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The Korean War Chronology

Get to know the key dates surrounding the Korean War by reading our timeline and hand picked essays.

Background to the conflict: 1894-1949

Prior to 1894, Korea was a Chinese tributary state with a significant degree of independence. During the 1st Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese were defeated and forced to make territorial concessions, including an acceptance of Japanese control of Korea. Japanese occupation was brutal and continued until the colonial power was itself defeated in WW2, after the American nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced them to surrender. They were stripped of their imperial concessions, including Korea, which became divided in two along the 38th parallel after it was occupied by Soviet troops in the North and US troops in the South. By 1950, power had been handed over to two indigenous leaders; the communist Kim Il Sung in the North and Syngman Rhee in the South. Neither could claim a popular mandate to rule but both frequently proclaimed their ambitions to unify the peninsular.

Key dates include:

1894 – Korea is occupied by Japan during the 1st Sino-Japanese War

1910 – Korea becomes a Japanese colony

August 1945 – Japan surrenders to end WW2 and Korea is occupied by US forces in the South and Russian in the North

May 1948 – Syngman Rhee is confirmed as leader of South Korea following a rigged election

September 1948 – The Democratic People’s Republic is proclaimed in North Korea

The Outbreak of War: June- October 1950

Despite the claims of communist historian I.F Stone, there is overwhelming evidence that the North was the initial aggressor in the Korean War. The conflict began when huge numbers of Kim Il Sung’s troops invaded the South, after the Northern leader had won approval for the attack from the Soviet leader, Stalin. The USA quickly pushed through a UN resolution to approve intervention and promised to provide ninety per cent of the required troops. Although the Soviets had the authority to veto the resolution, they were boycotting the UN owing to China’s exclusion and so no communist power was able to stop UN involvement. Initially, UN forces found themselves pushed back into the Pusan Perimeter and they were unable to halt the North Korean advance until amphibious landings at Inchon forced the North to find on two fronts and reversed the tide of their invasion. Rather than simply restoring the 38 th parallel, the UN then invited controversy by crossing the border and becoming the aggressors. This also brought them close to the Chinese border, prompting the deployment of 200,000 Chinese troops in support of their communist ally.

Key dates include:

25th June 1950 – North Korea cross the 38th parallel and invade South Korea

27th June 1950 – A UN resolution is passed to assist South Korea and restore international peace

29th June 1950 - General MacArthur begins to command UN troops

15th September 1950 – The Inchon Landings

29th September 1950 – The South Korean government is restored in Seoul

9th October 1950 – UN troops cross the 38th parallel into North Korea

25th October 1950 – Chinese troops begin operating in Korea

The Impact of Chinese Involvement: November 1950 – March 1951

China’s entrance into the war meant that the fortunes of both sides were reversed once more. By the end of November, the conflict had escalated as Chinese and North Korean troops fought to push UN forces back beyond the 38th parallel. Truman refused to rule out any course of action, including dropping atomic bombs on China (an option advocated by the Commander in Chief, General MacArthur). However, he ultimately refrained from ordering this, even though the Chinese had crossed into South Korea and retaken the capital from Syngman Rhee by early 1951. Despite this success, the communists found that their supply lines were overstretched and as conditions deteriorated in the harsh Korean winter, they were unable to maintain the momentum of their advance. This enabled the UN troops to counter-attack in Operation Thunderbolt and regain the capital as the spring brought more bearable conditions.

Key dates include:

30th November 1950 – Truman refuses to rule out the use of nuclear weapons on China

4th January 1951 – UN forces retreat; Seoul is evacuated

25th January 1951 – Operation Thunderbolt

5th March 1951 – UN forces retake Seoul

Stalemate: April 1951 – December 1952

By the spring of 1951, it had become apparent that neither side was strong enough to completely drive out the other and occupy the whole of the Korea. As a stalemate developed around the 38th parallel, the leadership of Douglas MacArthur became increasingly controversial as he openly criticised Truman’s restraint and once again ordered troops across the 38th parallel, this time without authorisation. Republican Joe Martin added fuel to the fire by publically reading a letter from MacArthur which openly criticised the president and Truman sacked the general, replacing him with Matthew Ridgeway. Peace talks began that summer but no agreement could be reached during Truman’s presidency, despite an acceptance that Korea would need to remain divided into North and South. The exact location of the border and the difficulty in agreeing on whether POW’s should be forced to return home stalled an agreement until the following year.

Key dates include:

5th April 1951 – General MacArthur is replaced by Matthew Ridgeway

May 1951 – Failed UN and Chinese offensives; stalemate develops

8th July 1951 – Peace talks begin at Kaesong

5th August 1952 - Syngman Rhee is re-elected leader of South Korea

4th November 1952 – Dwight Eisenhower wins the US election

The Road to Peace: January – July 1953

Two key changes in leadership in early 1953 made it easier for the Korean peace talks to bear fruit. Eisenhower had been elected on the bold claim that he would ‘Go to Korea’ and he was determined to end the conflict and bring US troops home as quickly as possible. The death of Stalin also assisted the negotiations because he had been keen for the conflict to continue and put regular pressure on both the North Koreans and the Chinese to avoid compromise with the West. However, the eventual armistice was not without controversy; South Korea refused to sign the agreement and although a ceasefire was agreed, it was never formalised into a peace treaty as had been intended. The 38th parallel continued to be the divide between the two Koreas, with a demilitarized zone on both sides. UN and Chinese forces were withdrawn but the tension was far from resolved; even to this day, the border between North and South Korea remains the most heavily guarded in the world.

Key dates include:

January 1953 – Eisenhower becomes president of the USA

March 1953 - Stalin dies

26th April 1953 – Peace talks resume at Panmunjom

27th July 1953 – The armistice is signed by the UN, Chinese and North Korea