At the end of World War II, Korea – formerly occupied by Japan – was divided along the 38th Parallel. In the north, the Russians installed a communist regime, headed by Kim Il-Sung. In the south, the Americans backed the pro-western and anti-communist government of Syngman Rhee.
In 1948, the south declared itself to be the Republic of Korea and the north responded by proclaiming itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
After two years of skirmishes around the 38th parallel, 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 16 nations contributed to the UN forces, which were led by US general Douglas MacArthur (pictured below left).
The first contingent of British soldiers to fight in the war (a battalion each of the Middlesex Regiment and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) landed in Korea on 29 August and were soon in action helping to defend the hard-pressed line around Pusan.
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.
By far the most famous action fought by the British in Korea took place in April 1951 when, in a bid to break through to Seoul, three Chinese divisions, 27,000 men in all, advanced upon British positions along the Imjin River.
Facing them were troops of the 29th British Brigade: the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment, plus a battalion of Belgians and a squadron of tanks from the 8th Hussars – just 4,000 men in total.
With more than ten miles of front to hold and only four battalions to hold it, gaps in the line were inevitable and so the units were mainly positioned on and around key hills in the area. But the breaks in the line of defence enabled huge numbers of attacking Chinese (who also displayed remarkable courage and disregard for danger) to pour across the Imjin River, bypass the hills and penetrate the very heart of the area held by the British.
As more and more Chinese troops joined the fighting, the Gloucestershire Regiment found itself completely cut off from the rest of the Brigade.
Although they inflicted heavy losses on their enemies with their rifles and quick-firing Bren guns, they were gradually forced back until the whole battalion was surrounded on a hill feature known as Hill 235.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel James Carne, who would later be awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions, they fought it out for three days. Finally, hopelessly outnumbered, short of food, water and ammunition and with no prospect of relief, they were ordered to break out as best they could.
46 men managed to fight their way to safety but most of the others were taken prisoner. They would endure two bitter years of ill-treatment, semi-starvation and attempted indoctrination until they were freed at the end of the war.
Also 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 seem 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).
General Dwight Eisenhower‘s election to the US presidency in November 1952 was, in part, a sign of US dissatisfaction over President Harry Truman‘s handling of the Korean War.
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.