Explainer: Korean war

On the surface, the Korean War seem to be a war between South Korea and North Korea, but in reality the superpowers(USA and USSR) were just using it to combat each other without actually going into a ‘real war’ as both had the atomic bomb.

To understand the roots of the Korean War, we have to go back to the end of World War II.


As a result of Russian revolution in 1917, a communist government was formed in Russia and Lenin took control of the government. After this Russia joined with some countries and conquered some other countries to form USSR or Soviet Union.

Communists do not support capitalism. They say it hurts workers, because companies make more money by selling things than they pay the workers who make the things. Business owners become rich while workers remain poor . They also argue that society would be more efficient if people thought less about competing against one another for their own interests and thought more of working together for the overall good of society. Another argument is that each person has a right to basic needs.

Communists believed that their ideology was superior to that of the democratic, capitalistic countries of the West. They believed that communism would eventually take over the world and they wanted to speed that process as much as they could.

Communism and its violent approach towards existing rulers & businessmen made the Western countries like USA,UK etc. really worried. The United States has strongly opposed to communism. It felt that communism was economically inefficient and that it crushes people’s fundamental human rights. For these reasons, it wanted to prevent the spread of communism.

On one hand, Communist wanted to export communism to other parts of the world, On other hand Capitalist nations wanted to prevent the spread of communism.

Before the start of the second world war, the relationship between Europe,USA with Soviet Union were not good. However,they realized that Hitler was a bigger danger and they joined hands together in putting down Germany.

One might think that as the USA and the USSR fought as allies during World War Two, their relationship after the war would be firm and friendly. This never happened..Before the war, America had depicted the Soviet Union as almost the devil-incarnate. The Soviet Union had depicted America likewise so their ‘friendship’ during the war was simply the result of having a common enemy – Nazi Germany.

The Soviet Union was a communist country. Communists believed that their ideology was superior to that of the democratic, capitalistic countries of the West.They also hoped to export communist ideology to other parts of the world, to stimulate an ‘international revolution’. So after the war Russia started spreading communism to rest of the world either directly or indirectly.

Events leading to korea war:

World War 2 was fought between two groups of countries. On one side were the Axis Powers, including Germany, Italy and Japan. On the other side were the Allies. They included Britain, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China and the United States of America.

On February 1945, during world war 2 ,Yatla conference took place. It was the meeting between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In these conference with USA and Britan, Soviet Union promised that once Hitler is defeated in the war, it will join the war against Japan.

Hitler was defeated in the world war. After three months to the defeat of Hitler, first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped, Soviet Union entered the war against Japan as promised in the conference. Soviet plans included the invasion of Manchukuo (Manchuria), Mengjiang, Korea, the southern portion of Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and Hokkaido. Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910 itself. When the world war is happening it is still under the control of Japan. So Soviet Union included Korea in their part of invasion.

The Soviet Union started occupying Korea from its North. Soviet troops advanced rapidly, and the USA government became anxious that Soviets would occupy the whole of Korea and establish a Communist government in Korea. So USA Started occupying from the South. The Soviet forces moved rapidly towards south on the Korean peninsula and the USA forces moving northward.

The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, which ended World War II, which led to a time of great confusion in Korea. The Soviet Union was controlling northern half and the United States exercising control over the southern half.

38th Parallel was set a military boundary between South Korea and North Korea.
The plan was to unite the two half’s, but the United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on what type of government the new Korean nation should have. The Soviet Union wanted a communist government installed, while the U.S. wanted a democratic, pro-American government put in. Unable to reach a resolution, the Republic of Korea was declared in the southern half of the peninsula in August 1948. A month later, the People’s Republic of Korea was declared in the Soviet zone of occupation.So, there we go. We now had a North Korea and a South Korea, each state with a very different government and very different agendas. South Korea, of course, was backed by the United States and other democratic states, while North Korea was backed by the Soviet Union.

In December 1945, at the Moscow Conference, it is agreed that the Soviet Union, the US, the Republic of China, and Britain would take part in a control over Korea for up to five years after which independence will be granted. Most Koreans demanded independence immediately .A Soviet-US Joint Commission met in 1946 and 1947 to work towards a unification of Korea, but failed to make progress . Meanwhile, the division between the two zones deepened. The difference in policy between the occupying powers led to a polarization of politics, and a transfer of population between North and South. In May 1946 it was made illegal to cross the border without a permit.

On May, 1948 the south held a general election. On August 15, the “Republic of Korea” formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president. In the North,the Soviet Union established a communist government led by Kim Il-sung.

There are some communist supposters in South Korea. President Rhee(South Korea) excluded people who support communist from southern politics. So the Communist supporters in South Korea started guerilla war against the US-sponsored South Korean government.

By 1949, South Korean forces had reduced the number of communist guerrillas in the South from 5,000 to 1,000. Kim Il-sung(North Korean President) wanted to unify the nation. Kim Il-sung believed that as a result of guerilla war the South Korean military had weakened and that South Korea can be easily defeated. Kim began seeking Stalin’s support for an invasion in March 1949, travelling to Moscow in an attempt to convince Stalin.

Initially, Stalin did not think the time was right for a war in Korea. American forces were still present in South Korea and Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become involved in a war with the United States. Also, after the end of World War Two, civil war broke out in China. Chinese Communist forces were still fighting in China for power(Stalin thought, if China becomes communist it will help Russia in all aspects).

Throughout 1949, the Soviets continued to provide weapons to North Korea. The tanks, artillery and aircraft supplied by the Soviets, and rigorous training increased North Korea’s military superiority over the South Korea. South Korea had been provided weapons by the American military but mostly small arms and given no heavy weaponry such as tanks. In China Communists became victorious, and on 1 October 1949, Mao founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and became the leader of PRC.

By 1950, Stalin believed the strategic situation had changed. China became communists. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb in September 1949(Only America had Nuclear bomb till then). American soldiers had fully withdrawn from Korea and Stalin believed that the Americans would be even less willing to fight in Korea because strategically it is less important for USA. Stalin began a more aggressive strategy in Asia based on these developments, including promising economic and military aid to China through the Sino–Soviet Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance Treaty.

In April 1950, Stalin gave Kim permission to invade the South under the condition that Mao would agree to send support if needed. Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces would not openly engage in combat, in order to avoid a direct war with the Americans. Kim met with Mao in May 1950.Mao agreed to support the North Korean invasion because China desperately needed the economic and military aid promised by the Soviets as China was economically weaken because of continuous fighting between the communist China and its government. Mao promised to move an army closer to the Korean border. Once Mao’s commitment was secured, preparations for the war started.

Korean war:

Armed with Soviet rifles and tanks and support of China, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950.

The North Korean invasion came a surprise to American officials. They were concerned, this was not simply a border dispute between two unstable Korean nations. Instead, many feared it was the first step by the communists to spread communism to the rest of the world. So USA and other allied nations thought that if North Korea was allowed to occupy South Korea, the Soviet Union will keep going and convert one place after another into a communist nation. For this reason, US and its allies wanted to involve in the war.

US President Harry Truman said, “If we let Korea down,the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another. The fight on the Korean peninsula was a symbol of the global struggle between east and west, good and evil”.

As the North Korean army occupied into Seoul, the South Korean capital, the United States readied its troops for a war against communism itself.

So US joined the war to fight with North Korea which was supported by Soviet and China. The North Korean army was well-disciplined, well-trained and well-equipped; On the other hand South Korea’s forces, by contrast, were frightened, confused. Also, it was one of the hottest and driest summers on record, and the thirsty American soldiers were often forced to drink water from rice paddies that had been fertilized with human waste. As a result, dangerous intestinal diseases and other illnesses were a constant threat.

The United States, and its forces, lacked an efficient strategy. American soldiers found the weather extremely difficult to conduct operations in. Additional pains were caused by the inefficiently trained and poorly led South Korean army. By the beginning of September, North Korean forces had advanced all the way to the Tsushima Strait on the border of South Korea.

The Tide Shifts

The early victories of the North Koreans were short lived. US president Truman authorized General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the United Nations forces, to take whatever measures necessary to push the North Koreans back.

MacArthur landed over 10,000 Marines at Inchon. By the end of the month, American forces had recaptured Seoul and began the process of driving the enemy out of South Korea. With American success MacArthur wanted to continue war into North Korea, and eliminate the enemy completely. US president was against MacArthur’s request because the President do not want to involove much in Korea as it is strategically not so important for USA. Also Truman did not want to encourage a Chinese entry into the war. Additionally, this war was meant to stop the communist enemy, not to totally eradicate them. Even though Truman has all this concerns, he allowed MacArthur to carry the war into North Korea.

China Enters the War

MacArthur successfully crossed into North Korea in November and pushed his forces to the Yalu River, which is border of North Korea and China. This was a fatal mistake on part of MacArthur because China viewed the advance as aggressive.

After Communist Victory, China was reconstructing its nation under Mao leadership. China wanted to keep a ‘safe zone’ so that no countries would interrupt in its internal reconstruction. China also thought capitalist countries might use this as a chance to overthrow the communist government and change China into a democratic state.

The Government of China warned MacArthur not to come closer than 20 miles to the Yalu river, the border between China and North Korea, or they would consider it to be an act of war and would enter the war on the side of North Korea.

MacArthur, an arrogant man continued past the 20 miles mark, even though told not to by the USA President Harry S. Truman. By this move China entered the war. China then sent approximately 300,000 men against the US (having support from USSR). Chinese troops swarmed across the border driving the Americans all the way back to the original border between north and south with great loss of life to the Americans. President Truman fired MacArthur and ordered him back to the US.

Armistice agreement:

By the spring of 1953, it was clear that victory would come at too high price for both sides, providing the way to the signing of an armistice agreement(an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time) in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.

The fighting ended on July 1953, when an armistice was signed. The agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone(DMZ as popularly known) to separate North and South Korea. However,the armistice, is not an official peace treaty between North Korea and South Korea. The two powers on the Korean Peninsula are still technically in a state of war, since the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.


The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a highly militarized zone running across the Korean Peninsula. The DMZ is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and, despite its name, is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

No one knows exactly how many people died in this war. It was a war fought out with foreign participation on both sides. The American Department of Defence acknowledges that almost 40,000 of its servicemen died, either in battle or of other causes. British casualties were 1,078 killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing or taken prisoner.

The true casualty figures for the North and South Koreans and Chinese will never be known. It is estimated that some 46,000 South Korean soldiers were killed and over 100,000 wounded. The Chinese are estimated by the Pentagon as having lost over 400,000 killed (including Mao Tse-tung’s son) and 486,000 wounded, with over 21,000 captured. The North Koreans lost about 215,000 killed, 303,000 wounded and over 101,000 captured or missing.

Since 1953, the South Korea has transformed into a modern state. In the North, however, the Stalinist regime created by Kim Il-sung is only now beginning to move out of its hermit state. The economy is in ruins and famine stalks the land.

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