After two years of skirmishes around the 38th parallel that divided the communist north (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) from the non-communist Republic of Korea in the south, North Korean forces (supported by China) invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950 in an attempt to reunify the country.
In a matter of weeks North Korean troops had occupied all but the extreme south-eastern corner of Korea, the ”Pusan Perimeter”.
In the UN, the USSR boycotted the Security Council – there is a theory that North Korea deliberately launched its attack some weeks earlier than Moscow expected to demonstrate that the USSR could not just use it as it wished.
The Security Council passed a resolution on 27 June calling on UN members to support South Korea against North Korean aggression. The USA responded swiftly, and in all 16 nations contributed to the UN forces, which were led by the US general Douglas MacArthur (pictured below left).
The Pusan Perimeter was held by UN forces against a North Korean attack beginning on 1 September, and on 15 September the brilliantly executed landings of US troops at Inchon took the North Korean army in the rear.
The UN forces decided against halting at the 38th parallel, and by late October they had occupied almost the whole of Korea and were at the Chinese border.
China had already given clear warning that it would retaliate against any foreign troops on its borders, and, although it never officially declared war, on 2 November some hundreds of thousands of ”Chinese People’s Volunteers” were thrown into an attack on the UN forces.
Taken by surprise at the strength of this attack, and ill-equipped for defensive fighting in mountainous terrain in the bitter winter, the UN forces retreated as rapidly as they had previously advanced.
In January 1951 the Chinese and North Korean forces again occupied Seoul, and held it for a month. During the spring of 1951 the line was stabilised more or less along the 38th parallel. In April 1951, after expressing views contrary to US and UN policy, Douglas MacArthur was relieved of all his commands by President Truman.
After strong attacks by both sides had been held, truce talks were opened on 10 July. The haggling continued for over two years, in spite of a daily toll of life and a fantastically expensive mutual bombardment along the front line.
Most of the argument in the truce talks seems to have been over matters of ”face”, though there was always one serious issue: the repatriation of prisoners of war.
The UN-South Korean side was astonished at how few prisoners the Chinese-North Korean side claimed to have, and the communist side refused to accept that prisoners held in the South should be given free choice of residence upon release. The UN side reported that more than half the 130,000 prisoners of war in the South were refusing to return to China and North Korea.
In South Korea, Syngman Rhee, pressing for rejection of any settlement short of complete North Korean surrender, almost wrecked the talks at the last minute by releasing 27,000 prisoners on his own initiative on 1 June 1953 (Rhee continued to be an embarrassing ally for the USA until riots forced him to resign and leave the country in 1960).
In March 1953 the hard-line Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died. On 27 July a truce agreement was signed between the UN and North Korea, confirming the border at the 38th parallel; South Korea did not participate.
A conference held in Geneva in April 1964 settled nothing, and it would seem from the record that neither side went there in order to reach any compromise. The truce agreement is still in force, and the North and South Korean armies are separated by a 4 kilometre wide Demilitarised Zone.
The Military Armistice Commission meets once or twice each month at Panmunjom to hear allegations of violations of the truce, and a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (military experts from the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland) meets once a week in the same place to report its supervision of the truce.
The war ruined Korea, both North and South, and it is estimated that well over 1 million people died in it: 226,000 South Korean troops, 57,000 UN, 294,000 North Korean, and 184,000 Chinese, plus nearly 400,000 civilians.
103,284 Americans were wounded and 7,955 reported missing in action (MIA).
The turmoil of the war left another legacy: millions of families were divided and found themselves with members on either side of the Demilitarised Zone, living under diametrically opposed regimes – this remains a major issue today.
The war was interpreted by the Western powers as an overt expression of communist designs for world conquest and it led to the re-arming of Japan and the implementation of NATO in Europe. It was a factor in the USA’s support for the Chinese nationalists in Taiwan, and probably later also in its joining in the war against North Vietnam.
In Korea the war left seemingly incurable wounds. Each side accuses the other of the first aggression and of unforgivable atrocities during the fighting. Both have found it difficult to retreat from their positions as the crack troops of the Cold War, even following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and the ending of the Cold War elsewhere in the world.