Real History, The Korean War: Civil War or International Act of Aggression

IanHunter N. Thorpe

The Korean War: Civil War or International Act of Aggression

The outbreak of the Korean War came at an interesting time in world history. The world was at a point of great optimism for the future. The United States with the aid of its allies from the Second World War had undertaken the task of creating a new world. The destruction of the Axis powers brought a great chance to change the world into a less violent and less chaotic place. The Soviet Union had started down the path of creating barrier states between itself and the West. The invasion of South Korea by the Soviet backed north had been seen as just an extension of their satellite state policy.[1] There was also an agreement among the American intelligence community that any action of North Korea would be a Soviet backed action.[2] President Truman ordered that the United States support the southern Republic of Korea against the northern aggressor.

The Long telegram sent in 1946 had helped cement the idea of containment for the expansion of communism. The Long telegram was one of the biggest influences American foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. The telegram stated that the Soviet dictatorship in order for it to exist had to believe that the outside world was hostile.[3] Truman at the time of the Korean War had set forth his doctrine against the spread of communism. The Truman doctrine had become a reality in 1947, when the United States sent aid to the Greek government that was beset in a civil war against communist guerillas. Many of Truman’s advisors agreed with the assessment that the Korean War was just an attempt by the Soviet Union to expand its influence.[4]

There was only one among the White House staff that disagreed with the idea that the conflict was an international act of aggression and more a civil conflict.[5] The Soviet Union had tactically misread what The United States would do in response. The Soviets were expecting the United States to treat the Korean problem as an internal civil conflict.[6] The growing conflict in Korea had been aided along by the lack of interest in the country before the outbreak of the war.

The Korean peninsula had a long history of being an independent nation until the Japanese forced the treaty of Shimonoseki onto China in 1895. The treaty forced a break between Korea and China that ended a relationship that had been in place for 1,000 years. Korea became a puppet state of the Japanese, which much of the world held little interest in, with the exception of China and the now encroaching Russians from Manchuria. The later war between Japan and Russia resulted in the complete dominance of the region under Japanese rule. The Treaty of Portsmouth insured that the Japanese would have full authority over the Korean peninsula. The Portsmouth treaty also demonstrated a general disinterest by the United States towards Korea.[7]

Later during the Second World War the United States along with other allied powers stated with the Cairo declaration of 1943, that Korea should be a unified state. Stalin at the Tehran had even agreed that Korea should be a unified state after the conflict was over. When the Soviet Union did declare war on the Japanese in 1945, they were quick to capture positions in Manchuria and then advanced into Korea. The Soviet forces were very quick to capture parts of the peninsula. They established an occupation zone along the 38th parallel.[8] Every line of access to the Northern half of the Korean peninsula was cut off by the soviets. The 38th parallel became an established political and military boarder all the way back in 1945. The Koreans at that point sat divided along the 38th parallel with Soviet forces occupying the north, and the Southern half of the country being administered by American forces.

The divided Korean peninsula became a captive member of the Cold War standoff that was brewing between the United States and the Soviet Union. There were a number of times when Korea could have been reunified but the United States and the Soviet Union would not take steps to make it possible. Both powers refused to give up their positions in the country for the fear of giving a singular power the ability to dominate a unified Korea.[9] The resulting division left it impossible to reunify Korea by political means. The resulting proxy backing of both the North and South led to a nationalistic campaign for unification. Leaders in both the South and North were left with the only one alternative, a military campaign for unification.

The outbreak of hostilities between North and South Korea were not entirely unforeseen. In 1942, President Roosevelt had sought to undertake a policy that would avoid conflict on the peninsula. The peninsula of Korea had been a boiling point between Eastern powers for centuries and it would be no different after the end of the Second World War. [10] The Korean peninsula was never in any position to gain full independence after the Second World War. Instead the country was going to be given a Trusteeship that would help them govern themselves and slowly gain independence. The United States took up this position because it believed that many among the Korean population could not even remember a time when they had self rule. The United States understood that other regional powers would have a vested interest in the future of Korea. China and the Soviet Union had considerable interest in the future of the peninsula. Roosevelt had hoped that the Trusteeship would allow for all the powers to come to a multilateral agreement about the future of the peninsula. The Cairo Conference led to the declaration of the destruction of the Japanese Empire and set forth the objective of establishing a unified Korea. A Korea that was not self administered.[11]

At the Yalta Conference the post war plans for Korea were of a high priority. President Roosevelt discussed with Stalin about a post war four-power trusteeship of Korea that would last about twenty to thirty years. Stalin wanted it to be over as soon as possible and both Roosevelt and Stalin agreed that there would be no post war military occupation of the Korean peninsula. However the allies never thought that the Japanese would fall so quickly after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The full details of the Trusteeship had never been completely discussed. When the soviets took a number of strategic positions in Europe many American military leaders became uneasy about future agreements with the Soviet Union. The death of President Roosevelt ended any chance for the Trusteeship in Korea.

The resulting joint occupation of Korea failed to meet with the prior agreements. The country was caught in a deadlock between the two powers. The United States and Soviet Union would not give up their positions. The United States had for a brief period wanted to pull out of Korea but once Winston Churchill gave his iron curtain speech the conditions were being set for a serious stand off on the peninsula. The Soviets started to view their position in Korea as a defense precaution against what they considered imperialist aggression. To the United States the situation became a matter of maintaining prestige against the soviets. The American policy of containment had spread from Europe and it was going to be used in Korea to stop the spread of what was called Stalinization.

However the United States and Soviet Union did attempt to hand the matter over to the United Nations. The U.N made an effort to hold elections in the country. The elections for unification were met with considerable turmoil south of the 38th parallel which led to unrest. The United States attempted to push forward elections with the expectation that the Soviets would have to honor them as legitimate. The soviets had made other plans however. The North Koreans had drafted their own constitution.[12] There were north south conferences held but it was clear that the northern state was a sham because of how much it paralleled the soviet system. In the south however the United States encountered considerable delays with starting the elections. The United States authorized the southern conservatives to use violence against any opposition.[13]

The conservative campaign against the leftist political groups in the south was successful and they won control. The conservatives elected in the south were chosen because of their anti soviet stance. The break down of the general elections led to a force build up in both the North and South. Without the direct support of foreign powers the conflict between the north and south would never have been possible. The Soviets created a traditional satellite state that was armed and equipped by the soviets.[14] The Americans had left a 500 man training squad in the south to conduct some training.

What no one could predict in the late 1940s was how either side would react to an aggressive action like crossing an international boundary with the purpose of military unification. The world of 1949, was demonstrating yet another sweeping change. The Soviet Union had demonstrated openly hostile actions, like blocking supplies from getting into Berlin.[15] The fall of mainland China to communist forces defiantly showed a changing political climate in East Asia.[16] There was no doubt that Kim Il-sung would get the blessing to invade South Korea. What the communists completely underestimated was the level of the United States reaction.[17]

NSC-68 was a National Security Council report that brought up the idea of significant military spending in peace time to try and detour any Soviet aggression. Truman after World War II was attempting to curb military spending so NSC-68 was not entirely adopted. It was not until after the North Koreans invaded South Korea that NSC-68 became a crucial part of American Foreign policy. [18]

The United States had done little to aid South Korea in terms of deterring the North Koreans. The South Korean military never received the same level of supplies the North Koreans did from the soviets. The Americans in effect had painted a picture that they were not strongly attached to maintain a serious foot hold in South Korea. The Americans had really no way of supplying the south in the event of a northern invasion. The only troops that the United States could send were the occupation troops from Japan. The U.S occupation soldiers were poorly trained and equipped. The United States also lacked the majority of the logistical forces required to support an action into Korea. The United States was supposed to give serious aid packages to South Korea but the expense had been continually brought down by congress. The United States did finally send a military aid package of $10 million dollars to help detour any North Korean attack. The United States for the most part did not manage to take the growing threat in the north seriously. The United States was continually getting reports that North Korean army was considerably larger than that of the South’s yet it did very little to prevent what was coming.

Kim Il-sung thought that United States involvement in the conflict was unlikely. The North Korean leader had predicted that his forces would over run the country before the United States would have the chance to intervene. The United States military had started to consider South Korea as a region with little value. As a result the United States was starting to lose interest in defending the East Asian country even though all the signs were pointed to a northern invasion.[19]

Despite the undermanned and ill-equipped forces in the south, the South Koreans were actually launching small boarder raids against northern positions. The southern president Rhee actually asked the United States for aid but he was given small amounts because the United States feared that his actions would actually instigate a northern invasion. To many in Korea the conflict was going to be brought about by either the North or the South it was just a matter of time.

The United Nations was created by the United States in the hopes that such an organization could bring about a more stable world. The idea of creating a New World Order after the fall of the Axis powers to the Allies. The United Nations also included the IMF a World Bank organization that would allow for a globally regulated economy dominated by American currency. The Korean conflict represented the first test of the United Nations. The Korean War was an internal conflict that that was viewed by many in the West as an international act of aggression.

The issue in Korea became a debate of collective security. Rather than taking complete charge The United States made the matter one for the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council was very quick to condemn the North Koreans as the aggressors. The United Nations followed up with urging its members to rally behind South Korea. That moment was an entirely new event in political history, which led to more of a kind of voluntarism. The fate of collective security would depend entirely on the willingness of a state to enact their duties as members of the United Nations.

Ultimately collective security failed because there were no cement goals in dealing with the Korean conflict. The war started with the expectation of expelling the invader from the south but then it became a full fledged conquest of the north. However once the Chinese entered the conflict any hope of conquering the north disappeared and a three year stalemate was brought about in its place. Korea could be looked at as a success if only the initial objective of expelling the invaders from the south was examined. The United States was the leader in Korea. They in some ways were looked at as being a few steps ahead of the United Nations in that the U.S went to Korea and then brought the U.N. along with it. The United States was judged to be taking unilateral action in Korea and that undermined the idea of it being a multilateral operation.[20]

The United States decision to enter Korea came about because of overlapping American doctrine that came about to oppose the expansion of communism. Korea occurred around a changing time in global politics that turned the internal struggle of a nation into an international event. The conflict would have never been possible at the scale it was if there had not been international interest in the peninsula. The soviets saw it as an opportunity to add one more communist state to its sphere of influence where the United States saw it as something that would make them appear weak if they did not counter act such an action.







Acheson, Dean. The Korean War. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1971.

Berger, Carl. The Korea Knot: A Military-PoliticalHitory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968.

Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Collins, Lawton J. War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969.

Foot, Rosemary. The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953. London: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. New York: Penguin Books Press, 2005.

Joyce, Robert P. “Policy Planning Staff to the Deputy under Secretary of State (Matthews).” Memorandum, December 31, 1952. (FRUS)

Kennan, George F. “The Soviet Union and the Atlantic Pact” Foreign Service Dispatch 116, September 8, 1952. (Independent institute at The George Washington University)

Meador, Daniel J. The Korean War in Retrospect. New York: University Press of America, 1998.


[1] Lawton Collins, War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1969), 4.

[2] Robert P. Joyce, “Policy Planning Staff to the Deputy under Secretary of State (Matthews).” Memorandum, December 31, 1952. (FRUS)

[3] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War (New York: Penguin Books Press, 2005), 29.

[4] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 3.

[5] Ibid,.4.

[6] George F. Kennan, “The Soviet Union and the Atlantic Pact” Foreign Service Dispatch 116, September 8, 1952. (Independent institute at The George Washington University)

[7] Carl Berger, The Korean Knot: A Military-Political History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 1967), 25.

[8]Lawton Collins, War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1969), 4.

[9] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 5.

[10] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 6.

[11] Ibid,, 8.

[12] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 26.

[13] Ibid,. 28.

[14] Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 424.

[15] Dean Acheson, The Korean War (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1971), 11.

[16] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 55.

[17] George F. Kennan, “The Soviet Union and the Atlantic Pact” Foreign Service Dispatch 116, September 8, 1952. (Independent institute at The George Washington University)

[18] Rosemary Foot, The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean conflict, 1950-1953 (London: Cornell University Press,1985), 62.

[19] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 71.

[20] Daniel J. Meador, The Korean War in Retrospect (New York: University Press of America, 1998), 100.


Categories: Real History