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Korean War Key Debates

Read some of our debate questions to help get some inspiration for your own work.

Why did the Korean War break out?

Kim Il Sung frequently claimed that the Korean War broke out because the South attacked the North at Haeju in June 1950. However, there is little evidence to support this and even if there were, it would do little to justify the DPRK’s full scale invasion across the 38th parallel in the same month. North Korean aggression is an obvious cause of the conflict but its roots are more complex. Korea was scarred by decades of colonial oppression at the hands of the Japanese and when they withdrew in 1945, they left a volatile and divided nation in their wake. Both superpowers were determined that Korea should not become an ideological and economic ally of the other and this led to the divide along the 38th parallel because neither the USSR or the USA would trust the other to oversee Korea’s transition to independence. Although it was Kim Il Sung who ordered the opening of hostilities in 1950, his aims were ironically similar to those of Syngman Rhee; both leaders were discontent with the supposedly temporary divide that had been created after WW2 and both wished to reunite the country under their own style of government. By facilitating the creation of two diametrically opposed regimes, America and the Soviet Union must bear some responsibility for what followed, particularly because Stalin gave Kim the green light for the invasion to occur. Nevertheless, the conflict was essentially a civil one, fought between two indigenous leaders with a very different vision of the country’s future.

Why did the US intervene in the Korean War?

Within two days of the northern invasion, the US were pressing the UN for intervention and offering to provide the vast majority of troops. Their willingness to get involved can be understood on a number of levels and there were strategic and domestic explanations operating alongside Truman’s determination to contain communism. The essence of communist ideology threatened the American way of life by challenging the need for international trade and abandoning democratic principles. If Kim Il Sung’s regime was able to dominate the whole of Korea, it would increase the vulnerability of US allies in the region, including Japan and Taiwan. It would also suggest that communist aggression would be tolerated, bolstering the confidence of both the USSR and China. Despite Dean Acheson claiming that Korea lay outside of the US’ planned defensive perimeter in Asia, there may well have been a desire to protect Rhee’s regime. The South Korean leader was by no means democratic but he spent his youth and early career in America and they had championed his bid for leadership as they withdrew in 1948. Domestically, Truman was under a great deal of pressure to appear tough on communism after he failed to prevent Mao’s triumph in China and as McCarthy’s supposed exposure of Soviet spies within the State Department caused alarm amongst the public. He also firmly believed in the monolithic (rigid) nature of communism and therefore perceived that the war was being directed from Moscow. It is possible that the rich resources of tin, tungsten and aluminium reserves further motivated the US President but this was unlikely to be decisive; more must have been at stake if so many US lives were to be risked.

What was the impact of Chinese involvement in the Korean War?

The People’s Republic of China had backed Kim Il Sung’s invasion plans prior to the war but they did not commit to sending troops until the conflict neared the Chinese border. The entry of Chinese fighters on October 25th 1950 had a dramatic impact on the conflict, firstly by turning the tide of UN progress through a resounding defeat at the Battle of Unsan (1st November 1950). Mao’s decision also encouraged the Soviets to become more heavily involved as the USSR began to provide air cover for Chinese and North Korean fighters. Undoubtedly, Chinese involvement prolonged the conflict because by the spring of 1951, it was evident that neither force was strong enough to defeat the other and a stalemate developed. The potentially limitless supply of both UN and Chinese troops meant it was difficult to see how this stalemate could be broken and so Chinese involvement perhaps also encouraged both the Koreans and the UN to enter into peace negotiations. It seems likely that the UN efforts beyond the 38th parallel would have succeeded if the North Koreans had faced the assault alone and so Chinese involvement was crucial to the survival of Kim Il Sung’s regime and also the subsequent reinstatement of the 38th parallel itself. For China itself, the consequences of involvement were mixed. 150,000 soldiers were killed and the conflict caused significant financial strain. However, the Chinese proved their loyalty to communist allies and also demonstrated their strength to the world, raising their prestige

Who were the main winners and losers of the Korean War?

Ultimately, the Korean War was a conflict without winners. Neither Kim Il Sung nor Syngman Rhee were content with the reinstatement of the 38th parallel but both knew it was preferable to having lost the conflict altogether. To some extent, the willingness of both the UN and the Chinese to intervene to support their respective allies offered both Korean nations some level of protection by acting as a deterrence against future attack. Although there have been skirmishes and threats, the Korean people have experienced relative peace in the years since the 1953 armistice, suggesting some gains from the war. However, the Korean people suffered greatly during the three years of fighting, with approximately 140,000 South Korean soldiers dead and at least twice that for the North. In addition to this, 2.5million civilians lost their lives, predominantly in the North. Regardless of which side of the border they were on, the war did little to bring political freedom to the country, with both regimes being led by dictators who relied on force to maintain their position. For the US, the war achieved containment but not rollback, and their decision to cross the 38th parallel appeared to make the latter their aim. It also led to 36,534 US deaths and contributed to the losses the Democrats suffered in the 1952 election. However, intervention not only dissuaded Kim Il Sung from further invasion but also offered some level of security to other allies in the region, including Japan and Taiwan. For China, the extensive loss of life has to be balanced against the extent to which they proved their military abilities and potential role on the world stage.