Causes of the Korean WarAndrew GlassGlobal StudiesPeriod Seven The Korean War, 1950-1953After the USSR installed a Communist government in North Korea in September 1948, that government promoted and supported an insurgency in South Korea in an attempt to bring down the recognized government and gain jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula.
Not quite two years later, after the insurgency showed signs of failing, the northern government undertook a direct attack, sending the North Korea People’s Army south across the 38th parallel before daylight on Sunday, June 25, 1950. The invasion, in a narrow sense, marked the beginning of a civil war between peoples of a divided country. In a larger sense, the cold war between the Great Power blocs had erupted in open hostilities. The western bloc, especially the United States, was surprised by the North Korean decision.
Although intelligence information of a possible June invasion had reached Washington, the reporting agencies judged an early summer attack unlikely. The North Koreans, they estimated, had not yet exhausted the possibilities of the insurgency and would continue that strategy only. The North Koreans, however, seem to have taken encouragement from the U. S.
policy which left Korea outside the U. S. defense line in Asia and from relatively public discussions of the economies placed on U. S. armed forces.
They evidently accepted these as reasons to discount American counteraction, or their sponsor, the USSR, may have made that calculation for them. The Soviets also appear to have been certain the United Nations would not intervene, for in protest against Nationalist China’s membership in the U. N. Security Council and against the U.
N. ‘s refusal to seat Communist China, the USSR member had boycotted council meetings since January 1950 and did not return in June to veto any council move against North Korea. Moreover, Kim Il Sung, the North Korean Premier, could be confident that his army, a modest force of 135,000, was superior to that of South Korea. Koreans who had served in Chinese and Soviet World War II armies made up a large part of his force.
He had 8 full divisions, each including a regiment of artillery; 2 divisions at half strength; 2 separate regiments; an armored brigade with 120 Soviet T-34 medium tanks; and 5 border constabulary brigades. He also had 180 Soviet aircraft, mostly fighters and attack bombers, and a few naval patrol craft. The Republic of Korea (ROK) Army had just 95,000 men and was far less fit. Raised as a constabulary during occupation, it had not in its later combat training under a U. S. Military Advisor Group progressed much beyond company-level exercises.
Of its eight divisions, only four approached full strength. It had no tanks and its artillery totaled eighty-nine 105-mm. howitzers. The ROK Navy matched its North Korean counterpart, but the ROK Air Force had only a few trainers and liaison aircraft.
U. S. equipment, war-worn when furnished to South Korean forces, had deteriorated further, and supplies on hand could sustain combat operations no longer than fifteen days. Whereas almost $11 million in materiel assistance had been allocated to South Korea in fiscal year 1950 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program, Congressional review of the allocation so delayed the measure that only a trickle of supplies had reached the country by June 25, 1950. The North Koreans quickly crushed South Korean defenses at the 38th parallel. The main North Korean attack force next moved down the west side of the peninsula toward Seoul, the South Korean capital, thirty-five miles below the parallel, and entered the city on June 28.
Secondary thrusts down the peninsula’s center and down the east coast kept pace with the main drive. The South Koreans withdrew in disorder, those troops driven out of Seoul forced to abandon most of their equipment because the bridges over the Han River at the south edge of the city were prematurely demolished. The North Koreans halted after capturing Seoul, but only briefly to regroup before crossing the Han. In Washington, where a 14-hour time difference made it June 24 when the North Koreans crossed the parallel, the first report of the invasion arrived that night.
Early on the 25th, the United States requested a meeting of the U. N. Security Council. The council adopted a resolution that afternoon demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities and a withdrawal of North Korean forces to the 38th parallel.
In independent actions on the night of the 25th, President Truman relayed orders to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur at MacArthur’s Far East Command headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, to supply ROK forces with ammunition and equipment, evacuate American dependents from Korea, and survey conditions on the peninsula to determine how best to assist the republic further. The President also ordered the U. S. Seventh Fleet from its current location in Philippine and Ryukyu waters to Japan. On the 26th, in a broad interpretation of a U.
N. Security Council request for every assistance in supporting the June 25 resolution, President Truman authorized General MacArthur to use air and naval strength against North Korean targets below the 38th parallel. The President also redirected the bulk of the Seventh Fleet to Taiwan, where by standing between the Chinese Communists on the mainland and the Nationalists on the island it could discourage either one from attacking the other and thus prevent a widening of hostilities. When it became clear on June 27 that North Korea would ignore the U. N. demands, the U.
N. Security Council, again at the urging of the United States, asked U. N. members to furnish military assistance to help South Korea repel the invasion.
President Truman immediately broadened the range of U. S. air and naval operations to include North Korea and authorized the use of U. S. Army troops to protect Pusan, Korea’s major port at the southeastern tip of the peninsula. MacArthur meanwhile had flown to Korea and, after witnessing failing ROK Army efforts in defenses south of the Han River, recommended to Washington that a U.
S. Army regiment be committed in the Seoul area at once and that this force be built up to two divisions. President Truman’s answer on June 30 authorized MacArthur to use all forces available to him. Thus the United Nations for the first time since its founding reacted to aggression with a decision to use armed force. The United States would accept the largest share of the obligation in Korea but, still deeply tired of war, would do so reluctantly.
President Truman later described his decision to enter the war as the hardest of his days in office. But he believed that if South Korea was left to its own defense and fell, no other small nation would have the will to resist aggression, and Communist leaders would be encouraged to override nations closer to U. S. shores. The American people, conditioned by World War II to battle on a grand scale and to complete victory, would experience a deepening frustration over the Korean conflict, brought on in the beginning by embarrassing reversals on the battlefield. More far reaching was the war’s impact on the two Great Power blocs.
The primary result for the western bloc was a decided strengthening of the NATO alliance. Virtually without military power in June 1950, NATO could call on fifty divisions and strong air and naval contingents by 1953 a build-up directly attributable to the increased threat of general war seen in the outbreak of hostilities in Korea. With further reinforcement in the NATO forecast at the end of the Korean War, USSR armed aggression in western Europe became unlikely. For the east, the major result was the emergence of Communist China as a Great Power.
A steady improvement in the Chinese army and air force during the war gave China a more powerful military posture at war’s end than when it had intervened; and its performance in Korea, despite vast losses, won China respect as a nation to be reckoned with not only in Asian but in world affairs. BibliographyBibliographyKaiser, Robert. Korea from the Inside. New York, 1980Lawrence, John. A History of Korea.
New York, 1993Seeger, Elizabeth. The pageant of Korean History. Canada, 1967History Essays