Is it true that the catalyst was a conflict about a tree right on the border? I heard it from a teacher at a US university as he was teaching a course about nation-states in and out of war.
I think what your teacher may have been referring to is not the start of the Korean War in 1950, but the later axe murder incident, a serious border incident in 1976 which involved the deaths of two U.S. soldiers.
The tree that was the object of the 1976 axe murder incident (photo 1984). Deliberately left standing after 'Operation Paul Bunyan', the stump was later replaced by a monument in 1987…
The killings and the response three days later (Operation Paul Bunyan) heightened tensions between North and South Korea as well as their respective allies, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and the United States
Following KIMH's magisterial Korean War, republished in English by a US academic press:
The Korean War began when alternative anti-Japanese (or in the Southern case, some pro-Japanese) factions of Korean nationalists [and some socialists] fell out and aligned with the respective great powers occupying their country. Both groups of nationalists wished to reunify Korea, as did the groundswell of working class socialism in Korea at the time. The questions were: would Korea have a working class revolution, and if it didn't or if it was brutally put down, would Soviet or American aligned imperialist running dog lackeys dominate Korea in their own interests?
From the Southern Perspective, their alliance with the United States was problematic. The United States was willing to equip a 10 division defensive army. Additionally the South faced a guerilla and industrial campaign by socialist activists on the ground (aligned and allied with the North). Additionally the Southern clique was disunified and incompetent.
From the Northern perspective, their alliance with the Soviet Union was problematic. The North wanted 3 or more armoured divisions, heavy air support, etc. They got one (I believe, recall?) which was more sensible, but the Soviet Union did outfit them with an offensive infantry army of about 10 divisions. The North also did not have to contend with workers' uprisings because the ideology of the Korean Bolshevik factions allowed them to hegemonise workers' discontent and bend it to their will. Additionally the Northern clique was unified (despite 4 factions plus the working class) and competent.
While elections for reunification had been promised, it is not surprising that the United States stymied these. What is surprising is that the United States stymied the unification elections out of gross incompetence, this is different from the normal case of US manipulation of such situations in the Cold War. The United States normally had a much more unified foreign policy.
The North asked permission to go to war when the strategy of southern uprising had failed, yet seemingly believed that an uprising was imminent (and could take Seoul from the inside). Permission for the war was given at a higher level due to ongoing tensions.
I highly recommend the English edition of the Korean Institute of Military History's history-it has been revised since greater democracy came to the South and is not too unsympathetic to the North.
Arguably, the Korean War was started when the then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, drew a U.S. "defense perimeter" through the Sea of Japan, leaving South Korea outside it.
That may have caused North Korea's allies, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao Tse-tung's China, to give North Korea the "go ahead" to invade South Korea.
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.
Korean War, conflict between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in which at least 2.5 million persons lost their lives. The war reached international proportions in June 1950 when North Korea, supplied and advised by the Soviet Union, invaded the South. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal participant, joined the war on the side of the South Koreans, and the People’s Republic of China came to North Korea’s aid. After more than a million combat casualties had been suffered on both sides, the fighting ended in July 1953 with Korea still divided into two hostile states. Negotiations in 1954 produced no further agreement, and the front line has been accepted ever since as the de facto boundary between North and South Korea.
Why did the Korean War start?
After defeating Japan in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th parallel and U.S. forces occupied the south. Korea was intended to be reunited eventually, but the Soviets established a communist regime in their zone, while in 1947 the United Nations assumed control of the U.S. zone and sought to foster a democratic pan-Korean state. Amid partisan warfare in the south, the Republic of Korea was established in 1948. By 1950 the violence had convinced North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung that a war under Soviet auspices was necessary for reunification.
How was the United States involved in the Korean War?
Prior to Kim Il-Sung’s Soviet-backed invasion in 1950, the United States military was involved in rebuilding Korea south of the 38th parallel and training a standing South Korean army. When the United Nations Security Council called for member nations to defend South Korea, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur took charge of the United Nations Command. Thereafter, U.S. troops constituted the bulk of the UN’s expeditionary force in Korea.
How were China and the Soviet Union involved in the Korean War?
After the partition of the Korean Peninsula in 1945, the Soviet Union was instrumental in purging its zone of political dissidents and supporting the ruling communist party. The U.S.S.R. backed communist leader Kim Il-Sung’s 1950 invasion of South Korea. When the invasion was beaten back, China sent a formidable expeditionary force into Korea, first to drive the United Nations Command out of the north and then to unify the peninsula under communist control.
Was the Korean War technically a war?
The armed conflict in Korea, which began in 1950, lasted three years and claimed the lives of millions of Korean soldiers and civilians on both sides, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, and more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers. However, the United States never formally declared war on North Korea, China, or the Soviet Union. And, although the U.S. military led the United Nations’ expeditionary force, its involvement was tied only to a UN Security Council resolution, because the UN itself cannot declare war. Consequently, the conflict in Korea did not technically constitute a war.
How did the Korean War end?
On July 27, 1953, the United Nations Command reached an armistice with China and North Korea. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established along the 38th parallel, and, following controversial allegations that North Korea had abused and murdered prisoners of war (POWs), the process of repatriating POWs underwent “neutral nation” management. Critically, the terms of the armistice were tacitly approved but never formally signed on to by the South Korean government. Hence, peace between the North and the South remains fragile.
What started the Korean war? - History
When war broke out in Korea 44 years ago, the U.S. government accused North Korea of having committed "brutal, unprovoked aggression." The Truman Administration spread the word that it was convinced that this action had the prior approval of Moscow, and that this appeared to be Stalin's first post-World War II move in his plan for world conquest.
On the basis of this series of allegations the U.S. engaged North Korea and Communist China in a terrible three-year war, which the Truman-Acheson administration used as an opportunity to accomplish a number of major objectives having little to do with Korea, foremost being the long-term boost to the U.S. military budget and the military build-up of NATO.
As for the charge about North Korean aggression, it was based on no credible evidence, keeping in mind that North Korean troops being present in the South does not necessarily mean North Korean aggression. They may have entered there in reaction to a prior South Korean incursion into North Korea. The South may have done this for the purpose of provoking a North Korean counterattack and thus drawing the U.S. military into Korea so as to guarantee the South Korean regime's political survival. There is, in fact, much circumstantial evidence for precisely such provocation, as I will show presently.
But first let me refute the assertion by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, made three days after the outbreak of the war, that "all reliable witnesses on the scene at the time, including the United Nations Commission, have established that the North Korean forces were the aggressors."
The fact is that the U.N. Commission was not on the scene at the time. A two men observer team from the Commission was at the 38th parallel from June 9 to 23, 1950, leaving two days before the war broke out. Being one of America's foremost lawyers, Acheson obviously was aware of this important fact, yet he started the opposite in public.
Although there were 500 U.S. military advisers attached to South Korean units, some stationed near the parallel, most of these advisers were spending the weekend in Seoul. In fact, the only American near the front line that fateful morning was an Army captain, who woke up too late to witness any of the initial action, jumped into his jeep and drove southward to Kaesong, which the North Koreans had already reached then.
Others "on the scene at the time" were certain South Korean units, but they obviously were under strict orders to parrot the official line, and therefore were not "reliable witnesses."
Now some of the circumstantial evidence pointing to South Korean initiation of the war:
1. Syngman Rhee's government in Seoul was extremely unpopular and insecure, able to rule only by imposing upon South Korea "a cloud of terror that is probably unparalleled in the world," according to a New York Times reporter on March 6, 1950. Despite the terror, Rhee's party was dealt a disastrous defeat in the parliamentary election held four weeks before the war broke out. Rhee thus had a plausible motivation to start the war so as to create a totally new ball game.
2. Rhee had several times announced his ambition to "regain" North Korea, boasting in January 1950, for example, that "in the new year we shall strive as one man to regain the lost territory."
3. Rhee received encouragement from certain U.S. high officials, such as John Foster Dulles, who said in Seoul six days before the war broke out, "You are not alone. You will never be alone so long as you continue to play worthily your part in the great design of human freedom."
4. There had been a long pattern of South Korean incursion into North Korea. The official U.S. Army history of the American Military Advisory Group in Korea, referring to the more than 400 engagements that had taken place along the 38th parallel in the second half of 1949, reports that "some of the bloodiest engagements were caused by South Korean units securing and preparing defensive positions that were either astride or north of the 38th parallel. This provoked violent actions y North Korean actions."
5. South Korean troops were reported by the Seoul government as having captured Haeju, one mile north of the parallel, on June 26. While we can accept this as an acknowledgement of their troop incursion into the north of the 38th parallel, such acceptance does not require us to believe their report as to the timing. They may well have made the capture one day earlier, touching off the counterattack.
6. The two captured North Korean documents which allegedly prove that the North had started the war exist only in English, supposedly translated from the Korean original. Ostensibly titled "Reconnaissance Order No. 1" and "Operation Order No. 1," the original were never made public, nor have they subsequently ever been found.
7. Rhee made a self-incriminating statement when he said to U.S. News & World Report in August 1954, "We started this fight in the first place in the hope that Communist would be destroyed." Although the context of this statement was not explicitly military, certain American leaders knew enough about Rhee to understand what he meant, and indeed to be worried about his possible provocation of yet another Korean War.
Thus Dulles said in October 1953 to the National Security Council that "all our efforts" must be to forestall a resumption of war by Rhee, and admitted in 1957 to the same group, "If war were to start in Korea. it was gong to be very hard indeed to determine which side had began the war."
Although Acheson was not directly involved in encouraging Rhee to provoke the war, he was quick to seize the opportunity to blame the war on North Korea regardless of the evidence. He thus convinced President Truman not only to fight in Korea but to ask Congress to triple the military budget. Acheson and his men thus had ulterior motives.
Though the current controversy over inspection of North Korea's nuclear facilities is not likely to result in another Korean War (pray that I'm right), let us be alert to the likelihood that elements of the CIA and the Pentagon are again pursuing a hidden agenda.
The Forgotten Story of How the Korean War Started
The Korean War is variously estimated to have claimed between 1.2 and three million lives, most of them civilian. Who was responsible for this tragedy?
For Western nations, the answer is uncomplicated: North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, launched an unprovoked invasion of its southern neighbor in 1950.
An alternate history has been presented in Chinese textbooks, one in which the illegitimate lackeys of Western imperialists in the South attacked first, but China and the Soviet Union intervened to prevent an aggressive American invasion that threatened to sweep into China. The fact that a significant portion of North Korea’s population perished due to extensive U.S. bombing  has made some sympathetic to the suffering of the small nation.
Let’s assess the persuasiveness of these competing understandings of an admittedly complicated conflict. Korea was a formerly unified state that was occupied by Japan early in the twentieth century, then divided by the Soviet Union and United States  at the end of World War II under improvised circumstances. Was the government in North or South more authentic and legitimate, and thus justified in attempting to overthrow the other?
In truth, both governments had effectively been installed by their respective backers to the exclusion of ideologically inconvenient opponents. Opposing political factions were simply not permitted in the North in the South, there was a left-wing opposition, but its leaders were mostly arrested or assassinated.
The Korean Communist Party arguably may have had stronger grassroots support at the outset of decolonization on the other hand, the conservative administration in the South was elected by a UN-backed election in 1948. Both North and South were client states of global superpowers, but their respective autocrats were independent-minded enough that it would be wrong to call them puppets.
Who Had the Means and Intent to Start a War?
As the issue of legitimacy is inconclusive, consider the matter from another angle. Wars are sometimes sparked by over reactions and miscommunications𠅋ut more often, they happen because one side believes it has the means to overpower the other by force and decides to do so.
South Korea in 1950 had a population of over twenty million. Its president, Syngman Rhee, had spoken of his desire to reunify Korea by force and spurned offers of negotiation from the North. But a war requires more than just tough talk. It requires concrete plans to invade and an army capable of doing so.
The South Korean army numbered around a hundred thousand personnel on the eve of the Korean War, two-thirds of which are combat troops. They were equipped with surplus small arms and light vehicles given by the United States, and were receiving some training from a small American advisory group. A substantial number of these troops were engaged in a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against leftists that was winding to a close.
The Republic of Korea Army had no tanks, which are necessary for rapid offensive warfare. It had only a few battalions of 105-millimeter howitzers for artillery support. Its heaviest armored vehicles were a few dozen M8 Greyhound armored scout cars.
The ROK Air Force counted a single squadron of AT-6 Texan trainers and a dozen unarmed utility aircraft. It had no combat aircraft.
Now consider the North Korean side, which, at 9.6 million, had roughly half the population. However, the Korean People’s Army had more than twice the number of troops, at well over two hundred thousand, mostly concentrated on the border.
The KPA fielded over three hundred T-34/85 medium tanks, a capable design from late in World War II that was nearly impervious to the weak antitank weapons available to South Korea. Backing them up were two hundred artillery pieces, more than enough to smash South Korean border fortifications.
North Korea also had over a hundred Yak-9 fighters and Il-10 Shturmovik armored attack planes  in its air force. Though outdated compared to the new jets entering service, they were quite effective for attacking ground troops without air cover and air-defense weapons.
Tanks and warplanes do not magically materialize in a recently decolonized state, nor do they come cheap. They were given to North Korea by the Soviet Union. Similar offensive weapons were not sold or transferred to South Korea.
Like Synghman Rhee, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung also wished to reunify Korea. In March 1949, the former Red Army officer had traveled to Moscow to request the permission for an invasion of the South. However, Stalin thought it too risky, with too many American troops close at hand to intervene.
In April 1950, Kim secretly visited Moscow again. By then, the situation had changed. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb, Mao Zedong had secured his control of mainland China and U.S. forces in Asia were drawing down.
Stalin gave his blessing for an invasion, on the condition that the Chinese stand ready to back up North Korea if necessary. In addition to the heavy weapons, the Soviets also provided veteran officers to help plan the attack. Scholars disagree as to whether Stalin hoped Kim would prevail quickly, or if he was counting on drawing the United States into a lengthy conflict at the expense of its commitments to Europe, as he claimed in a letter that August.
Either way, it is clear which party had both the intent and means to start a war.
Did South Korean Forces Fire First?
At 4 a.m. on June 25, 1950, the North Korean military juggernaut surged into motion, beginning with a combined tank-infantry assault on the isolated Ongjin Peninsula. By June 28, it had already captured the South Korean capital of Seoul. The Republic of Korea Army crumpled before an onslaught it could not possibly contain, and fled south.
Curiously, North Korea claimed that South Korean opened fire first. This could be true in a narrow sense: North and South Korean troops had engaged in no fewer than four hundredborder clashes prior to the North Korean invasion. The skirmishes were initiated by both sides, and some even involved regimental formations.
One incident cited by North Korea was a South Korean propaganda report on the second day of the war, claiming that its troops had captured Haeju, a city in North Korea. Pyongyang claimed this could only have happened if South Korean troops had attacked first, inciting a counterattack.
However, a coordinated invasion is not an action that can be conjured up in response to a moment’s provocation. Suggesting that a specific skirmish, out of hundreds of similar incidents, somehow provoked and justified North Korea’s blitzkrieg is disingenuous.
Was the United States Seeking a War in Korea?
Stalin was right about one thing: the State Department had not anticipated a new conflict in East Asia, and the Pentagon lacked ready forces to fight one. In 1949, Truman had already decided not to intervene against the communists in the Chinese Civil War. He was little interested in starting a conflict over the Korean Peninsula.
However, Truman was unwilling to overlook an overt attack on a nominal, if not very close, ally. By June 28 he had determined the Soviet Union would not openly oppose U.S. forces, and decided to spearhead a United Nations “police action” against the KPA.
Back in the United States, the U.S. military had been downsizing. Pershing tanks had to be literally rolled off display stands and M4 Shermans recovered from World War II battlefields to fight in Korea. Dilapidated rifles were reissued to poorly trained recruits. Though the United States would eventually assemble a formidable war machine, it clearly had not been preparing for a ground war at the time.
While the U.S. Air Force swiftly won air superiority , the first U.S. ground troops to engage North Korean forces had only six antitank shells available to them, and were overrun by North Korean tanks in less than twenty-four hours . A fifteen-country coalition operating under UN mandate eventually assembled to repel the KPA attack, but for the first few months, it was reduced to fighting for its very survival holding a besieged perimeter around the city of Pusan.
From Defending South Korea to Invading North Korea
In September 1950, an amphibious landing behind North Korean lines at Incheon cut the KPA’s supply lines and caused their forces to rapidly unravel. United Nations troops recaptured Seoul and crossed the thirty-eighth parallel into North Korea, driving northward towards the Chinese border. Truman had authorized MacArthur to advance beyond the thirty-eighth so long as the Soviet Union and China did not indicate this would cause them to intervene.
Originally intending to protect the South from forcible reunification with the North, UN forces instead rolled forward to occupy the North and bring about its reunification with the South Korean government.
In fact, China did warn that it would intervene if the UN advance continued, but Gen. Douglas MacArthur disregarded the warning. In November 1950, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops launched a devastating counterattack that would prolong the war for two more years.
Did the United States Intend to Invade China?
Chinese Communists had long feared Korea would serve as a springboard ground for an American invasion of China. After all, the United States had supported the Chinese Nationalists, who relocated their government to Taiwan after being driven from the mainland. Communist and Nationalist forces were still actively fighting on several fronts, including coastal islands and even the jungles bordering Myanmar . This, along with ideological sympathy for Korean communists, motivated Chinese support for the North Korean invasion of the South.
A few months later, Beijing was not reassured to see an American-led international army barreling toward its borders with Korea. Indeed, MacArthur privately voiced his support for expanding the war into China, believing he could easily defeat the People’s Liberation Army if only he were given the resources to fight them.
However, MacArthur’s views and resulting recklessness with regard to China ran contrary to his instructions from President Truman, who eventually relieved the popular general of command. However, the Chinese intervention did lead Truman to divert the U.S. Seventh Fleet to support the Chinese Nationalists, who had fled to islands off of China, solidifying their formerly precarious position  from PLA amphibious assaults.
Was the Korean War Really about Japan?
A Chinese student of mine once argued in an essay that the Korean War had been a means for the United States to revitalize the Japanese economy, then under American occupation. Indeed, the United States injected $3.5 billion into the Japanese economy to supply its forces in Korea, resulting in a doubling of Japan’s economic output. By the end of the Korean War, the island nation had been restored to its pre–World War II standard of living.
While casting U.S. intervention in the Korean War as particularly bloody economic stimulus package misrepresents the diplomatic stakes in play, it does catch on to an aspect of American strategy in Asia at the time, which was to build up Japan as a bulwark against communist expansion. A more measured analysis might be that U.S. intervention in Korea was motivated by a fear it would give communist forces a secure foothold to expand into Japan.
This does not change a simple truth: the Korean War was the result of a deliberate and premeditated decision by North Korea and the Soviet Union to invade South Korea.
Yes, Syngman Rhee’s government in South Korea was bellicose, undemocratic and responsible for many human-rights violations𠅋ut it did not actually assemble an army for an invasion of the North, which was also quite repressive.
Yes, the United States was responsible for sending its forces across the thirty-eighth parallel and eventually waging a bombing campaign that killed many North Korean civilians.
However, the American military buildup in Korea, the advance on the Yalu River and the bombings were consequences stemming from a North Korean invasion that had been prepared for well in advance.
Sstien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history forWar Is Boring .
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Strength of the two armies
Korean War Summary and Causes
Militarily, the North strongly reinforced its capability. As of 1948, there were about 100,000 troops under the command of Kim II-sung. As usual, the North got most of its military hardware from communist China (PRC) and the Soviet Union. Training, as well as military equipment in the form of aircraft, tanks, artillery, and tanks, were provided to II-sung’s troops that now totaled about 150,000 to 200, 000 soldiers. Additionally, North Korea had about 210 fighter planes 280 tanks 200 artillery pieces 110 attack bombers and 150 Yak fighter planes and 35 reconnaissance aircraft. Historical data shows that as at the time that the North eventually attacked, they were far stronger than the South Korean Army.
The South, however, made some steady progress, although not as well organized as North Korea. South Korea’s main sponsor, the U.S. was war-fatigued as a result of World War II. Budget cuts and the army’s excessive focus on the atomic bomb were some other factors that worsened this fatigue. Also, the U.S. had greater concerns about the activities that were taking place in Europe. Hence, the U.S. provided very minimal military support to South Koreans. As at 1950, the South had 98,000 soldiers of which only 65,000 were minimally combat ready. They had no tanks. However, they did have 10 AT6 advanced-trainer airplanes. Although the records show that the South had those number of troops in the military and police, their troops were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to engage in any meaningful combat. The South’s problem was also compounded by a lot of internal political divisions.
The few communists in the South opposed the idea of having a democratic and independent South Korea. Soon, it turned into guerrilla warfare. Periodically, the North gave a helping hand to the southern communists. Historians believe that the internal friction in the South was one of the reasons why the South Korean Army was ill-trained and ill-prepared for the full-blown War with its Northern neighbors in 1950. Nevertheless, one cannot discount the fact that the U.S. was anything but interested in providing heavy weapons and supplies to the South Korean Army (Republic of Korea Army-ROKA). Shortly before the North’s invasion (as at 1949), the U.S. had less than 500 troops stationed in the South.
The deadliest sniper ever averaged 5 kills per day
Posted On February 05, 2020 18:50:29
Few soldiers are as legendary as Finland’s Simo Häyhä. Known as the deadliest sniper in history, Häyhä served for just under 100 days during the 1939-1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union.
In that short time, he is credited with killing over 500 men.
At long range Häyhä was lethal his M28/30 sniper rifle (the Finnish version of Russia’s legendary Mosin-Nagant) accounted for half his estimated 500-542 kills. At close quarters, he was equally deadly with his Suomi KP-31 sub-machine gun, with some 250 Soviets falling victim to it. Not surprisingly, Soviet troops soon assigned Häyhä an appropriately sinister nickname: White Death.
Häyhä’s transformation into history’s most accomplished sniper traces back to 1925, when at twenty years old he served his mandatory year in Finland’s Army and afterward joined Finland’s volunteer militia known as the White Guard. Häyhä’s time with the militia sharpened what were already remarkable shooting abilities a farmer and hunter, he was a natural marksman who regularly collected trophies at local shooting competitions.
When the Winter War broke out on November 30, 1939, Häyhä was nearly 34 years old. By the war’s end on March 13, 1940, he would become a legend. While most snipers used telescopic sights, Häyhä did without. Using a scope forced a sniper to lift their head a few inches higher than ordinary sights, making them an easier target for enemy snipers. Telescopic sights were also vulnerable to extreme cold. Häyhä’s solution was simple: Even in the poor light of a Finnish winter, he would rely on iron sights and the naked eye.
As the Soviets soon realized, the dim lighting didn’t affect his aim.
Finnish Army documents (as cited on Wikipedia) reveal just how deadly Häyhä was as a soldier. The war began on November 30, 1939. According to these documents, Häyhä had racked up his first 138 kills by December 22–only 22 days for 138 kills. The entry for January 26, 1940 ups his count to 199, an extra 61 in 35 days. By February 17, he was up to 219. In the 18 days after that, Häyhä killed another 40 enemy soldiers.
These stats reflect his sniping kills. Häyhä was just as deadly up close. His sub-machine gun accounted for another 250 kills. By March of 1940, he’d racked up an astonishing 500+ kills. Yet on March 6, his military career came to a sudden and near-fatal end.
Häyhä was a primary target of the Red Army Soviets were keen to eliminate this seemingly unstoppable soldier who had spread so much fear, injury, and death among their ranks.
They’d tried everything, pummeling Häyhä’s presumed locations with artillery fire. Soviets also employed counter-sniping, flooding an area with snipers whose primary mission was to kill the White Death.
On March 6, 1940, the Red Army nearly succeeded. A Soviet sniper spotted Häyhä and shot at him with an explosive bullet, striking him in his lower left jaw.
Hu00e4yhu00e4 in the 1940s, with visible damage to his left cheek after his 1940 wound
The shot should have killed him. Häyhä, though severely wounded, somehow survived. Found by Finnish troops, he was brought into a field hospital. He wasn’t a pretty sight. One of the soldiers who brought him in bluntly described his injuries, saying “half his face was missing”. But once again, Häyhä had beaten the odds: permanently disfigured, but alive nonetheless.
Häyhä was lucky. Only days after he was shot, the Winter War ended on March 13, 1940 — the same day Häyhä regained consciousness. Finland honored the soldier for his service. Starting as a private in 1925, he’d only made ‘Alikersantti’ (corporal) when the Winter War started. After it ended, Corporal Häyhä was commissioned, becoming a “Vanrikki” (second lieutenant) with multiple decorations. He would spend the next few years recovering from the shot to his head, but Häyhä would eventually regain his health.
After the war, he became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder. Against him, the moose stood no chance. Finland’s President Urho Kekkinen was also a keen hunter and Häyhä, once a nobody from the Finnish border country, became one of the President’s regular hunting partners.
Entering a veteran’s nursing home in Hamina in his old age, Häyhä spent his remaining years quietly. He died on April 1, 2002 aged 96, a national hero in his native Finland and a legend in military history. Asked how he’d been so successful he answered simply: “Practice.”
This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.
Why There Was a Korean War?
At the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was occupied in the North by the forces of the Soviet Union and in the South by the Americans, split at the 38th parallel. Ever since the two sides established their preferred government in these areas, the Korean Peninsula clamored for reunification -- under its own government, of course.
The North under Kim Il-Sung was ready to take the country by force from the outset, but was always restrained by Joseph Stalin in Moscow, who believed such a move could spark a third world war with the West -- something he feared.
After the KGB turned an American code clerk in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, they discovered that much of the American military power in the area had been moved to Japan. Believing the Americans would not move to defend Korea, the Soviets gave Kim Il-Sung the go-ahead.
But Truman believed the invasion was a challenge to the free world and the United States in particular. He believed it was necessary for the free nations of the world to contain the spread of Communism -- that if the U.S. and the West allowed one country to fall to Communism, the rest of the nations in the region would fall one by one, or the "Domino Theory."
Ending the War
It has become a cliché to say that the Korean War is not over. Of course, the fighting finished a long time ago, yet in a number of fundamental ways, the war’s unfinished business is still part of daily experience for millions of Koreans on both sides of the demilitarized zone. The lack of closure means that the Cold War is preserved on the peninsula. All of the surrounding powers — China, Russia, and the United States — prefer it that way, because a real resolution could prove too costly for them and would occasion a major geopolitical upheaval.
In looking back on the Korean War seventy years later, it would be tragic for today’s left to fall once again into the Cold War logic of choosing sides between two sets of imperialists and their proxies. Now, we should be clear: the only side socialists could be on, then or now, was that of the Korean people, whose right to self-determination had been so abruptly stolen by the two superpowers when they partitioned the country in August 1945.
The call made already in the summer of 1950 by the anti-Stalinist left still stands today: let the Korean people decide their own future. The first steps in achieving that ambition must be a formal end to the Korean War, the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean peninsula, and decisive steps toward justice for the surviving victims and divided families of the war in both Koreas.
The Korean War “created a blood debt that is crucial to understanding North Korean behaviour ever since”
The Korean War, which began in 1950 and has technically never ended, saw the US pound North Korea from the air, leaving hardly a modern building standing and killing untold numbers of civilians. This, says Professor Bruce Cumings, left a blood debt that remains crucial to understanding North Korean behaviour ever since.
This competition is now closed
Published: June 25, 2020 at 4:05 am
Here, ahead of the war’s 70th anniversary, Cumings gives his view on the history of the conflict and explains its significance today…
What was the Korean War?
The Korean War is primarily a civil war between North and South Korea, but one with significant foreign involvement, primarily of China and the United States. The present tense is necessary because the war has never ended the peace has been held by an armistice since 1953, but there never was a peace treaty, and so the state of war is merely suspended – not concluded.
Which countries fought in the Korean War?
Although some 16 nations fought under the United Nations flag, the Korean War was primarily between South Korea and the US on the one hand, and North Korea and China on the other.
When did the conflict start and end?
The conventional American story – that is, the official story – is that the war began on 25 June 1950 and ended on 27 July 1953. But this war has deep origins in 20 th -century history – more on this below…
What are the origins of the Korean War?
The foundations of the war date back to the 1930s. The founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, began a guerrilla struggle against Japanese forces who had invaded the three north-east provinces of China in September 1931 and proclaimed the puppet state of Manchukuo on 1 March 1932. The North Koreans trace the inception of their army to battles that began the next month, in April 1932.
Kim Il-sung and his comrades fought for the next decade in completely inhospitable terrain, where temperatures fell to -40 ̊C in the winter. An assortment of guerrilla groups were part of this struggle, with some sources alleging that Kim Il-sung’s group was commanded by Chinese Communists. In fact, most of the guerrillas were Korean, and Koreans were even the majority in the so-called Chinese Communist Party. Korean commanders did what they wanted and were not part of a Chinese hierarchy. These guerrilla groups bedevilled Japanese forces, bogging them down in an unwinnable war.
Things came to a head in 1939, with pitched battles involving tens of thousands of Japanese troops. By 1941 the guerrillas had been seriously depleted, and they withdrew to training camps near the Sino-Russian border, in the vicinity of Khabarovsk, to await the inevitable outcome of the United States joining the fight against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The significance of this history is twofold: firstly, it constitutes the founding myth of North Korea, after about 200 surviving guerrillas returned to Pyongyang in 1945 and became the elite group that ruled the nation. This group is still in power today, but it is considerably larger after 75 years of ruling exclusively.
The other crucial fact of the 1930s is that the Japanese employed Korean officers to go after the guerrillas, and these same officers populated the upper ranks of the South Korean army in the 1940s. Take Kim Sok-won, for instance: a colonel in the Japanese army who had been given the task of chasing down Kim Il-sung. Kim Sok-won, by then a general, was the commander of the 38 th parallel throughout the summer and autumn of 1949. It was this conflict between Koreans who chose opposite sides in the 1930s that made civil war highly likely.
Another factor that led to the outbreak of the Korean War was that, after the collapse of Japanese rule in August 1945, ordinary Koreans began setting up political committees to run local affairs on a spontaneous basis. Soviet troops who were occupying the north supported these committees, and these political groups eventually became the basis of the North Korean regime, right down to the present. American troops arrived on 8 September 1945 and set up a three-year military government. In some parts of South Korea, the US worked with the committees, but in other parts they sought to suppress them, throwing the leaders in jail. This led to an open revolt in the fall of 1946 an inquiry after this revolt revealed that the US was using Korean members of the hated Japanese colonial police throughout the territory.
In this podcast, historian Grace Huxford describes the key events of the Korean War and explains how it played out in Britain:
Most of the committees were underground by 1948, but they continued to govern on Cheju Island, where the committees were largely left to their own devices. On 3 April 1948, an uprising on the island against a plan to divide the two Koreas led to a complete bloodbath over the next two years, with 10 per cent of the islanders – about 30,000 people – being killed by national police, military and members of right-wing youth groups who had been expelled from North Korea. The suppression forces were under the command of Korean officers who had served in the Japanese military.
The history of this conflict was buried for decades under the dictatorships in South Korea, but in recent years it has become a kind of touchstone, prefiguring the civil war to come. It was inconceivable that the North Korean leaders, and their supporters in the south, would allow this slaughter to go unpunished.
What happened next?
The immediate crucible of the coming war was the fighting along the border in the summer and autumn of 1949. In August 1945 American planners had chosen the 38 th parallel as an appropriate line to mark the respective American and Soviet spheres. They consulted no one – not their allies, not the Soviets, and not a single Korean. The United States had operational control of the fledgling South Korean army until 30 June 1949, when the last American combat troops were withdrawn – leaving behind a 500-man military advisory group.
Fighting along the parallel had begun a month earlier, in May 1949. According to the US commander, it was sparked by the south he said the south started more than half of the border fighting in 1949. A war nearly broke out in early August 1949, but both the US and the Soviet ambassadors intervened to restrain hotheads. The last Southern attack across the border came in December 1949, and then the parallel quieted for six months.
The north was not ready to fight in 1949, because tens of thousands of its crack troops were still fighting on the side of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. But in the following months, they filtered back into North Korea and became the spearhead of Kim Il-sung’s invasion force in June 1950. The six-month gap in fighting made the invasion look like unprovoked aggression: it was, in the words of the US ambassador, “fortunately clear-cut”.
How did the Korean War start?
The start of the Korean War as conventionally understood is easily depicted. The North Koreans flowed down the peninsula in July and August 1950 – in spite of the American President Harry Truman sending ever larger numbers of troops. Finally, the US Marine First Brigade was able to stabilise the front in the south-east, which became known as the Pusan Perimeter. That made possible a dramatic landing at the port of Inchon, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
Within two weeks American leaders decided to invade North Korea on a ‘roll-back’ mission. US troops went all the way to the Yalu River, on the border with China, only to be thrown back in a massive campaign by Chinese and North Korean troops. By 1 January 1951, Seoul was again occupied by Chinese and North Korean troops. By May, however, Seoul had been recaptured, and the fighting had stabilised roughly along what is now the demilitarized zone (DMZ). There followed two years of trench warfare and truce negotiations, until the armistice was signed on 27 July 1953.
Throughout the war the US pounded North Korea from the air, leaving hardly a modern building standing, killing untold numbers of civilians, dropping so much napalm that even Winston Churchill complained about it, and leaving a blood debt that remains crucial to understanding North Korean behaviour ever since.
How many deaths and casualties were there?
33,686 American troops were killed in action, and the UK and Australia also suffered significant casualties: over 1,000 and 339 soldiers died, respectively. But Koreans and Chinese lost their lives in far greater numbers. Just under a million Chinese were killed, about the same number of South Koreans, and perhaps two million North Koreans.
How did the Korean War end?
The war ended about where it began: in a stalemate with no real winner. China enjoyed an enhanced status, having fought the US to a standstill, and the two shattered Koreas were left to somehow rebuild their nation.
It took two years to negotiate the armistice, and after decades of work toward a peace treaty starting at Geneva in 1954, none has come to fruition. But the armistice has done its work in holding the peace, give or take some violent incidents from time to time.
Why is it called ‘the forgotten war’?
In the US the Korean War quickly became a so-called ‘forgotten war’, in part because it was such a contrast with the halcyon years under Eisenhower in the 1950s – and of course, because the US did not win for the first time in its history, going back to the War of 1812 stalemate. Some 30 years later a sombre Korean War Memorial was built not far from the Lincoln Memorial, with many individual depictions of how terrible this war was carved onto the faces of soldiers.
Within two short years the US had committed itself to the Vietnamese government in Saigon, and against the revolutionary forces of Ho Chi Minh. Soon the US was again fighting anti-colonial armies, while relying on Vietnamese officers who had served the French. Both of these wars were fundamentally anti-colonial in nature, but American leaders simply never could understand that relying on colonial quislings doomed both efforts from the start.
What was the significance of the Korean War?
It is hard to say what the significance of this war was for Koreans. Nothing was really solved, and the national division acquired a tragic permanence. Perhaps the foreign alliances that came with the war were critical – South Korea with the US, and North Korea with China.
But this war had tremendous significance for Americans: defence spending quadrupled as the US took on a mission to contain communism anywhere in the world a national security state at home managed hundreds of permanent military bases abroad a large standing army now existed in peacetime for the first time in American history and a sprawling, hugely funded CIA was a font of power under Allen Dulles, the director (whose brother, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State under Eisenhower).
The Korean War also gave a huge boost to both the American and the Japanese economies, with war procurements leading some to call the effort “Japan’s Marshall Plan”. It all probably would have happened anyway, had the war occurred elsewhere. But it didn’t: it happened in Korea, giving the war tremendous significance in the American psyche.
Professor Bruce Cumings teaches in the history department at the University of Chicago and is the author of The Korean War: A History (Random House, 2010)List of site sources >>>