The Korean War officially began on June 25, 1950, as North Korea invaded South Korea. The war began when 75,000 North Korean soldiers came across the 38th parallel, the line dividing the two states. As it is with most wars, there was much more at play than merely North vs. South. To the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was backed by the Soviet Union, while South Korea was backed by the United States. This article will cover a complete timeline of the Korean War, including its causes and consequences.
The motivations for the Korean War stem back to 1946. Just months after Japan surrendered to end World War II, Joseph Stalin, dictator of Russia, declared that capitalism and communism could not coexist. The Russians had fought alongside the Americans in World War II, but this declaration was a figurative line in the sand that sparked the Cold War.
Prior to World War II, Korea was part of the Japanese Empire. In the aftermath of the war, it was up to Russia and the United States to decide what happened to the country. It was decided in August 1945 that the country would be divided into two at the 38th parallel, with Russia occupying the north side and the United States occupying the south.
When North Korea invaded South Korea five years later, they did so with Russian weapons. Over those five years, two new states were developed. Kim Il Sung was the communist dictator in the north, while Syngman Rhee was the anti-communist dictator in the South. During this time, border skirmishes were common at the 38th parallel. Despite these conflicts, when North Korea invaded, it came as a surprise to the United States government.
The U.S. did not see the invasion as simply two warring factions of a foreign country. They feared it could become the start of communism’s attempt to take over the world. Having just defeated one dictator with similar plans of taking over the world in Hitler, the United States wanted to be sure that history would not repeat itself. Fear of communism had been festering in the U.S. and came to a head in 1950 when a hunt for communists in the United States was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. This time in United States history is now known as the Red Scare.
When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, it marked the first battle action of the Cold War. Their army was made up of approximately 135,000 soldiers, while the South Koreans numbered approximately 98,000. Using the blitzkrieg battle tactic, the North Koreans stormed the capital of Seoul in what would be known as the First Battle of Seoul. By June 28, they had taken the capital. President Harry Truman at the time famously said, “If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one place after another.”
By July 1, the United States Army had arrived in Korea. The first combat troops were known as Task Force Smith, with the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry, and 24th Infantry Division. The United States considered their military actions to be defending the ideals of capitalism and declaring war on the forces of communism.
By July 3, the North Koreans had taken the city of Inch’on. Two days later, the U.S. engaged in their first military action, stalling the advance of the North Korean Army in the city of Osan. The following week saw the 21st Infantry stall the advance of the North Koreans at Chochiwon. From July 10 to July 18, nearby U.S. forces in Japan and Okinawa moved to Korea, while the 2nd Infantry Division was deployed from Seattle.
The early fighting was a back and forth across the 38th parallel, with little to show on either side despite mounting casualties. Off the battlefield, the Americans were trying to work out an armistice with North Korea. The fear at the time was sparking World War III and potentially facing off against both Russia and China. Due to this fear, nonintervention was not an option for the United States.
End of Summer 1950
Initially, the Americans took on a defense approach, trying to keep the communists out of South Korea. But largely, this effort was a failure. At the summer’s end, General Douglas MacArthur and President Truman decided to change tactics and deploy an offensive.
The first of the offensive measures taking by the Americans was an amphibious attack at Inch’on on September 15. The next day, the U.S. Eighth Army took the offensive north to the Pusan Perimeter. By September 27, the U.S. and South Korean forces recaptured the capital of Seoul.
As the American troops continued their offensive, it pushed as far as the Yalu River, which represented the border between China and Korea. In response, Chinese leader Mao Zedong sent his own troops into North Korea and warned the Americans to stay away from the border unless they wanted an all-out war with China.
In October, Chinese forces faced off with South Korean forces north of Unsan. On October 25, the first Chinese soldier was captured. The U.S. decidedly did not wish to engage with China on the battlefield, which would have likely led to World War III. But by November 1, the U.S. forces had their first battle with the Chinese near Unsan.
Fighting between the U.S. and China continued throughout November. On November 25, the Chinese attacked the U.S. Eighth Army. And from November 29 to December 1, the Chinese decimated the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, which came to guard the withdrawal of the Eighth Army.
The Chinese forces began an offensive on December 31, 1950, which lasted until January 5, 1951. On January 4, the capital of Seoul was recaptured by North Korea, and the U.S. Eighth Army was forced to retreat 40 miles south of the city.
During the second week of January, the fighting slowed down. Intelligence reports stated that many of the North Korean forces had withdrawn to refit themselves. On January 15, Army Chief of Staff General J. Lawton Collins declared on a visit to Korea that “we are going to stay and fight.” On January 25, the Eighth Army launched Operation Thunderbolt, which began in the west and expanded eastward.
By February 10, Inch’on had been recaptured. Eleven days later, the Eighth Army launched Operation Killer, which was an advance north to the Han River where enemy resistance was eliminated.
The problem with the skirmishes with the Chinese army was that, while President Truman wanted badly to avoid a war with China, General MacArthur felt the opposite way. In March of 1951, MacArthur sent a letter to a House Republican, Joseph Martin, who shared MacArthur’s view on an all-out war with China. The letter stated, “There is no substitute for victory” against communism. Upon discovering MacArthur’s letter, President Truman fired his general and leader of the U.S. armed forces.
Chinese “volunteers” attempted to retake Seoul, but their advance was unsuccessful. The forces were pushed 35 miles north of Seoul, and battle lines were redrawn again near the 38th parallel.
One year into the war, President Truman began discussing peace talks with his military commanders in Panmunjom. Both South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung were determined to take the peninsula by force. But neither the Americans nor the Russians were willing to support major new offensives, as the cost of victory would be significant.
The armistice talks began at Kaesong, but the communist side broke off negotiations on August 23. As talks stalled, the fighting continued at the 38th parallel.
Three large hills separated the two armies, and both sides were willing to pay a high price to control those positions. What resulted was a horrific conflict known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge. The Chinese and North Koreans had established their forces along the ridgeline of the hills with a complex system of tunnels and fortified bunkers. To drive them out, the U.S. and South Koreans bombarded the hills with heavy artillery attacks for days on end. When they were finished, the lush ridgeline had been completely stripped bare of its foliage.
Following the heavy artillery attacks, the U.S. and the South Korean forces then invaded the hills on August 17, 1951. It took eight days for their forces to take the hills. However, a day later, thousands of Chinese soldiers flooded the region and retook the hills. The American infantry was called back in, but their frontal attacks were failing.
By September 5, UN forces led by U.S. soldiers outflanked the North Koreans and drove the enemy forces off the ridge. When it was all over, the Americans and South Koreans suffered an estimated 3,000 casualties. The North Koreans and the Chinese suffered an estimated 15,000 casualties.
October 1951 – October 1952
Armistice talks began again on October 25, 1951, with little progress. By October 1952, the UN called for a recess of talks that were going nowhere.
April 1953 – July 1953
Peace talks resumed again on April 23, 1953. By the first week of July, the U.S. 7th Infantry Division abandoned their position on Pork Chop Hill, deeming it unnecessary to continue fighting the Chinese. On July 13, the Chinese launched another attack, but UN forces retained their high ground along the Kumsong River.
By July 27, an armistice was finally agreed upon. South Korea was given an additional 1,500 square miles of land, and a two-mile-wide “demilitarized zone” was established.
When the fighting ended, nearly 40,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefield. In total, close to five million people died in the war – half of which were Korean civilians. The loss of civilian life was at a rate higher than both World War II and the Vietnam War.
The Americans that gave their lives during the three-year war are remembered at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.