An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World

Stephanie Schoppert - April 19, 2017

The Korean War began when North Korea invaded South Korea with the intention of taking over the country. Over the course of the war the United States, Soviet Union, and China would enter into the war on opposite sides. Both sides suffered millions of casualties, including many civilians. To this day, the Korean War continues to have lasting repercussions for all of the countries involved and for the security of the international community.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
United Nations forces cross the 38th parallel while withdrawing from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. They later recrossed the 38th parallel. Corbis

The 38th Parallel is Still as Important as It Ever Was

The 38th parallel was the line chosen by U.S. military planners in 1945 as part of the Potsdam Conference. The line was created to divide the lines of Soviet and U.S. influence. North of the 38th parallel the Soviet Union was to accept Japanese surrender and South of the 38th parallel the United States was to accept the surrender.

In 1948 the line was used to mark the political boundary between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Both countries tacitly accept the line while at the same time claiming to be the rightful government of all Korea. On June 25, 1950, the question of the rightful leader of all Korea would come into question when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel.

The invasion sparked outcry as the United Nations passed a resolution against the North Korean aggression. United Nations troops (consisting of mostly Americans) came to the aid of South Korea. The war lasted until 1953 when it was ended by an armistice. The armistice established a new border that was based upon the amount of territory that was held by each side.

Today the border between North and South Korea is still often referred to as the 38th parallel. However, that is no longer accurate. The Military Demarcation Line is surrounded by the Demilitarized Zone. The Demilitarized Zone does cross the 38th parallel but the new border is in a different place.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
Soldiers during the Korean War.

Everyone Has a Different Name for the War

The Korean War goes by a number of different names, which vary based on which country is telling the history of the war. The name for the war that is most often referenced is the Korean War, largely because that is the term given by the United States and the United Nations. In the United States, some refer to it as the Forgotten War largely because it is the one that often gets overlooked and the one that some might not be too eager to remember.

In North Korea, the war has a very different name. They refer to the war as the Fatherland Liberation War. The name stems from the North Korean belief that all of Korea belongs as one country and that it should be under the control of the North Korean government. Therefore, the war was an attempt to liberate and unify the fatherland.

For the South Koreans, the war has a few different names. It can sometimes be referred to as the Korean War, but otherwise it is mainly known as Six-Two-Five. The name for the war comes from the day it started.

China refers to the military action in Korea as the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. The Chinese continue to have a substantial influence on North Korea and the two countries have a strong alliance that continues to resist U.S. influence.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
NSA Seal.

The NSA Has its Roots In the Korean War

When they put up a new communications grid and encryption methodology, the new communications by the Soviets were transmitted by cable which cut off nearly all the radio interceptions, and what little was left was no longer able to be deciphered. In response to the changing security need, the Secretary of Defense created the Armed Forces Security Agency.

AFSA was not well implemented and was rife with institutional dysfunction. Therefore, it was not effective against the Soviets. Luckily, AFSA would prove to be very useful during the Korean War. AFSA might not have been able to intercept the Soviets but they could intercept the high-level North Korean broadcasts. The North Koreans were broadcasting all of their military operations in plaintext, with absolutely no encryption.

It was not long before the North Koreans caught on to the fact that their sensitive communications were being intercepted and they quickly developed new ciphers. The problems within the AFSA continued as they were unable to centralize communications intelligence and they failed to coordinate with civilian agencies that had similar interests.

Because AFSA needed to be successful not only for success in Korea but against the Soviets, a panel was called to investigate how the AFSA failed. The results of panel led to numerous improvements and even a redesign of the entire organization. It was then the that the AFSA officially became the National Security Agency which still operates to this day. Some would say that the NSA has become more powerful than ever and better than anyone ever thought possible at monitoring enemies of the state.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
Signing of the Armistice.

The War Never Ended

For most people the Korean War begins in 1950 and ends in 1953. The truth is much more complicated. In 1953, North Korea, South Korea, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States (acting as representatives of the United Nations Command) signed a temporary cease-fire agreement. As part of the agreement it was promised that a peace treaty would be signed. To this day that peace treaty has yet to be signed.

The failure to sign a peace treaty might not seem like a big deal when the major players in the war have pulled out and the ceasefire still stands. But without a peace treaty both sides remain at war and that gives the governments of North and South Korea more power in controlling their people. To this day there are families torn apart by a border that they cannot cross and people in North Korea find themselves prisoners in their own country.

The fact that the two sides are still at war gives Kim Jong-un the excuse and the power to continue to divert massive amounts of resource toward building up the country’s military. The North Korean government has even admitted that the war has forced them to divert mass amounts of human and material resources toward building up the armed forces rather than on economic development.

Life is different in South Korea, where there is development and relative stability. There has been political turmoil in the country as of late but most people remain optimistic. Even as their closest neighbor makes threats and shows of force, the people of South Korea go about their daily lives with little fear of North Korea. For them it has been 60 years of saber rattling by the North Koreans and there has been no war to show for it.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
US Air Force B-29 Superfortresses dropping bombs on Korea.

The U.S. Dropped More Bombs on Korea than in the Entire Pacific During WWII

The United States was willing to unleash the fury of their entire military on North Korea in order to win the war. That included an enormous number of bombs. Over the course of the war 635,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the 45,541 square miles of North Korean territory. By contrast, 504,000 tons were dropped by the United States during the entire Pacific Theater of WWII.

The bombings devastated the country, and even without the resources currently devoted to the military, it would have been a massive blow to overcome. Estimates put the death toll from the bombs at 12 to 15% percent of the population of the country. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, put the death toll even higher, at 20%.

But it was not just the loss of life that devastated the country. Entire cities were bombed to the ground and napalm was used on villages and towns. When it became harder to find suitable urban targets, the bombings turned to hydroelectric and irrigation dams in order to flood the farmlands and destroy what crops the North Koreans had. This was coupled with bad weather that nearly collapsed the entire economy of the country after the war.

The bombing and the subsequent devastation left by the United States during the war continues to fuel the hatred and animosity of the North Koreans today. They blame the United States for their current struggles and for the millions of lives that were lost in the war. It is estimated that half of all deaths during the Korean War were civilians.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
Sergei Kondrashev.

The War Might Have Started with a U.S. Army Sergeant

Stalin had wanted to push a war in Korea but he did not want an all-out war with the West. He waited until the United States had completely pulled out of South Korea before considering a move in Korea. Stalin also wanted to be sure that the Chinese would be willing to come to the aid of Korea if war happened.

The tide of the war supposedly changed when the KGB got hold of an American code-breaker who was working in the U.S. Embassy. Sgt. James “Mac” MacMillan was a U.S. Army code clerk at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and the KGB learned that he had started dating a Soviet woman. KGB agent Sergei Kondrashev was given the assignment of convincing MacMillan to tell the KGB everything he knew.

MacMillan was pretty easy to turn. Just a few weeks after meeting with Kondrashev, he defected to the USSR in return for an apartment and money to start a new life with this Soviet girlfriend. But he knew very little about codes and wasn’t helpful, except in helping the Soviets identify which people leaving the embassy were code clerks. Once they knew who to look for, the KGB was able to locate and turn “Jack,” a code clerk who gave them the information they needed to create their own American code machine in 1949.

With the newfound ability to read American communications, Stalin believed he had found a way to advance his own goals while avoiding all out confrontation with the United States. From what he intercepted about troop movements to Japan and the perceived lack of importance of Korea, he thought the Americans would not fight hard for the country. With that information, he finally gave North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung the support he had been asking for in order to invade South Korea.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
General Douglas MacArthur.

General MacArthur Was Fired For Escalating the War

When war broke out in Korea there was little question over who would be sent to help lead the charge. General Douglas MacArthur was skilled, battle hardened, and had proved himself in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The UN asked the American government to pick a leader for the United Nations Command in Korea, and the Joint Chiefs unanimously picked MacArthur.

At first, President Truman was willing to defer to MacArthur. The General planned an amphibious landing at Inchon which proved to be successful, allowing them to recapture Seoul. The initial success of MacArthur led to Truman awarding him his fifth Distinguished Service Cross in October 1950. It was during this meeting that Truman questioned MacArthur over concerns of the Chinese threat if they pushed too far into North Korea. MacArthur dismissed those fears.

By November 1950 there were rumors that the Chinese had entered the fighting, but MacArthur, after flying over the front lines, believed that there wasn’t a significant number of Chinese forces and decided to push forward. He was mistaken, as the Chinese troops were hiding during his flyover. On November 25, 1950, the Chinese Army attacked and the UN forces were forced to retreat.

When MacArthur regained the upper hand, Truman saw an opportunity to negotiate a peace settlement. However, MacArthur called China and urged them to admit defeat. He also wrote a letter to the House of Representatives detailing the need for all-out victory in Korea. Truman then relieved MacArthur of duty in Korea. Truman would later say that he fired MacArthur for refusing to “respect the authority of the President” and that he would have fired him “for being a dumb son of a bitch” but that that was not against the law for Generals.

An Uncertain Future: 8 Facts About the Korean War and its Continuing Impact on the World
North Korean forces performing drills.

North Korea Built One of the Largest Militaries in the World

North Korea never stops funneling money into its military, no matter how much their people suffer because of it. There are no public records that reveal how much money the North Korean government spends on the military, but the state claims it is 15.8%. Many believe that this is far below the actual number and put the real percentage of military spending in the government budget at 25% to 38%.

Military training is mandatory for all men in North Korea and there are anywhere from 1.5 million to 6 million men ready to fight at a moment’s notice. All men in the country are required to serve ten years in the armed forces once they turn 18. The age used to be 13, but it was recently raised. Women are also forced to take part in military service once they turn 18, but they are only forced to remain until they turn 23.

But it is not just manpower that the North Korean military has in large supply. They also have the same number of submarines as the United States military, which spends more money on its military force than any other nation in the world. Current estimates of the strength of their military credit the North Korean army with 4,100 tanks, 6,500 artillery guns, 1,000 planes, and over 2,000 rocket launchers. Most of the equipment is old, poorly maintained, and does not have the required fuel to function, but it is still unheard for a small country to have such a large military arsenal.

The North Korean army is shrouded in secrecy, but what is known is startling. There is a chemical weapons division, but no one knows what weapons the unit may or not may not have, or what it may be trying to develop. North Korea also continuously threatens that they have advanced nuclear weapons, even going as far as to display nuclear suicide bombers. Though the backpacks emblazoned with the nuclear symbol appear frightening, most believe that North Korea is not capable of such technology.