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Causes Of The Korean War

Causes of the Korean War
Andrew Glass
Global Studies
Period Seven
The Korean War, 1950-1953
After the USSR installed a Communist government in North Korea in
September 1948, that government promoted and supported an insurgency in
South Korea in an attempt to bring down the recognized government and
gain jurisdiction over the entire Korean peninsula. Not quite two years
later, after the insurgency showed signs of failing, the northern
government undertook a direct attack, sending the North Korea People’s
Army south across the 38th parallel before daylight on Sunday, June 25,
1950. The invasion, in a narrow sense, marked the beginning of a civil
war between peoples of a divided country. In a larger sense, the cold
war between the Great Power blocs had erupted in open hostilities.

The western bloc, especially the United States, was surprised by the
North Korean decision. Although intelligence information of a possible
June invasion had reached Washington, the reporting agencies judged an
early summer attack unlikely. The North Koreans, they estimated, had not
yet exhausted the possibilities of the insurgency and would continue
that strategy only.

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The North Koreans, however, seem to have taken encouragement from the
U.S. policy which left Korea outside the U.S. defense line in Asia and
from relatively public discussions of the economies placed on U.S. armed
forces. They evidently accepted these as reasons to discount American
counteraction, or their sponsor, the USSR, may have made that
calculation for them. The Soviets also appear to have been certain the
United Nations would not intervene, for in protest against Nationalist
China’s membership in the U.N. Security Council and against the U.N.’s
refusal to seat Communist China, the USSR member had boycotted council
meetings since January 1950 and did not return in June to veto any
council move against North Korea.

Moreover, Kim Il Sung, the North Korean Premier, could be confident that
his army, a modest force of 135,000, was superior to that of South
Korea. Koreans who had served in Chinese and Soviet World War II armies
made up a large part of his force. He had 8 full divisions, each
including a regiment of artillery; 2 divisions at half strength; 2
separate regiments; an armored brigade with 120 Soviet T-34 medium
tanks; and 5 border constabulary brigades. He also had 180 Soviet
aircraft, mostly fighters and attack bombers, and a few naval patrol

The Republic of Korea (ROK) Army had just 95,000 men and was far less
fit. Raised as a constabulary during occupation, it had not in its later
combat training under a U.S. Military Advisor Group progressed much
beyond company-level exercises. Of its eight divisions, only four
approached full strength. It had no tanks and its artillery totaled
eighty-nine 105-mm. howitzers. The ROK Navy matched its North Korean
counterpart, but the ROK Air Force had only a few trainers and liaison
aircraft. U.S. equipment, war-worn when furnished to South Korean
forces, had deteriorated further, and supplies on hand could sustain
combat operations no longer than fifteen days. Whereas almost $11
million in materiel assistance had been allocated to South Korea in
fiscal year 1950 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program,
Congressional review of the allocation so delayed the measure that only
a trickle of supplies had reached the country by June 25, 1950.

The North Koreans quickly crushed South Korean defenses at the 38th
parallel. The main North Korean attack force next moved down the west
side of the peninsula toward Seoul, the South Korean capital, thirty-
five miles below the parallel, and entered the city on June 28.
Secondary thrusts down the peninsula’s center and down the east coast
kept pace with the main drive. The South Koreans withdrew in disorder,
those troops driven out of Seoul forced to abandon most of their
equipment because the bridges over the Han River at the south edge of
the city were prematurely demolished. The North Koreans halted after
capturing Seoul, but only briefly to regroup before crossing the Han.

In Washington, where a 14-hour time difference made it June 24 when the
North Koreans crossed the parallel, the first report of the invasion
arrived that night. Early on the 25th, the United States requested a
meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The council adopted a resolution
that afternoon demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities and a
withdrawal of North Korean forces to the 38th parallel.

In independent actions on the night of the 25th, President Truman
relayed orders to General of the Army Douglas MacArthur at MacArthur’s
Far East Command headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, to supply ROK forces with
ammunition and equipment, evacuate American dependents from Korea, and
survey conditions on the peninsula to determine how best to assist the
republic further. The President also ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet from
its current location in Philippine and Ryukyu waters to Japan. On the
26th, in a broad interpretation of a U.N. Security Council request for
every assistance in supporting the June 25 resolution, President
Truman authorized General MacArthur to use air and naval strength
against North Korean targets below the 38th parallel. The President also
redirected the bulk of the Seventh Fleet to Taiwan, where by standing
between the Chinese Communists on the mainland and the Nationalists on
the island it could discourage either one from attacking the other and
thus prevent a widening of hostilities.

When it became clear on June 27 that North Korea would ignore the U.N.
demands, the U.N. Security Council, again at the urging of the United
States, asked U.N. members to furnish military assistance to help South
Korea repel the invasion. President Truman immediately broadened the
range of U.S. air and naval operations to include North Korea and
authorized the use of U.S. Army troops to protect Pusan, Korea’s major
port at the southeastern tip of the peninsula. MacArthur meanwhile had
flown to Korea and, after witnessing failing ROK Army efforts in
defenses south of the Han River, recommended to Washington that a U.S.
Army regiment be committed in the Seoul area at once and that this force
be built up to two divisions. President Truman’s answer on June 30
authorized MacArthur to use all forces available to him.
Thus the United Nations for the first time since its founding reacted to
aggression with a decision to use armed force. The United States would
accept the largest share of the obligation in Korea but, still deeply
tired of war, would do so reluctantly. President Truman later described
his decision to enter the war as the hardest of his days in office. But
he believed that if South Korea was left to its own defense and fell, no
other small nation would have the will to resist aggression, and
Communist leaders would be encouraged to override nations closer to U.S.
shores. The American people, conditioned by World War II to battle on a
grand scale and to complete victory, would experience a deepening
frustration over the Korean conflict, brought on in the beginning by
embarrassing reversals on the battlefield.

More far reaching was the war’s impact on the two Great Power blocs. The
primary result for the western bloc was a decided strengthening of the
NATO alliance. Virtually without military power in June 1950, NATO could
call on fifty divisions and strong air and naval contingents by 1953 a
build-up directly attributable to the increased threat of general war
seen in the outbreak of hostilities in Korea. With further reinforcement
in the NATO forecast at the end of the Korean War, USSR armed aggression
in western Europe became unlikely. For the east, the major result was
the emergence of Communist China as a Great Power. A steady improvement
in the Chinese army and air force during the war gave China a more
powerful military posture at war’s end than when it had intervened; and
its performance in Korea, despite vast losses, won China respect as a
nation to be reckoned with not only in Asian but in world affairs.

Kaiser, Robert. Korea from the Inside. New York, 1980
Lawrence, John. A History of Korea. New York, 1993
Seeger, Elizabeth. The pageant of Korean History. Canada, 1967
History Essays


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