Ronan Thomas: Korean War ... A Conflict That Won't End

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent. He was based in Seoul during the 1990s.]

"It was the cold, the intense cold, that's what I remember. At the time we really felt we had been forgotten". Interviewed in London's National Army Museum, a septuagenarian British army veteran both smiles and winces at the memory of his military service in Korea.

June marks 60 years since the start of The Korean War of 1950-1953, a bitterly-contested conflict inspired by intense Cold War geo-strategic rivalry and competing West/East ideologies. The history is well known yet has daily relevance for North Asia's regional military, foreign policy and societal discourse. Visceral North-South Korean enmities persist, left from a conflict which ended in stalemate. Just last week, an international report concluded that North Korea sank the South Korean gunboat

Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 of her crew. Pyongyang disputes this and is now rattling its own sabres.

The Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950 after North Korea launched a surprise invasion of president Syngman Rhee's South Korea. Multi-national forces from 16 countries of the United Nations, led by the United States, were soon drawn in. Within months, the fighting sucked in the North's communist allies, the People's Republic of China and - by proxy - the Soviet Union. Over the next 37 months, an estimated three million soldiers and civilians died. Korea was devastated; many Korean families were separated forever.

Korea was a conflict which witnessed many diplomatic and military "firsts". It was the first - perhaps last but only thus far - instance when the United Nations was united both diplomatically and as an active military actor. In itself this was largely a happy coincidence - the Soviet Union having temporarily walked out of the UN weeks earlier.

The war subsequently fought against North Korea and China was a truly international affair: on the UN side, 40% of combatants were South Korean (ROK), 50% American and 10% other, including forces from the British Commonwealth, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Thailand and Turkey.

The US committed a staggering 5.7 million military personnel, with 1.3 million army soldiers in the field. Militarily, the war was a strange hybrid. Proven World War II technology - massed artillery, tanks, battleships, aircraft carriers and propeller-driven aircraft coexisted with the weapons of the new Cold War future.
Like dragonflies, US Army helicopters began to hover over a battlefield in significant numbers, presaging their later crucial role in Vietnam. The latest F-86 Sabre jet fighters of the US 5th Tactical Air Force flew combat missions from South Korean air bases such as Kimpo - today Seoul's international airport. These dueled over the Yalu River for air supremacy with equally iconic MIG-15 fighters flown by communist Chinese, North Korean and Russian pilots.

Infra-red night sights and napalm bombs dropped in support of infantry were also military innovations first developed and applied in Korea. For three years a land war of six distinct phases, offensive and counter offensive, was fought across the 38th Parallel for command of Korea's notoriously rugged terrain (steep hills, flooded rice fields and narrow valleys). In searing heat and numbing cold, infantrymen on both sides bore their traditional burdens variously with personal stoicism, heroism, fear and resentment.

In Korea, UN forces fought the North Koreans and Chinese in several famous battles. For the British these included Gloster Hill (Hill 235) near the Imjin River in 1951 and the Battle of the Hook in 1953. For the US it was the Chosin Reservoir and the dogged defense of the southern Pusan Perimeter, both in 1950. For British Commonwealth and US forces combined it was their stunningly successful amphibious landings at Inchon in September 1950 on Korea's west coast.

Korea was also a war drenched in competing propaganda initiatives, with the Western democracies and international communism locked in deadly opposition. UN prisoners of war were subjected to appalling privations and relentless communist "re-education" by North Korean and Chinese captors. North and South, the divided Korean people suffered dreadfully as refugees, military casualties and participants alike. In the south, the capital Seoul was devastated, exchanging hands four times in just nine months during 1950-1951.

At several points during the war the fighting threatened to escalate in something even more dangerous. The United States under the leadership of presidents Harry S Truman in 1950 and Dwight D Eisenhower from 1953 - advised from 1950-1951 by General Douglas MacArthur and the hawkish US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles from 1953 - seriously entertained the prospect of using nuclear weapons to roll back a fanatical and determined Chinese enemy.

Most famously, Korea is the war that never officially ended. No formal peace treaty has ever been signed. An armistice line bisecting the 38th Parallel - The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ - was agreed in July 1953. It remains the most heavily militarized land border in the world. At sea - as witnessed by the sinking of the Cheonan - South Korean and North Korean vessels continue to contest aggressively disputed in-shore maritime borders...

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