One of the themes of my 9/11 Project is “Don’t Forget a Soldier.” With this post I want to remember the people who served in what’s called “America’s Forgotten War”–the Korean conflict. Next Thursday will be the 64th anniversary of the Armistice that stopped the fighting between United Nations forces, North Korea, and China…
A Quick History of Korea
The rugged, mountainous peninsula became united in the 12th Century under the ancient kingdom of Goryeo, which is where Korea’s modern name comes from. Goryeo gained compete independence from the Mongols in the 13th century after a military coup, becoming Joseon.
Joseon/Choson/Korea would fiercely maintain its independence—its self-imposed isolation earning it the nickname “the hermit kingdom”—until the 19th Century, when a rapidly modernizing Japan began to expand its empire into Asia and the Pacific. Korea was one of its prime targets, being conquered and annexed into the Japanese empire in 1910.
Korea would be liberated with Japan’s defeat in WWII, but at a terrible price. With the surrender of Japanese forces Korea was, by previous agreement, occupied by forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets would occupy the portion north of the 38th Parallel; The United States, the south. Each side had incompatible goals for the development of Korea; the Soviets turned their side into a Communist puppet state; the United States, with UN help, helped install an elected government. Thus, Korea became North and South Korea.
That said, neither side expected Korea to be divided forever; rather, each side expected Korea would eventually reunite—under its government, of course.
The Korean War
On June 25, 1950 the North Korean Korean People’s Army (KPA) under Kim Il-Sung (with Red Chinese and Soviet backing) launched its bid to unite Korea under Kim’s rule.
It almost worked. The North Koreans came south with tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery against a South Korean force entirely lacking tank-killing weapons. The South Korean government fled from Seoul in a panic, destroying highways and bridges as it went, killing its own civilians and stranding parts of its own army to face the KPA alone. Many Southern soldiers simply deserted or even joined the North Koreans. The day the “Norks” attacked, South Korea had 95,000 men under arms. By the time the U.S. and the United Nations arrived to help a couple weeks later, less than 22,000 remained.
The Truman administration was caught by surprise. Military planners had expected that when (not if) Joe Stalin wanted to grab more territory he’d attack Western Europe, not Southeast Asia. They had already seen China fall to the Communists and if Korea fell they feared Japan would be next…
Communism was acting in Korea, just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier. I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall, Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores. If the Communists were permitted to force their way into the Republic of Korea without opposition from the free world, no small nation would have the courage to resist threat and aggression by stronger Communist neighbors.
—President Harry S. Truman, from his autobiography.
Furthermore, in the midst of post-WWII reconstruction and the Cold War America already had so many commitments elsewhere…America could not defend South Korea alone.
This is one thing, among so many, people forget abut this war….It was not just the U.S. fighting in Korea. Rather the United States was leading a coalition of forces from 18 nations under the United Nations, enforcing UN resolutions condemning the North Korean invasion and calling on its member states to provide armed assistance in repelling the invaders. (At the time, China was represented in the UN by the government in Taiwan, and the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN altogether because of that.)
Even after US and UN forces arrived, however, the KPA continued to push them back, push them south. Just like the South Koreans, the UN forces arrived without sufficient armor, artillery, or anti-tank weapons to stop the Communist steamroller. By September 1950, our forces were literally backed into a corner—a tiny parcel of land around the city of Pusan on the Korean coast.
But then, the KPA ran right outa luck.
It took a while, but the US/UN forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur got their tanks and artillery, and quickly built up their forces to more than match those of the KPA. At the same time, Navy, Marine and Air Force planes started attacking roads and rail lines and destroying bridges, harbors, oil refineries and supply depots, making the KPA unable to maintain their attack.
With MacArthur’s daring attack and seizure at the port city of Incheon it was the North Koreans’ turn to run, with UN forces dogging their heels right up to the Korean border with China at the Yalu river. By then it was clear the Chinese were providing material support and safe areas for the North Korean army, and MacArthur wanted to take the war into China to destroy those supply depots and safe areas. Truman, who wanted to avoid widening the conflict, said no.
China would, however, intervene whatever either Truman or MacArthur wanted. Heavy US Naval presence near Taiwan thwarted Chairman Mao Zedong’s planned invasion of the last remnants of the old Republic of China on that island, and in retaliation China would involve itself in the Korean Conflict, coming in on North Korea’s side.
China’s First Phase Offensive of October 25, 1950 broke the UN’s advance, and impressed Stalin so much he sent Russian jets to provide air cover. The Chinese/Korean/Soviet forces would push the UN forces back to the 38th Parallel where, after some months of back-and-forth fighting, the lines would stalemate until the Armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
The Korean War Ends…for now
The Armistice is generally considered the end of the Korean War, but in truth it merely stopped the fighting. The war never truly ended.
To this day the North Korean government, now under Kim Jong-Un, still considers itself the sole legitimate government of all Korea. Even while the nation crumbled as Communism collapsed worldwide; even as its people starve, the Kim regime presides over a massive (though arguably hollow) military force with chemical and now nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them.
To this day the United States still has Army, Navy and Air Force bases in South Korea to help defend against another surprise attack from the North. Not that the South Koreans lack military strength; they learned their lesson well—South Korea itself has 650,000 active duty troops and another 3.2 million reserves, the greatest concentration of troops per capita in the world (after North Korea) with state-of-the art tanks, artillery and fighter aircraft—and it is generally believed that any future attack by North Korea, US presence or no, would be effectively suicide. (Not that such an attack wouldn’t cause catastrophic casualties to South Korea first.)
Over forty thousand Americans lost their lives in Korea (nothing compared to the loss the Koreans suffered) and more than 100,000 were wounded. Some seven thousand were captured as prisoners of war to suffer brutal treatment and even torture at the hands of their KPA and Chinese captors. Another eight thousand are still missing in action.
Despite the fact there are still some 2.5 million Korean War veterans still alive today, the Korean conflict seems to have left little mark on American society, despite being the setting for the long-running hit black comedy M*A*S*H. The Korean War Veterans National Memorial opened in 1995 seems almost like an afterthought compared to the better known memorials for WWII and Vietnam. In his book, The Coldest Winter: America And The Korean War, author David Halberstram wrote Korea was a war “about which most Americans, save the men who fought there and their immediate families, preferred to know as little as possible…. ‘The Forgotten War‘ was the apt title of one of the best books on it. Korea was a war that sometimes seemed to have been orphaned by history.”
No soldier should be forgotten…
…especially those who fight for us in places we may not know about right now, or that we may not be able to find on a map. All our soldiers, from the French and Indian War to the War on Terror, must be remembered. That’s why I wanted to remember our Korean veterans.
Photo from the Korean Veterans War Memorial courtesy Pixabay