So, five years after the guns were silenced in the Great Theater of war in Europe, another dangerous conflict is brewing in Korea. Here, one can see a display of things to come because Vietnam and Afghanistan are still future events. In the Korean War the world became witness to what happens when superpowers decide to play chess. Unfortunately, this game is not played the traditional way with wooden pieces and all.
This time the chessboard is the Korean Peninsula and the pieces are either the native Koreans or imported as in soldiers coming in from all over the world. It is interesting to note that this is not a World War in the truest sense of the term, but the true players are global leaders who happened to confine their violent resolution in a specific location, Korea. The United States, Russia, North and South Korea, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and other Asian nations were participants in this war of attrition. The battle lines were drawn and it was named the 38th parallel. This allowed for a little bearing in a very confusing time, hoping to give a little bit of clarity in a very agitating situation.
According to Carter Malkasian, “It was the only occasion in the Cold War when the military forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Soviet Union, and the USA (plus its Western allies) met in combat […] Thus, the Korean War was not merely a war fought between proxies of the major powers, like the latter conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but a much more significant conflagration” (p. 7).
This paper seeks to understand the Korean War. This can be done by looking at a brief historical background before the war and the events that added fuel to the tension between two Korean governments. Since the Korean War like many conflicts is so complicated this study focuses on tactics and logistics, and less on the historical figures that played a major role in this important period not only for Koreans but for Asians in particular and the world in general.
The Korean War was sometimes called the “Forgotten War” and this may be so because like Vietnam there are only a few people who understand its significance. Yet an “…outpouring of books, articles and film in the last decade as well as an impressive memorial on Washington, DC’s Mal (and the realization that) …it would be practically impossible to understand the Cold War…” have created a revival of interest on this subject (Sandler, p.
1). The conflict in this area of the world does not surprise the experts and the grizzled veterans of war. In fact the professional soldier can easily read the undercurrent of history and be able to predict what will happen in the struggle for power and supremacy. This was eerily demonstrated by a seemingly prophetic Commodore Matthew Perry when he spoke these words in the year 1856, a century before the Korean War:
The people of America will, in some form or other, extend their dominion and their power […] upon the eastern shores of Asia. And I think too, that eastward and southward will her great Russian rival […] The antagonistic exponents of freedom and absolutism must thus meet at last, and then will be fought that mighty battle on which the world will look with breathless interest; for on its issue will depend the freedom or the slavery of the world (as cited in Huston, p. 200).
It boggles the mind of the average person when analyzing as to how Commodore Perry was able to ascertain his claims. What is more amazing is the accuracy of his predictions. It is like looking in a crystal ball and seeing very clearly what will happen. And indeed what Perry prophesied came to pass. Russia became a superpower and just like what the Commodore had said, the Russian government exerted tremendous influence over China.
And of course his final statement about the necessity of a crucial war that will showcase the fight for freedom as opposed to absolutism was also played out just as he predicted. This can only mean that even before the first bullet crossed the 38th parallel, there are already forces at work even as far back as the late 19th century. Perry was able to read the signs and the saw the root cause of conflicts in this part of Asia. Yet it was only in the 1950s when the seed planted by those who wanted to control this region grew and blossomed into a passion that could only be satisfied with conquest.
Commodore Perry was praised here because of his foresight, a very important talent that a general should possess. If only the leaders of the free world in the 1950s were as gifted, then things would have turned out differently. But as fate would have it, from the U.S. and UN side was able anticipate what is going to happen. Either they were blindsided by the Communists or they were preoccupied by their paranoia. And that paranoia is brought about by the fear of being overrun by a westward move by the Union Soviet Socialist Republic. Stanley Sandler remarked on this and he wrote:
A Soviet thrust into Western Europe seemed a far more threatening contingency than a possible dust-up between two unattractive regimes in a bleak former Japanese colony that most Americans could not find on a map. But Americans […] would become acquainted with Korea in a war that would turn out be the third bloodiest in their history […] and which for Koreans themselves would prove the greatest catastrophe in their national history (p. 2).
It depends which side is asked. For the U.S. and UN Command, it was the North Koreans who drew first blood and attacked without warning nor any form of declaration of war. It seems that history is repeating itself once again for Americans just like in Pearl Harbor. But according to the communist-backed regime they were just retaliating from what the South has been doing for the past several months. The truth of the matter is that both sides were engaged in skirmishes that were serious prelude to war.
Sandler asserts that it was an, “…armed conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and the Republic of South Korea, which had been conducting mutual border raids for more than a year” (p. 2). At any rate the U.S. led forces were caught by surprise that fateful day of June 25, 1950. Even if they will deny it, it is now clear that the North were prepared to launch an attack and the offensive move was purely intentional.
Kim Il Sung the de facto leader of the newly established North Korean Regime began to make plans to invade South Korea. This plan was of course made in secret but nevertheless in close coordination with Russia’s Stalin and China’s Mao Tse-tung. According to Allan Millett the origin of this plan can be traced back to a change in the policy of Kim Il Sung’s benefactor to communize the whole Korean Peninsula (p. 102). It seems that Russia is no longer contented with being kept in check by a ridiculous 38th parallel and would like very much to gobble the whole Korean Peninsula. “The Soviets, however, came to realize that the goal of communizing the entire peninsula could not be achieved through such limited tactics, and decided to resort to more violent means” (Millet, p. 102).
In December of 1948 the Soviets made the first tactical move to befuddle the U.S. by withdrawing their troops unilaterally out of North Korea. Then the Russian government turned around and invited the top brass of North Korea and China’s military for a buildup. Millet bared that the troika agreed to “…build up the strength of the North Korea People’s Army (NKPA), around 6 shock divisions, 8 combat and 8 reserve divisions, and 2 armored divisions and to complete the war preparations within 18 months (i.e., by June 1950)” (p. 103). The NKPA was able to do all of these like clockwork revealing a tremendous level of preparedness and dangerous intent.
Level of Preparedness
While the NKPA was psychologically and physically prepared to engage in battle the ROK (Republic of Korea) army though prepared for future skirmishes and for another round of border raids was not truly ready for a full scale war. The South was not ready to face an enemy dead set in gobbling them up and desiring to unite the whole peninsula once again.
It took at least five days after the initial offensive of NKPA for the U.S. to make a coherent response. “On June 30, US President Harry S. Truman authorized US ground forces to stop the North Korean attack” (Boose, p. 4). This led to losses in the early rounds of the fighting and led Boose to comment, “It was able to do little to delay the KPA, but additional forces were on the way” (p. 4).
Aside from differing interests and the reasonably defective intelligence from the Western nations – or they would have known of an imminent attack – there is the psychological reason for being unprepared. Sandler made a comment why it was unlikely for the Korean Peninsula to be plunged into such a bloody conflict. And he wrote:
In looking back (before World War II) … it would be difficult to imagine a more homogeneous and united nation than Korea. […] they are of the same culture with minor north-south variations throughout the peninsula, and the Korean language – Hangul – is universal. Korean cultural homogeneity can be illustrated in its place name, a source of confusion for non-Korean UN personnel throughout the war: Inchon/Ichon, Masan/Musan, Paengnyong/Pyongyan/Pyonggang Pyongchang, Taejon/Taechon, Pukchong/Pukchang…(p. 3).
That and the eighteen month head start is creating a great advantage for the NKPA. In the end this advantage would create a stalemate and would result in the present division of Korea and the unexpected survival of this communist state even though its patron the great USSR had long been dismantled.
The North Korean and the communist forces were not only decisive and aggressive they were able to create a force enough to challenge U.S. and UN supremacy in the South. The book, “Communist Logistics in the Korean War” by Charles Shrader is an excellent source in getting an in-depth look at what happened on the other side. Too many times the victors or the presumed victors in the case of the Korean War are all too willing to gloss over their mistakes and hype their successes. The focal point of this book is the refutation of the myths perpetuated by the Americans and UN forces that were then passed on to people back home and unfortunately was taken in as gospel truth. Shrader asserts and this is quite a revelation:
One of the more persistent myths of the Korean War is that North Korean and Chinese communist solders were able to subsist on a mere handful of rice per day obtained all their arms and ammunition from their enemies, and moved all supplies by animal cart or human porters. Although supply requirements of NKPA and CCF in Korea were amazingly low when compared to the requirements for equivalent UNC units, the Communist forces did generate substantial requirements for formal supply and transport forward of tremendous quantities of food, petroleum products, weapons, and ammunition (p. 89).
The U.S. and UN led coalition were more technically advanced but this is not the most important thing in any given war. It is the level of preparedness that is important. That level of preparedness can only be gauged in relation to the environment where a battle will be waged. Let’s say for example that forces are slugging it out in a heavy-forested area with a very steep incline. No matter how sophisticated the military jeeps are, this kind of technology will be rendered effective.
In another example where the passageway in a body of water is narrow and shallow no matter how technologically advanced the frigates are it would be foolish to attack using this route since one sunken vessel can immobilize the whole fleet. In other words tactics and logistics are the most important aspects to consider and not just technology. This is the bone of contention in Shrader’s books – the South Korean forces was wrong in thinking that they were technically superior. This led Shrader to remark that: NKPA-CCF logistical doctrines and methods were characterized by flexibility and innovation, which allowed them to compensate for comparative lack of material resources and modern technology […] NKPA and CCF logistical organizations were equally flexible and often exhibited great variation in form, strength, and equipment of the assigned service units (p. 25).
What contributed well to the high level of preparedness by the NKPA – aside from the Soviet support of course – is the broad range of natural resources present in North Korea. This includes water, power, timber, rare strategic materials e.g. tungsten, zinc, graphite reserves, substantial iron ore deposits, copper, lead, cobalt, asbestos, molybdenum, nickel, gold and silver (Shrader, p. 60). This resulted to an almost miraculous surge in North Korea’s war time production of needed materiel that surpassed pre-1945 levels: 1) 166,000 tons of pig iron; 2) 144,000 tons of steel ingot; and 3) 116,000 tons of finished steel (Shrader, p. 61).
Summing it all up the major source of military materiel came via USSR which supplied the NKPA with aircraft, tanks, vehicles, communications equipment, heavy artillery, and ammunition. In addition to that, a portion of their needs were supplied by third country suppliers (Shrader, p. 60). Thus when the communist forces launched the initial attack in June of 1950 their combined forces produced the following massive force in the eve of the attack: …135,000 men in two corps comprising eight full-strength infantry divisions, two half-strength infantry divisions, an armored brigade, an independent infantry regiment, a motorcycle reconnaissance regiment, and five brigades of the Bo An Dae, or Border Constabulary (Shrader, p. 90).
What is more amazing is the development of the NKPA forces after the 1950s. After suffering setbacks from the retaliatory attacks of the UN command, the NKPA in the middle of 1951 the “rebuild NKPA included 213,600 men in twenty-three infantry divisions, one mechanized division, one armored division, and two independent infantry brigades controlled by seven corps headquarters. NKPA strength peaked in October 1952 at around 266,000 men in eighteen divisions and six independent brigades” (Shrader, p. 90).
If this was not enough to give the South Koreans and its allies a full plate, the Chinese and the Soviets entered the fray in the guise of helping a beleaguered brother-in-arms. The forces supplied by the People’s Republic of China was more than enough to bring this regional level conflict into World War scale. The following data proves the serious intent of the communist bloc:
By late November 1950 some 300,000 Chines Communist troops were in Korea: 180,000 in the six armies (eighteen divisions) of the XIIIth Army Group […] 120,000 in the three armies (twelve divisions) of the IXth Army Group […] on 1 July 1952, fify-one CCF divisions with some 540, 200 men manned the line across Korea from the west coast to the central Taebaek Range and were supported by about 10,000 Soviet and Soviet-bloc advisors and technicians (Shrader, p.90). This is the extent of the level of North Korea’s preparedness and a sample of their resolve to win this war.
Stanley Sandler in a few words was able to encapsulate the true state of South Korea’s forces before the attack by saying that June 25, 1950 was a Sunday and that fully one-half of the ROK Army was on leave (p. 48). In the initial stage of the attack which was not at all done quietly and with any subtlety: heavy bombardment, followed by a blitzkrieg attack of some 150 Soviet-built T-34-85, 110 warplanes and a crossing of the 38th Parallel by a rampaging Korean People’s Army.
Still there was an awfully delayed reaction to the events at hand. Sandler explained the reason for such a weak response due to the aforementioned soldiers who were on leave, the high number of civilian leaders who were out of the country and the mistaken notion that what just occurred was another border raid. With regards to the presence of U.S. troops, Gordon Rottman lamented that fact that it was such in great shape a mere five years before the conflict and would have come handy in a time like this. But Rottman revealed that the U.S. government intentionally reduced its military strength not only in Korea but also in the Far East. Rottman comments on the closest source for help which are the forces stationed in Japan and he wrote:
Tank companies stationed in Japan had only M24 light tanks as Japanese roads and bridges could not support heavier M4A3 and M26 tanks. M24s were no match for North Korean T-34s, one of the best tanks to appear in World War II. The divisions in Japan also lacked their reconnaissance, military police, and replacement companies […] These divisions consisted of 12,500 to 13,600 troops rather than the full-strength 18,804 (p. 3).
At first glance, South Korea does not stand a chance against the forces of Communism.
Ironically, the same benefactor who gave NKPA a tactical and logistical advantage (USSR) became the source of their demise. Sensing that the North/South conflict is just a prelude for something bigger Russia’s enemies were banded together for a common cause, which is to prevent the USSR and Communism from expanding worldwide. This resulted in a pledge of commitment to provide support in a scale reminiscent of Word War II. When the NKPA was not able to achieve total victory, this gave the U.S. and UN led coalition to regroup and pose a decent defense of South Korea.
Rottman expounded on this idea by saying that:
The Korean War was to be the UN’s first commitment of armed forces to conduct and end a war […] the UN called on all member nations to support the military effort in Korea. Fifty-three countries approved of armed action against North Korea: 15 committed ground combat forces, nine provided naval forces, six sent air force elements, and five contributed medical support, either military or civilian (p. 117).
In general there is nothing that U.S. armed forces could be proud of in the Korean War. There was really no clear victor, no territory was gained and as mentioned earlier it was the third bloodiest in the history of war where casualties are at a significant high. The only good thing that could be seen or learned from this incident is the demonstration of what bravery and commitment can do to an organization. Here one can also see the difference between a regular soldier in the U.S. Army as opposed to the brave and the few of the U.S. Marine Corp.
Hugh Deane quoted Andrew Greer when describing the essence of being a marine, “In any small unit battle the outstanding behavior of a few men is always discernible over the others […] The scale is tipped by a few – by the ten percent – who rise to the heights where the enemy and death can be met without a hesitant step” (p. 97).
British historian Max Hastings remarked, “Most of the Eight Army fell apart as a fighting force in a fashion resembling the collapse of the French in 1940, the British in Singapore in 1942. But he reported the praiseworthy strong resistance of the U.S. Marines in the northeast” (as cited in Deane, p. 111).
A particular example was raised by Deane when he commented on the enemy’s attack tactics that looked like suicide attempts characterized by sending small units that more often than not gets wiped out. This is followed by wave after wave of such small unit attacks against a selected point until a breakthrough is achieved and here comes the main force. This was effective in demoralizing troops. But according to Deane this would not work against the marines. “…but against the marines in the Northeast the results were often frustrating. The marines constructed strongly fortified outposts in the hilly-forested Chosin area and defended them fiercely with a good deal of success (p. 129).
Almost all wars are considered a waste of time, money, effort and lives of men. The Korean War was no exception. Considering the following statistics makes one shake hid head over the folly of war: The North Korean armed forces lost approximately 600,000 men in the fighting, in addition to two million civilian casualties. The Chinese […] an estimated 1 million casualties. Losses to the ROK are estimated at 70,000 killed, 150,000 wounded and 80,000 captured. One million South Korean civilians were killed or injured. The USA lost 33,600 men kiled nad 103,200 wounded (Malkasian, p. 88).
What adds insult to injury is the futility of not having a clear victor, no territories were gained and nothing significant was achieved except perhaps for a few lessons in the book of tactics. The level of preparedness of both camps explained the reason for the stalemate. The South Korea side was backed up by a technologically superior U.S. and UN led coalition but it was not mentally prepared to wage this war. Almost every action done on the part of South Korea was mostly reactionary and defensive. Most importantly, the United States was treading on thin ice since a miscalculation and overkill can easily escalate the regional conflict into a global war. With the Second World War fresh from people’s minds there is no incentive to go full force.
Although the NKPA was well prepared and very much flexible in their serious bid to unite the Korean Peninsula it does not have the technological edge to overpower the U.S. and UN forces. On a more important note, the attack on South Korea was a supposed to be a defensive act. Therefor the USSR could not be seen as fully involved and thus it can only work from the background. That sums up the futility of this exercise but nevertheless it is a good prelude to understand the Cold War and the other similar conflicts that came after it like Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Deane, H. (1999). The Korean War. San Francisco, CA: China Books and Periodicals, Inc.
Huston, J. A. (1988). Outposts and Allies: U.S. Army Logistics in the Cold War. New Jersey:
Associated University Press.
Malkasian, C. (2001). The Korean War. University Park, IL.: Osprey Publishing.
Shrader, C. (1995). Communist Logistics in the Korean War. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Millet, A. R. (1997). The Korean War. Seoul: Korea Institute of Military History.
Sandler, S. (1999). The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished. Kentucky: University of
Rottman, G. (2002). Korean War Order of Battle. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.