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30 September

Not Dead But Forgotten


The Korean War

by Kenneth L

In North Korea, it’s known as the Fatherland Liberation War. In China, it’s called the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. In the US, it was long referred to as a “police action”, or the Korean Conflict, to avoid necessitating a declaration of war from Congress (though now “Korean War” is the generally acknowledged term). If anything, it is the Forgotten War, the one that people can generally name but don’t know anything about.

More than an expansionist war between North and South Korea, it was a proxy battleground where the major fighters were Communism and Democracy, climaxing the early tensions of the Cold War in a protracted and ultimately pointless fight that served for little more than to maintain the status quo in Korea. But what was the status quo, and how did it come to be the status quo?

Lead-up to conflict

The beginning of tensions between the northern and southern halves of Korea has its roots in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. As part of its territorial gains in the war, Japanese troops occupied the Korean peninsula, eventually annexing it by force in 1910.

Korea remained a Japanese colony through World War II. In 1945, the US coaxed the Soviet Union into declaring war on Japan. Once war was declared, Russian troops and armor quickly overran the northern half of Korea, halting at the 38th latitudinal parallel while American troops worked their way up the peninsula from the south, also halting at the 38th. This divided the peninsula into clearly divided occupation zones, one under the communist USSR and the other under the democratic USA, which later led to the formation of a communist North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and a democratic South Korea (the Republic of Korea), split at the 38th parallel. Kim Il-sung assumed control of North Korea, and Syngman Rhee was elected President of South Korea.

Each leader began to contemplate the possibility and displayed intentions of reuniting Korea, each under their own political system. Several border skirmishes occurred throughout 1949, but at the time these were seen as mere fantasies, not anything that either leader seriously planned to expand and act upon.

But the skeptics were soon proven wrong.

The real Korean War: North Korea vs. South Korea

On June 25, 1950, North Korea declared war on South Korea, ostensibly with the intent to “liberate” it and unite all of Korea under a single, communist government. North Korean forces armed with weapons provided by Stalin’s USSR rolled across the 38th parallel under the cover of a hail of artillery fire. Though their equipment, including 242 mostly outdated Soviet tanks, was negligible and often obsolete, they still held the advantage in terms of matériel. Though they didn’t have any real navy, the North Koreans used their fledging air force of 180 planes to some effect. Their greatest weakness, however, lied in their lack of logistics infrastructure, stop-gapped through the use of many thousands of Korean peasants forced to hand-carry supplies through the rugged terrain of the peninsula, many times for hundreds of miles.

But the South was in a worse position. Facing off the North’s 135,000 soldiers were 65,000 of poor training and lacking in armor, artillery, and air support in even the basest sense. By June 28, North Korea had captured the South Korean capitol of Seoul and was understandably expectant of quick surrender. But it was not to be, because this little conflict on a peninsula that, globally, was of little military importance had roused the interest of giants.

Start of the Proxy War

Outside Korea, the war took the world by complete surprise.

Harry Truman feared the start of World War III. The UN came together and made a resolution the same day the invasion started, calling for three conditions to be met:

  • all hostilities must end and North Korea must withdraw across the 38th parallel
  • for a UN Commission to be formed to oversee the situation in Korea
  • for all UN members to help achieve this end and refrain from providing assistance of any sort to North Korea

US President Harry Truman decided, for reasons both political and personal, that the best course of action to take would be to send in the troops. To keep it from being debated and possibly blocked by Congress, he named his plan a “police action” and secured approval from the UN. His declaring it a “police action” as opposed to a war meant that Congress did not have to approve a declaration of war and Truman could get the troops into action faster without fear of being blocked. Though America at the time generally supported the war, this action would lead to its being called “Truman’s War” and quite a bit of criticism. The US, together with Britain, Canada, Australia, and twelve other UN members (with the US and Britain shouldering most of the troop strength), gathered forces and began to unload troops in the South Korean-held tip of the peninsula. The first to arrive were US Marines launched from bases in Japan, along with US General Douglas MacArthur, great hero of the Second World War’s Pacific theater.

The initial cluster of jumbled troops was named Task Force Smith and rushed into battle to hold the North Koreans back at Osan. They lost with heavy casualties and were forced to make a hasty retreat, one that cost their commander General William Dean, who was captured and became a prisoner of war.

Defeat after defeat followed. The remaining American and South Korean troops set up a hasty, last-ditch defense around the coastal city of Pusan and prepared to make a stand. Lieutenant General William Walker began a deadly tactical dance with the North Koreans, who ended up making the mistake of attempting a broad flanking maneuver instead of concentrating their forces, which might have led to victory. Massive American supply efforts and aggressive air support opened up some breathing room for UN forces to bring in reinforcements and set up a moderately secure front line along the Nakdong River and around the small chunk of the peninsula that they still controlled, which came to be called the Pusan Perimeter. A desperate holding action ensued, with day-long battles against North Korean forces a common occurrence all along the line.

The “Battle of Pusan Perimeter” raged on. American B-29 bombers based in Japan flew dozens of missions a day, destroying rail lines and roads critical for North Korean supply operations and blowing dozens of strategically critical bridges. They leveled cities and ports, bombed industrial centers and choked off crucial supply lines. Food and ammunition began to reach dangerously low levels and thousands of North Korea’s forces succumbed to starvation or deserted to the enemy. All the while, American and UN troops, now finally including tank battalions and artillery groups rushed all the way from the US, were constantly being poured into the tenuous foothold the UN maintained around Pusan, to the point where UN forces grew to number about 180,000 troops. Across the river, the North Korean troop count fell to about 100,000. North Korea had failed to seize Pusan and capture the peninsula. Now it was the UN’s turn to go on the offensive.

Breakout from Pusan: Operation Chromite

General MacArthur now proposed a daring plan that he had been incubating for several months. In order to cut off the North Korean troops’ supply lines and route of retreat, he proposed an amphibious assault to seize the coastal city of Inchon, code-named Operation Chromite. After seizing the city, mechanized divisions would race across the peninsula and ring in the North Korean troops, who would then be forced to surrender or die.

It was a dangerous initiative. Fickle tides could cause sea levels low enough to scuttle or trap the troop ships that would be necessary, which meant that careful planning and a defined window of opportunity were required. If the tides went down, troops already in Inchon could be stranded, without hope of resupply or reinforcement until the next high tide. MacArthur insisted, however, that the gamble was necessary, and that he could make it work. The pivotal point of his plan, however, lay in the US Marines, which at the time were a severely weakened and mal-equipped force due to Defense Secretary Louis Johnson’s attempts to scrap what he saw as an unnecessary component of the armed forces. They were undermanned and lacked landing craft. In order to solve these problems, MacArthur stripped every nook and cranny of Pusan and the Japanese bases of Marine Corps members and pressed aging World War II-era landing craft back into service. Admiral James Doyle summed up the plan by telling MacArthur that “the best I can say is that Inchon is not impossible.”

After receiving a grudging green-light from Washington, DC, MacArthur pushed ahead. On September 15, 1950, Marines, Army regulars, and South Korean troops stormed the beaches of Inchon from small amphibious assault craft, soon followed by larger ships that rolled heavy armor off right onto the beaches. Once they established a foothold, the Marines quickly overran the defenders and charged straight across the peninsula as planned. The North Koreans, finally realizing the vulnerability of their positions, began a hasty retreat that ran straight into the waiting troops. Of the 90,000-100,000 troops that started the retreat, only about 25,000 broke out and made it back across the 38th parallel. Operation Chromite was a sensational success.

With the North Koreans pitched back across the 38th, the UN had achieved all the goals it had intended to achieve. South Korea was free again and the North Korean army was in ruin. But the United States decided to press on, hoping to reverse the war and reunite Korea under democratic rule. In October 1950, having received UN approval, US forces rolled across the border. Further amphibious landings and bombing campaigns decimated resistance and secured victory. Having seized over 135,000 prisoners from the reeling North Korean army, UN troops marched into the North Korean capitol of Pyongyang within days. Kim Il-sung escaped across the border into China, where he continued to attempt to orchestrate a resistance to the American advance.

China enters the war

But this rollback policy would have serious repercussions. The Chinese began to fear that US troops would not stop at the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China, but instead try to continue by taking the war to China itself and overthrowing its communist government. It is true that many westerners, including General MacArthur himself, advocated this invasion, but President Truman and other leaders feared a showdown with the USSR and ordered MacArthur to keep away from China. Nevertheless, MacArthur did order some inconsequential bombing raids on North Korean bases in Manchuria during late September and early October.

China began to show signs of a growing reaction. Neutral diplomats warned of a Chinese military intervention in order to protect its “national security.” These were mostly dismissed, especially by CIA operatives who reported that they were empty rhetoric.

On October 8, Chinese leader Mao Zedong ordered a gathering of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, which mostly consisted of elements of the government’s People’s Liberation Army, and had them march to Manchuria, where they set up positions on the northern banks of the Yalu and waited while Zedong sought support from Russia. Russia agreed to very limited support, namely consisting of air cover (the Chinese had no air force to speak of) for a range of up to sixty miles past the Yalu. The Soviets’ new, technologically advanced MiG-15s, painted in People’s Republic of China colors but flown by Soviet pilots, began to inflict serious casualties on the US’ older, lumbering P-80 Shooting Stars, which couldn’t fly as quickly or maneuver as well. This eventually led to an extraordinary rush by the US to turn out a competitor, which quickly came in the form of the new F-86 Sabre aircraft. Showdowns between packs of MiGs and Sabres in “MiG Alley” continued for the rest of the war, with neither side admitting the openly known fact that these were Soviet and American pilots having at each other, the one case where the Cold War became an actual, physical fight.

Having secured this limited support from the Soviets, PVA troops struck out in a sudden, surprise strike across the Yalu. 270,000 troops under the command of General Peng Dehuai attacked all across the UN line, then melted back into the mountains. Taking this as a sign of weakness, UN forces pressed on to the Yalu. In November, they met the Chinese again, who this time struck and crumpled the UN’s flank, under the domain of South Korean troops, and dealt heavy blows to UN troops. What followed was a chaotic and disorganized rout, nothing short of a disaster. UN troops retreated hundreds of miles in a panic. 15,000 out of 30,000 US infantrymen died when busting through Chinese encirclement at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. After inflicting tremendous casualties on several Chinese divisions, the Marines were also forced to retreat with heavy losses.

Again the UN troops were forced to scratch out a perimeter, this time around the port of Hungnam. In a fighting retreat through the city’s streets, US troops blew up large portions of the city in order to keep them from the enemy (and ended up depriving many Koreans of shelter in the middle of winter) and kept fighting even as they were loading onto ships to be evacuated to Pusan.

China’s Winter and Spring Offensives

Chinese and North Korean troops quickly seized the initiative. Using devastating night attacks with superior numbers, the Chinese quickly destroyed UN resistance and threw them back, out of Seoul (which fell on the fourth of January, 1951). The UN line only stabilized when the Chinese had to halt their advance due to supply problems. With American planes bombing and strafing the countryside, supplies had to be moved on foot or at night, causing tremendous logistics problems for the PVA. While the Chinese dealt with these issues, Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway, the new Eighth Army commander, quickly exploited their lapse to mount a counteroffensive, named Operation Roundup. The Americans were quickly learning and adapting to the Chinese Army’s tactics, and coming up with methods to successfully fight them. As such, Operation Roundup and its follow-ups, Operations Killer and Ripper, fought through heavy resistance and several counteroffensives to regain lost territory and, on March 14, 1951, Seoul.

But all was not well. General MacArthur was removed from command by President Truman on counts of insubordination. Truman likely feared that MacArthur would go through with the plans he was pushing to attack China, which included the use of nuclear weapons. Ridgway assumed command and continued the offensive operations despite widespread protests over MacArthur’s removal.

UN troops continued to make progress, passing the 38th parallel and taking the war back into North Korea. In April, however, the Chinese launched a large-scale Spring Offensive, involving as many as 700,000 men (the exact numbers are unclear). The Eighth Army rallied and gained back lost ground, however. It was the last major offensive action of the war.

Negotiations and the end of the war

Having established Line Kansas a few miles north of the 38th, UN troops dug in and decided to wait the next few weeks out. With this, the stalemate that defined the rest of the war set in. Peace negotiations opened on July 10, 1951 at Kaesong (though fighting continued throughout) and did not end until a cease-fire was enacted on July 23, 1953. At that time the border was redrawn at the 38th parallel, where a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was set up, sown with mines and protected on either side by trenches, barbed wire, and trigger-happy Koreans. It persists to this day. In effect, the several years of fighting and millions of deaths, civilian as well as military, had served for nothing.

Legacies of the Korean War

The Korean War saw many advances in military strategy and technology, most notably in the area of military aviation. The first jet fighters saw their baptism by fire in the Korean War, which when it begun was still being fought with propellor-driven, World War II-era fighters and bombers like the P-51 Mustang and the B-29 Superfortress. The US also started to bring in P-80 Shooting Stars, early jet fighters with straight wings and a rather rudimentary engine design. These Shooting Stars were proven obsolete in dogfights with the Soviets’ MiG-15s: swept-wing, centralized-intake fighters, they had vast advantages over the P-80 in speed and maneuverability, mostly because their swept-wings counteracted the force of drag working on the aircraft, which the Shooting Stars with their straight wings were prone to. In an incredibly quick response, the US contracted, developed, and produced the F-86 Sabre fighter, which employed the same principles as the MiG-15 (though to somewhat greater effect) to rival the Soviets’ technology, going straight from prototype to mass-production. This glimpse at Soviet aircraft afforded the US a chance to play catch up with the Air Force and usher it into the new era of jet aircraft.

Another important advance was MASH, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, which had been developed towards the end of 1945 to take advantage of technology that allowed for highly mobile and portable Army medical stations of differing grades to be quickly set up near to a battle zone to get the wounded faster care, which is proven to lead to higher success rates in saving soldiers from wounds. What the Korean War contributed, however, was the helicopter. Fast, nimble helicopters could get to battles and lift out wounded troops on stretchers to get them to MASH units even faster, which led to another huge increase in the survival rates of the wounded. This system of rapid and highly mobile medical aid (slightly improved upon, naturally) continues to be used by armies to this day.

Is the Korean War over?

The ceasefire is long since signed and Kim Il-sung is dead, but his son and successor Kim Jong-il is worrisome. Besides establishing one of the largest armies in the world, the North Korean dictator is known (or speculated, depending on who one chooses listen to) to be pursuing nuclear and other mass-effect weapons. Will we see a repeat of the Korean War of the fifties? The tensions remain the same, the base players remain the same, and Korean politics have become a volatile mix, as dangerous and potentially explosive as the land mines that seed the DMZ. It is a ticking time bomb, and what remains to be seen is if someone will manage to defuse it or if someone will cut the wrong wire and set it off.

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