The Korean conflict of 1950-1953: Cold War’s first clash

The current tensions between North Korea and the United States—and the possible summit this year of their respective leaders—have renewed the interest on the Korean War of 1950-1953
The Korean conflict of 1950-1953: Cold War’s first clash
The North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire - Photo: Edgar Su/REUTERS (left) and a South Korean flag flutters in the wind - Photo: Kim Hong-Ji/REUTERS (right)
23/03/2018
13:00
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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The current tensions between North Korea and the United States—and the possible summit this year of their respective leaders—have renewed the interest on the Korean War of 1950-1953, considered the first armed conflict of the Cold War period.

Exploiting its weakness and internal divisions, Japan occupied the northeast Asian peninsula, which was under Chinese influence back in 1910. That move was a landmark step in the expansionist designs of Tokyo, starting with the First Sino-Japanese War (1885-1986) and with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

The Japanese colonial rule was a harsh period of subjugation which left scars that have yet to heal, as the controversy surrounding the “comfort women” enslaved in Japanese Army brothels during the Second World War. The industrialization process was used solely for the needs of Japan while both Korean history and culture were marginalized.

During the 1930s, the resistance movement evolved into a guerrilla warfare with the assistance of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, then fighting the Japanese occupation of his own country.

Kim Il-sung, the rebel commander, escaped the counterinsurgency campaign in 1940 by crossing the northern border into the Soviet Union and he returned to Korea after the Japanese Empire’s defeat in 1945.

With troops in Pyongyang, Moscow installed Kim as chairman of the northern branch of the Korean Communist Party and despite the United Nations plans to conduct elections—the U.S. forces were deployed South of the 38th parallel, dividing the country into two spheres of influence—Kim proclaimed the Democratic Popular Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948.

Kim and the rival southern regime, headed by President Syngman Rhee, winner of the first elections held in the newly declared Republic of Korea, claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea and five years after the end of the Second World War, the conflict erupted when North Korean forces, supported by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China with arms, intelligence, and military advisers, invaded the South on June 25, 1950.

Only two days later, the United Nations Security Council authorized the dispatch of multinational forces —88% of them, American personnel—to repeal the attack.

Facing defeat

Rapidly, allies were facing defeat, yet an amphibious counter-offensive planned by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was successfully launched at Incheon and the UN forces approached the border with China.

However, a sneak massive Chinese intervention involving nearly 300,000 soldiers pushed back the allies in October 1950.

Second World War hero MacArthur was relieved of supreme command. He had discussed with the White House and the Pentagon about the use of nuclear weapons against North Korea and China, which proves the dangerous extent and ferocity of the fighting.

General Curtis LeMay, a veteran who served as head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, estimated that the bombing campaign killed 20% of the population and “eventually burned down every town in North Korea,” declarations that Pyongyang uses to this day to justify the nuclear program.

During the following months, Seoul changed hands four times. The last two years of fighting it became a war of attrition, with the front line stabilized close to the 38th parallel.

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed establishing the Demilitarized Zone—250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide—to separate North and South Korea. Still, no peace treaty has been signed and some experts argue that both countries are technically still at war.

The death toll was terrible and amounted on all sides to over 1.2 million. According to Chinese sources North Korea suffered 290,000 military casualties and a large number of civilian deaths, the Chinese reported 114,000 battle deaths, and South Korea reported more than 520,000 civilian and military deaths. Official data from the Pentagon puts the U.S. toll at 33,686 battle deaths.

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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