Will there be a second Korean War?

Background current

The war between North and South Korea claimed several million lives in three years, most of them civilians. He cemented the split in Korea. To date there is no peace treaty between the two states.

In the South Korean city of Paju: View of the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea (& copy picture-alliance)

After Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and exploited as a colony in the following decades, the USA and the Soviet Union occupied the country at the end of World War II. A demarcation line was agreed at the 38th parallel in 1945, which separated two zones of occupation: the Soviet Union ruled north of the latitude, the USA south of the latitude.

Division under the sign of the Cold War

What was intended as a temporary solution became permanent. Because in the course of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union, the contrast between the Korean parts of the country also intensified. The two sides could not agree on a formula for a united Korea and accused each other of standing in the way of reunification.

The USA and the Soviet Union influenced the political events in their respective parts of the country: The Soviet Union under Josef Stalin supported the north economically, trained political cadres and promoted the former partisan fighter Kim Il-sung as chairman of the Communist Party (CP) of Korea. For its part, the USA supported Rhee Syng-man, the former president of the Korean government-in-exile, who came from the right-wing national spectrum. They also helped the South Korean government build up their - barely trained - troops.

The US military retained control of Korea's south until 1948. After that, the troops withdrew, only American military advisers remained on site. The United Nations endeavored from the beginning of 1948 to create an independent South Korea. However, the planned elections in the south met with resistance in the country. The result was protests and guerrilla fights. The north of Korea supported the unrest in the south by sending fighters. In the course of the guerrilla war, there were also military conflicts on the border. Despite all the protests: The elections took place and Rhee Syng-man, whose declared aim was to achieve Korean unity by military means, was elected president. He proclaimed the Republic of Korea in August 1948. Only a few weeks later, the "People's Democratic Republic" was founded in the north under the leadership of Kim Il-sung.

Changing military successes

Encouraged by the Communist victory in China under Mao Tse-tung, North Korean troops crossed the demarcation line on June 25, 1950. At the urging of Kim Il-sung, the Soviets supported the incursion and described it as a reaction to an attack by the South Korean army. Since their troop strength was significantly greater and they had better military equipment than the South Korean units, the North Koreans overcame the resistance and were able to advance quickly to the south.

The United States then called on the United Nations Security Council to declare North Korea's actions as a breach of peace, and on June 25 implemented Resolution 82, which was formulated accordingly. The resolution was able to come about because the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN Security Council at the time and was therefore unable to make use of its right of veto. A few days later, the UN Security Council also agreed to a military operation to support South Korea.

The USA took over command of the UN troops. About 90 percent of the troops deployed in the following months were US Americans. But also countries as diverse as Great Britain, France, Belgium, Cuba, South Africa, Ethiopia, Thailand, Australia, Bolivia, Turkey and Canada provided troops and material. After initial difficulties, the South Korean and UN troops under General Douglas MacArthur advanced to Suwon by the end of September; there the American general and Rhee Syng-man declared South Korea liberated. The North Korean People's Army, which had suffered heavy losses, began to withdraw.

In October the UN troops crossed the demarcation line to the north - with the aim of occupying North Korea for their part. They pushed their opponents back to the borders of China - and the war turned again: US commander MacArthur assumed that the Chinese would not intervene. But China's leadership under Mao sent around 400,000 so-called volunteers who were able to push back the Americans. They were also helped by air support from Soviet fighter pilots who pretended to be Chinese or Koreans. In early December, the Chinese and North Korean troops retook Pyongyang.

President Truman declared a state of emergency in the USA on December 16, 1950, in view of the renewed course of the war - for the first time in the history of the country. The military budget has increased massively, as has the recruitment of new soldiers. Meanwhile, the situation for the UN and South Korean armed forces in Korea worsened: They were pushed back to the 38th parallel in December. The Chinese and North Koreans then crossed the demarcation line and occupied Seoul. Truman ultimately rejected the use of atomic bombs against China, as demanded by General MacArthur.

High number of victims, hardly any land gain

The UN troops led by the USA were able to push back the North Korean and Chinese troops again. From July 1951, armistice negotiations were held parallel to the fighting. The talks initially failed because the UN demanded that prisoners of war should not be extradited to their home country against their will. At this point in time, the trench warfare had frozen along the original demarcation line without any significant territorial gains. Nearly all cities in North Korea and numerous villages were at least partially destroyed by area bombing in the USA.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in air strikes in the Korean War. This US Air Force propaganda image shows how an aircraft that is supposed to deliver supplies to the front lines is protected by the air defense. (& copy picture-alliance / AP, U.S. Army Air Forces)
To date there are no exact numbers of victims; it is estimated that a total of 3.5 to 4.5 million people died, including up to one million South Koreans and 2.5 million North Koreans (both soldiers and civilians), around one million Chinese and around 40,500 soldiers from the UN nations, most of them US -American. Massacres were carried out by both parties to the conflict. On their retreat northwards, for example, the North Koreans took hostages and slave laborers and killed thousands. The other side did not shy away from killing civilians either. Many were murdered because they had been members of left groups or parties in the past and were suspected of being communists. Hundreds of thousands of them were murdered. How many people died in the US air strikes is unclear - but estimates assume hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in the air war on both sides.

On July 27, 1953, after 37 months, the Korean War ended with an armistice initiated by the USA and the Soviet Union, which sealed the division of the country. A demilitarized zone about 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide was established, which separates the two parts of the country to this day and roughly follows the course of the original demarcation line.

Korean conflict remains unsolved

With the outbreak of the Korean War, fear of an escalation of the Cold War and the outbreak of a Third World War had spread around the world. In the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in particular, fears were great because the initial situation in Korea was very similar to that in divided Germany. In both German states, the conflict sparked discussions about rearmament, which also took place in the mid-1950s. The Korean War, on the other hand, had positive effects on the economy of the Federal Republic of Germany: there was free production capacity that other western states such as the USA lacked due to increased arms production. The economic upswing that followed was also known as the "Korean boom".

The consequences of the Korean War continue to the present: the war between communist North Korea and the Republic of South Korea has not officially ended to this day; a peace treaty has not been concluded even almost 62 years after the fighting ended. In the course of the six-party talks between North and South Korea as well as China, Russia, Japan and the USA on the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the possibility of a peace treaty was also raised. However, the talks failed in 2009 when North Korea left the country.

In 2013, North Korea even canceled all non-aggression agreements. The communist regime reacted to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The trigger for the punitive measures of the UN was an atomic bomb test by North Korea in February 2013. North Korea has been working on a nuclear program for decades, and in 2006 it carried out the first atomic bomb test. North Korea's nuclear weapons program and the military maneuvers of the two Korean states have repeatedly caused tensions. Until the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un on June 12, 2018.

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