Did China win the Korean War?

Korean War: Trial of Strength in the Far East

When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Washington believed it was the beginning of a global offensive. Because Moscow supports the aggression. And so, with the Korean War, a local war escalated into the first major armed conflict of the Cold War

An icy wind blows over the Changjin Reservoir in North Korea on November 27, 1950. When the sun sinks behind the surrounding mountains, the thermometer shows minus 29 degrees Celsius. Men of the 1st U.S. Marine Division use feldspades to hammer hollows into the ground to find some shelter for the night. Most of the 14,000 or so soldiers camped on the west bank of the lake have to remain outdoors.

Using tanks, trucks, jeeps and artillery pieces, they advanced to this plateau over a narrow mountain runway: as part of an international UN force that wants to defeat communist North Korea.

From the reservoir, the UN soldiers want to advance to the North Korean border with China, which is 120 kilometers away, and unite there with the 8th US Army, which, together with South Korean troops, had conquered North Korea's capital Pyongyang weeks earlier. So now the rest of the country is to be taken.

The war on the Korean peninsula will end by Christmas, Commander Douglas Mac Arthur promised the men. But the five-star general is wrong. As night falls, the north wind carries strange sounds into the camp on the west side of the lake: horns and whistles, plus war chants. And finally the sound of boots being kicked in the snow: in the pale light of the moon, thousands of Chinese soldiers in white invisibility cloaks storm down from the mountain slopes.

The Marines fire at the shadows with machine guns, grenades and mortars. Again and again the Chinese form attack waves. Despite heavy losses. They only retreat at dawn. And leave hundreds of wounded and frozen corpses on the barren hills.

It is estimated that more than 600 Marines have been killed or injured. Others have suffered so severe frostbite that they can no longer be used. Some men, on the other hand, whose arm or leg was torn off by a grenade during the night only survive because of the cold - because the freezing temperatures in their wounds have frozen their blood.

General Douglas MacArthur's fatal misjudgment

In the first light of day it becomes clear: The UN positions in the east of the reservoir have also been attacked. Around 60,000 Chinese soldiers have marched around the water reservoir. The United Nations fighters are trapped. Although they encountered surprisingly strong resistance the day before in an offensive against the Chinese, other units in North Korea have been massively attacked in recent days. But the extent of the threat is only now becoming apparent.

That evening, General Douglas MacArthur, who leads the UN troops in Korea from headquarters in Tokyo, some 1,000 kilometers away, has his commanders flown to Japan for a meeting. MacArthur, a highly decorated hero of the Second World War, had considered it out of the question that China's communist leader Mao Zedong would intervene with larger troop contingents in the war on the Korean peninsula.

A fatal misjudgment, as we now see. MacArthur sends a telegram to Washington: "We are facing a completely new war," he tells the US chiefs of staff. China's goal is "the complete annihilation of the UN troops in Korea". The news is shocking in Washington. Because the US government around President Truman is convinced that Mao is acting in league with a much more powerful and dangerous opponent: the Soviet dictator Stalin.

Three days after the fighting broke out at Changjin Reservoir, Truman appeared before the press and said he was ready to use whatever means available to stabilize the situation in Korea. When asked by a reporter whether this includes the atomic bomb, the president replied, “Every weapon we have. "

The first major battle of the Cold War has been raging on the Korean peninsula for six months. Incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings, a lack of communication and mutual distrust have caused the conflict to escalate. And so in the end almost 20 nations sent soldiers into a war that the heads of state in Washington and Moscow had actually wanted to avoid.

Korea between USA and USSR

Five years earlier, in the summer of 1945, the USA and USSR were still fighting together as allies against Japan in the Far East. On August 8, the Red Army marched into the north of the Korean peninsula, which at that time was still part of the Japanese colonial empire. When Tokyo surrendered less than a month later, US troops occupied southern Korea.

Moscow and Washington agreed in February to divide the country into two areas of interest. They now draw the border between the two zones of occupation along the 38th parallel.

The Americans do not attach great strategic value to Korea, with its 30 million inhabitants; Japan, which is almost twice as large, is more important to them. The US government wants to hold elections across Korea under UN supervision and then withdraw. But this does not occur. Because Stalin wants to use the chance to establish a Soviet-friendly state in Korea, which borders the southeast of the USSR. In October 1945 he helped a 33-year-old exile to power in the north of the peninsula: the communist Kim Il-sung.

Kim, born in Korea in 1912, fled the Japanese-occupied country to Manchuria with his family as a child. He helped found a communist youth organization underground, led guerrilla operations against the Japanese, and later withdrew to the south-east of the USSR.

In 1945 Kim returned to Korea as a major in the Red Army. He is pragmatic, unscrupulous - and loyal to Stalin. With Moscow's support, he gradually got rid of his rivals, introduced land reform in 1946, nationalized banks, industries and railways, and established a socialist one-party state.

On September 9, 1948, Kim Il-sung proclaimed the "People's Republic of Korea" in Pyongyang and became its head of state.

In the south, 73-year-old Syngman Rhee, who had also returned from exile and was an iron anti-communist, came to power with US support. Rhee's right-wing party does not win a majority in elections, but it does win most of the votes - all left-wing groups were previously banned and thousands of demonstrators were arrested. A national assembly elects Rhee as president, and on August 15, 1948 he officially proclaims the "Republic of Korea".

Two rulers share a dream

The two heads of state are ideologically separated, but both dream of the reunification of their countries - with violence if necessary. Syngman Rhee, however, lacks the military means to do this. With the founding of the state in the south, the USA ceded all power to the government in Seoul, withdrew its troops and limited itself to the role of the most influential political and economic partner.

But at the same time Washington ensures that Rhee, who has established a corrupt and authoritarian police state and relies on collaborators from the Japanese occupation, only has an army of 100,000 men and an outdated air force at its disposal - for fear that the South Korean could otherwise go to war to instigate.

The US leadership absolutely wants to avoid being drawn into an argument by its allies that could quickly develop into armed forces with the Soviet Union.

In the north, on the other hand, Kim assumes that the longer the south waits to launch a military strike, the stronger it becomes. But for the attack he needs the approval of his patron Stalin. As the leader of a satellite state on the fringes of the Soviet empire, he is not allowed to act on his own.

In March 1949, the North Korean Communist Party leader traveled to Moscow and asked the Soviet dictator to allow him to advance south.

Kim is militarily superior and is convinced of a quick victory (as the minutes of the meeting available today show). "In addition, we are sure to be supported by South Koreans who hate the Syngman Rhees regime," he explains.

Stalin is waiting for the right time

But Stalin hesitates. He still feels bound by the agreements with the USA. He also fears that Washington could intervene militarily in an attack by Kim.

But at the beginning of 1950 he changed his mind. The reason is the changed international situation. On the one hand, China's communists under Mao Zedong won their long-term civil war against the troops of the nationalist, US-backed Guomindang and proclaimed a people's republic in Beijing on October 1, 1949.

The communist camp is more powerful than ever.

Second, Soviet scientists detonated an atomic bomb just a few months earlier. Moscow - unlike the United States - has only a few other nuclear warheads, but that will soon change.

And finally, Stalin's approval of Kim's attack plan is based on a misjudgment: He believes he knows that the United States will not intervene militarily on the Korean peninsula.

The United States itself promoted this misunderstanding: On January 12, 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson listed those areas in the Far East that were of strategic importance for the security of the United States. The chief diplomat names Japan and the Philippines, but leaves Korea unmentioned. Stalin interprets this as a hint - even if Acheson's omission was certainly not meant in that way.

Fear of communism is growing in Washington

Because in reality Washington’s assessment of the situation is currently changing. An analysis by the National Security Council paints a threatening picture of the international situation: The aim of the Soviet leaders is "the complete submission or violent destruction of the government apparatus and the social structure in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by a system devoted to the Kremlin".

The paper exacerbates the feeling of a pervasive threat from communism in Washington.

Although there are diplomatic relations between the superpowers, there is deep mistrust. Therefore, there are neither direct talks at government level nor regular exchanges between the ambassadors. Misunderstandings often arise: a fateful constellation. Because actually both sides must be able to rely on correctly interpreting the opponent's signals.

Stalin, for example, is probably interested in testing in Korea how far he can challenge the West - in order to divert the United States from Europe, which is strategically far more important for the Kremlin, and to strengthen its position of power.

On February 9, 1950, the Kremlin chief Kim Il-sung authorizes the attack. His only condition: he would not stand by Kim if the USA should intervene in South Korea. "If the Americans put you down, I won't lift a finger," he explains brusquely.

Kim Il-sung secures the support of China

He does not want a war with the USA - he does not see his country well equipped for it. But he has an idea: if necessary, another ally from the communist camp should help the North Koreans. “You have to ask Mao for help,” he tells Kim.

In doing so, Stalin is pursuing two goals at once: on the one hand, he avoids war with the USA; on the other hand, he isolates the Chinese Communist Party leader, makes it impossible for him to approach the West - and binds him more closely to himself.

In mid-May 1950, Kim Il-sung traveled to Beijing for a secret meeting and reported to Mao about Moscow's instructions. At that time, the Chinese still fully accepted Stalin's authority and regarded him as the “eldest brother”. During the conversation, Kim is confident of victory: he will not need any support, he assures Mao. He could complete the campaign within weeks. So the Americans would not have time to send troops if they did want to intervene.

Mao does not share the confidence, but agrees to take arms in an emergency. Actually, he doesn't want to wage war on the peninsula either. But Kim supported him with 14,000 men in the Chinese civil war. And Mao considers a military confrontation with the imperialist West to be inevitable anyway. In addition, he expects the pact to gain prestige for China and the communist cause.

Advance to Seoul within a day

After the agreement in Beijing, on June 10, 1950, Stalin declares his final approval of the plan of attack. He also sends Kim hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, modern war planes and even a few jet fighters: his contribution to unifying Korea under communist rule.

Around 100,000 North Korean infantry march on the night of June 25, 1950 at the 38th parallel. At four in the morning they open fire with howitzers and mortars on the South Korean troops stationed at the border. Two hours later, 150 T-34 tanks made available by the USSR cross the border. The ground troops are supported by fighter planes.

The North Korean radio announced that the attack was allegedly a defensive operation with which Kim repulsed a South Korean attack. But probably just one of the usual border skirmishes served him as an excuse to strike out now.

The poorly equipped fighters of the south have little to counter the onslaught. On the very first day, Kim's soldiers advance into the suburbs of the South Korean capital Seoul, which is only 40 kilometers behind the demarcation line.

A shock to Truman and his ministers

John Muccio, the US ambassador to South Korea, informs the State Department in Washington at 10 a.m. Due to the time difference, it's late Saturday evening there.

Kim's attack hits the US government completely unprepared. President Truman is on a weekend vacation in his hometown of Independence, Missouri. It was just after 10 p.m. when Secretary of State Acheson reached him on the phone: “Mr President, I have very serious news. The North Koreans invaded South Korea. “Truman has been under pressure for months. Leading Republicans like the US Senator and communist hunter Joseph McCarthy accuse him of being overly indulgent to the East. He said he did not support Mao's nationalist opponents in the Chinese civil war enough and thus surrendered a large and important country to the enemy camp. Secretary of State Acheson is publicly suspected by McCarthy of employing communists in his department.

Now both men are forced to demonstrate determination - especially since Truman declared in March 1947 before the US Congress that he would support any country that felt threatened by a communist takeover.

The president flies to Washington and meets with ministers and generals. In the meantime, an analysis by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has shown that only Stalin could be the actual perpetrator of the attack, since North Korea is politically completely dependent on the Soviet Union. This is apparently the beginning of the communist offensive that has been feared since the spring. In the same report, the authors wonder whether the invasion of Korea might just be a prologue to similar scenarios on the German-German border, in Yugoslavia or Persia. Truman and his advisors agree: Stalin must be stopped. "We have to draw a line somewhere," said Omar Bradley, chairman of the US chief of staff. But the US president doesn't want to act alone. But on behalf of the United Nations.

Truman comes under pressure in the Korean War when Seoul falls

Western states have a secure majority at the UN. In addition, the USSR is currently boycotting the Security Council in order to force the admission of communist China.

And so Moscow cannot prevent the resolution that the body passed on June 25, 1950: The resolution requires North Korea to withdraw its troops beyond the 38th parallel and calls on all UN members to “in every way to help ”.

Two days later, Truman asked the Kremlin to use its influence to persuade Kim to withdraw. Prime Minister Boris Chernousov rejects the request - South Korea had triggered the war with its attack. Incidentally, it is an internal Korean affair that those involved have to resolve themselves. So Truman's diplomatic venture fizzles out.

When another UN resolution approved military aid for South Korea, the US president ordered two divisions stationed in Japan to be deployed on the peninsula on June 30. Shortly before, an aircraft carrier, a heavy cruiser and eight destroyers of the 7thUS fleet under UN flag arrives off the South Korean coast.

But the force seems to be late. Seoul fell just three days after the attack. President Syngman Rhee and his government had to flee to the city of Daejeon, 140 kilometers away. Many civilians leave the capital in a panic. Because Kim's advancing troops have death lists with them, with which special commands roam the city for supporters of Syngman Rhees.

It is not until the beginning of July that almost 100,000 GIs from Japan will gradually arrive in South Korea. But they are insufficiently prepared for a war effort.

By August 4, the North Koreans overrun almost all of South Korea. The Americans suffer heavy losses and have to retreat to the southeast of the peninsula together with the demoralized South Korean troops. 92,000 men crowd on a piece of land that is cordoned off by 70,000 North Korean fighters.

North Korea weakens as a risky plan succeeds

It is the last bridgehead of the alliance, which it is now defending against the North Koreans, exhausted from the long advance: The Americans and South Koreans are gradually being reinforced with well-trained troops and heavy weapons from the USA. Great Britain and France are also sending their first units to support the operation (a total of 16 UN member states will send soldiers to the Korean peninsula, including Ethiopia, Colombia and Turkey).

US General Douglas MacArthur, victor of the Pacific War who accepted the surrender of Japan in 1945, assumes command.

The longer the siege lasts, the weaker the North Koreans become: Kim Il-sung expected a victory after a few weeks, and he is unable to provide reinforcements and supplies to his army in the south, which has been decimated by heavy losses on the advance to let.

For the counterattack, MacArthur chooses a highly risky approach. In the back of the North Korean associations, he wants to open a second front in the west. On September 15, 70,000 soldiers are expected to land at the port city of Incheon, 30 kilometers from Seoul. The company is very daring because the ebb and flow of the tide on the rocky coast, which is almost beachless, leaves only a few hours for the operation. But it succeeds, with minor losses. The landing army is now rapidly advancing towards Seoul, threatening to cut off Kim Il-sung's troops from their supply base in the north.

One day later, the units enclosed in the southeast, which have since been reinforced to more than 180,000 men, break through the siege. They are supported on the coast by fire from the warships of the US fleet and by air bombardments. The North Koreans have meanwhile lost almost all of their planes. Under fire from the US Air Force, all they can do now is retreat northwards. About 40,000 soldiers manage to pass the 38th parallel.

The situation in Korea changed completely within a few weeks. General MacArthur is celebrated as a genius for landing in Incheon, USA - and from then on he feels infallible in his decisions.

On September 28th, his soldiers recaptured Seoul. Two days later, Allied troops reached the 38th parallel - thus fulfilling the mandate that the UN had given them in further resolutions in July.

The unification of Korea should be pushed forward

But intoxicated by the victories, MacArthur and those responsible in Washington are now setting another goal: They want to completely defeat North Korea and unite both parts of the country.

As early as September 11th, Truman signed a memorandum that would basically allow US troops to cross the demarcation line - provided soldiers from Moscow or Beijing have not intervened in the fighting by then. Because the US president does not want to risk a third world war because of Korea.

Therefore, he is now gaining international legitimacy for his approach. However, because the representative of Moscow has since returned to the Security Council and can block a vote there with his veto, this time the US has the draft resolution that it has formulated (but officially submitted by its ally Great Britain) to the General Assembly, where a simple one is sufficient Majority.

With 47 votes in favor to five against, the assembly passed a resolution on October 7th in New York recommending that UN members take “all reasonable steps” “to create stable conditions and a democratic government in all of Korea in a sovereign state of Korea, including holding elections ”. The Security Council is actually responsible for such a decision - but the US-led coalition simply ignores this in its victorious mood.

Washington ignores the increasing threats from China. Mao has publicly stated several times that his country will not tolerate “imperialists” invading North Korea. His government has warned the US through India's ambassador in Beijing. "An American invasion will meet with resistance from China," Mao's foreign minister told the diplomat, who passed the information on to Washington.

But US politicians consider this to be Mao's bluff (they dismiss the Indian diplomats as an unreliable source). In any case, they pay much more attention to Stalin's reactions. And Moscow seems to be standing still - because it is apparently not preparing to intervene.

As soon as the UN resolution has been passed, US troops cross the 38th parallel as part of the UN armed forces, and South Korean soldiers have already rushed ahead of them. The allies are advancing rapidly.

China - the underrated teammate

A few days later, on October 15, Truman arrives on the Pacific island of Wake Island, over 7,500 kilometers away, to meet with MacArthur. The president is hoping for high-profile pictures shortly before the congressional elections in November. At the meeting, MacArthur declares that the war is as good as won. Mao missed the right time to intervene.

The general knows that Beijing has concentrated 300,000 soldiers in Manchuria, which is part of China. Up to now, however, a maximum of 60,000 of them could have crossed the Yalu River, which separates China and North Korea.

For MacArthur, these troops, which Beijing officially calls "volunteers," pose no threat. The commander in chief assesses their combat strength as extremely low due to the lack of an air force: "If the Chinese try to advance as far as Pyongyang, there will be the greatest slaughter in human history," he boasted to his president.

The further course of the campaign initially proves him right: on October 19, the UN troops conquer Pyongyang. Kim Il-sung withdraws to the border area with China. His army also flees and does not offer any resistance.

Now, however, the emergency plan developed by Stalin is taking effect: Mao provides Kim with the weapons assistance he has asked for. The Chinese head of state does not even fear the possible use of American nuclear weapons and allegedly declares that even if the atomic bombs killed countless subjects, China still has enough people to complete the world revolution. On October 19, the first of probably 250,000 Chinese soldiers crossed the Yalu. Six days later, they attack South Korean units in the northwest and push them back. They also involve UN troops in fighting on other sectors of the front.

MacArthur is now landing tens of thousands of American marines and UN soldiers on North Korea's east coast and the 8th Army is advancing in the west of the country. He will soon have more than 200,000 men under his command beyond the 38th parallel.