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Howitzers being fired at North Korean soldiers during the Korean War

The outbreak of the Korean War

Without a doubt, the Korean War was one of the most destructive wars of the 21st century. It had the third most deaths after World War I and II of around 2-3 million people, mostly civilians. The actual death toll among civilians may well be higher since we will never know exactly how many people died from the indiscriminate bombings and civilian massacres that took place. The number of military deaths is not clear, but there may have been as many as a million soldiers killed during the conflict.

Such astronomical figures are of course difficult to digest. Indeed, can any of us really imagine what it may have been like for so many people to be killed in such a relatively short period of three years? Perhaps the truly ironic aspect of the Korean War was that it could have been much worse as there was a debate among the Americans of introducing atomic weapons to the conflict. When the war ground down to a stalemate, a dispute over the use of nuclear weapons emerged. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to broaden the campaign to attack Chinese forces north of the Yalu River, but he was refused permission. When MacArthur made inappropriate statements to the press, President Truman dismissed him for his public insubordination.

After the initial attack on June 25, the North Koreans rapidly pushed the South Korean military all the way down to the famed Busan Perimeter, which was a fifty-by-fifty mile area in the south eastern corner of Korea. Only the US decision to enter the conflict through a UN resolution would save the Republic of Korea. Historians still debate why the Soviets did not veto the resolution within the Security Council, for they had boycotted the session to protest the inclusion of the Nationalist Chinese government of Taiwan as the China representative to the UN. Ultimately, when the United States did enter the war, it was considered to be a ‘police action’ rather than a formally declared war. The Korean War proved to be the first case of an undeclared war and establish the pattern for the Vietnam conflict. The passage of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an attempt by the US Congress to rein in the US President’s authority to engage in military conflicts without a declaration of war.

The surprise landing in Incheon on September 15-16, 1950 cut off the North Korean army and allowed Seoul to be liberated by September 28, 1950. The fateful decision to cross north over the 38th parallel forever changed the character of the war from ‘containment’ to ‘roll back’ as US attempted to push back communism rather than simply stop its spread. The combined US-ROK forces quickly captured nearly all of North Korea and pushed towards the Yalu River when the Chinese decided to intervene in October 1950. The Chinese quickly repelled the US-ROK forces back below the 38th parallel and even captured Seoul on January 5, 1951 for three months. The war then stalemated into a battle for better defensive positions along the front lines.

This war of attrition would introduce the most destructive phase of the war as massive US bombings of North Korean cities left only smouldering smokestacks behind. US pilots eventually ran out of bombing targets, for they had destroyed nearly all North Korean urban centres, rail road facilities, damns and industrial sites. The US also introduced napalm into the conflict to destroy villages suspected of harbouring enemy soldiers. Had the war ended in a few short months with a victory for either side in 1950, the loss of life would have been far less, for most of the casualties took place during the war of attrition between 1951-1953.

The Korean War was significant on many levels for the Soviet Union, China and the United States. While there is still a tendency to view the conflict as forgotten war on the Korean peninsula, the impact of this event was international in scale and would forever change the Cold War interactions among the superpowers. What often gets lost in the historical accounts of the Korean War, though, is the magnitude of destruction and loss of life. Some scholars have noted that the amount of fire power used in the conflict was more than the amount used in the entire Pacific theatre during WWII in a shorter time frame. Today we debate the meaning of ‘collateral damage’ and the need to minimise ‘civilian casualties’, but such a discussion about saving non-combatant lives was largely missing from the Korean War.

This article is from the free online course:

Modern Korean History: Liberation, War and Nuclear Ambitions

Yonsei University

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join:

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