Despite a brief 61 years
on the world stage, North Korea has constantly posed a challenge to U.S. policy
makers as the small communist country struggles to define its global position.
the Allied victory in World War II, the victorious powers decided to split Korea
in half, giving the Soviet Union control north of the peninsula's 38th parallel
while a United States military administration governed the south.
North, Soviet-backed leader Kim Il Sung established a Stalinist regime based solidly
in the communist tradition. His North Korean People's Army was well equipped with
Soviet military tanks and weapons. Meanwhile, U.S. generals backed a staunch anticommunist
leader, Syngman Rhee, as South Korea's first president. Following the two superpowers'
division of the peninsula, there was palpable tension between the two Koreas.
The Korean War
On June 25, 1950, the
North Korean Army invaded the South with the aid of Soviet military advisers and
supplies ostensibly to reunify the peninsula under Kim's communist regime.
Advancing quickly against ill-equipped South Korea, the North Korean forces
overran Seoul three days into the invasion. In response, the United States called
on the United Nations to name the North as aggressors and authorize an international
military response in the South's defense.
The U.N. Security Council condemned
the North's attack, and a U.S.-led international defense force was dispatched
to defend South Korea. As the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council
at the time, they could not veto the decision that would affect its long-time
troops in the region were quickly deployed to repel the North Korean incursion,
but had limited success fighting the better-prepared communist army. U.N. and
U.S. forces were forced to retreat to the southern part of the peninsula to regroup.
U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and a larger U.S.-led international military
coalition conducted a daring amphibious assault at the port of Inchon, near Seoul,
on September 15, 1950.
In the well-planned counterattack, U.S. forces cut
off communications and supplies to the North's forces just below the 38th parallel,
barricading North Korean troops inside South Korean territory.
U.S. forces already positioned in the southern region of Pusan launched a new
assault on the North. Overwhelmed and cut off from reinforcements, North Korea's
troops relinquished control of Seoul to U.N. forces on September 26.
recapturing the South, U.N. forces pursued the North's retreating troops across
the 38th parallel. The joint forces, under General MacArthur, captured Pyongyang
in mid-October and advanced north, toward the China border.
repeatedly warned they rejected the presence of U.N. troops in North Korea, saying
they would launch their own offensive if the incursion continued. U.S.-led forces
continued to advance.
300,000 Chinese forces were amassed at the border to stave off further advance
and defend North Korea. Media accounts from the time said General MacArthur wanted
to attack bases in China, but U.S. President Harry Truman, fearing the start of
World War III, ordered him not to continue.
Finally in November, Chinese
forces crossed the border and overwhelmed the American-led troops. Aided by Chinese
"volunteer" soldiers, the North retook Pyongyang on December 6, 1950.
But soon after, the war slowed to a stalemate. Some two-and-a-half years later,
all sides reached an armistice in July of 1953.
By the time the armistice
was signed, some four million Korean soldiers and civilians had been killed. Although
there are conflicting reports on the number of casualties, Korean specialist and
historian Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago estimates the North lost
around 2.5 million people, and the South endured the loss of up to 1.5 million
soldiers and civilians. Cumings estimates that up to 70 percent of civilians were
among the war dead.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense's recently
revised figures, between 33,000 and 37,000 American soldiers lost their lives
during the Korean War. Other U.N. casualties were estimated at more than 15,000,
while Chinese casualties totaled more than one million, Cumings said.
the end of the war, the U.S. levied economic sanctions against North Korea, a
move that would have long-term effects on the North's economy and its ability
to trade in the world market.