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The Korean War (25 June 1950 – armistice signed 27 July 1953 [28]) was a conventional war between South Korea, supported by the United Nations, and North Korea, supported by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with military material aid from the Soviet Union. The war was a result of the physical division of Korea by an agreement of the victorious Allies at the conclusion of the Pacific War at the end of World War II.

The Korean peninsula was ruled by Japan from 1910 until the end of World War II. Following the surrender of Japan in 1945, American administrators divided the peninsula along the 38th Parallel, with United States troops occupying the southern part and Soviet troops occupying the northern part.[29]

The failure to hold free elections throughout the Korean Peninsula in 1948 deepened the division between the two sides, and the North established a Communist government. The 38th Parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Koreas. Although reunification negotiations continued in the months preceding the war, tension intensified. Cross-border skirmishes and raids at the 38th Parallel persisted. The situation escalated into open warfare when North Korean forces invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950.[30] It was the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War.[31]

The United Nations, particularly the United States, came to the aid of South Korea in repelling the invasion, but within two months the defenders were pushed back to the Pusan perimeter, a small area in the south of the country, before the North Koreans were stopped. A rapid UN counter-offensive then drove the North Koreans past the 38th Parallel and almost to the Yalu River, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered the war on the side of the North.[30] The Chinese launched a counter-offensive that pushed the United Nations forces back across the 38th Parallel. The Soviet Union materially aided the North Korean and Chinese armies. In 1953, the war ceased with an armistice that restored the border between the Koreas near the 38th Parallel and created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile (4.0 km) wide buffer zone between the two Koreas. Minor outbreaks of fighting continue to the present day.

With both North and South Korea sponsored by external powers, the Korean War was a proxy war. From a military science perspective, it combined strategies and tactics of World War I and World War II: it began with a mobile campaign of swift infantry attacks followed by air bombing raids, but became a static trench war by July 1951.

In the United States, the war was initially described by President Harry S. Truman as a “police action” as it was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.[32] Colloquially, it has been referred to in the United States as The Forgotten War or The Unknown War. The issues concerned were much less clear than in previous and subsequent conflicts, such as World War II and the Vietnam War.[33][34] To a significant degree, the war has been “historically overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam”.[35]

In South Korea the war is usually referred to as “625” or the 6–2–5 War (yug-i-o jeonjaeng), reflecting the date of its commencement on 25 June.[citation needed] In North Korea the war is officially referred to as the Fatherland Liberation War (Choguk haebang chonjaeng). Alternatively, it is called the Choson chonjaeng (“Choson war”, Choson being what North Koreans call Korea).[36] In the People’s Republic of China the war is called the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea (traditional Chinese: ??????; simplified Chinese: ??????; pinyin: Kàngmeiyuáncháo zhànzheng).[37][38] The “Korean War” (????/????; pinyin: Cháoxian zhànzheng) is more commonly used today. Chao Xian is a general term for Korea.
Japanese rule (1910–1945)
Main article: Korea under Japanese rule

Upon defeating the Qing Dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–96), the Empire of Japan occupied the Korean Empire – a peninsula strategic to its sphere of influence.[39] A decade later, defeating Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), Japan made Korea its protectorate with the Eulsa Treaty in 1905, then annexed it with the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty in 1910.[40][41]

Korean nationalists and the intelligentsia fled the country, and some founded the Provisional Korean Government in 1919, which was headed by Syngman Rhee in Shanghai. This government-in-exile was recognized by few countries. From 1919 to 1925 and beyond, Korean communists led and were the primary agents of internal and external warfare against the Japanese.[39]:23[42]

Korea under Japanese rule was considered to be part of the Empire of Japan as an industrialized colony along with Taiwan, and both were part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In 1937, the colonial Governor–General, General Jiro Minami, commanded the attempted cultural assimilation of Korea’s 23.5 million people by banning the use and study of Korean language, literature, and culture, to be replaced with that of mandatory use and study of their Japanese counterparts. Starting in 1939, the populace was required to use Japanese names under the Soshi-kaimei policy. In 1938, the Colonial Government established labor conscription.[citation needed]

In China, the National Revolutionary Army and the Communist People’s Liberation Army helped organize refugee Korean patriots and independence fighters against the Japanese military, which had also occupied parts of China. The Nationalist-backed Koreans, led by Yi Pom-Sok, fought in the Burma Campaign (December 1941 – August 1945). The Communists, led by Kim Il-sung, fought the Japanese in Korea and Manchuria.[citation needed]

During World War II, the Japanese used Korea’s food, livestock, and metals for their war effort. Japanese forces in Korea increased from 46,000 soldiers in 1941 to 300,000 in 1945. Japanese Korea conscripted 2.6 million forced laborers controlled with a collaborationist Korean police force; some 723,000 people were sent to work in the overseas empire and in metropolitan Japan. By 1942, Korean men were being conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army. By January 1945, Koreans comprised 32% of Japan’s labor force. In August 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, around 25% of those killed were Koreans.[42] At the end of the war, other world powers did not recognize Japanese rule in Korea and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, at the Cairo Conference (November 1943), Nationalist China, the United Kingdom, and the United States decided “in due course Korea shall become free and independent”.[43] Later, the Yalta Conference (February 1945) granted to the Soviet Union European “buffer zones”—satellite states accountable to Moscow—as well as an expected Soviet pre-eminence in China and Manchuria,[44] in return for joining the Allied Pacific War effort against Japan.[44]
Soviet invasion of Manchuria (1945)
Main article: Soviet invasion of Manchuria (1945)

Toward the end of World War II, as per a US-Soviet agreement, the USSR declared war against Japan on 9 August 1945.[42][45] By 10 August, the Red Army occupied the northern part of the Korean peninsula as agreed, and on 26 August halted at the 38th parallel for three weeks to await the arrival of US forces in the south.[39]:25[39]:24

On 10 August 1945, with the 15 August Japanese surrender near, the Americans doubted whether the Soviets would honor their part of the Joint Commission, the US-sponsored Korean occupation agreement. A month earlier, Colonel Dean Rusk and Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel III divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel after hurriedly deciding (in thirty minutes) that the US Korean Zone of Occupation had to have a minimum of two ports.[46][47][48][49][50]

Explaining why the occupation zone demarcation was positioned at the 38th parallel, Rusk observed, “even though it was further north than could be realistically reached by US forces, in the event of Soviet disagreement … we felt it important to include the capital of Korea in the area of responsibility of American troops”, especially when “faced with the scarcity of US forces immediately available, and time and space factors, which would make it difficult to reach very far north, before Soviet troops could enter the area.”[44] The Soviets agreed to the US occupation zone demarcation to improve their negotiating position regarding the occupation zones in Eastern Europe, and because each would accept Japanese surrender where they stood.[39]:25
Chinese Civil War (1945–1949)
Main article: Chinese Civil War

After the end of Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War resumed between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists. While the Communists were struggling for supremacy in Manchuria, they were supported by the North Korean government with materiel and manpower.[51] According to Chinese sources, the North Koreans donated 2,000 railway cars worth of material while thousands of Korean “volunteers” served in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the war.[52] North Korea also provided the Chinese Communists in Manchuria with a safe refuge for non-combatants and communications with the rest of China.[51]

The North Korean contributions to the Chinese Communist victory were not forgotten after the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As a token of gratitude, between 50,000 to 70,000 Korean veterans that served in the PLA were sent back along with their weapons, and they would later play a significant role in the initial invasion of South Korea.[51] China promised to support the North Koreans in the event of a war against South Korea.[53] The Chinese support created a deep division between the Korean Communists, and Kim Il-Sung’s authority within the Communist party was challenged by the Chinese faction led by Pak Il-yu, who was later purged by Kim.[54]

After the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government named the Western nations, led by the United States, as the biggest threat to its national security.[55] Basing this judgment on China’s century of humiliation beginning in the early 19th century,[56] American support for the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War,[57] and the ideological struggles between revolutionaries and reactionaries,[58] the Chinese leadership believed that China would become a critical battleground in the United States’ crusade against Communism.[59] As a countermeasure and to elevate China’s standing among the worldwide Communist movements, the Chinese leadership adopted a foreign policy that actively promoted Communist revolutions throughout territories on China’s periphery.[60]
Korea divided (1945–1949)
See also: Division of Korea

At the Potsdam Conference (July–August 1945), the Allies unilaterally decided to divide Korea—without consulting the Koreans—in contradiction of the Cairo Conference.[39]:24[47]:24–5[61]:25[62]

On 8 September 1945, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge of the United States arrived in Incheon to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel.[47] Appointed as military governor, General Hodge directly controlled South Korea via the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK 1945–48).[63]:63 He established control by restoring to power the key Japanese colonial administrators and their Korean police collaborators.[31] The USAMGIK refused to recognise the provisional government of the short-lived People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) because he suspected it was communist. These policies, voiding popular Korean sovereignty, provoked civil insurrections and guerrilla warfare.[40] On 3 September 1945, Lieutenant General Yoshio Kozuki, Commander, Japanese Seventeenth Area Army, contacted Hodge, telling him that the Soviets were south of the 38th parallel at Kaesong. Hodge trusted the accuracy of the Japanese Army report.[47]

In December 1945, Korea was administered by a US–USSR Joint Commission, as agreed at the Moscow Conference (1945). The Koreans were excluded from the talks. The commission decided the country would become independent after a five-year trusteeship action facilitated by each régime sharing its sponsor’s ideology.[39]:25–6[64] The Korean populace revolted; in the south, some protested, and some rose in arms;[40] to contain them, the USAMGIK banned strikes on 8 December 1945 and outlawed the PRK Revolutionary Government and the PRK People’s Committees on 12 December 1945.

On 23 September 1946 an 8,000-strong railroad worker strike began in Pusan. Civil disorder spread throughout the country in what became known as the Autumn uprising. On 1 October 1946, Korean police killed three students in the Daegu Uprising; protesters counter-attacked, killing 38 policemen. On 3 October, some 10,000 people attacked the Yeongcheon police station, killing three policemen and injuring some 40 more; elsewhere, some 20 landlords and pro-Japanese South Korean officials were killed.[65] The USAMGIK declared martial law.

The right-wing Representative Democratic Council, led by nationalist Syngman Rhee, opposed the Soviet–American trusteeship of Korea, arguing that after 35 years (1910–45) of Japanese colonial rule most Koreans opposed another foreign occupation. The USAMGIK decided to forego the five year trusteeship agreed upon in Moscow, given the 31 March 1948 United Nations election deadline to achieve an anti-communist civil government in the US Korean Zone of Occupation.

On 3 April what began as a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to Japanese rule ended with the Jeju massacre of as many as 60,000 citizens by South Korean soldiers.[66]

On 10 May, South Korea convoked their first national general elections that the Soviets first opposed, then boycotted, insisting that the US honor the trusteeship agreed to at the Moscow Conference.[39]:26[67][68][69]

North Korea held parliamentary elections three months later on 25 August 1948.[70]

The resultant anti-communist South Korean government promulgated a national political constitution on 17 July 1948, elected a president, the American-educated strongman Syngman Rhee on 20 July 1948. The elections were marred by terrorism and sabotage resulting in 600 deaths.[71] The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established on 15 August 1948.[72] In the Russian Korean Zone of Occupation, the USSR established a Communist North Korean government[39]:26 led by Kim Il-sung.[73] President Rhee’s régime expelled communists and leftists from southern national politics. Disenfranchised, they headed for the hills, to prepare for guerrilla war against the US-sponsored ROK Government.[73]

As nationalists, both Syngman Rhee and Kim Il-Sung were intent upon reunifying Korea under their own political system.[39]:27 With Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong fighting over the control of the Korean Peninsula,[74] the North Koreans gained support from both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. They escalated the continual border skirmishes and raids and then prepared to invade. South Korea, with limited matériel, could not match them.[39]:27 During this era, at the beginning of the Cold War, the US government assumed that all communis

Regardless of nationality, were controlled or directly influenced by Moscow; thus the US portrayed the civil war in Korea as a Soviet hegemonic maneuver.[75]

In October 1948, South Korean left-wing soldiers rebelled against the government’s harsh clampdown in April on Jeju island in the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion.[76]

The Soviet Union withdrew as agreed from Korea in 1948. U.S. troops withdrew from Korea in 1949, leaving the South Korean army relatively ill-equipped. On 24 December 1949, South Korean forces killed 86 to 88 people in the Mungyeong massacre and blamed the crime on communist marauding bands.[77]

The conflict begins (June 1950)
Territory often changed hands early in the war, until the front stabilized.

In April 1950 Kim Il-sung travelled to Moscow and secured Stalin’s support for a policy to unify Korea under his authority. Although agreeing with the invasion of South Korea in principle, Stalin refused to become directly involved in Kim’s plans, and advised Kim to enlist Chinese support instead. In May 1950 Kim visited Beijing, and succeeded in gaining Mao’s endorsement. At the time, Mao’s support for Kim was largely political (he was contemplating the invasions of Taiwan and Tibet), and was unaware of Kim’s precise intentions or the timing of Kim’s attack. When the Korean war broke out, the Chinese were in the process of demobilizing half of the PLA’s 5.6 million soldiers.[78]


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