What happened between the Korean War

Background current

On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops launched an offensive against the south. It was the beginning of a war that claimed several million lives in three years. It ensured increasing polarization in the Cold War and cemented the split in Korea. To this day there is no peace treaty.

US paratroopers landed in northern Korea near the border with China in October 1950. In the Korean War (1950-1953) the USA supported the west-facing south, Chinese and Soviet soldiers fought alongside the communist-dominated North Korea. (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images)

World War II was less than five years over in Asia when North Korean troops invaded the south on June 25, 1950. With the support of the Soviet Union, the North Korean head of state Kim Il-sung succeeded within a short time in building a powerful army that was far superior to the South Korean forces. The ongoing border fighting between the communist-dominated "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" in the north and the western-oriented "Republic of Korea" in the south finally culminated in a bloody conflict that claimed several million lives and had a lasting impact on world politics. It is regarded as the first proxy war between West and East and as an accelerator of the arms race in the Cold War.

Division under the sign of the Cold War

After Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and exploited as a colony in the following decades, the USA and the Soviet Union occupied the country at the end of World War II. A demarcation line was agreed at the 38th parallel in 1945, which separated the two zones of occupation from each other: the Soviet Union ruled north, the USA south of this line.

What was intended as a temporary solution became permanent. In the course of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union, the conflict between the Korean parts of the country also intensified. In the north, the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin promoted the former partisan fighter Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Communist Party (KP) of Korea. For its part, the United States supported Rhee Syng-man in the south, the former head of the provisional government-in-exile of Korea (1919-1945), who had returned to Korea in 1945.

After the withdrawal of the US military, the United Nations endeavored from early 1948 to create an independent South Korea. Despite ongoing protests, elections took place in the south on May 10, 1948, and Rhee Syng-man was elected president. He proclaimed the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948. A few weeks later, the leadership in the north around Kim-Il-sung reacted by proclaiming the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea". Both claimed the sole representation of Korea and wanted to unite the country - if necessary with military action - under their respective governments. Again and again there were battles at the border until the war broke out on June 25, 1950 with the invasion of South Korea by North Korean troops.

The role of the United Nations

After the fighting began, the United States called on the United Nations Security Council to declare North Korea's actions a breach of peace. They implemented Resolution 82, on the basis of which the Security Council approved a military operation a few days later. The resolution was able to come about because the Soviet Union had been boycotting the Security Council for six months and was therefore unable to exercise its right of veto.

The United States took over command of the UN troops. Up to 930,000 soldiers from South Korea, the USA and other countries were part of the United Nations Command (UNC) between 1950 and 1953.

Course of war

In October 1950, the UN forces crossed the demarcation line to occupy North Korea. They pushed their opponents back to the borders of China. However, China's communist leadership under Mao Tse-tung sent around 400,000 "volunteers" to support North Korea. The Soviet Union also sent fighter pilots. At the beginning of December they retook Pyongyang.

In view of the reversed course of the war, US President Truman declared a state of emergency in the USA on December 16, 1950 - for the first time in the history of the country. The military budget was increased and more soldiers were recruited. For the US government, the support of South Korea at this time was a symbol of a resolute struggle against communism, also domestically.

Meanwhile, the situation worsened for the UN soldiers and the South Korean armed forces in Korea: They were pushed back to the 38th parallel. The Chinese and North Koreans then crossed the demarcation line and occupied the city of Seoul. Truman ultimately rejected the use of atomic bombs against China, which was demanded by General MacArthur. MacArthur was replaced by Matthew Ridgway in 1951.

High numbers of victims, hardly any land gain

The United States-led UN troops pushed the North Korean and Chinese troops back again as the war progressed. From July 1951, armistice negotiations were held, but initially failed.

The war had frozen in the middle of the Korean peninsula to trench warfare without significant territorial gains. There are no exact numbers of victims in the Korean War, but it is estimated that between 1950 and 1953 a total of 3.5 to 4.5 million people died in the war, including hundreds of thousands of civilians who were killed in area bombing. Because the Korean War was primarily fought as an air war: Almost all cities in North Korea and numerous villages were at least partially destroyed, which forced thousands of people to flee south.

Massacres were perpetrated on both sides: as the North Koreans retreated north, they took hostages and slave laborers and killed thousands. The other side also killed civilians; many were murdered as alleged North Korean partisans.

On July 27, 1953, the Korean War ended with an armistice initiated by the United States and the Soviet Union. An important factor in this was the death of Stalin, as a result of which the foreign policy course of the Soviet Union briefly changed. The agreement sealed the division of the Korean peninsula: a demilitarized zone about 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide was established roughly along the original demarcation line. It separates the two parts of the country to this day.

Korean conflict remains unsolved

The consequences of the Korean War continue to the present day. First, war crimes are still being dealt with today. In 2005, a truth and reconciliation commission based on the South African model was set up for this purpose. Second, the war has not officially ended to this day; a peace treaty has not been concluded even almost 67 years after the fighting ended. Since 1990 there have been phases of rapprochement between the two Korean states, but the understanding has always proven to be fragile.

In addition, North Korean nuclear policy has overshadowed the relationship for decades: In 2003 North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; In 2007 the heads of state of both countries signed a peace declaration in which North Korea promised to end its nuclear weapons program. The peace treaty did not come about, however, because two years later North Korea carried out nuclear weapons tests again and fired short-range missiles.

International efforts to ease the conflict have also failed so far. In 2013, North Korea withdrew from the ceasefire agreement and threatened nuclear war, which was strongly condemned internationally. In June 2018, US President Trump and North Korea's head of state Kim Jong-un issued a joint statement that North Korea committed to denuclearization in return for US security guarantees. However, this has not happened to this day. In June 2020, the relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated again when North Korea blew up its liaison office in the south and had soldiers relocated to the border in response to US sanctions.

It is unclear what role China could play in pacifying the conflict in the future. The country continues to have ties with North Korea.

More on the subject:

  • Media library: "In the sun's rays"
  • Köllner, Patrick: North Korea's foreign and security policy under the sign of crises (APuZ)
  • Neuneck, Götz: Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament (APuZ)
  • Kulick, Holger: Stasi documents on North Korea (Stasi dossier)
  • Online portal War and Peace: Country portrait North Korea and Country portrait South Korea
  • Event documentation: Quo Vadis Korea? (bpb forum)
  • Seo Min-Jung: South Korea https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/bildung/kulturelle-bildung/291021/suedkorea (Dossier Cultural Education)
  • Parliamentary election in South Korea (current background, April 16, 2020)