They called it the Forgotten War, that short three-year police action led by a United Nations force bullied into existence by the United States. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union, having declared war against Japan a scant three days before that nation surrendered, moved troops into the northern half of Korea which had been recently liberated from Japanese occupation stretching all of the way back to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. This was in accordance with the agreement reached in Potsdam.
Throughout the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, U.S. military leaders insisted on encouraging Soviet entry into the war against Japan. The Soviet military leaders asked their U.S. counterparts about invading Korea, and the Americans replied that such an expedition would not be practicable until after a successful landing had taken place on the Japanese mainland. The ensuing Potsdam Declaration included the statement that “the terms of the Cairo Declaration,” which promised Korea its independence, “shall be carried out.” In the terms of its entry into the war against Japan on August 8, the U.S.S.R. pledged to support the independence of Korea. On the following day Soviet troops went into action in Manchuria and northern Korea.
The General Order No. 1, drafted on August 11 by the United States for Japanese surrender terms in Korea, provided for Japanese forces north of latitude 38° N (the 38th parallel) to surrender to the Soviets and those south of that line to the Americans. Stalin did not object to the contents of the order, and on September 8 American troops landed in southern Korea, almost a month after the first Soviet entry. On the following day the United States received the Japanese surrender in Seoul. There were now two zones—northern and southern—for the Soviets had already begun to seal off the 38th parallel.
Although Soviet troops remained in the North, American troops left South Korea in June 1949. Within a scant year of their departure, on June 25, 1950, North Koreans invaded the South which, at the time, only had a 98,000-member, newly-trained police force equipped with small arms. They were overwhelmed by the North Koreans.
President Truman quickly obtained authorization from the United Nations and sent troops to push the North Koreans back to their side of the 38th parallel. Ground troops from Japan landed on July 4, 1950. They weren’t enough to stop the North Korean advance, however, and they were forced back into a small area in the southeast, near Pusan.
In September, UN troops landed at Inchon on the west coast of Korea and U.S. troops broke out of the Pusan perimeter. Together they fought the North Koreans, eventually reaching the Yalu River border with China. Chinese troops then crossed the Yalu and joined forces with the North Koreans. Within two years, 1.2 million Chinese soldiers had invaded Korea. By March 1951 the ground war had settled into a stalemate, with American troops holding the line at the 38th parallel. In the air, the war on North Korea continued.
American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea — that is, essentially on North Korea –including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific theatre of World War II.2 The number of Korean dead, injured or missing by war’s end approached three million, ten percent of the overall population. The majority of those killed were in the North, which had half of the population of the South; although the DPRK does not have official figures, possibly twelve to fifteen percent of the population was killed in the war, a figure close to or surpassing the proportion of Soviet citizens killed in World War II.3
The act which inflicted the greatest loss of civilian life in the Korean War by far, one which the North Koreans have claimed ever since was America’s greatest war crime, was the aerial bombardment of North Korean population centers. American control of the skies over Korea was overwhelming. Soviet MIGs, flown by Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots, were sometimes effective against American air power. But under Stalin’s orders, the Soviet fighter planes were strictly limited in number and in the range they were allowed to fly, lest US-Soviet air battles lead to a larger war.4 And in any case, Soviet air support did not come until the end of 1950. During the summer and fall, North Korean air defenses were virtually non-existent. Lightly armed, local self-defense units in occupied South Korea could only watch and suffer as their towns and villages were obliterated from the air.5 By the end of the war, North Korea claimed that only two modern buildings remained standing in Pyongyang.
Negotiations for an armistice went on for two years before one was finally signed on July 27, 1953. The armistice established the demilitarized zone and allowed for an exchange of prisoners and remains. One of the early sticking points was China’s demand that all U.S. and UN troops be removed from the Korean Peninsula. It was rejected out of hand by the American administration led by President Dwight Eisenhower. Although a cease fire exists, no treaty ending the war has ever been agreed to. According to a 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service:
Total U.S. casualties included 33,629 killed in action and 20,617 killed in non-battle situations for a total of 54,246 deaths, and 103,284 wounded for total U.S. casualties of 157,530. The Republic of Korea suffered 58,127 combat deaths and 175,743 wounded. Other countries under the United Nations Command had an estimated 2,800 killed and 10,783 wounded. Neither China nor North Korea has released numbers for their casualties, but they are estimated at 900,000 for China and 520,000 for North Korea. In addition, the two Koreas each suffered estimated casualties of one million civilians.
The Congressional Research Service, in its 2010 report “Costs of Major U.S. Wars,” estimated that the military cost of our participation in the Korean war was $30 billion. In 2011 dollars that would have been $341 billion. Should we listen to the madman in the White House, who has already suggested we cut down on training exercises to save money and pull our troops out of South Korea, we can count on having to spend additional billions once again, when North Korea attacks the South and we are unprepared to defend our allies.
My husband was lucky to come out of the Korean War with only an intense dislike of the cold, unlike too many of his friends and fellow Marines and soldiers. I am glad that he did not live to see the reckless actions of an idiot who apparently believes that there are do-overs in real life. A walking monument to the arrogant pride of ignorance, he seems to think that his actions and words can still be rearranged in an editing room so that they all make some kind of sense.
A unified Korea is an admirable aim, and one desired on both sides of the 38th parallel. However, without guarantees and some method of verification, it is lunacy to think that a murderous dictator would change his behavior if allowed a greater arena.
But as we have seen before, if there is a possibility of financial gain for the current occupant of the Oval Office (or for his children), treaties, obligations, and even long-standing alliances are all no more than tissue-paper barriers.
No one person should ever have so much power in a democracy. What this country really needs is some kind of check on the presidency—some other equal branch of government that can watch over the actions of the executive branch, making sure that they are in compliance with America’s best interests. Republicans have made it clear that they no longer feel any allegiance to this nation nor any obligation to protect and defend its Constitution. Someone else will have to do the job.
We have one last chance in November to get things right. Let’s not blow it.