After World War II, the Korean War displayed the growing, global rivalry between the leading superpowers at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. Engaged in “limited war,” the U.S. aimed to protect South Korea instead of totally defeating its enemy. The public was accustomed to total victories from World War II, therefore the Korean War is a forgotten war for many Americans. However, Koreans live and breathe the effects of the first “limited war” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
- The Korean War (1950-1953), juxtaposed with Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910-1945), continued a painful history for many Koreans. As colonized people, Koreans suffered repeated abuse and violations. The Japanese forced comfort women, as young as middle school girls, to become sex slaves. Against their wills, Koreans were sent to work in Japan’s factories and to fight on the front lines of World War II. When the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the number of Koreans thought to be killed in the bombing was more than 20,000.
- In August 1945, the Japanese Empire fell, and two young colonels temporarily divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel, without consulting the Korean government. The Cold War brought a new set of challenges. South of the border, the U.S. reluctantly backed Syngman Rhee, the anti-communist dictator. Supported by the Soviets, Kim Il Sung, the communist dictator, reigned north of the border. As South Korea prepared to elect their leader, the Soviet Union blocked free elections in the North.
- On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th Parallel. After three days, South Korea’s capital, Seoul, fell to the communists.
- In July 1950, U.S. troops entered the Korean War. In the eyes of the U.S., the Korean War was a war against international communism. Harry S. Truman said, “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one after another.” Sixteen U.N. members contributed combat forces that were led by General Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.N. forces in Korea.
- MacArthur’s Operation Chromite, a surprise amphibious landing at Incheon, dealt with skepticism because of the city’s narrow port and extreme tides. On Sept. 15, 1950, MacArthur’s amphibious assault successfully pushed North Koreans out of Seoul and to their side of the 38th parallel, shifting the tides of the Korean War.
- Yet MacArthur’s successes became a dangerous flaw. In the past, the general successfully defended Bataan and Corregidor; in World War II, he conquered the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific. After pushing the North Koreans back, MacArthur confidently pressed upward to achieve his vision of unifying the Koreas, ignoring Chinese warnings of retaliation in response to further U.S. encroachment near their lands. When his troops pressed forward into North Korea, China entered the war and annihilated South Korean and the U.N. troops.
- Fearing escalated fighting with China would draw the Soviets into the Korean War, Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination. MacArthur’s wishes to wage war conflicted with President Truman’s agenda to maintain peace in Europe. In one instance, the general publicly threatened to bomb China.
- Civilian casualties amounted to more than half of total casualties during the Korean War. (In 2012, the Washington Post argued that the U.S. largely ignores civilians who die in military interventions. When looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, the article argues that U.S. leaders, emboldened by the public overlooking the civilian costs associated with each war, pursue greater international interventions.)
- Although an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the war technically continues today. In 1974, a North Korean agent assassinated Park Chung-hee, mother of current South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. To this date, a peace treaty has not been signed.
- After the Korean War, the U.S. national defense budget increased. South Korea immediately became poor; children survived on food donations like powdered milk. On the other hand, North Korea quickly recovered with Soviet and Chinese support. North Korea’s army became, and still remains, one of the largest armies in the world. However, North Korea‘s economy collapsed with the decline of the Soviet Union.
Today, South Korea has become the first nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to shift from being a recipient into a donor. In fact, since the 1960s, South Korea has increased its per capita GDP, which was once less than $40, more quickly than any of its neighbors. However, skirmishes between the two countries are frequent and fatal. Because the Korean War never ended, one wrong move could result in an expanded conflict.
– Andy Jung