Japan’s surrender on August 14th, 1945 not only ended World War II, but also its dominance over the Korean peninsula, which it had annexed on August 22nd, 1910. The former Japanese colony was immediately divided between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the absence of any obvious natural barrier, the border was drawn at the 38th parallel, as it had been tentatively proposed at the Potsdam Conference from July 17th to August 2nd, 1945.
This division placed the capital Seoul in the American zone, just 35 miles south of the dividing line. That would have terrible consequences for the city, as it changed hands repeatedly during the armed conflict that began roughly five years later.
Moscow rejected the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution from November 14th, 1947 to hold elections throughout Korea and choose a provisional government for the entire county. Therefore, on May 10th, 1948 South Korea elected its own national assembly and on August 15th became independent. Angry North Korean Communists established their own state on September 9th, 1948, cementing the separation.
On January 17th 1950, Great Leader Kim Il-sung proposed the “liberation of the South”, receiving tacit backing from Josef Stalin. In consequence, 135,000 communist soldiers crossed into South Korea on June 25th. The United Nations Security Council immediately denounced North Korea’s actions, calling for a cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of its troops to the 38th parallel.
On the contrary, they advanced further and took Seoul for the first time on June 28th. Just one day earlier, US President Harry Truman had approved the deployment of American soldiers to the region under the command of Pacific War veteran Douglas MacArthur. They were ordered into action on June 30th and went into battle at Osan on July 5th, suffering their first casualties.
On September 12th, their strength nearly cut in half and almost entirely lacking in tanks, North Korean troops reached their farthest point of advance. Although thousands of UN troops were reinforcing South Korea, the area under the defenders’ control had been reduced to roughly 13,000 square kilometers around the southeastern harbor of Pusan.
A surprise amphibious invasion on September 15th at Inchon, some 150 miles behind enemy lines, probably prevented a communist victory, and allowed to liberate Seoul on September 28th. On October 25th, the bulk of the North Korean army had been destroyed and pushed back into its own territory. The coalition was marching toward the border with China at the Yalu River and the situation seemed to have been totally reversed.
The sudden appearance of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force (CPVF) under experienced General Peng Dehuai on October 19th marked another turning point. During the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River from November 25th to December 2nd, the lead units of the UN suffered serious losses and the advance into North Korea was halted. At the same time, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir from November 26th to December 13th ended the UN force’s expectation of total victory, including the capture of the North and the reunification of the peninsula.
On January 4th, 1951 Chinese and North Korean forces recaptured Seoul, but on March 14th, the metropolis changed hands for the fourth time. MacArthur was relieved of command on April 11th for insubordination and his unwillingness to prosecute a limited war. He is succeeded as UN commander by General Matthew Ridgeway.
Vastly outnumbered, he still managed to check another Chinese advance on Seoul at the Battles of Kapyong and the Imjin River from April 22nd to April 25th. The sacrifice made by Canadian and British soldiers allowed the UN forces to finally consolidate their lines around the South Korean capital.
Unexpectedly, on June 23rd Jacob Malik, chief Soviet UN delegate, proposed a cease-fire. On July 10th truce talks began at Kaesong, the only city to change control from South Korea to North Korea as a result of the war. On October 25th negotiations were moved to the small village of Panmunjom, where both sides on November 27th agreed that the existing battle lines would be the new dividing line if a truce was reached in 30 days.
However, at the beginning of 1952 it came to a long deadlock over voluntary repatriation, followed by an adjournment on October 8th of that year. After the stalled talks eventually resumed on April 26th, 1953 that last remaining issue was solved.
On July 27th, 1953 Kim Il-Sung for the North Koreans, Peng Dehuai for the Chinese and Mark W. Clark for the UN signed an armistice, which Syngman Rhee accepted, but refused to ink for the South Koreans. However, hostilities ceased within 12 hours. In a newly created demilitarized zone (DMZ) each side remained located roughly 2,200 square meters from a center point and carried out patrols at all times.
President Truman said that in case that the US let Korea down, the Soviets would swallow up one place after another. The fight on the Korean peninsula symbolized the global struggle between East and West during the Cold War. For MacArthur, in the Korean War there was no substitute for victory against communism itself.
At least 2680 UN soldiers from 13 member states were killed in action. Thousands were wounded or went missing. Almost 37,000 Americans didn’t return home. Regarding Asian losses, numbers vary significantly for all three countries involved: South Korea (850,000-1,200,000 military personnel and civilians), North Korea (520,000-1,000,000 military personnel and civilians) and China (220,000-600,000 troops).