not to make the same mistake again
- Truman thought it was important to support the United Nations Organization, which had replaced the League of Nations. The League had failed to preserve peace because the great powers – and especially the USA – had not been prepared to back it. Truman was determined that the USA should not repeat that fatal mistake.
- Truman was a Democrat president, and he and his party were coming under severe criticism from the Republicans for their failure to take action against what they saw as the dangerous spread of world communism. A Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, claimed that the State Department was ‘infested’ with communists who were, in effect, working for the USSR. Truman was anxious to show that this claim was preposterous
- American policy therefore changed decisively: instead of just economic help and promises of support, Truman decided it was essential for the West to take a stand by supporting South Korea. American troops in Japan were ordered to Korea even before the UN had decided what action to take.
- The UN Security Council called on North Korea to withdraw her troops, and when this was ignored, asked member states to send help to South Korea. This decision was reached in the absence of the Russian delegation, who were boycotting meetings in protest against the UN refusal to allow Mao’s new Chinese regime to be represented, and who would certainly have vetoed such a decision. In the event, the USA and 14 other countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nationalist China, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, Greece, Turkey, Panama, the Philippines, Thailand and Britain) sent troops, though the vast majority were Americans. All forces were under the command of American General MacArthur.
- Their arrival was just in time to prevent the whole of South Korea from being overrun by the communists. By September, communist forces had captured the whole country except the south-east, around the port of Pusan. UN reinforcements poured into Pusan and on 15 September, American marines landed at Inchon, near Seoul, 200 miles behind the communist front lines. Then followed an incredibly swift collapse of the North Korean forces: by the end of September UN troops had entered Seoul and cleared the south of communists. Instead of calling for a ceasefire, now that the original UN objective had been achieved, Truman ordered an invasion of North Korea, with UN approval, aiming to unite the country and hold free elections. The Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai) warned that China would resist if UN troops entered North Korea, but the warning was ignored. By the end of October, UN troops had captured Pyongyang, occupied two-thirds of North Korea and reached the River Yalu, the frontier between North Korea and China.
- The Chinese government was seriously alarmed: the Americans had already placed a fleet between Taiwan and the mainland to prevent an attack on Chiang, and there seemed every chance that they would now invade Manchuria (the part of China bordering on North Korea). In November therefore, the Chinese launched a massive counter-offensive with over 300 000 troops, described as ‘volunteers’; by mid-January 1951 they had driven the UN troops out of North Korea, crossed the 38th parallel and captured Seoul again. MacArthur was shocked at the strength of the Chinese forces and argued that the best way to defeat communism was to attack Manchuria, with atomic bomb if necessary. However, Truman thought this would provoke a large-scale war, which the USA did not want, so he decided to settle for merely containing communism; MacArthur was removed from his command. In June UN troops cleared the communists out of South Korea again and fortified the frontier. Peace talks opened in Panmunjom and lasted for two years, ending in July 1953 with an agreement that the frontier should be roughly along the 38th parallel, where it had been before the war began.
The results of the war were wide-ranging
- For Korea itself it was a disaster: the country was devastated, about four million Korean soldiers and civilians had been killed and five million people were homeless. The division seemed permanent; both states remained intensely suspicious of each other and heavily armed, and there were constant ceasefire violations.
- Truman could take some satisfaction from having contained communism and could claim that this success, plus American rearmament, dissuaded world communism from further aggression. However, many Republicans felt that the USA had lost an opportunity to destroy communism in China, and this feeling contributed towards some of the later excesses of McCarthyism
- The UN had exerted its authority and reversed an act of aggression, but the communist world denounced it as a tool of the capitalists
- The military performance of communist China was impressive; she had prevented the unification of Korea under American influence and was now clearly a world power. The fact that she was still not allowed a seat in the UN seemed even more unreasonable
- The conflict brought a new dimension to the Cold War. American relations were now permanently strained with China as well as with Russia; the familiar pattern of both sides trying to build up alliances appeared in Asia as well as Europe. China supported the Inda-Chinese communists in their struggle for independence from France, and at the same time offered friendship and aid to under-developed Third World countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America; ‘peaceful coexistence’ agreements were signed with India and Burma
- Meanwhile the Americans tried to encircle China with bases: in 1951 defensive agreements were signed with Australia and New Zealand, and in 1954 these three states, together with Britain and France, set up the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). However, the USA was disappointed when only three Asian states – Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines – joined SEATO. It was obvious that many states wanted to keep clear of the Cold War and remain uncommitted
- Relations between the USA and China were also poor because of the Taiwan situation. The communists still hoped to capture the island and destroy Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party for good; but the Americans were committed to defending Chiang and wanted to keep Taiwan as a military base.