Conflict in Korea

Kim Il Sung, Supreme Leader of North Korea 1948–94

  •  Born in 1912 – not much is certain about his childhood.
  • In 1931 he joined the Communist Party, and in the 1930s became involved in anti-Japanese activities in China and Korea and was recognised as an excellent military leader.
  • He was a major in the Soviet Red Army fighting against Japan, 1941–45.
  • In 1945 he assumed control in North Korea which had been liberated from the Japanese.
  • In 1948 he failed to hold all-Korean elections, and instead pronounced North Korea as a separate Communist REPUBLIC.
  • He authorised the invasion of South Korea in 1950.
  • He died in 1994.
1 of 13

Syngman Rhee, President of South Korea 1948–60

  • Born in 1875. He was well educated, learnt English and studied in the USA. Gained a PhD
  • In the period 1910–40 he campaigned tirelessly against the Japanese who had imposed their rule over Korea. He was in exile, mostly in the USA, and became well known to government figures there. During the Second World War he campaigned for the creation of an independent Korea.
  • He returned to Korea in 1945 and set up a provisional government. He won elections in South Korea in 1948. 
  • In 1950 the USA supported him in South Korea despite his dictatorial anti-democratic style of government. 
  • He lost power in 1960, and died in Hawaii in 1965.
2 of 13

The causes of the Korean War

During the 1950s an ARMS RACE was being played out between America and the USSR. Against the background of this developing nuclear rivalry, both SUPERPOWERS were anxious not to get involved in a head-to-head confrontation. However, they were happy to recruit allies and to support states which came into conflict with their enemies.

A good example of this is the Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953. Compared with the Vietnam War, the Korean War is relatively unknown, despite the fact that it was an extremely brutal and destructive war with very high casualty rates. In fact, in the Korean War the rate (rather than the total number) of American casualties was actually higher than in Vietnam.

3 of 13

US relations with China

There was a lot of anti-COMMUNIST feeling in the USA, which reached its height in the early 1950s. This had been fuelled by what was seen as a Communist takeover of eastern Europe by the USSR, but then made much worse when the Communists succeeded in completing their control of China in 1949. Between 1946 and 1949 the USA had pumped about $2 billion of aid to help the Nationalists in China led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Now he had been forced to retreat to the island of Formosa (Taiwan).

President Truman and other Americans watched the progress of Communism with increasing anxiety. Communist influence was reported to be on the increase in Malaya, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines as well as Korea. Americans feared that Communism would soon dominate Asia. President Truman had set out what became known as the TRUMAN DOCTRINE in 1947, promising to help countries threatened by unwelcome Communist takeovers. At the time he was primarily thinking of Stalin’s threat to countries in Europe, but the doctrine was equally applicable in Asia. In the short term, the USA refused to recognise the new Communist government of China led by Mao Zedong, and maintained official diplomatic channels through the Nationalist government in exile.

4 of 13

Reasons why the North invaded the South in June 19

Korea had been ruled by Japan until 1945. At the end of the Second World War the northern half was liberated by Soviet troops and the southern half by Americans. When the war ended, the North remained Communist-controlled, with a Communist leader who had been trained in the USSR, and with a Sovietstyle one-party system. The South was anti-Communist. It was not very DEMOCRATIC, but the fact that it was anti-Communist was enough to win it the support of the USA. There was bitter hostility between the North’s Communist leader, Kim Il Sung, and Syngman Rhee, President of South Korea. In 1950 this hostility spilled over into open warfare. North Korean troops, helped initially by equipment from the USSR and later by China, overwhelmed the South’s forces. By September 1950 all except a small corner of south-east Korea was under Communist control. Busan.

5 of 13

UN and US responses

President Truman immediately sent advisers, supplies and warships to the waters around Korea. At the same time, he put enormous pressure on the UN Security Council to condemn the actions of the North Koreans and to call on them to withdraw their troops. In the COLD WAR atmosphere of 1950, each superpower always denounced and opposed any action by the other. So normally, in a dispute such as this, the Soviet Union would have used its right of VETO to block the call for action by the UN. However, the USSR was boycotting the UN at this time. When China became Communist in 1949, the USA had blocked its entry to the United Nations, since it regarded the Nationalists (Chiang Kai-shek and his followers) as the rightful government of China. The USSR had walked out of the UN in protest. So when the resolution was passed , the USSR was not even at the meeting to use its veto. The USA was the single biggest contributor to the UN budget and was therefore in a powerful position to influence the UN decision. The UN was now committed to using member forces to drive North Korean troops out of South Korea.

6 of 13

The UN campaign in South and North Korea: The Inch

Eighteen states (including Britain) provided troops or support of some kind, but the overwhelming part of the UN force that was sent to Korea was American. The commander, General MacArthur, was also an American.

United Nations forces stormed ashore at Inchon in September 1950. At the same time, other UN forces and South Korean troops advanced from Pusan. For the first time the North Koreans had been outmanoeuvred. They were driven back beyond their original border (the 38th Parallel) within weeks. MacArthur had quickly achieved the original UN objective of removing North Korean troops from South Korea. By the end of September MacArthur had been able to retake Seoul. But the Americans did not stop. Despite warnings from China’s leader, Mao Zedong, that pressing on would mean China joining the war, the UN approved a plan to advance into North Korea. By October, US forces, on behalf of the UN, had reached the Yalu river and the border with China (see Figure 6). The nature of the war had now changed. It was clear that MacArthur and Truman were striving for a bigger prize – to remove Communism from Korea entirely

7 of 13

Intervention of Chinese troops, October 1950

MacArthur underestimated the power of the Chinese. Late in October 1950, 200,000 Chinese troops (calling themselves ‘People’s Volunteers’) joined the North Koreans. They launched a blistering attack. They had soldiers who were strongly committed to Communism and had been taught by their leader to hate the Americans. They had modern tanks and planes supplied by the Soviet Union. The United Nations forces were pushed back by the sheer size of the Chinese force into South Korea. In January 1951 the US/UN forces were driven out of Seoul. Only after weeks of bitter fighting were the UN troops able to recover and push the Chinese troops back to the 38th Parallel. STALEMATE had been reached. Although the tide had turned towards America, there was no real sign of an end to the deadlock. Casualties were steadily rising.

8 of 13

The sacking of MacArthur

At this point, Truman and MacArthur fell out. MacArthur wanted to carry on the war, invading China and even using nuclear weapons if necessary. Truman felt that saving South Korea was good enough. After all, that had been the original aim of the UN-led forces. His allies in the UN force convinced him that the risks of attacking China and of starting a war that might bring in the USSR were too great, and so an attack on China was ruled out. However, in March 1951 MacArthur blatantly ignored the UN instruction and openly threatened an attack on China. In April Truman removed MacArthur from his position as commander and brought him back home. He rejected MacArthur’s aggressive policy towards Communism. CONTAINMENT was underlined as the American policy. One of the American army leaders, General Omar Bradley, said that MacArthur’s approach would have ‘involved America in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy’.

9 of 13

Peace talks and the armistice

Stalemate had been reached by early 1951. Peace talks between North and South Korea began in June 1951, but made no progress because of a major dispute over exchange of prisoners. Talks began again in 1952 but bitter fighting continued. In the November 1952 presidential elections Truman was replaced by President Eisenhower who wanted to end the war. He promised to bring the war to ‘an early and honourable end’. Stalin’s death in March 1953 made the Chinese and North Koreans less confident, as there was no immediate successor and future USSR policy might change. An ARMISTICE was finally signed at Panmunjom in July 1953.

10 of 13

The Korean War: A balance sheet

The Cold War was no longer confined to Europe. Relationships between the USA, the USSR and China were bound to be complicated – especially with the existence of Nationalist China on the island of Formosa, which was recognised as the official Chinese government by both the USA and the UN. In 1954 SEATO was founded – the South East Asia Treaty Organisation – a copy of NATO, and designed to contain Communism in the Far East. This further heightened mistrust between the USA and the USSR. From the USSR’s perspective it appeared that the USA was forging powerful alliances in both Europe and Asia against all Communist states.

11 of 13

Topic Summary

  •  After the Second World War, Korea had been divided into North (Communist) and South (anti-Communist) along the line of the 38th Parallel.
  • The USA’s policy of containment was bolstered by the Truman Doctrine in 1947. 
  • The USA’s fears of Communism spreading in Asia were justified when the Communists won the long civil war in China in 1949.
  • In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. 
  • The United Nations were able to act because the USSR was absent from the Security Council. The UN sent joint military forces to help South Korea.
  • Eighteen countries sent troops, but the USA took the leading role. 
  • Rapid advances by the North into the South were halted when UN forces landed at Inchon. 
  • General MacArthur wanted to invade China and was dismissed by President Truman. 
  • Peace talks dragged on into 1953 when Eisenhower had become President and Stalin had died. 
  • Truce signed at Panmunjom in July 1953. South Korea had remained non-Communist.
12 of 13

General Douglas MacArthur

  • Born in 1880. His father was a successful army leader. 
  • Trained at West Point, the top American military academy. 
  • Fought in the First World War. He got thirteen medals for bravery and became the youngest commander in the American army in France.
  • Became chief of staff in the army in 1930. 
  • During the Second World War he was the commander of the war against the Japanese. He devised the successful island-hopping strategy that allowed the Americans to drive out the Japanese from their island strongholds. 
  • In 1945 he personally accepted the Japanese surrender, and from 1945 to 1951 he virtually controlled Japan, helping the shattered country get back on its feet. 
  • His bullying, no-nonsense style enabled him to get things done, but he sometimes annoyed political leaders back in Washington by following his own policies. 
  • In 1950, at the age of 70, he was given command of the UN forces in Korea. 
  • He was relieved of his duties in Korea in 1951. He tried unsuccessfully to be elected as a presidential candidate in 1952. 
  • He died in 1964.
13 of 13

Comments

No comments have yet been made

Similar History resources:

See all History resources »See all The Cold War resources »