It is sixty years since the outbreak of the Korean War – a conflict which saw the United States and its allies – including Britain – committing troops to the aim of holding back the spread of communism...
Sixty years ago a bitter, three-year war broke out in Korea, propelling to centre stage a country that hitherto had been at the margins of international politics. It became the flashpoint of all the tensions then raging between the competing systems of socialism and capitalism. The Korean War was waged on land, on sea and in the air over and near the Korean peninsula. The first year of the war was a seesaw struggle for control of the peninsula followed by two years of positional warfare as a backdrop to extended cease-fire negotiations.
In 1910, Korea had been annexed by Japan, whose domination lasted until the latter stages of the Second World War. The Yalta Conference of 1945 agreed that Soviet and American troops would occupy Korea with a demarcation line along the latitude 38° parallel, pending the establishment of a unified and independent Korean government. Effectively, the terms of Yalta divided Korea into a communist northern half and an American-occupied southern half.
America occupied South Korea and usurped power from locally controlled People’s Committees, reinstalling many of the former landowners and police who had held office when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. These moves met with heavy resistance and open rebellion in some parts of South Korea such as the southern islands. In 1948, both the Soviet and US forces were withdrawn. However, after several altercations at the border, it appeared that civil war might be inevitable.
With her brother on her back a war-weary Korean girl tiredly trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, on 9 June 1951.|
(Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons)
The war began on 25 June 1950 when the North Korean army crossed the 38th Parallel intending to use force to reunite the south and the north with armoured and infantry divisions. The invasion was also fuelled by a massacre in which 60,000 communists and supporters were killed on Jeju Island in the South. The decision to move into the South appears to have been the initiative of Kim Il-Sung, the North Korean leader, rather than that of his Soviet supporters. This bid to reunify the country met with popular support across the South. Quickly, the North Korean army, armed with Soviet tanks, overran South Korea. Its capital Seoul fell after three days. By the end of August, the North Koreans occupied almost all of the South, except around the port of Pusan.
Although Korea was not strategically essential to the United States, the US political environment at this stage was such that its government did not want to appear “soft on Communism”. So it came to South Korea’s aid. The US managed to contrive its intervention as part of a “police action” and it was run by a UN force from 15 nations, though the bulk of the troops were American with a large contingent from Britain.
With the US, UN and South Korean forces pinned against the sea at Pusan, MacArthur carried out an amphibious assault on Inchon, a port on the western coast of Korea. Having made this landing, MacArthur caught the North Korean army in a pincer movement. By October the US and UN forces had recaptured Seoul. Instead of being satisfied with the rapid re-conquest of South Korea, the US General MacArthur crossed the 38th Parallel and pursued the North Korean army. On 19 October, Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, was captured. The US and UN forces proceeded all the way to the northernmost provinces of North Korea, forcing Kim and his government to flee north, first to Sinuiju and eventually into China.
Afraid that the US was interested in taking North Korea as a base for operations against Manchuria, the People’s Republic of China, which bordered North Korea and had only just won its independence in 1949 after decades of war, issued warnings to America that it would not tolerate further advances by American troops. The US ignored them, failing to take note of the revolutionary zeal, military experience, confidence and leadership of the Chinese soldiers redeployed to the Korean border area, many of whom were veterans of the successful national war against Japan and the civil war against the Nationalist Chinese forces.
At the very beginning of the war, the Chinese had sent a volunteer army across the Yalu River (the North Korean/Chinese border) and entered the war as allies of the Korean People’s Army. The Chinese attack on the combined US/UN/ROK forces was so great that they were compelled to retreat. Chinese troops retook Pyongyang in December and Seoul in January 1951. In March UN forces began a new offensive, retaking Seoul. After a series of offensives and counter-offensives by both sides, by 1951 the front was stabilised along what eventually became the permanent “Armistice Line” of 27 July 1953, where there followed a gruelling period of largely static trench warfare for the next two years.
North Korea was devastated by US air raids with very few buildings left standing in the capital and elsewhere in the country. By the time of the armistice, upwards of 3.5 million Koreans on both sides had died in the conflict. Around 53,000 US and 1,100 British soldiers were killed and estimates of perhaps 400,000 Chinese volunteers.
During the war North Korea and China accused the US of large-scale field-testing of biological weapons across all of North Korea and parts of China close to the border, including the spread of diseases such as anthrax and the use of disease-carrying insects. The allegations were always denied but clear evidence has emerged in subsequent years that after the Second World War US medical scientists in occupied Japan had undertaken extensive research on insect vectors for spreading biological diseases from as early as 1946, with the assistance of Japanese staff formerly working for the old imperial regime, so the capability was always there.