Cold War Conflicts

Cold War Conflicts



At the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula had been liberated from Japanese occupation. Following the partition of the peninsula into Soviet and United States zones of occupation (North and South Korea, respectively), North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 and launched the Korean War. In 1953, this war ended in armistice, and the two Koreas remained distinct countries and hostile to one another for the duration of the Cold War, with the North aligned with the Soviet Union and the South allied with the US.


Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the Korean War in the context of the Cold War and Communist expansion.
  • Examine political, social, and economic developments in North and South Korea during the Cold War.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

April Revolution: a popular uprising in April 1960 led by labor and student groups, which overthrew the autocratic First Republic of South Korea under Syngman Rhee

August Faction Incident: a 1956 attempted removal of Kim Il-sung from power by leading North Korean figures from the Soviet-Korean faction and the Yan’an faction, with support from the Soviet Union and China

Bodo League: an official “re-education” movement whose members were communists, communist sympathizers, or actual and alleged political opponents of the President of South Korea Syngman Rhee 

Coup d’état of December Twelfth: a military coup d’état which took place on December 12, 1979, in South Korea 

Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty: a 1910 treaty between representatives of the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire that formally annexed Korea following the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905

Japan–Korea Protectorate Treaty: a 1905 treaty between the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire that deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty and made it a protectorate of Imperial Japan, which was influenced by Imperial Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905

Jeju uprising: an attempted insurgency on the Korean province of Jeju Island followed by a brutal anticommunist suppression campaign that lasted from April 3, 1948, until May 1949

Juche: the official state ideology of North Korea, described by the regime as Kim Il-sung’s “contribution to national and international thought,” which claims that an individual is “the master of his destiny” and calls for the economic self-reliance of North Korea

June 29 Declaration: a speech by Roh Tae-woo, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party of South Korea, on June 29, 1987, in which he promised significant concessions to opponents of the incumbent authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan, who had been pressing for democracy 

June Democracy Movement: a nationwide democracy movement in South Korea that generated mass protests from June 10 to June 29, 1987 and forced the ruling government to hold elections and institute other democratic reforms

Korean Demilitarized Zone: a highly militarized strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that was established at the end of the Korean War to serve as a buffer zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea)

Korean War: A 1950 – 1953 military conflict that began when North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal force, came to the aid of South Korea

March 1st Movement: one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance during the ruling of Korea by Japan, which was initiated by activists reading the Korean Declaration of Independence and followed by massive demonstrations 

May 16 coup: a military coup d’état in South Korea in 1961, organized and carried out by Park Chung-hee and his allies who formed the Military Revolutionary Committee; an event that rendered the democratically elected government of Yun Bo-seon powerless and ended the Second Republic

Miracle on the Han River: a phrase that refers to the period of rapid economic growth in South Korea following the Korean War (1950 – 1953), during which South Korea transformed from a poor developing country to a developed country

People’s Republic of Korea: a short-lived provisional government organized with the aim to take over control of Korea shortly after the surrender of the Empire of Japan at the end of World War II

Provisional People’s Committee: the official name of the provisional government governing the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula following its post-World War II partition by the United States and the Soviet Union after the defeat of the Empire of Japan in 1945 

Russo-Japanese War: a 1904 – 1905 war fought between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea

The United States Army Military Government in Korea: the official ruling body of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from September 8, 1945, to August 15, 1948


Japan's Annexation of Korea


In 1897, Joseon—a Korean kingdom founded in 1392—was renamed the Korean Empire, and King Gojong became Emperor Gojong. The imperial government aimed to establish a strong and independent nation by implementing domestic reforms, strengthening military forces, developing commerce and industry, and surveying land ownership.

Russian influence was strong in the Korean Empire until Russia was defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905). Japan won the war with Russia, thus eliminating Japan’s last rival to influence in Korea. Two months later, Korea was obliged to become a Japanese protectorate by the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1905 and pro-Japanese reforms were enacted, including the reduction of the Korean Army from 20,000 to 1,000 men.

Many Korean intellectuals and scholars set up various organizations and associations, embarking on movements for independence. And in 1907 Gojong was forced to abdicate after Japan learned that he sent secret envoys to the Second Hague Conventions to protest against the protectorate treaty, leading to the accession of Gojong’s son, Emperor Sunjong.

In 1910, Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty. While Japan asserts that the treaty was concluded legally, this argument is not accepted in Korea because it was not signed by the Emperor of Korea, as was required, and violated international convention on external pressures regarding treaties.

Korea was controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea until Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, with de jure sovereignty deemed to have passed from the Joseon dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.


Japanese Rule Begins


After the annexation, Japan set out to repress Korean traditions and culture and implement policies primarily for Japanese benefit. European-style transport and communication networks were established across the nation to extract resources and labor. The banking system was consolidated and Korean currency abolished. The Japanese removed the Joseon hierarchy, destroyed much of the ancient imperial palace, and replaced it with the government office building.

Many Japanese settlers were interested in acquiring agricultural land in Korea even before Japanese land ownership was officially legalized in 1906. Japanese landlords included both individuals and corporations such as the Oriental Development Company. Many former Korean landowners and agricultural workers became tenant farmers after losing their entitlements almost overnight.

By 1910, an estimated 7% to 8% of all arable land was under Japanese control. This ratio increased steadily. By 1932, the ratio of Japanese land ownership increased to 52.7%. The level of tenancy was similar to that of farmers in Japan but in Korea, the landowners were mostly Japanese, while the tenants were all Koreans. As was often the case in Japan, tenants were required to pay more than half their crop as rent, forcing many to send wives and daughters into factories or prostitution so they could pay taxes. Ironically, by the 1930s, the growth of the urban economy and the exodus of farmers to the cities gradually weakened the hold of the landlords.


photo of group of people
Three Koreans shot for pulling up rails as a protest against seizure of land without payment by the Japanese, 1900s. Source: The passing of Korea (book), p. 263.


After Emperor Gojong died in 1919 amidst rumors of poisoning, independence rallies against the Japanese took place nationwide: the March 1st Movement. This movement was suppressed by force and about 7,000 Koreans were killed by Japanese soldiers and police. An estimated 2 million people took part in pro-liberation rallies, although Japanese records claim participation of less than half million. This movement was partly inspired by United States President Woodrow Wilson’s speech of 1919, declaring support for right of self-determination and an end to colonial rule for Europeans. No comment was made by Wilson on Korean independence.

The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was established in Shanghai, China, in the aftermath of March 1 Movement, which coordinated the liberation effort and resistance against Japanese control. The Provisional Government is considered the rightful government of the Korean people between 1919 and 1948, and its legitimacy is enshrined in the preamble to the constitution of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). In Korea itself, continued anti-Japanese uprisings, such as the nationwide uprising of students in November 1929, led to the strengthening of military rule in 1931. In 1929, protests by Koran high school students against Japanese occupation inspired protests nationwide that last for five months.

After the outbreaks of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II, Japan attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. The continuance of Korean culture itself became illegal. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching of the Korean language and history. The Korean language was banned, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, and newspapers were prohibited from publishing in Korean. Numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan. According to an investigation by the South Korean government, 75,311 cultural assets were stolen from Korea during this period.


Korea during World War II


Starting in 1939, organized official recruitment of Koreans to work in mainland Japan were instituted to address Japanese labor shortages that resulted from conscription of Japanese males; the recruitment of Korean workers was initially conducted through civilian agents but later involved elements of coercion. As the labor shortage increased, by 1942 the Japanese authorities extended the provisions of the National Mobilization Law to include the conscription of Korean workers for factories and mines on the Korean peninsula, Manchukuo, as well as the involuntary relocation of workers to Japan itself as needed.

Of the 5.4 million Koreans conscripted, about 670,000 were taken to mainland Japan for civilian labor. Those who were brought to Japan were often forced to work under appalling and dangerous conditions. Although Koreans were often treated better than laborers from other countries, their long work hours, as well as lack of food and medical care, still led to many deaths. The number of deaths of Korean forced laborers in Korea and Manchuria is estimated to be between 270,000 and 810,000. Most Korean atomic-bomb victims in Japan were drafted for work at military industrial factories in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Starting in 1944, Japan began the conscription of Koreans into the armed forces. All Korean males were drafted to either join the Imperial Japanese Army, as of April 1944, or work in the military industrial sector, as of September 1944. Ethnic Koreans were not desired by the Japanese military until 1944 when the tide of WW II turned dire. Until 1944, enlistment in the Imperial Japanese Army by ethnic Koreans was voluntary and highly competitive. The acceptance rate reveals discrimination, as it went from 14% in 1938 to a 2% acceptance rate in 1943, while, at the same time, the raw number of applicants increased from 3000 per annum to 300,000.

Around 200,000 girls and women, many from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers as the so-called “comfort women.” It was not until 2015 that Japan formally apologized for enslaving Korean women and girls and offered a monetary restitution of 8.3 million dollars. By then, very few of the women and girls who survived sexual torture were still alive.

Koreans, along with many other Asians, were experimented on in Unit 731—a secret Japanese military medical experimentation unit in World War II. General Shiro Ishii, the head of Unit 731, revealed during the Tokyo War Crime Trials that 254 Koreans were killed in Unit 731. Some historians estimate up to 250,000 total people were subjected to human experiments. A Unit 731 veteran attested that most that were experimented on were Chinese, Koreans, and Mongolians.


Photo of building complex
Unit 731 Complex. Source: Unidentified Bulletin of Unit 731.Some historians estimate that up to 250,000 men, women, and children were subjected to experimentation conducted by Unit 731 at the camp based in Pingfang alone, which does not include victims from other medical experimentation sites such as Unit 100. Unit 731 veterans of Japan attest that most of the victims they experimented on were Chinese while a small percentage were Russian, Mongolian, Korean, and Allied POW’s.


Economic Growth Controversy


The industrialization of the Korean Peninsula began with the Joseon dynasty while Korea was still independent, but vastly accelerated under Japanese occupation. The rapid growth of the Korean economy under Japanese rule, which as historians note cannot be ignored in the analysis of the later economic success of South Korea, continues to be the subject of controversy between the two Koreas and Japan. While the growth is unquestionable, North Korea and South Korea point to alleged long-term negative repercussions caused by how the acceleration of industrialization under Japanese occupation was executed, which was for the purposes of benefiting Japan while exploiting the Korean people and marginalizing Korean history and culture, as well as while exploiting the Korean Peninsula environment.


End of World War II: Division of Korea


In November 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek met at the Cairo Conference to discuss what should happen to territories occupied by Japan and agreed that Japan should lose all the territories it had conquered by force. In the declaration after the conference, Korea was mentioned for the first time. The three powers declared that they were “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea […] [and had] determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”

At the Tehran Conference in 1943 and the Yalta Conference in 1945, the Soviet Union promised to join its allies in the Pacific War within three months of victory in Europe. On August 8, 1945, after three months to the day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Soviet troops advanced rapidly, and the U.S. government became anxious that they would occupy Korea.

On August 10, 1945, two young officers—Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel—were assigned to define an American occupation zone. Working on extremely short notice and completely unprepared, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel. They chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would also place the capital city Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted. The two men were unaware that 40 years earlier, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel. The division placed sixteen million Koreans in the American zone and nine million in the Soviet zone. To the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet Union immediately accepted the division.

General Abe Nobuyuki, the last Japanese Governor-General of Korea, had established contact with a number of influential Koreans since the beginning of August 1945 to prepare for the evacuation of Japanese forces. Throughout August, Koreans organized people’s committee branches for the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence headed by Lyuh Woon-hyung, a moderate left-wing politician. On September 6, 1945, a congress of representatives convened in Seoul and founded the short-lived People's Republic of Korea.

In December 1945 at the Moscow Conference, the Allies agreed that the Soviet Union, the U.S., the Republic of China, and Britain would take part in a trusteeship over Korea for up to five years in the lead-up to independence. Most Koreans demanded independence immediately, with the exception of the Communist Party, which supported the trusteeship under pressure from the Soviet government. A Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission met in 1946 and 1947 to work towards a unified administration but failed to make progress due to increasing Cold War antagonism and Korean opposition to the trusteeship. Meanwhile, the division between the two zones deepened. The difference in policy between the occupying powers led to a polarization of politics and a transfer of population between North and South. In May 1946, it was made illegal to cross the 38th parallel without a permit.


U.S. Occupation of the South


The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was the official ruling body of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from September 8, 1945, to August 15, 1948. On September 7, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur announced that Lieutenant General John R. Hodge was to administer Korean affairs, and Hodge landed in Incheon with his troops the next day. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which had operated from China, sent a delegation with three interpreters to Hodge, but he refused to meet with them.

The USAMGIK tried to contain civil violence in the south by banning strikes and outlawing the People’s Republic of Korea and the people’s committees. Things spiraled quickly out of control, however, with a massive strike in September 1946 by 8,000 railway workers in Busan, which quickly spread to other cities in the South. On October 1, police attempts to control protesters in Daegu caused the death of three student demonstrators and injuries to many others, sparking a mass counter-attack that killed 38 policemen. In Yeongcheon, a police station came under attack on October 3 by a 10,000-strong crowd who killed over 40 policemen and the county chief. Other attacks resulted in the deaths of about 20 landlords and pro-Japanese officials. The U.S. administration responded by declaring martial law, firing into crowds of demonstrators, and killing an undisclosed number of people.

Although the military government in South Korea was hostile to leftism from the beginning, it initially tolerated the activities of left-wing political groups, including the Korean Communist Party. However, this period of reconciliation did not last long. Within a short time, the military government actively disempowered and eventually banned popular organizations that were gaining public support. The justification was the USAMGIK’s suspicion that they were aligned with the Communist bloc, despite professing a relatively moderate stance compared to the actual Korean Communist Party, which was also banned.

Among the earliest edicts promulgated by USAMGIK was to reopen all schools. No immediate changes were made in the educational system, which was simply carried over from the Japanese colonial period. In this area as in others, the military government sought to maintain the forms of the Japanese occupation system. Although it did not implement sweeping educational reforms, the military government did lay the foundations for reforms that were implemented later. In 1946, a council of about 100 Korean educators was convened to map out the future path of Korean education.


Soviet Occupation of the North


When Soviet troops entered Pyongyang, they found a local branch of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence operating under the leadership of veteran nationalist Cho Man-sik. The Soviet Army allowed these people’s committees, which were friendly to the Soviet Union, to function. Colonel-General Terentii Shtykov set up the Soviet Civil Administration, taking control of the committees and placing Communists in key positions.

In 1946, a provisional government called the Provisional People's Committee was formed under Kim Il-sung, who had spent the last years of the war training with Soviet troops in Manchuria. Conflicts and power struggles ensued at the top levels of government in Pyongyang as different aspirants maneuvered to gain positions of power in the new government. The government instituted a sweeping land-reform program: land belonging to Japanese and collaborator landowners was divided and redistributed to poor farmers. Landlords were allowed to keep only the same amount of land as poor civilians who had once rented their land, thereby instituting a far more equal distribution of land. The farmers responded positively, while many collaborators and former landowners fled to the south. According to the U.S. military government, 400,000 northern Koreans went south as refugees.


photo of group of military officers
Welcome celebration for the Red Army in Pyongyang on October 14, 1945. Source: Korean People Journal from Japanese book The First Anniversary of Korean Liberation published by Shinkan Sha.


Failed UN Intervention 


With the failure of the Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission to make progress, the U.S. brought the problem before the United Nations in September 1947. The Soviet Union opposed UN involvement, but the UN passed a resolution on November 14, 1947, declaring that free elections should be held, foreign troops should be withdrawn, and a UN commission for Korea—the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea—should be created. The Soviet Union boycotted the voting and did not consider the resolution to be binding, arguing that the UN could not guarantee fair elections. And in the absence of Soviet cooperation, it was decided to hold UN-supervised elections in the south only.

The decision to proceed with separate elections in the south was unpopular among many Koreans, who rightly saw it as a prelude to a permanent division of the country. General strikes in protest against the decision began in February 1948. In April, Jeju islanders rose up against the looming division of the country, and South Korean troops were sent to repress the rebellion. Tens of thousands of islanders were killed, and, by one estimate, 70% of the villages were burned by South Korean troops. What began as a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to Japanese rule ended with this Jeju Uprising, an attempted insurgency against the scheduled election on the Korean province of Jeju Island. A brutal anticommunist suppression campaign by the South Korean government lasted until May 1949. Although atrocities were committed by both sides, the methods used by the South Korean government to suppress the rebels were especially cruel, including random executions of women and children. In the end, between 14,000 and 30,000 people died as a result of the rebellion, or up to 10% of the island’s population. Some 40,000 others fled to Japan to escape the fighting. The uprising flared up again with the outbreak of the Korean War.

Despite opposition to elections, on May 10, 1948, South Korea held a general election. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president. In North Korea, meanwhile, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, 1948, with Kim Il-sung as prime minister. On December 12, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the report of UNTCOK and declared the Republic of Korea (South Korea) to be the “only lawful government in Korea.”


photo of people at voting booths
South Korean general election on May 10, 1948. Source: Korean book Departure of Republic of Korea Capital Seoul (1945 – 1961) published by Seoul Metropolitan City History Committee.


Unrest continued in South Korea after independence in 1948. Since President Rhee’s regime excluded communists and leftists from southern politics, these disenfranchised groups headed for the hills to prepare for guerrilla war against the US-sponsored ROK government. While Rhee indeed aimed to eradicate communist and leftist groups, the anti-communist slogans were applied to eradicate all his actual and alleged political opponents and establish his authoritarian rule by inciting fear among the civilians with no ties to communism or politics. By early 1950, Syngman Rhee had jailed about 20,000 – 30,000 alleged communists, and about 300,000 suspected communist sympathizers enrolled in the Bodo League re-education movement.

The Bodo League gathered suspected communist sympathizers or Rhee’s political opponents, but to fulfill the enrollment quota, many civilians with no ties to communists or politics were forced to become members. The majority of the Bodo League’s members were innocent farmers and civilians who were forced into membership. The Syngman Rhee government later executed many registered members of this league and their families at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, as suspected communist sympathizers.

On December 24, 1949, South Korean Army massacred the 86 to 88 residents of Mungyeong. The victims were massacred because they were suspected communist supporters or collaborators (though some sources say nearly one-third of the victims were children). The government blamed the crime on marauding communist bands. By 1949, South Korean forces had reduced the active number of communist guerrillas in the South from 5,000 to 1,000.


The Korean War


Soviet ruling forces departed from North Korea in 1948 and American ruling troops finally withdrew from South Korea in 1949. However, with the approval and support of the Soviet leader, Stalin and the Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong, the North Korean Communist leader, Kim Il-sung believed that an effort to unite the Korean Peninsula under communist control would be supported by much of the South Korean population. Consequently, North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, marking the outbreak of the Korean War.

Kim Il-sung believed that the communist guerrillas had weakened the South Korean military and that a North Korean invasion would be welcomed by much of the South Korean population. Kim began seeking Stalin’s support for an invasion in March 1949, but with Chinese Communist forces still engaged in the Chinese Civil War and American forces stationed in South Korea, Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become embroiled in a war with the United States. By spring 1950, the strategic situation changed. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb in September 1949, American soldiers had fully withdrawn from Korea, and the Chinese Communists had established the People’s Republic of China. The Soviets had also cracked the codes used by the U.S. to communicate with the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and reading the dispatches convinced Stalin that Korea would not warrant a nuclear confrontation.

In April 1950, Stalin gave Kim permission to invade the South under the condition that Mao Zedong, the leader of China, would agree to send reinforcements if they became needed. Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces would not openly engage in combat to avoid a direct war with the Americans. Mao was concerned that the Americans would intervene but agreed to support the North Korean invasion.

Once Mao’s commitment was secured, preparations for war accelerated. Soviet generals with extensive combat experience from World War II were sent to North Korea as the Soviet Advisory Group and completed the plans for the attack.

While these preparations were underway in the North, there were frequent clashes along the 38th parallel, many initiated by the South. The Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) was being trained by the U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). On the eve of the war, KMAG’s commander General William Lynn Roberts voiced utmost confidence in the ROK Army and boasted that any North Korean invasion would merely provide “target practice.” For his part, Syngman Rhee repeatedly expressed his desire to conquer the North. Despite the southward movement of the Korean’s People’s Army (KPA), U.S. intelligence agencies and UN observers claimed that an invasion was unlikely.


Outbreak of the War


At dawn on Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Korean Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire and invaded South Korea. The KPA justified its assault with the claim that ROK troops had attacked first, and that they were aiming to arrest and execute the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee.” Fighting began on the strategic Ongjin peninsula in the west. There were initial South Korean claims that they had captured the city of Haeju, and this claim has led some scholars to argue that the South Koreans actually fired first. Within an hour, North Korean forces attacked all along the 38th parallel. The North Koreans had a combined arms force including tanks supported by heavy artillery. The South Koreans did not have any tanks, anti-tank weapons, or heavy artillery that could stop such an attack. In addition, South Koreans committed their forces in a piecemeal fashion, and these were routed within a few days.

On June 27, Rhee evacuated from Seoul with some members of the government. On June 28 at 2 a.m., the South Korean Army blew up the Hangang Bridge across the Han River in an attempt to stop the North Korean army. The bridge was detonated while 4,000 refugees were crossing it and hundreds were killed. Destroying the bridge also trapped many South Korean military units north of the Han River. In spite of such desperate measures, Seoul fell that same day. A number of South Korean National Assemblymen remained in Seoul when it fell and 48 subsequently pledged allegiance to the North. On June 28, Rhee ordered the massacre of suspected political opponents in his own country.

In five days, the South Korean forces, which had 95,000 men on June 25, were down to less than 22,000 men. In early July when U.S. forces arrived, what was left of the South Korean forces was placed under U.S. operational command of the United Nations Command.


U.S. and UN Interventions


The United States government under President Harry Truman was unprepared for this invasion. Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Military strategists were more concerned with the security of Europe against the Soviet Union than East Asia. At the same time, the Truman Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war, should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well. America did not initially want to get involved.

One aspect of the changing attitude toward Korea and whether to get involved was Japan, especially after the fall of China to the Communists. U.S. East Asian experts saw Japan as the critical counterweight to the Soviet Union and China in the region. While there was no United States policy that dealt with South Korea as a national interest, its proximity to Japan increased the importance of South Korea. However, a major consideration was the possible Soviet reaction in the event that the U.S. intervened. The Truman administration was fretful that a war in Korea was a diversionary assault that would escalate to a general war in Europe once the United States committed in Korea. Truman believed if aggression went unchecked, a chain reaction would be initiated that would marginalize the United Nations and encourage Communist aggression elsewhere.

On June 25, 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea with UN Security Council Resolution 82. The Soviet Union, a veto-wielding power, had boycotted the Council meetings since January 1950, protesting that the Republic of China (Taiwan), not the People’s Republic of China, held a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. After debating the matter, the Security Council on June 27, 1950, published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On the same day, President Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean regime. On July 4, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister accused the United States of starting armed intervention on behalf of South Korea.

As the conflict between South Korea and North Korea reflected the international tensions of the Cold War, the U.S. military forces supported South Korea under the auspices of the UN, while Chinese forces backed North Korea with the Soviet Union providing materiel and strategic help.

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Truman agreed that the United States was obligated to act, comparing the North Korean invasion with Adolf Hitler’s aggression in the 1930s; they came to the conclusion that the mistake of appeasement must not be repeated. However, Truman later acknowledged that he believed fighting the invasion was essential to the American goal of the global containment of communism. In August 1950, the President and the Secretary of State obtained the consent of Congress to appropriate $12 billion for military action in Korea. Several U.S. industries were mobilized to supply materials, labor, capital, production facilities, and other services necessary to support the military objectives of the Korean War.

General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was faced with re-organizing and deploying an American military force that was a shadow of its World War II counterpart. Acting on Acheson’s recommendation, President Truman ordered General MacArthur to transfer material to the Army of the Republic of Korea, while giving air cover to the evacuation of U.S. nationals. The President disagreed with advisers who recommended unilateral U.S. bombing of the North Korean forces and ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet to protect the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose government asked to fight in Korea. The United States denied ROC’s request for combat lest it provoke a communist Chinese retaliation. Because the United States sent the Seventh Fleet to “neutralize” the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai criticized both the UN and U.S. initiatives as “armed aggression on Chinese territory.”

In September 1950, MacArthur received the top-secret National Security Council Memorandum from Truman reminding him that operations north of the 38th parallel were authorized only if “at the time of such operation there was no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcements of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily.” Just three days later, Zhou Enlai warned the United States that China was prepared to intervene in Korea if the United States crossed the 38th parallel. By October 1950, the UN Command repelled the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) northwards past the 38th parallel and the South Korean ROK Army crossed after them into North Korea. MacArthur subsequently made a statement demanding the KPA’s unconditional surrender. On October 7, with UN authorization, the UN Command forces followed the ROK forces northwards. The US army’s X Corps landed at Wonsan (in southeastern North Korea) and Riwon (in northeastern North Korea), already captured by ROK forces. The Eighth U.S. Army and the ROK Army advanced up western Korea and captured Pyongyang city, the North Korean capital, on October 19, 1950. At month’s end, UN forces held 135,000 KPA prisoners of war.


Photo of soldiers with men seated
U.S. Marine guards North Korean POWs aboard ship, 1951, author unknown. The treatment of prisoners of war and their repatriation was a complicated issue in the Korean War. Nominally, both the Communists and United Nations forces were committed to the terms of the 1949 Third Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of POWs. However, both sides applied exceptions and the negotiations regarding POWs were contentious and difficult.


Taking advantage of the UN Command’s strategic momentum against the communists, General MacArthur believed it necessary to extend the Korean War into China to destroy depots supplying the North Korean war effort. President Truman disagreed and ordered caution at the Sino-Korean border.


Chinese Intervention with Soviet Support


China justified its entry into the war as a response to “American aggression in the guise of the UN.” In August 1950, Zhou Enlai informed the UN that “Korea is China’s neighbor” and “the Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question.” Thus, through neutral-country diplomats, China warned that in safeguarding Chinese national security, they would intervene against the UN Command in Korea. President Truman interpreted the communication as an “attempt to blackmail the UN” and dismissed it.

October 1, 1950, the day that UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, was also the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On that day, the Soviet ambassador forwarded a telegram from Stalin to Mao and Zhou requesting that China send five to six divisions into Korea, and Kim Il-sung sent frantic appeals to Mao for Chinese military intervention. At the same time, Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces themselves would not directly intervene.

There was considerable resistance among many Chinese leaders, including senior military leaders, to confronting the U.S. in Korea. Mao strongly supported intervention and Zhou was one of the few Chinese leaders who firmly supported him. In order to enlist Stalin’s support, Zhou and a Chinese delegation arrived in Moscow on October 10. Stalin did not agree to send either military equipment or air support until March 1951. Soviet shipments of material, when they did arrive, were limited to small quantities of trucks, grenades, and machine guns. Immediately upon his return to Beijing on October 18, Zhou met with Mao and military leaders Peng Dehuai and Gao Gang. The group ordered 200,000 Chinese troops to enter North Korea.

After secretly crossing the Yalu River on October 19, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) 13th Army Group launched the First Phase Offensive on October 25, attacking the advancing UN forces near the Sino-Korean border. This military decision made solely by China changed the attitude of the Soviet Union. Twelve days after Chinese troops entered the war, Stalin allowed the Soviet Air Force to provide air cover and supported more aid to China. After decimating the ROK II Corps at the Battle of Onjong, the first confrontation between Chinese and U.S. military occurred on November 1, 1950. Deep in North Korea, thousands of soldiers from the PVA 39th Army encircled and attacked the U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment with three-prong assaults—from the north, northwest, and west—and overran the defensive position flanks in the Battle of Unsan.

On December 16, 1950, President Truman declared a national emergency, which remained in force until September 1978. The next day, Kim Il-sung was deprived of the right of command of KPA by China. After that, the leading force of the war on the North Korean side became the Chinese army.


Stalemate and Armistice


From July 1951 to the end of the war, the UN Command and the Chinese PVA fought but exchanged little territory. The stalemate held although large-scale bombing of North Korea continued. Protracted armistice negotiations began in July 1951, but combat continued while the belligerents negotiated. The UN Command forces’ goal was to recapture all of South Korea and avoid losing territory. The PVA and the KPA attempted similar operations and later effected military and psychological operations to test the UN Command’s resolve to continue the war.

The on-again, off-again armistice negotiations continued for two years, first at Kaesong, on the border between North and South Korea, and then at the neighboring village of Panmunjom. A major, problematic negotiation point was prisoner of war (POW) repatriation. The PVA, KPA, and UN Command could not agree on a system of repatriation because many PVA and KPA soldiers refused to be repatriated back to North Korea, which was unacceptable to the Chinese and North Koreans. In the final armistice agreement signed in July 1953, a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission was set up to handle the matter.


Photo of soldiers on a street
U.S. Marines fighting in Seoul, Korea, 1950, author unknown. U.S. Marines engaged in street fighting during the liberation of Seoul, circa late September 1950. Note M-1 rifles and Browning Automatic Rifles carried by the Marines, dead Koreans in the street, and M-4 “Sherman” tanks in the distance.


In 1952, the United States elected a new president, and in November, the president-elect, Dwight D. Eisenhower, went to Korea to learn what might end the Korean War. With the United Nations’ acceptance of India’s proposed Korean War armistice, the KPA, the PVA, and the UN Command ceased fire with the battle line approximately at the 38th parallel. Upon agreeing to the armistice, the belligerents established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has since been patrolled by the KPA and ROKA, United States, and Joint UN Commands.


A Divided Korea


After the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, the Korean War ended but the conflict between the two Korean states continues, still shaping their economic, political, diplomatic, and social relations. The United Nations Command, supported by the United States, the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, signed the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953 to end the Korean War fighting. The Armistice also called upon the governments of South Korea, North Korea, China, and the United States to participate in continued peace talks. The war is considered to have ended at this point, although there was no peace treaty. North Korea nevertheless still claims that it won the Korean War.

Upon agreeing to the armistice, the belligerents established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has since been patrolled by the KPA and ROKA, United States, and Joint UN Commands. The Demilitarized Zone runs northeast of the 38th parallel and to the south, it travels west. It is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, running 160 miles long and about 2.5 miles wide. Within the Zone, there is a meeting-point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the Zone, with military and civilian casualties on both sides.

Owing to the theoretical stalemate (no peace treaty has been signed) and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ.


A map of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, produced by the CIA in 1969. Relief shown by contours and spot heights. Depths shown by contours. Oriented with north toward the upper right.


Social Landscape after the War


There were numerous atrocities and massacres of civilians throughout the Korean War, committed by both the North and South Koreans, that impacted the social landscape after the war. Many of them started on the first days of the war. South Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered what would be known as the Bodo League massacre in June 1950, initiating the killing of more than 100,000 suspected leftist sympathizers and their families by South Korean officials and right-wing groups. In occupied areas, North Korean Army political officers purged South Korean society of its intelligentsia by executing academics, government officials, and religious leaders who might lead resistance against the North. When the North Koreans retreated back home in September 1950, they forced tens of thousands of South Korean men to move to North Korea. The reasons are not clear, but the intention might have been to acquire skilled professionals.

Large numbers of people were displaced because of the war and many families were divided by the reconstituted border. In 2007, it was estimated that around 750,000 people remained separated from immediate family members, and family reunions have long been a diplomatic priority. The exact number of South Korean POWs who were detained in North Korea after the war is unknown, as is the number who still survive in North Korea. In its report to the legislature in October 2007, the South Korean Ministry of Defense reported that “a total of 41,971 South Korean soldiers were missing during the Korean War. 8,726 were repatriated through POW exchanges after the Armistice of 1953. Some 13,836 have been determined to have been killed based on other information. To date, the status of 19,409 soldiers has not been confirmed. Most of these unconfirmed were believed to have been unrepatriated POWs. Other estimates of South Korean POWs held by the North Koreans at the Armistice have been higher. Yi Hang-gu, a writer and North Korea expert currently in South Korea who served in the Korean People’s Army, has testified that he commanded former South Korean POWs who had been enlisted into the Korean People’s Army during the Korean War. He has estimated the number of South Korean POWs who survived in North Korea at the end of the fighting at about 50,000 – 60,000. The South Korean government estimates that 560 South Korean POWs still survive in North Korea.

After the war, the Chinese forces left, but U.S. forces remained in the South. Sporadic conflict continued between North and South Korea. The opposing regimes aligned themselves with opposing sides in the Cold War. Both sides received recognition as the legitimate government of Korea from the opposing blocs. In 1953, the United States and South Korea signed a defense treaty and in 1958, the United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea. In 1961, North Korea signed mutual defense treaties with the USSR and China.

North Korea presented itself as a champion of orthodox Communism, distinct from the Soviet Union and China. The regime developed the doctrine of Juche or self-reliance, which included extreme military mobilization. In response to the threat of nuclear war, it constructed extensive facilities underground and in the mountains. The Pyongyang Metro opened in the 1970s with capacity to double as bomb shelter.

Tensions between North and South escalated in the late 1960s with a series of low-level armed clashes known as the Korean DMZ Conflict. In 1968, North Korean commandos launched the Blue House Raid—an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. spy ship Pueblo was captured by the North Korean navy. In 1969, North Korea shot down a US EC-121 spy plane over the Sea of Japan, killing all 31 crew on board, which constitutes the largest single loss of U.S. aircrew during the Cold War. In 1969, Korean Air Lines YS-11 was hijacked and flown to North Korea. Similarly, in 1970, the hijackers of Japan Airlines Flight 351 were given asylum in North Korea. In response to the Blue House Raid, the South Korean government set up a special unit to assassinate Kim Il-sung, but the mission was aborted in 1972. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to assassinate President Park and killed his wife, Yuk Young-soo.

In the 1970s, both North and South began building up their military capacity. It was discovered that North Korea dug tunnels under the DMZ which could accommodate thousands of troops. Alarmed at the prospect of U.S. disengagement, South Korea began a secret nuclear weapons program which was strongly opposed by Washington. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proposed the withdrawal of troops from South Korea. There was a widespread backlash in America and in South Korea, and critics argued that this would allow the North to capture Seoul. Carter postponed the move, and his successor Ronald Reagan reversed the policy, increasing troop numbers. After Reagan supplied the South with F-16 fighters and after Kim Il-sung visited Moscow in 1984, the USSR recommenced military aid and cooperation with the North.


North Korea after the Korean War


Following the 1956 August Faction Incident (an attempted removal of Kim Il-sung from power), Kim Il-sung successfully resisted efforts by the Soviet Union and China to depose him in favor of pro-Soviet Korean officials or the pro-Chinese Yan’an faction. The last Chinese troops withdrew from the country in 1958, but North Korea remained closely aligned with China and the Soviet Union, and the Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim to play the powers off each other. At the same time, North Korea emphasized the ideology of Juche (self-reliance) to distinguish itself from both the Soviet Union and China.

In North Korea, economic recovery from the Korean War was quick — by 1957 industrial production reached 1949 levels — but reconstruction of the country depended on extensive Chinese and Soviet assistance. Koreans with experience in Japanese industries also played a significant part in this industrial recovery. Following the example of the Soviet Union under Stalin, agricultural land was collectivized between 1953 and 1958. Resistance to this move appears to have been minimal as landlords were eliminated by earlier reforms or during the war. Collectivization of farms freed up peasants to work in state owned factories in the cities.

North Korea, like all the postwar communist states, undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure and military strength, neglecting the production of consumer goods. The country was placed on a semi-war footing, with equal emphasis being given to the civilian and military economies. At a special party conference in 1966, members of the leadership who opposed the military build-up were removed. Industry was fully nationalized by 1959. Taxation on agricultural income was abolished in 1966. As late as the 1970s, North Korea’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP ) per capita was estimated to be equivalent to South Korea’s. By 1972, all children from age 5 to 16 were enrolled in school and more than 200 universities and specialized colleges had been established. By the early 1980s, 60 – 70% of the population was urbanized.


Economic Decline


In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea’s economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end. North Korea’s desire to lessen its dependence on aid from China and the Soviet Union prompted the expansion of its military power, and the government believed massive expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its mineral wealth on the international market. North Korea invested heavily in its mining industries and purchased a large quantity of mineral extraction infrastructure from abroad. However, following the world 1973 oil crisis, international prices of many of North Korea’s native minerals fell, leaving the country with large debts, inability to pay them off, and an extensive network of social welfare benefits. The state began to default in 1974 and halted almost all repayments in 1985. Consequently, it was also unable to invest further in Western technology.

In 1984, Kim visited Moscow during a grand tour of the USSR where he met Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. Soviet involvement in the North Korean economy increased, with bilateral trade reaching its peak at $2.8 billion in 1988. In 1986, Kim met the incoming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and received a pledge of support. However, Gorbachev’s reforms and diplomatic initiatives, the Chinese economic reforms starting in 1979, and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc from 1989 to 1991 increased North Korea’s isolation. The leadership in Pyongyang responded by proclaiming that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc demonstrated the correctness of the policy of Juche. Simultaneously, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived North Korea of its main source of economic aid, leaving China as the isolated regime’s only major ally. Without the Soviet aid, North Korea’s economy went into a free-fall.


South Korea's Economic Growth


Although South Korea emerged from the Korean War as one of the poorest countries in the world and despite a series of authoritarian regimes lasting until the late 1980s, the South Korean economy has been one of the fastest growing and most stable in the world since the 1960s. Following the armistice that ended the Korean War fighting, South Korea experienced political turmoil under the autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee. Throughout his rule, Rhee took additional steps to cement his control of government. In 1952 during the Korean War, he pushed through constitutional amendments, which made the presidency a directly elected position. To do this, he declared martial law, arresting opposing members of parliament, demonstrators, and anti-government groups. He was subsequently elected by a wide margin. In the 1954 elections, Rhee regained control of parliament and thereupon pushed through an amendment to exempt himself from the eight-year term limit. He was once again re-elected in 1956. Soon afterwards, his administration arrested members of the opposing party and executed its leader after accusing him of being a North Korean spy.

Rhee’s administration became increasingly repressive while dominating the political arena and in 1958, sought to amend the National Security Law to tighten government control over all levels of administration, including local government. These measures caused much outrage among the people. But despite public outcry Rhee’s administration rigged the 1960 presidential elections and won by a landslide. On the election day, however, protests by students and citizens against the irregularities of the election burst out in the city of Masan. Initially these protests were quelled with force by local police, but when the body of a student was found floating in the harbor of Masan, the whole country was enraged, and protests spread nationwide. On April 19, students from various universities and schools rallied and marched in protest in the Seoul streets in what would be called the April Revolution. The government declared martial law, called in the army, and suppressed the crowds with open fire. Subsequent protests throughout the country shook the government and after an escalated protest, Rhee submitted his official resignation and fled into exile.

A period of political instability followed, broken by General Park Chung-hee’s May 16 coup in 1961 against the weak and ineffectual government. Park took over as president, overseeing rapid export-led economic growth as well as implementing political repression. He was heavily criticized as a ruthless military dictator, who in 1972 extended his rule by creating a new constitution that gave the president sweeping (almost dictatorial) powers and permitted him to run for an unlimited number of six-year terms.

Park was assassinated in 1979, which sparked political turmoil as the previously suppressed opposition leaders all campaigned to run for president in the sudden political void. In 1979 came the Coup d'etat of December 12 led by General Chun Doo-hwan. Following the coup d’état, Chun Doo-hwan planned to rise to power through several measures. On May 17, he forced the Cabinet to expand martial law to the whole country (it had previously not applied to the island of Jejudo). The expanded martial law closed universities, banned political activities, and further curtailed the press. Chun’s assumption of the presidency triggered nationwide protests demanding democracy.

Chun and his government held South Korea under a despotic rule until 1987, when a Seoul National University student, Park Jong-chul, was tortured to death by the regime. On June 10, the Catholic Priests Association for Justice revealed the incident, igniting the June Democracy Movement around the country. Eventually, Chun’s party, the Democratic Justice Party, and its leader, Roh Tae-woo, announced the June 29 Declaration, which included the direct election of the president. Roh went on to win the election by a narrow margin. Since then, South Korea has engaged in consistent democratization efforts.


Photo of a group of people
May 16 coup, Major General Park Chung-hee (right), author unknown. Park was one of a group of military leaders pushing for the depoliticization of the military. Under Park’s authoritarian rule, the South Korean economy began its miraculous growth.


Following the Korean War, South Korea remained one of the poorest countries in the world for over a decade. In 1960, its gross domestic product per capita was $79, lower than that of some sub-Saharan countries. At the beginning of the 1960s, the government formulated a five-year economic development plan, although it was unable to act on it prior to the April Revolution. The hwan (South Korean currency) lost half of its value against the dollar between fall 1960 and spring 1961.

Park’s administration started by announcing its five-year economic development plan based on an export-oriented industrialization policy. Top priority was placed on the growth of a self-reliant economy and modernization. “Development First, Unification Later” became the slogan of the times and the economy grew rapidly with vast improvements in industrial structure, especially in the basic and heavy chemical industries. Capital was needed for such developments, so the Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses, with preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans and tax benefits. Cooperating with the government, these businesses would later become chaebols—business conglomerates that are typically global multinationals and own numerous international enterprises controlled by a chairman with power over all the operations.

Relations with Japan were normalized by the Korea-Japan treaty ratified in 1965. The treaty brought Japanese funds in the form of loans and compensation for the damages suffered during the colonial era without an official apology from the Japanese government, sparking much protest across the nation. The government also kept close ties with the United States and continued to receive large amounts of economic and military aid. The US and South Korea agreed to mutual defense agreement in 1966. Soon thereafter, South Korea joined the Vietnam War. Economic and technological growth during this period improved the standard of living, which expanded opportunities for education. Workers with higher education were absorbed by the rapidly growing industrial and commercial sectors, and urban population surged. Construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed and linked Seoul to the nation’s southeastern region and the port cities of Incheon and Busan.


Photo of a military parade
South Korean citizens perform a card stunt for President Park Chung-hee on South Korean Army day, October 1, 1973. Photo by Baek Jong-sik.


Unlike in most other countries, the incredible economic growth in South Korean did not go hand in hand with democratization. Despite the authoritarian regime, South Korea’s tiger economy soared at an annual average of 10% for over 30 years in a period of rapid transformation called the Miracle on the Han River. A long legacy of openness and focus on innovation made it successful.

Despite the immense economic growth, however, the standard of living for city laborers and farmers was still low. Laborers were working for low wages to increase the price competitiveness for the export-oriented economy plan, and farmers were in near poverty as the government controlled prices. As the rural economy steadily lost ground and caused dissent among the farmers, however, the government decided to implement measures to increase farm productivity and income by instituting the Saemauel Movement (“New Village Movement”) in 1971. The movement’s goal was to improve the quality of rural life, modernize both rural and urban societies, and narrow the income gap between them.

Despite social and political unrest, the economy continued to flourish under the authoritarian rule with the export-based industrialization policy. The first two five-year economic development plans were successful, and the 3rd and 4th five-year plans focused on expanding the heavy and chemical industries, raising the capability for steel production and oil refining. As most of the development had come from foreign capital, most of the profit went back to repaying the loans and interests. In the 1980s, tight monetary laws and low interest rates contributed to price stability and helped the economy boom with notable growth in the electronics, semi-conductor, and automobile industries. The country opened up to foreign investments and GDP rose as Korean exports increased. This rapid economic growth, however, widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural regions, and also exacerbated inter-regional conflicts. These dissensions, added to the hardline measures taken against opposition to the government, fed intense rural and student movements, which had grown since the beginning of the republic.

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