On June 25, 1950, Kim Il Sung sent his army of 90,000 soldiers across the 38th Parallel, invading the ROK (South Korea), by which the Great Leader intended to make Korea one nation under his rule. Thus began the 6-25 Upheaval, or as it’s known in the DPRK (North Korea), the Fatherland Liberation War, the war we Americans still call the Korean Conflict. The attack came almost five years after the Japanese defeat in WW2 that ended Japan’s brutal forty-year occupation of Korea, which in its aftermath left Korea divided for the first time in a thousand years. The victors of WW2 – the US and the USSR – decided to split Korea in two, leaving one sector administered by the US, the other by the USSR.
Kim Il Sung figured his Fatherland Liberation War would be quick and that the people in the south would cheer for his army, and he would become the great hero of the nation, but this was the first of many miscalculations made about that war, and not just by him. One week after the North Korean invasion, the American army entered the war on July 1, 1950, and the Americans too thought the fighting would be over quickly. “Before Christmas,” many exclaimed, meaning they thought they would be home for the holidays, which was another miscalculation.
By November, units of the Chinese army – which would swell to a million or more soldiers in Korea before the war was over – crossed the Yalu River (AmRokKang in Korea), joining the fight in what the Chinese called the War to Resist America and Aid Korea. They didn’t know it then, but only one in ten Chinese soldiers would return home alive. The war raged on for three years, with the opposing armies advancing and retreating up and down the peninsula, leaving in their wakes piles of rubble, millions of corpses, and untold heartache.
Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union supplied weapons and materiel to Kim Il Sung but Stalin didn’t commit the Soviet army to fight in Korea. Some maintain that he was saving his forces for another conquest more dear to him. Maybe it would have pleased Stalin had Kim Il Sung’s military campaign succeeded, but failing that, Stalin most likely wanted the North Korean invasion to lure the US into a full-scale war with China, which would then free his Soviet army take Western Europe against little resistance.
The 6-25 War couldn’t have been worse for the Koreans had it been WW3. You can find facts, figures, grotesque and grisly pictures, first-hand accounts, and analysis of the war at hundreds of websites. (At Google and YouTube, enter “Korean War.”) But even after sixty years and volumes of documentation and analysis, there are still many discrepancies as to how many fought, how many died, and what really happened in that war.
What evidence there is – though it’s far from being conclusive – Indicates that Kim Il Sung started it with his invasion. Planes of the U.S. Air Force heavily and unceasingly carpet-bombed troop concentrations of the Chinese and North Korean armies with napalm, burning to death in terrible agony many soldiers – over a million-and-a-half enemy deaths combined – and no telling how many civilians. Many websites report that more bombs were dropped on Korea in those three years than in the whole Pacific theater in all of WW2. Some estimates are that as many as one in four Koreans got killed in the war. What is true is that by the end of the war, Korea was as war-torn and ravaged as any nation had ever been.
The war didn’t go anybody’s way, not completely, but some of the participants gained from the war, and it’s surprising who. Mao Zedong, by holding the US to a military stalemate, solidified his power over China, and despite his army’s huge losses in the conflict, achieved stature in the world. Kim Il Sung cleverly pinned his failures on his potential rivals in North Korea, strengthening and consolidating his power over the DPRK.
After three years of war all sides agreed to halt the fighting, if only temporarily. (And after sixty years, the cease-fire continues.) Stalin, however, died a few months before the end of hostilities and failed to realize his dream of taking Europe. THE DMZ is still a four-kilometer strip of no-man’s land that bisects the peninsula and continues to be the most heavily armed border in the world. (It’s also one of the great nature preserves of the planet, which has been an unintended and surprising result.)
Though the 6-25 War began as a conflict between the two Koreas, its outcome became significant to the two super powers of the time, and to China, and would shape the course of history beyond the borders of Korea, right up to the present. The US Army is still garrisoned in Korea, and though China and the US continue to be rivals, they have good diplomatic relations with each other and carry on a robust trade to the benefit of both. They’re also the two largest trading partners of the ROK. Stalin’s Soviet Union (a relic of the Czarist Empire from its start) fell apart twenty years ago and Russia no longer supports the DPRK militarily or economically. The ROK went from being the poorest country in the world to being one of the richest and most modern with one of the world’s highest standards of living. Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, is the current ruler of the DPRK, while the ROK and the US provide more than half of all aid North Korea receives from the rest of the world.
In 1953, nobody could’ve known that the 6-25 War would still be playing itself out in 2014 in a world of entirely different circumstances that no one then could’ve imagined. It’s maybe even a miracle, too, that despite the tensions between the two Koreas, and the occasional unpredictable but not unexpected attacks by North Korea, that none of the hostilities have escalated into a full-scale hot war in all that time.
The Koreans must all go on from here in their ancient homeland in this most vital part of the world. All the Koreans, whether they live in the North or live in the South, speak the same language, have the same family names, and most – probably all – are descended from the same great-great-grandparents, which makes all of them cousins, and not distant either.
So, here is this unfinished business between the Koreans that had its beginning almost seventy years ago when the US and the USSR decided they would split Korea right in its middle, and how the Koreans ultimately resolve the 6-25 War – the oldest conflict in the world today – and come back together is all that matters now.
An earlier version of this story was published in issue no. 6 of BRIDGE PaperZine, June, 2012.