June 25, 1950 - The Korean War Begins
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 25, 1950. North Korean troops and tanks lunge across the 38th Parallel, surprising and overrunning the forces of South Korea. It is the shot heard around the world, as the force of the Western Powers and the Soviet Bloc prepare to turn the Korean peninsula into the first battleground of the Cold War. It is a war that does not need to happen, that no one wanted – and that no one wins.
Today’s post will be less of a combat narrative, and more an explanation of how the Korean War came to be. The question of “who was responsible for the Korean War” is a major point of historical dispute to this very day, and the origins are much more complicated than “the North invaded.” (But as I will point out, it basically boils down to that.)
Korea, the “Land of the Morning Calm,” is basically the Poland of Asia. Just as poor Poland spent centuries wedged between aggressive German and Russian powers, so too has Korea been stuck on a fault line between the Pacific Rim and Asian mainland. Korea survived for centuries as a distinct and vibrant nation under the guardianship of various Chinese dynasties and empires. Its proximity to Japan, though, turned it into that country’s first major target in its wars of imperialism, and from 1894 on Korea fell into the Japanese sphere of influence. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and proceeded to exploit and oppress its people with severity that rivaled anything the Europeans did in Africa.
Korean spirit never faded, though, and in the complex environment of the 1920s and 1930s multiple resistance movements sprang up that operated both inside and outside the country. Communist and leftist writings often present this resistance as solely leftist, but in reality it was multifaceted and complex, rooted in many different ideologies. For our purposes, there were two primary factions we’ll focus on.
One was the Provisional Government, which functioned as something like a government-in-exile that drew its support from the Nationalist Chinese and the United States. The Provisional Government failed to gain international recognition or bring all the liberal and nationalist groups under its umbrella, and its leader Syngman Rhee was controversial even within its organization. Rhee was educated in American schools and a Christian convert and was based in the United States since the 1920s, causing him to be perceived as a Western plant by many nationalist Koreans.
The other main faction of the Korean resistance was the Communist bloc, which had multiple leaders throughout its time. Less prominent during the occupation, but much more prominent later, was the Marxist Kim Il-Sung, who had joined the Communist Party of China in 1931 and fought in the Chinese Civil War in Manchuria and northern China. Kim’s origins are shrouded in ideology and propaganda; it is alleged by some that Kim stole the identity of a much more popular early resistance leader, Kim Kyung-cheon, and the mythology of the DPRK still promotes the commingling of these two figures.
Kim Il-Sung’s role in the Japanese invasion of China was prominent but not unique, but you wouldn’t know this from Communist propaganda outlets. By 1940, though, his forces were defeated and forced to retreat into the Soviet Union. Here Kim and his forces were retrained and reindoctrinated by the Soviets. Kim Il-Sung thus had strong links with both Mao’s and Stalin’s governments before the end of World War II.
When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, neither the West nor the Communist powers regarded Korea with much interest, and it had never been a point of discussion in the critical Tehran or Yalta Conferences during the war itself. Soviet forces had invaded northern China and defeated Japanese forces there, and by the time of the Japanese surrender already occupied the northern part of Korea. American liaison officers offhandedly suggested a joint occupation along the line of the 38th Parallel, and by September 1945 United States and Soviet forces had occupied Korea along these lines. Though no one (especially not the Koreans) suspected it, this casual division of their homeland would last to the present day.
The mutual distrust between the United States and the Soviet Union was already beginning to flower, however, and tensions were growing. These tensions found their way to Korea. By December 1945, the Soviets had installed Kim Il-Sung as the chairman of the Korean Communist Party, but only after considering and rejecting several other candidates. It is interesting how close North Korea came to never having a Kim dynasty, and intriguing to wonder how Cho Man-sik or Pak Hon-yong might have run things.
Since no one had really thought about Korea during World War II, the joint US-Soviet occupation had no real plan as to how to run the country. In 1948, the US military government in southern Korea decided to hold an election across the peninsula with the goal of creating an independent, democratic Korea. Since the United States military government had suppressed communist-organized labor strikes and organizing in their zone, the Soviet Union and the Korean Communists refused to cooperate with the elections.
In 1948 both the Soviet and American zones held separate and conflicting elections, which initiated the division of the peninsula into two states. The South Korean government, or Republic of Korea – ROK - elected Syngman Rhee as their President, and the Soviet-controlled Communist government installed Kim Il-sung as the Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK.
By 1949, United States and Soviet forces had both officially withdrawn from the Korean peninsula, but in many ways, this was a fiction. Neither side considered Korea to be of high importance, with Europe and China as the main arenas for the emerging struggle between liberalism and socialism. Nevertheless, the United States left several hundred Army officers as combat advisors to the ROK Army, and the Soviets released most of their ethnically Korean soldiers to join the DPRK’s army.
As soon as there were two governments, the tension within the nation of Korea flared into uncontrolled border war. Despite the notion that the Korean War as we perceive it began in 1950, the shooting war really began in 1948. Constant skirmishes along the border were dwarfed, though, by a vast Communist insurgency within South Korea. United States forces advised the ROK government in suppressing this guerrilla movement, which was allied with and controlled by the Communist power in the North. The ROK was deliberately hostile and violent in its suppression, but the Communist guerrillas massacred the families of right-leaning officials. The 1948-1950 guerrilla struggle in South Korea was truly a civil war with multiple atrocities on both sides which resulted in thousands of deaths. One of the major side effects was that South Korea developed a military that focused on counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare and neglected its conventional warfare requirements – with fatal results.
Any developments in Korea, though, were overshadowed on the world stage by the outcome of the Chinese Civil War. Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army had overthrown the American-backed Nationalists, who retreated to the offshore island of Taiwan; the “loss of China” was an enormous shock to the United States and severely damaged the Truman Administration. The North Koreans had been assisting the Chinese forces, and many ethnic Koreans served with Mao’s Army. Upon conclusion of the Civil War, almost 70,000 Koreans who had fought under Mao returned with their weapons to North Korea to join Kim Il-sung’s government. These veterans gave Kim’s government a significant combat edge in the struggle to come.
Kim Il-sung believed that the guerrilla war had weakened South Korea and this, along with his current preponderance of forces, created an opportunity that could not be lost. Kim believed that his government was the only legitimate government in Korea, since Syngman Rhee had never really fought the Japanese and his government was only a tool of the West. Of course, Rhee *had* fought the Japanese before his exile in 1904, but this was before Kim’s time, and Kim was as much a tool of the Soviets as Rhee was a tool of the West. Kim wanted to reunify the peninsula, though, and even travelled to Moscow in 1949 to try and get Stalin’s support.
Stalin had kept a tight leash on Kim Il-sung throughout the last several years: the Chinese Civil War was still going on, American troops were still in Korea, and the Soviet Union was still working overtime to develop its own atomic weapon. Stalin, above all, wanted to avoid a war with the United States, and would only back up Kim Il-sung if this could be accomplished. By spring 1950, though, Stalin believed the situation had changed: the Civil War had ended, American forces were gone, and the USSR had the atomic bomb. In April 1950, Stalin gave his grudging permission to Kim for an attack on the South, but only if he could secure Mao’s support. Mao was worried about American intervention as well, but agreed to support the North Koreans in return for Soviet economic and military aid and provided Chinese veterans to the North Korean Army.
No one – Mao, Stalin, or Kim – thought the United States would intervene if North Korea invaded the South. Stalin was confident that Americans did not care enough about Asia to commit ground troops – they had let China fall without intervention, after all, and Korea was far less valuable than China. American Secretary of State Dean Acheson had, in a speech on January 12, 1950, laid out what he called an “Asian Defense Perimeter” that stretched from Japan to the Philippines but specifically did NOT include South Korea. Acheson’s speech was carefully studied by Stalin, who then conferred with Mao. Both dictators agreed that this signaled a lack of American interest in the Korean Peninsula, and this was a major factor in their agreement to support Kim’s attack. Mao and Stalin would never have done this if there was a hint that the United States was prepared to intervene.
In 1950, the United States wasn’t sure it wanted to intervene either. The rapid demobilization after World War II had left the American military in a drastic state of unpreparedness. Most of its land forces were committed to Europe if they were going to go anywhere, and General Douglas MacArthur’s four understrength divisions in Japan were the only force available for an Asian emergency. The American people would not stand for high defense expenditures in what was supposed to be a time of peace; the “Iron Curtain” had fallen over Europe, but it had not fallen onto the American mind. Even if the Cold War had begun, most Americans didn’t realize it – or didn’t want to realize it. Dean Acheson had left Korea and Taiwan out not because the Truman Administration didn’t want to defend these places, but because admitting it in public would be a major political blunder.
Since Mao and Stalin had given him the green light, Kim hurried his preparations. His Soviet and Chinese-trained officer corps began preparing and outlining the invasion that would reunify the Korean Peninsula. They were well aware that the South Korean military was no match for their experience or firepower; Stalin had given Kim a whole brigade’s worth of the famous T-34 tanks that had steamrollered the Soviet Union to victory over Germany, and the South had no tanks or serious antitank weaponry at all. The North Korean military was one of the most collectively experienced forces in the world, and they were about to demonstrate it.
On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans pounced over the 38th Parallel and immediately wrecked the Southern forces in their path. They justified their attack with false claims that the ROK had attacked first and stated their aim as the arrest and execution of “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee.” DPRK tanks and heavy artillery chopped up the poorly armed South Koreans, and by June 27 Rhee had to evacuate Seoul, which fell the next day.
Both sides began the war with atrocities. On June 28, the day Seoul fell, Rhee ordered the massacre of political opponents in his custody; as the North Koreans invaded Seoul, they murdered any “Western” or “imperialist” collaborators on the spot. The North Koreans rolled south against feeble opposition.
The invasion caught everyone by surprise – even Stalin, who did not expect Kim to take the bit into his teeth so soon. Most surprised was the American Truman Administration, which had been laser-focused on the situation in Europe to the detriment of Korea. Truman and his cabinet were worried about the prospect of Chinese or Soviet intervention if the United States got involved in Korea – concerns that were well-founded, as later events showed – but were also concerned about the security of American-occupied Japan. China’s loss was a crippling blow to American and anti-Communist interests in the Far East, and had created a perception at home that Truman was soft on the Reds; the loss of Korea might portend the loss of Japan. The seemingly endless Communist expansion had to be stopped somewhere.
Truman believed that if Communist aggression continued unchecked, it would spread. What would fall next – Italy? Greece? Japan? The Philippines? This fear of a “chain reaction” of Communist invasions and the need for “containment” to prevent their spread – a policy later known as the “Truman Doctrine” - proved the deciding factor. When American diplomats reported on June 27 that the Soviet Union was not interested in intervening in Korea, Truman made the fatal decision. With the backing of the United Nations, Truman ordered US naval and air forces to begin openly assisting South Korea. By July 1, six days after Kim’s attack, the first US troops arrived in South Korea at Busan.
Thus it was that a civil war between two unsavory dictators ruling their own halves of their country became an international war.
Who was at fault here? The answer is that everyone bears a little blame. The United States failed to make its support of South Korea known and failed to indicate that it would defend the South from invasion, which gave the Communist powers a false sense of security. Stalin and Mao must also share some responsibility for encouraging Kim’s aggression and essentially giving him a “blank check” to do as he pleased, without seriously considering the possibility of American intervention. Both Cold War factions must also take the blame for imposing their own governments and own handpicked figures onto the Korean people, neither of whom had the country’s best interests at heart. Rhee’s government allowed its weakness and harshness on its own people to undermine its position.
Ultimately, though, it was North Korea that started the war. One of the great weaknesses of the “America is responsible for everything bad” set of critics is their assumption that non-Western countries can never be “truly” responsible for their actions. This delegitimizes them and is prejudiced in its own way, as it denies them agency. The ultimate responsibility for the Korean War must rest with Kim Il-sung and the North Koreans. They had a choice, and they made it, and almost a million would burn for it.