The Korean War was worth it

A war without a winner


Read on one side

Contrary to what had been assumed in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang, the West reacted quickly and clearly, as it did two years earlier during the Soviet blockade of Berlin. Without waiting for the decision of Congress, Truman called the UN Security Council, which (because the USSR boycotted the body) issued a mandate to restore the borders on the same day. Permission to intervene militarily followed two days later.

At first, however, North Korea was superior and almost completely overran the southern part of Korea by August. The South Korean army and US troops, which were later supported by a coalition of soldiers and helpers from 20 UN member states, were only able to hold Busan, the second largest city in the country, on the southeast coast. At the same time, the Americans began a massive bombing war that devastated the peninsula beyond recognition until 1953. After a successful invasion of the port city of Incheon west of Seoul under US Commander-in-Chief Douglas MacArthur on September 15 - well behind the North Korean armed forces - the western allies were finally able to occupy almost all of North Korea by November 1950. Suddenly American soldiers were standing on the Yalu, the border river with China.

This was the starting signal for the aid of Mao, who has now sent several hundred thousand "volunteers" into the fight. They forced the UN troops into a precipitous retreat beyond the 38th parallel. Douglas MacArthur now called for the use of nuclear weapons and the extension of the war to China. According to his plan, a large area between North Korea and China should be contaminated with nuclear energy for decades to come. Truman rejected MacArthur's plans, and he underscored his decision by dismissing the Commander-in-Chief on April 11, 1951. To this day, the view in South Korea remains that this was the last chance for military reunification to be wasted.

The reason for Truman's veto was made clear by the chairman of the United States Chiefs of Staff, General Omar Bradley, to the US inquiry committee a month later. A nuclear strike against "Red China" would drag the USA "into the wrong war - in the wrong place, at the wrong time and against the wrong enemy". No use of nuclear weapons in "small wars" on the periphery of the Cold War: This became a principle of US policy, which was consistently adhered to despite occasionally different rhetoric.

After that, there was little operational movement in Korea. The conflict turned into a positional and civil war with little gains and massive losses. Some were even reminded of the frozen fronts of the First World War. The hatred that prevailed was also made visible by the war crimes committed on both sides. Far more than 1,000 massacres of civilians are said to have occurred, killing up to 200,000 people.

The first armistice soundings began as early as July 1951, but hardly made any progress until Stalin's death in March 1953. Hundreds of times representatives of the warring parties met in strictly guarded barracks, sometimes they sat opposite each other in silence for days. It was not until July 27, 1953, that the guns fell silent.

The latter must now have realized that a solution could not be achieved militarily and that the previous dispute had only exacerbated the problems. The Korean "fratricidal war" was a war without a winner - apart from the Federal Republic of Germany, which was not involved but benefited enormously economically and politically: As a result of the "Korean boom", the West German economy increased its exports to the US, which was busy with armament, and there one feared a scenario similar to that in Korea, and after 1953 the way for the establishment of the Bundeswehr was clear.

Korea itself was devastated, and both states went into an undeclared war that continues to this day with numerous border conflicts and secret operations. The reconstruction took years - although it progressed faster in the north, the industrial region of the country blessed with natural resources, than in the agrarian southern part. It was not until 1969 that South Korea, which was beginning the "tiger leap" and was itself a dictatorship at the time, was able to overtake its northern neighbor, which had received massive economic support from China and the Soviet Union.

With the ceasefire, the original UN mandate to restore the borders - and not to liberate North Korea - was more or less fulfilled, but at a completely unacceptable price. In the United States, people wondered if their sacrifices were worth it. To this day, US troops are responsible for protecting the inner-Korean border. This makes Korea one of the most dangerous trouble spots in the world. If attacked, it would be similar to a missile attack on US territory. In case of doubt, even NATO would be involved.

Bernd Stöver

The author teaches global history at the University of Potsdam.

At the same time, this delicate constellation has prevented a new Korean war to this day, despite all the crises. The US President also knows this. The North Korean dictator Kim, on the other hand, is only too aware that a war with the USA will mean the end, especially since he can no longer rely on his strongest ally, China. Beijing's approval of sanctions is an unmistakable signal. As history shows, only one thing helps on the Korean Peninsula: relaxation. After all, this recipe heralded the end of the Cold War.