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Korean War


By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: Aug 23, 2021

The Korean War was an armed conflict between North Korea and South Korea that lasted from June 1950 until July 1953. While North Korea was backed by the Soviet Union and China, South Korea was supported by a broad United Nations coalition principally led by the United States. Although the United States and its allies emerged as the ostensible victors, the war cost more than 3 million fatalities and resulted in enormous devastation. Despite the ceasing of hostilities, the relationship between the two nations has been characterized by tension, and a permanent solution is yet to be reached.

FAST FACTS  2-Min Summary
  • The Korean War was fought from 1950 till 1953 between North Korea, which was backed by China and the USSR, and South Korea, which was backed by a US-led UN coalition.
  • The division of Korea into US and USSR-occupied halves following WWII, China’s civil war, the South Korean election, and communist insurrections in South Korea were principal events preceding the war.
  • North Korea’s crossing of the 38th Parallel, and invasion of South Korea in June 1950, following frequent border skirmishes, instigated the Korean war.
  • South Korea’s ill-equipped and relatively small military initially suffered enormous defeats and was compelled to retreat southward.
  • The UN Security council condemned the invasion and called for the military assistance of South Korea; a UN armed force, principally led by the US, was subsequently formed to repel the invaders.
  • The UN forces initially suffered heavy losses, and were cornered into the Pusan perimeter; however, a daring assault against the KPA at Incheon would turn the tide and help the UN troops invade the North.
  • The UN and South Korean forces’ advance into North Korea drew Chinese troops into the war, and resulted eventually, in protracted fighting around the 38th Parallel in a relative stalemate.
  • Following sporadic negotiations, an armistice was signed on the 27th of July 1953, establishing a demilitarized zone roughly following the 38th Parallel.
  • Despite the armistice, there has been significant tension between North Korea and South Korea, and a lasting solution to the conflict is yet to be found.


The first Sino-Japanese War resulted in the short-lived Korean Empire which lasted from 1897 until 1910. This independence simultaneously marked the end of China’s extensive influence over Korea.

However, nearly a decade later, following Japan’s victory over Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan annexed Korea with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910. Many Korean nationalists subsequently fled to China, but failed to form a unified movement.

Consequently, while the National Revolutionary Army of the Chinese Nationalists backed the Koreans led by Yi Pom-Sok, the People’s Liberation Army of the Chinese Communist Party supported the Korean communists led by Kim II-sung.


The conflict was instigated by the North Korean army’s crossing of the 38th Parallel and subsequent invasion of South Korea.

The UN forces, predominantly comprising US troops, succeeded in attaining their objective of repelling the North Korean invaders from South Korea.

Nearly 40,000 Americans died while over 100,000 were wounded.

The Division of Korea

After Japan officially surrendered, effectively ending WWII, the future of Korea fell into the hands of the Allied leaders. Prior to Japan’s capitulation, they had agreed to place Korea under an international trusteeship till the nation was deemed prepared for self-rule.

Hence, by December 1945, a US-Soviet Union Joint Commission was administering peninsula with the objective of granting it independence following a 5-year trusteeship. Korea was divided into two occupation zones, one run by the US and the other by the USSR.

The 38th parallel marked the dividing line and Seoul fell under US control. This division, however, was produced by a temporary arrangement to be dissolved at the end of the trusteeship. Nonetheless, the subsequent onset of the Cold war, as well as Korean objections to the trusteeship, would hinder any attempts to establish a proper framework for the eventual establishment of a unified and independent Korea.

Eventually, the Korean problem was presented to the United Nations to resolve. However, the UN failed to find a solution amenable to Soviet interests. Consequently, the UN-supervised elections of 1948 were held only in the US-occupied south.

The Korean Election

The Korean election which took place in May 1948 marked a milestone in Korean history. For the first time, the Korean people experienced democracy. The voter turnout was 95.5%. However, democracy came only to the South.

UN supervisors were refused entry to the North by the Soviet armed forces. One hundred seats, nonetheless, were left vacant in the Parliament so that Koreans in the Soviet-occupied North could vote when they were able to.

The voters directly elected the members of the parliament who, then, voted to elect a president. The US-backed and Harvard-educated Syngman Rhee was chosen, and a constitution roughly modeled after the United States Constitution was adopted. The Republic of Korea was established in the South on the 15th of August 1948.

The Soviet-back government in the North soon responded by establishing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North on the 9th of September 1948. The Soviet forces withdrew from the North in 1948, and the US forces withdrew from the South in 1949. However, each government continued to receive the backing of their respective former patrons.

The Chinese Civil War

The end of China’s war with Japan in 1945 marked the resumption of the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. As the Communists struggled for power, they were immensely aided by the North Koreans.

North Korea provided the Chinese communists with a safe refuge and many North Koreans fought alongside the Chinese communists in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

As a token of gratitude to the North Korean contributions to the Communist victory and the subsequent creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), around 60,000 Korean veterans that fought in the PLA were returned to North Korea along with their weapons.

China also promised to support the North in a possible war against the South. Moreover, as a counter measure to US’ fight against communism, the PRC determined to promote communist revolutions in territories surrounding China.

Insurrections in the South

Backed by North Korean agents, communist guerillas launched attacks in the spring of 1949. Armed and organized by the North Korean regime and buttressed by nearly 2,400 commandos of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), who had infiltrated the South, these guerillas launched a massive offensive in September.

Their chief objectives were to undermine the government in the South and prepare it for a KPA invasion. Despite the failure of their offensive, the guerrillas managed to remain well entrenched in the border regions of the Gangwon Province and the Taebaek-san area of the North Gyeongsang Province.

However, South Korean counterinsurgency operations as well as worsening weather conditions inflicted much damage on the communist guerillas and wore away their fighting capacity. North Korea continued to send in more infiltrators, and by 1950, their number reached 12 units comprising 3,000 men.

The South Korean Army, also known as the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), however, managed to destroy or scatter them. In October 1949, the ROKA launched assaults in Taegu and South Cholla, and by March 1950, claimed 1,066 small arms seized and 5,621 guerillas captured or killed.

The North Koreans sent in two more units of infiltrators, both of which would be annihilated by the ROKA. 480 guerrillas were killed and 104 were captured, while the casualties of the ROKA in these engagements stood at 69 fatalities. Finally, by the spring of 1950, most of the insurgencies had been quelled, and a brief respite pervaded the South.

Preparations for Invasion

Although ROKA and US measures had vastly reduced the communist guerillas in the South, North’s Kim II-sung was convinced that the insurgencies had weakened the ROKA, and that an invasion by the North would be welcomed by much of South Korea’s population. Consequently, he would start seeking Starlin’s backing for an invasion. Stalin, initially, did not think that the time was ripe for a Korean war.

By the spring of 1950, however, the situation in the region had significantly changed. The communists under Mao Zedong had secured a decisive victory in China and the US had withdrawn its forces from South Korea.

Moreover, the Soviets had broken America’s atomic monopoly by detonating the first Soviet nuclear bomb. Stalin reasoned that the US might not want to fight in Korea or risk a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets in defense of the peninsula.

Thus, finally, in April 1950, the USSR granted Kim permission to attack the South provided that Mao would support the war effort with reinforcements if needed. Stalin, however, clarified that the Soviets would not engage in combat, so as not to enter into a direct war with the US. In May 1950, Kim met Mao, and procured the latter’s support for a North Korean invasion.

More ethnic Koreans who had fought in the PLA were dispatched to North Korea, and Mao promised to move a Chinese army closer to the Korean border. Meanwhile, a Soviet advisory group comprising USSR generals with extensive WWII experience arrived in North Korea to plan the invasion.

The original scheme was to ignite a skirmish in the Ongjin Peninsula, and then, to assault Seoul and destroy the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). Subsequently, the southern government would be annihilated and the remainder of South Korea, including ports, would be captured.

Rising Tension

On the 7th of June 1950, Kim called for an election over the whole peninsula to be held in August, as well as a consultive conference to be held around the 16th of June 1950.

Moreover, as a peace overture, the North dispatched three emissaries to the South on the 11th of June. Rhee, however, rejected the offer outright. In the meantime, Kim also became concerned that South Korean operatives might have learned about the North’s war plans.

The ROKA began solidifying their defenses and Kim, on the 21st of June, revised his invasion strategy to incorporate a general assault over the 38th Parallel. Amidst these preparations in the North, the 38th Parallel saw frequent skirmishes between the two sides at Ongjin and Kaesong.

General William Lynn Roberts, the commander of the US Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) which was training the ROK, boasted on the eve of war that a North Korean invasion would be “target practice” for the South. Rhee too, remained confident that the ROKA could defeat the North.

Even though some US and South Korean intelligence agents predicted an assault by the North, the CIA maintained that the KPA’s southward movement it had observed was merely defensive and that an invasion was not likely to occur. On 23rd of June, UN observers too, following their inspection of the border, drew a similar conclusion.

Outbreak of War

At dawn on the 25th of June 1950, the KPA, supported by artillery fire, crossed the 38th Parallel. The North claimed that the ROKA had attacked first, and that it was entering the South in order to capture and execute Rhee.

Fighting broke out in the west on Ongjin Peninsula, and soon, the KPA, equipped with tanks and heavy artillery, assaulted all along the border. The KPA numbered around 200,000 troops formed into one air force division, one tank division and 10 infantry divisions.

Furthermore, it had 280 tanks and 210 fighter planes. The ROK, on the other hand, had no tanks and comprised only 98,000 troops. Moreover, Korea’s air force had only 22 aircraft. Furthermore, although huge US garrisons were stationed in Japan, only around 300 US troops were present in Korea.

Against the North’s massive military, the South seemed to have no chance of securing a victory. On the 27th of June, Rhee fled Seoul along with some of his fellow government officials. The following day, at 2am, in order to halt the KPA advance, the ROK destroyed the Hangang Bridge over the Han River.

The detonation occurred while 4,000 refugees were still crossing the bridge and hundreds perished as a result. Seoul fell to the KPA the same day, and on the 28th of June, Rhee ordered the massacre of suspected communists and communist sympathizers in the South. This decision would haunt the South Korean government for years to come.

Within just 5 days of fighting, the ROK was down to less than 22,000 troops and in July, following the arrival of US forces, the remainder of the ROK would be placed under the US operational command.

International Reaction

On the 25th of June, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 82, and unanimously denounced the invasion of South Korea by the North. Two days later, the Security Council passed Resolution 83 which recommended the provision of military assistance to South Korea by the member states.

The USSR had been boycotting the Council meetings on account of Taiwan’s being allowed to occupy China’s seat in the Council. While the Soviet Union raised manifold concerns, on the 27th, it announced that it would not directly enter into war against the US troops in Korea.

Korea had not been part of the Asian Defense Perimeter formulated by US Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Even though US strategists were primarily focused on maintaining the security of Europe against Soviet threats, the chain of events which a communist Korea could trigger began to concern the Truman administration.

Fighting North Korea’s aggression seemed vital to achieving the US objective of containing communism. Moreover, while Japan could check Communist China, the safety of Japan required a non-hostile South Korea. Adolf Hitler’s aggressive maneuvers in the ‘30s were still fresh in memory, and both Truman and Acheson felt obliged to defend South Korea against the unprovoked invasion.

Soon, American industries were mobilized to support the military effort in the Korean War. President Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, to aid the ROKA and provide cover during the evacuation of US nationals. General MacArthur had proven himself in the battlefield and elicited much respect as a leader.

The US military, however, on account of extensive defense cuts following WWII, was woefully unprepared for war. Despite the US government’s investments in a nuclear bomber force, conventional military strength had drastically decreased. The want of sufficient military preparation would become painfully manifest amidst combat.

America Intervenes

The first major US engagement in the Korean war was the Battle of Osan. On the 5th of July 1950, Task Force Smith of the 24th Infantry Division attacked the KPA at the Gyeonggi city of Osan.

The American troops did not have weapons which could destroy the KPA tanks, and consequently, were defeated decisively. The US troops suffered enormous losses as the KPA progressed through Chonan, Chochiwon, Pyontaek and Taejeon. 3,602 soldiers of the 24th Division were either dead or wounded and 2,962, including its commander, were captured.

Through August, the KPA steadily advanced southward defeating the ROKA as well as the US troops of the Eighth Army which lacked sufficient armor and artillery. As the KPA gained more territory, it sought to purge the South Korean intelligentsia by slaughtering intellectuals and civil servants.

Finally, by September, the KPA managed to corner the UN forces into the Pusan region with a surrounding perimeter of nearly 140 miles constituting one tenth of Korea.

The Battle of the Pusan Perimeter

The army of nearly 140,000 UN troops, predominantly comprising US, British and South Korean soldiers were now on the brink of defeat.

In a last stand, the UN forces fought off KPA assaults for nearly six weeks, engaging the KPA near the Nakdong River and around the cities of Daegu, Pohang and Masan. The huge KPA attacks failed to push the UN troops further back. In the meantime, UN counterattacks, massive losses and supply shortages significantly hampered the North Koreans.

Furthermore, the UN troops, using the port there, amassed striking advantages in equipment, personnel and logistics. Moreover, the KPA seemed uncapable of countering the UN air and naval forces. Finally, following the daring UN assault at Inchon, the KPA retreated as the UN troops broke out and advanced in a large-scale counteroffensive.

The Battle of Inchon

General MacArthur, in order to liberate the Pusan Perimeter, decided on an amphibious landing at Incheon, over 100 miles behind the enemy lines. He had thought of such an operation at the beginning of the war.

But his plan had been opposed by the Pentagon. However, when he was given the greenlight, General MacArthur organized a combined US Marine and Army corps, and a ROKA force. About two weeks before the landing, a UN reconnaissance team led by US Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark infiltrated Inchon to procure information concerning the conditions there. Soon the KPA discovered that enemy operatives had infiltrated and launched multiple attacks.

The KPA also killed many civilians for assisting Clark. On the 10th of September, 43 US aircraft dropped napalm canisters in the region to prepare the way for troops. The ensuing days saw heavy bombardments of KPA installations in the Inchon region.

Finally, on the morning of the 15th of September, the landing of the troops began. The few KPA defenders were soon decisively defeated, and the UN troops managed to turn the tide of the war.


On the 16th of September, the UN troops broke out from the Pusan Perimeter and advanced through nearly 106 miles of KPA held territory to join their comrades in Osan on the 27th of September. Meanwhile, on the 25th of September, UN forces liberated Seoul.

Air raids destroyed many KPA tanks and much of KPA artillery. The KPA troops rapidly disintegrated and only around 27,000 KPA soldiers were able to make it to the KPA lines. On the 29th of September, General MacArthur restored the South Korean government and reinstated its leader Syngman Rhee.

Meanwhile, in classified messages from the Truman administration, General MacArthur was informed that the primary objective of the war was the destruction of the KPA. The secondary objective of unifying the Korean Peninsula under Rhee was dependent on whether the Soviets and the Chinese dispatch their forces to defend the North.

An Offensive into the North

On the 30th of September, China warned the United States that it would intervene if the US moved beyond the 38th Parallel.

On the 1st of October, General MacArthur’s troops pushed the KPA past the 38th Parallel, and the ROKA advanced into the North. MacArthur called for the unconditional surrender of the KPA, and on the 7th of October, following UN authorization, the UN troops followed the ROKA into North Korea. The ROKA would capture Wonsan and Riwon, and the US Army would capture Pyongyan.

On the 20th of October, a combat team of the 187th Airborne Regiment parachuted into Sijchon and Sunchon to rescue US prisoners of war and cut off a road to China to prevent the escape of North Korean leaders.

By the end of October, UN forces stood near the Sino-Korean border, having captured nearly 135,000 KPA prisoners of war. In the previous four months, nearly 200,000 KPA soldiers had been either killed or wounded and the KPA had lost 313 tanks.

While the KPA had almost collapsed, the UN forces on the Korean peninsula now amounted to nearly 230,000 combat troops and 120,000 rear area troops. MacArthur now wanted to move into China and destroy the Chinese supply depots which had been aiding the KPA. President Truman however, advised against such action.

China Intervenes

As the UN troops crossed the 38th Parallel on the 1st of October, a message from Stalin was dispatched to Mao.

Stalin, while making it clear that the Soviets would not directly intervene in the Korean war, requested that China deploy several military divisions into Korea. On the 8th of October, Mao would reorganize a PLA force in the northeast into the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) in order to enter the Korean war.

Following a clandestine crossing of the Yalu River, the PVA unleashed its first major offensive against the UN forces on the 25th of October. The Chinese inflicted heavy damage upon the ROKA at the Battle of Onjong, and on the 1st of November, encircled and assaulted the US 8th Calvary Regiment in a three-prong assault.

The PVA, without pursuing further however, soon disappeared into the mountain hideouts after the victory. On the 24th of September, in the Home-by-Christmas Offensive, the US X Corps assaulted along the Korean east coast while the US Eighth advanced through northwest Korea.

Nonetheless, the PVA waited and ambushed the oncoming troops at the Ch’ongch’on River and at the Chosin Reservoir. The PVA continued to attack the ROKA as well as the UN forces, and finally, the ROKA and the UN forces retreated from the North across the 38th Parallel in December.

Warring Around the 38th Parallel

On the 11th of December 1950, the UN offered a ceasefire to the Chinese. However, by now, the PRC seemed convinced of its troops’ invincibility and desired a total victory via the expulsion of the UN forces from Korea.

Thus, on the 26th of December, the KPA and the PVA launched another major offensive. Their strategies involved encircling the UN forces by night and launching surprise assaults. Additionally, they sounded gongs and loud trumpets, which would both disorient the enemy and facilitate tactical communication.

Many UN soldiers panicked, abandoned their weapons, and retreated to the South. Meanwhile, the KPA and the PVA advanced into the South and recaptured Seoul on the 4th of January 1951. On the 14th of January, Mao declared his desire to “fundamentally resolve” the Korean problem with a “last battle” in the spring. General MacArthur began to consider nuclear attacks on the Chinese or the North Koreans.

The morale of the UN troops had hit a low and the will to fight seemed to abate. The arrival of General Ridgway, a charismatic military leader, however, soon revived the troops. The UN forces retreated to Wonju, Suwon and north of Samcheok and managed to stabilize the battlefront.

The PVA on the other hand, outran its supplies and could not move beyond Seoul. In late January, General Ridgway ordered Operation Thunderbolt, a reconnaissance in force, which was followed by a full-scale advance aided by airpower. As a result, the UN forces managed to reach the Han River and recapture significant territory.

In mid-February, the PVA launched an offensive at Hoengseong, with much initial success. Their advance however, was thwarted by IX Corps of the US Army at Chipyong-ni. Moreover, in a brief yet desperate battle, which would come to be known as the Gettysburg of the Korean war, 5,600 US, South Korean and French troops fought and won against 25,000 PVA troops who had surrounded them on all sides.

The end of February was marked by Operation Killer which would result in the capturing of Hoenseong by the UN. Finally, on the 7th of March, the Eighth Army launched an assault under Operation Ripper and liberated Seoul from the PVA and KPA on the 14th of March in a final conquest. China would pay a heavy price for its intervention, suffering nearly 53,000 casualties from roughly January to April.

General MacArthur Fired

During the course of the war, a major rift emerged between President Truman and General MacArthur. The latter had crossed the 38th Parallel on the mistaken assumption that the Chinese would not intervene.

He had also threatened the Chinese with destruction unless they surrendered. Moreover, General MacArthur had held that the use of nuclear weapons ought to be left up to him. Congressional hearings would later conclude that he had also violated the US Constitution by defying the orders of the President.

On the 11th of April, President Truman relieved General MacArthur. He arrived in the US, and was welcomed as a war hero by nearly 500,000 people. A majority of the US public disapproved of the President’s decision to relieve MacArthur.

Truman’s approval rating hit a low of 23 percent, two points lower than President Nixon’s during the Watergate Scandal. President Truman would eventually choose not to seek re-election, and former Army General and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower would win the presidential election in 1952.

Final Stages

General Ridgway, who subsequently became the Supreme Commander in Korea, managed to organize several successful assaults which would gradually deplete the KPA and the PVA, and push the UN forces across the 38th Parallel.

The PVA launched a counterattack subsequently, but encountered fierce resistance in the Battle of Kapyong and the Battle of Imjin River. The Chinese casualties around this time numbered around 60,000 while the UN suffered only around 4,000. On the 15th of May, however, the PVA launched another offensive on US troops and the ROKA at the Soyang River.

Despite some initial success, the PVA advance was halted on the 20th of May, and repulsed over the ensuing days. Moreover, while the PVA was preparing for another offensive, a US assault caught them off-guard and inflicted heavy casualties.

During the May-June 1951 counteroffensive of the UN, the US-led troops captured territory up to the Wyoming Line. The casualties of the combined PVA-KPA forces exceeded 73,000. These defeats led the leaders of China to alter their chief objective from expelling the UN out of Korea to merely preserving China and ending the conflict via negotiations.


During the ensuing two years from July 1951 to July 1953, little territory would be exchanged despite the fighting. The belligerents continued negotiations, though with little success.

The two sides continued to exchange artillery, with the UN forces launching far more attacks than the PVA and the KPA combined. Meanwhile, the South Korean security forces carried out multiple operations to quell communist insurgencies buttressed by the North Korean regime.

While the UN forces were able to hold their ground for the most part, the PVA suffered enormously due to failed supply lines, lack of military equipment and various logistical issues, resulting in significantly high Chinese casualty rates.

Nonetheless, the Chinese, amidst negotiations, attempted one last offensive to gain some territory. On the 10th of June 1953, 30,000 Chinese soldiers attacked one US division and two South Korean divisions. Moreover, 80,000 Chinese troops assaulted part of Kumsong on the 13th of July. Despite some initial success for the Chinese in each case, the US troops retaliated with heavy firepower. The Chinese consequently suffered nearly 72,000 casualties while the UN suffered a relatively meager 14,000.


Sporadic negotiations would transpire for nearly two years, initially at Kaesong, and then at Panmunjom. A major issue was the repatriation of POWs.

The UN command, and the KPA and PVA could not reach an agreement since many KPA and PVA soldiers who had been captured did not want to return home.

However, the North Koreans and the Chinese considered this unacceptable. Subsequently, a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission under the Indian General K.S. Thimayya was formed to handle the problem. The UN accepted the armistice proposed by India, and subsequently, on the 27th of July, the UN Command and the PVA signed the Korean Armistice Agreement.

Syngman Rhee, the South Korean President, however, refused to sign the agreement and continued to advocate for the unification of Korea. The war ended with the Armistice, but no official treaty was signed.


The Armistice Agreement resulted in the establishment of the Korean Demilitarized Zone which roughly follows the 38th Parallel. The Armistice also birthed the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission comprising the Swedish and Swiss armed forces to monitor the situation.

Since the Armistice, North Korea has committed multiple acts of aggression including the killing of US Army officers in 1976, torpedoing a South Korean corvette in 2010, and firing artillery shells on Yeonpyeong also in 2010.

Despite various attempts to resolve the tension between the two nations, a lasting solution is yet to be found. In the meantime, South Korea has developed itself into a thriving democracy with a strong economy, while North Korea remains a mostly outcast state run by an oppressive regime.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "The Korean War (1950-1953)." World History Blog, Aug 23, 2021.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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