WHY DID THE KOREAN WAR BREAK OUT?

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Korean War 1950-3

WHY DID THE KOREAN WAR BREAK OUT?

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North Korean aggression

  • North Korea invaded the South on 25th June 1950
  • The same day, the United Nations passed a motion condemning the attack and demanding NK withdraw (due to the absence of the USSR, who walked out 12 days earlier)
  • US Secretary of State (Dean Acheson) described the in invasion as "an open, undisguished challenge" to their position as SK's protectors. At first they feared the invasion of SK was part of a worldwide Communist offensive, and that they would soon also attack other countries. John Foster Dulles (US ambassador to the UN) claimed "to sit by while Korea is overrun by unprovoked armed attack would start a world war."
  • Not the first time NK had tried to undermine the Rhee regime of the South. April 1949: NK invited SK's anti-Rhee leaders to a "coalition conference." In August a "People's Democratic Republic" of all Korea was proclaimed at "supreme People's Assembly" in NK.
  • Kim Il Sung was confident of victory because his army outnumbered SK's by 135,000 to 98,000 (of whom 33,000 were non-combat troops) and 36:14 in planes. His troops were also more experienced and motivated.
  • NK relied heavily on Soviet aid BUT Soviet sources suggest the initiative came from Kim Il Sung persuading Stalin to agree to the invasion. 1949: Stalin refused to support a NK invasion and only changed his mind in 1950 when Kim Il Sung persuaded him it would be a walkover and the USA wouldn't intervene. 
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South Korea

  • Provocations on both sides
  • Syngman Rhee shared Kil Il Sung's ambition to unite all Korea under his leadership 
  • In May 1949 SK forces advanced 2.5 miles into NK and attacked local villages
  • Enabled NK to claim it was counter-attacking against "armed aggression" by "the South Korea puppet clique."
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The USSR

  • NK invasion would not have been possible if it wasn't for the USSR being willing to give arms and supplies
  • Nikita Khrushchev (Soviet leader after Stalin's death) claimed Stalin and Mao Zedong agreed to support the invasion because they were confident on an easy victory in view of NK's military superiority (Soviet military aid supplied them with T-34 tanks, heavily artillery and 200 aircrafts). The apparent lack of US commitment in suppporting SK also persauded them.
  • More confident in supporting NK in 1950 instead of 1949 because of its success in developing the atom bomb, the Communist victory in China (both in 1949) and the Soviet-Chinese alliance (1950).
  • CIA report in 1950: "the invasion of the Republic of Korea by the NK army was undoubtedly undertaken at Soviet direction and Soviet material support is unquestionably being provided." It then also went to claim that the USSR's objetive is to elimate all anti-Communist on the mainland of northern Asia. 
  • The US at first saw this invasion as part of a planned Communist worldwide attack and the Chiefs of Staff of the British army agreed, seeing it as a "deliberate move in the Cold War on the part of the Russians."
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China

  • China had a border with Korea and naturally supported Kim Il Sung. 
  • Mao remembered how the Japs had used Korea as a base from which to invade Manchuria (province in Northen China) in 1931, a prelude to the full-scale Jap invasion of China 6 years later. 
  • He did not want to ge involved in any foreign wars and was more concerned about Taiwan than Korea
  • However, Truman's commitment to defending the KMT regime in Taiwan made Mao fear Chiang Kai Shek was going to invade China with US support to overthrow Mao's regime.
  • This angered and provoked MAo, and made a Chinese intervention in Korea more likely.
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Domestic Pressures affecting US intervention

  • Max Hastings: "the citical force in US policy towards the Far East by the summer of 1950 was the deep bitterness and frustration of the American people about the loss of China to the Communists."
  • The USA had invested over $3.5 billion in supporting Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist regime against the Communists.
  • Industrialists like Alfred Kohlberg were angry at the damage to their business interests caused by the Communist victory, while the Churches were appalled by what they regarded as a victory for atheism over Christianity.
  • Senator Joe McCarthy (right wing Republican) launced an anti-Communist "witch hunt" against State Department officials who had allegedly "betrayed" China to the Communists. He and other right wing senators like Robert Taft accused Truman of being "soft on Communism."
  • Truman was aware he would be facing re-election in 1952 and hoped his stand on Korea would increase his popularity, as it did. The Military Assistance programme for Korea passed the Senate unanimously.
  • Americans feared the spread of Communism: China had already fallen and if Korea did, Japan may be next. It was therefore essential to contain Communism in accordance with the Truman Doctrine.
  • Many government officials believed that the USA had made a big mistake in "appeasing" Hitler and Japan in the 1930s and so were determined not to make the same mistake again with Stalin.
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US Mistakes

  • USA did not make it clear to the Communist world that Korea was important to them. The NSC 48 paper in 1948 and the Scretary of State Dean Acheson's speech in January 1950 excluded Korea from the list of vital importance to the USA in the Far East. 
  • The USA withdrew their forces from SK in 1949 and denied Syngman Rhee the tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft which the USSR gave to Kim Il Sung.
  • The State Department was so hostile to Syngman Rhee that they refused to give him a passport to return to SK from the USA. 
  • Lack of US enthusiasm for Rhee's corrupt, repressive and unpopular regime was well known in Moscow and the same right wing Republicans who criticised Truman for being "soft on Communism" opposed any economic aid to SK.
  • Hastings concluded "had the Russians possessed any inkling of the strength of Washington's newfound determination to seek a battleground upon which to challenge Communist expansion, it is profoundly unlikely that Moscow would ever have allowed the NK invasion of June 1950 to take place."
  • Between 1945 and 1950 the USA had reduced the numbers in its armed forces from 12 million to 1.6 million and expenditure on them from $82 billion to only $13 billion. This strengthened the impression in Moscow and Pyongyang that the USA was not ready to fight for Korea.
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Japan

  • The USA was concerned about Japan, which economically and strategically was much more crucial than Korea!
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