Today, no fighting takes place on the Korean Peninsula. Even so, troops stare warily at each other from the two sides of the 38th Parallel line, separating North Korea and South Korea, while their allies and the rest of the world look on in fear of the fighting to erupt once again. Learn more about this tension with these 100 Korean War facts.
Other ways exist to call the Korean War.
South Koreans sometimes call it the 6-2-5 Upheaval, or simply as the 625, referencing how the war started on June 25, 1950. North Koreans, on the other hand, call it the Fatherland Liberation War, which is in line with their Communist ideology. As for the Chinese, official historical records call it the War to Resist America and Aid Korea.
Meanwhile in the West, historians have called the Korean War the Forgotten War, or even the Unknown War. This stems from how the Korean War tends to become overshadowed by later conflicts, such as the Vietnam War.
The US made several mistakes during its post-WWII administration of South Korea.
In September 1945, US General John Hodge attempted to keep Japanese colonial administrators in power. He only meant for it to be a temporary measure in keeping Korea under control until the US could properly replace the Japanese. However, this proved to be unpopular with the Koreans, leading Hodge to drop his plan. Instead, he replaced the Japanese with Koreans who had collaborated with the colonial government.
Later on, they banned the holding of strikes, as well as the left-wing People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) provisional government and committees. The US also backed a UN-sponsored election in 1948, which the Soviets and Korean Communists accused as unfair. This led to boycotts by many Korean politicians, with only the American-backed south participating. Instead, the Communist north held its own separate election a few months later.
The Soviets cooperated at first with the USA in Korea.
The US originally decided to occupy Korea up to the 38th Parallel before Japan’s surrender in WWII. They did so knowing that the US Army did not have the ability to do so quickly if the Soviets refused to agree. The Soviets agreed, however, in line with Joseph Stalin’s policy of cooperation with the Allies at the time.
After Japan surrendered, the US and the Soviets formed a joint committee meant to last for the next 5 years. In those 5 years, they hoped to establish a stable and independent Korea. In the end, though, Soviet troops withdrew from the peninsula in 1948, while American troops did similarly in 1949.
Communist China and North Korea cooperated with each other well before the Korean War.
North Korea transferred an estimated 2000 railway cars’ worth of supplies to Communist Chinese forces fighting in Manchuria after WWII. Tens of thousands of North Korean troops also fought as part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). North Korea also gave sanctuary to Communist Chinese refugees, and provided communications support.
When the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, an estimated 70,000 North Korean veterans returned home with their weapons. And more importantly, they came with a promise from the new People’s Republic of China to help in the event of war with America.
Communist rebels in South Korea also conducted their activities long before the Korean War.
Communist rebels rose up on Jeju Island in 1948, with the South Korean government crushing the South Korean Labor Party. An estimated 30,000 people died, including an estimated 14,000 civilians. At the same time, the Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion broke out, killing another estimated 4000 people.
It took until 1949 to put both rebellions down, but by then, guerillas conducted activities freely in the mountainous regions. The People’s Guerilla Units, as they called themselves, had North Korea’s support especially with weapons, in particular. Over 2000 North Korean commandos also fought alongside the guerillas, and by September 1949, had established themselves in North Gyeongsang and Gangwon Provinces. It would take the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) until the spring of 1950 to put the guerillas down.
The Soviets helped the North Koreans prepare for war.
The Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, and the Soviet development of nuclear weapons in 1949, led Stalin to believe that the time had come for war in Korea. Soviet generals went to North Korea to assist in planning the campaign to destroy South Korea, and unite the peninsula under Communism.
While Stalin refused to directly join the war and risk a nuclear exchange, he agreed to provide supplies and weapons to China. China could then supply them to North Korea, with the Soviets also agreeing to back China diplomatically if they ever joined the fighting in Korea.
North Korean forces enjoyed a massive advantage over their South Korean counterparts at the start of the war.
For one thing, the ROKA’s training focused on counterinsurgency instead of open warfare. They also had a smaller army, numbering only 98,000 men with no tanks and only training aircraft.
In contrast, North Korea had an estimated 200,000 men in its army, including those 70,000 veterans of the Chinese Civil War mentioned earlier. They also had over 400 planes, as well as over 200 tanks. They could also count on direct Chinese support, while the closest American forces lay across the sea in occupied Japan.
North Korea enjoyed quick successes at the start of the war.
They attacked across the whole of the border, but the North Koreans prioritized taking the Ongjin Peninsula on the west coast. Then they moved to encircle Seoul, and take the city before advancing down the peninsula. South Korean President Syngman Rhee abandoned the city with his cabinet on June 27.
A day later, South Korean troops destroyed the only bridge over the Han River, hoping to stop the Communist advance. Hundreds of civilians died when the bridge blew up, but despite this and other desperate efforts, Seoul still fell to Communist forces on June 28.
The outbreak of the Korean War caught the US unprepared.
For one thing, US policy didn’t actually consider South Korea important at the time. In fact, with the Cold War and the Communist victory in China, Japan held more importance in American strategic planning, despite WWII ending only 5 years ago. US military leaders considered Japan critical in keeping the Soviets and the Chinese from having free and open access to the Pacific.
Ironically, that reasoning also contributed to the American decision to support South Korea. If all of Korea fell under Communism, Japan would lie vulnerable to a Communist invasion. Another reason for America’s lack of preparation involved the economization of their military after WWII. This left most of the US military short of not just tanks, planes, and ships, but even rifles and spare parts. In fact, only the US Marine Corps had all the manpower and equipment it needed to fight a war.
Politics became a heavy factor in the war from the very beginning.
By far, the biggest factor in US President Truman’s decision to support South Korea involved what message it would send if he didn’t. He believed that letting the Communists crush South Korea would only encourage them to do the same to other countries in the future. He also believed it would discourage other countries from resisting Communist takeover, in the belief that the rest of the world would do nothing about it. Truman also drew a comparison with the failed appeasement policy before WWII, when Britain and France allowed Germany to do as it pleased, thus failing to stop the war before it could even begin.
American forces suffered defeat after defeat soon after their arrival in Korea.
The Americans first met the North Koreans in battle at Osan, on July 5, 1950. Lacking heavy anti-tank weapons, though, the Americans suffered a defeat. This pattern repeated itself over the following weeks, with American forces forced to retreat at Pyongtaek, Chonan, Chochiwon, and Taejon.
By September 1950, the Americans and their allies held only Busan, and the surrounding land bounded by the Nakdong River, an area making up barely 10% of the Korean Peninsula.
Allied forces finally stood their ground at Busan.
North Korean Kim Il-Sung predicted a quick victory, but as early as August 1950, his Chinese allies had begun showing signs of pessimism. They proved correct, as the North Koreans had pushed too far too fast, leaving their forces difficult to resupply. Also, the small amount of territory the Allies had to defend worked to their advantage, as they could now concentrate on what forces they had.
Allied airstrikes shattered the North Koreans’ transport network, while American troops from Japan quickly reinforced Busan. Despite the North Koreans’ best efforts, they found themselves unable to break what the Allies called the Busan Perimeter, which kept them from finally winning the war.
The Americans soon counterattacked the Communists at Incheon.
MacArthur had pushed for an attack on Incheon soon after the war began, but the Pentagon overrode him. Now, however, the Pentagon approved of his proposal, seeing it as an opportunity to turn the war around. Located 160 km north of the frontlines on the west coast of Korea, MacArthur planned to use Incheon to first retake Seoul. Once he’d done that, he then cut off the North Korean forces further south.
From September 10 to 19, 1950, an estimated 40,000 American troops landed in Incheon against only 6,500 North Korean troops. The Allies also enjoyed overwhelming naval superiority, with American battleships simply blasting away pockets of North Korean resistance.
This, unfortunately, also had the effect of destroying most of Incheon. However, with their successful landings, the Americans could now move to retake Seoul. It took another two weeks, and by September 1928, the Allies had retaken Seoul.
The rest of the Allies at Busan also counterattacked soon after.
They began on September 16, quickly breaking through North Korean lines and advancing some 171 km north to Osan by September 27. The recapture of Seoul threatened to trap North Korea’s forces in the south, forcing them to retreat north. The retreat proved disastrous, however, with Allied forces constantly attacking the North Koreans. In the end, only 30,000 troops at most managed to successfully escape back to North Korea.
South Korean forces repeatedly massacred Communist sympathizers at this time.
At the Goyang Geumjeong Cave, South Korean forces killed 153 Communist sympathizers, along with their families, over the course of October 1950. During that same month, South Korean forces also committed the Namyangju Massacre. Again, they targeted Communist sympathizers and their families, with nearly 500 people dying, including 23 children aged below 10. In May 2011, Seoul’s Central Court ordered the South Korean government to formally apologize for the massacres.
The Allies invaded North Korea in October.
The American government approved the invasion on two points: first, the destruction of the remaining North Korean forces. And second, to unite the peninsula under the South Korean government, so long as the Chinese and the Soviets did not intervene.
The South Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel on October 1, with Allied forces following on October 7. MacArthur also demanded North Korea’s complete surrender around this time. Pyongyang fell on October 19, while airborne forces landed further north to cut off any North Korean leaders trying to escape into China.
US President Truman and General MacArthur strongly disagreed on the scope of the war.
MacArthur, in particular, wanted to cross the Yalu River into Chinese territory, and destroy the arms depots and supply dumps there that the Chinese used to supply North Korea. Truman, however, feared that attacking China would cause a full-scale war between China and the US. The Soviets would then possibly get dragged in, resulting in World War 3. Thus, he refused to authorize any crossing of the Chinese-North Korean Border.
China warned the US about entering North Korean territory.
They made the warning as early as August 20, 1950, when Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai addressed the United Nations (UN). Specifically, he warned that China would intervene against the Allies in Korea in order to secure China’s national interests. At the time, though, Truman believed it was just a Chinese attempt to blackmail the UN.
China also considered invading Taiwan at this time.
They ultimately decided against trying, however, as the Chinese had no ability to challenge the Allies at sea. In fact, at the start of the war, the US already considered the possibility of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. This led Truman to send the US Navy’s 7th Fleet to protect the island, and secure the surrounding waters.
The Soviets agreed to provide limited support for the Chinese intervention in Korea.
Stalin agreed to send weapons, ammunition, and other supplies, but again refused to send troops into Korea. He did, however, agree to send the Soviet Air Force to cover Manchuria.
The Chinese carefully moved their troops towards Korea.
To avoid detection, Chinese forces moved only at night and stayed under camouflaged camps in the daytime. With satellites not existing yet in the 1950s, this proved very effective against only recon planes. So effective that the Allies had no idea that 200,000 Chinese troops were about to attack.
General MacArthur had no fear of Chinese intervention.
He admitted, though, that the Chinese had 300,000 troops in Manchuria, of which maybe 100,000 had their bases on the Yalu. He also believed that even if the Chinese sent 150,000 men into Korea, the Allies would defeat them easily.
Chinese forces caught the Allies completely by surprise.
Chinese troops crossed the Yalu on October 19, and defeated the South Koreans at the Battle of Onjong. Soon after, Stalin decided to intervene himself, sending the Soviet Air Force into Korea. Then, the Allies lost the Battle of Unsan on November 1, forcing them to retreat to the Ch’ongch’on River.
On November 24, the Allies counterattacked, only to find themselves trapped by the Chinese. The South Koreans lost the Battle of Ch’ongch’on River, while the Allies lost the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Again, the Allies found themselves forced to retreat.
Trapped Allied forces in Hungnam barely managed to escape in December.
The evacuation proved even more difficult as they had to do so while fending off Chinese attacks. The evacuation began on December 15, 1950, and finished on December 24, with 105,000 troops and 98,000 civilians successfully evacuated. In order to deny the city’s use to the enemy, the Allies destroyed Hungnam behind them.
President Truman reacted with alarm to the Chinese successes in Korea.
He issued Presidential Proclamation No. 2914, 3 C.F.R. 99 (1953) on December 16, 1950. It placed the USA under a national state of emergency, which actually stayed in force until September 14, 1978.
UN attempts to push for a ceasefire in December 1950 failed.
The Chinese rejected the UN’s offer on the basis of their success against the Allies in Korea. Those successes led them to believe they could win the war, and drive the Allies completely from Korea.
Communist forces continued to enjoy stunning success at the start of 1951.
China’s New Year Offensive proved very successful, with the Chinese and North Koreans again taking Seoul on January 4. The battle also had the distinction of the Chinese using gongs and trumpets as both a form of signaling orders, and also as a form of psychological warfare. Together with the use of night attacks, in many cases, Allied forces simply panicked and ran away from the fighting.
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Allied forces also managed to launch successful counterattacks in January.
The Allies managed to stop the Communist advance at Suwon, Wonju, and Samcheok. Much like the North Koreans at Busan in the previous year, the Chinese had advanced too fast and too far. This left their forces struggling to get supplies, with not just fuel and ammunition, but also with food and medicine.
South Korean forces continued anti-Communist measures in their territory at this time.
From February 9 to 11, 1951, South Korean troops and policemen committed the Geochang Massacre. Once again, they killed Communist sympathizers and their families, with 719 people dying, including 385 children. On February 7, South Korean troops killed another 705 civilians, who were Communist sympathizers, at Sancheong and Hanyang.
Corruption also plagued the South Korean military during the war.
Even before the war started, South Korean soldiers sometimes went unpaid for months, as their officers embezzled their pay. The official numbers of the ROKA also proved unreliable, as hundreds of thousands of troops existed only on paper. This allowed officers to embezzle the money meant to pay their supposed troops. Even the war changed nothing, as shown with the National Defense Corps Incident.
An estimated 400,000 civilians found themselves conscripted and then marched south. However, the officers embezzled the funds meant not just to pay the conscripts, but also to feed and arm them. This led to about 90,000 deaths from starvation, and up to 200,000 conscripts deserting. A postwar investigation led to the conviction and execution of the men responsible.
North Korean forces also killed Allied POWs at this time.
They killed them as early as the Battle of Busan, and kept killing as the war continued. By the war’s end, US military historians conclude that two-thirds of all American POWs in the war died as a result of North Korean war crimes.
The Chinese generally treated their prisoners better.
That’s not to say they didn’t suffer, as Allied POWs in Chinese hands found themselves facing starvation and disease. Historians note, though, that Chinese forces also found themselves short on supplies and medicine. Thus, the suffering of Allied POWs didn’t result from deliberate Chinese mistreatment, as much as the Chinese were not able to provide better for themselves, or their prisoners.
The US military operated ‘comfort stations’ for their troops in Korea.
In one of the most controversial legacies of the Korean War, the US military allowed and outright supported organized prostitution for their troops in Korea. Worse, many of these stations actually went back to the Japanese colonization of Korea. The so-called comfort stations housed the comfort women for the use of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). After Japan’s surrender, the US military simply brought them under new management for their own troops.
Allied forces continued to counterattack the Communists in February.
The Battle of Chipyong-ni from February 13 to 15, 1951, finally halted the Communist advance, thanks to heroic action by American and French troops. The Allies then launched Operation Killer from February 20 to March 6, 1951. They gave it that name partly because of the goal of killing as many enemy troops as possible.
Operation Ripper followed, from March 7 to 14, 1951, with the Allies again retaking Seoul. By then, the constant fighting around and in the city dropped its population from 1.5 million to just 200,000 people.
In April 1951, President Truman relieved General MacArthur of command.
Part of the reason involved MacArthur having to take responsibility as Supreme Allied Commander (SAC) whilst not having prepared for the Chinese entry into the war. There was also his insistence on making the decision to use nuclear weapons, instead of waiting for the US President. He also made public threats to directly attack China, all without the support and authorization of the US government. In the end, MacArthur’s lack of respect for the president’s authority led to his downfall.
Fears of a new world war constantly haunted the Allied and Communist leadership.
This led to the superpowers not using their full strength in the fighting, with the US not using nuclear weapons for starters. As for the Chinese, they held back on their Air Force, in particular, avoiding attacking Japan directly. The same went for the Soviets, who held back the 500,000 men they had in the Soviet Far East, as well as their own nuclear weapons.
The Communists launched their own counterattacks which lasted until June 1951.
Attempts to take Seoul again failed in the Battles of the Imjin River and Kapyong from April 22 to 25, 1951. In May, the Communists attacked again but lost to the Allies in the Battle of the Soyang River.
Stalemate fell across the frontlines for the next 2 years.
The fighting continued, with both sides using artillery to bombard each other regularly. In many places, the fighting degenerated into trench warfare that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the battlefields of WWI. In the end, little territory changed hands in these two years, with the Allies’ superiority in artillery balanced out by Communist rebels striking behind Allied lines.
The Allies initially limited their air operations over Korea.
When the war started, both Truman and MacArthur decided against carpet bombing as used against Japan and Germany in WWII. The Allied air campaign in the first months of the war found itself limited against military targets, such as enemy supplies and transports. The Chinese entry into the war changed things, however, with Allied leaders deciding to adopt the same air strategy used in WWII against Japan and Germany.
The Allied bombing campaign ultimately obliterated North Korea’s infrastructure.
It began with Kanggye in November 1950, which along with its surrounding villages, found themselves burned to the ground by American bombers. By the end of the month, 75% of Pyongyang had gone, along with 95% of Manpojin and 90% of Hoeryong among other cities. 18 out of North Korea’s 22 cities all suffered at least 50% devastation from Allied bombing.
In fact, by the war’s end, the Allied bombing campaign succeeded too well, as they found themselves bombing footpaths or cratered wasteland. The only factories, government offices, hospitals, and schools left running were those that lay underground. Everything built on North Korea’s surface was simply gone.
US General Ridgway praised the air campaign for keeping the Allies from losing.
In particular, Ridgway held the opinion that if not for the Allies’ airpower, the war would have ended in just two months in a Communist victory. And the Allied air forces certainly put in quite the effort, flying more than 1 million combat missions during the war.
The Communists later accused the US of using biological weapons.
They based their claims on small outbreaks of cholera, plague, and smallpox in North Korea and Manchuria in 1952. It didn’t help that it since became public knowledge that the US granted the IJA’s biological weapons program immunity to war crime charges.
In return, the scientists handed over all of their research data and cooperated with the US military. The Communists also had testimony from POWs who claimed they had deployed biological weapons. The US denied such claims, and had the International Red Cross investigate the accusations.
Rejecting the Red Cross investigation as biased, the Communists launched their investigation, which found the US guilty of using biological weapons. In contrast, the Red Cross found no evidence of the US doing so. Even today, whether or not the US have used biological weapons in Korea remains unclear.
The US did consider using nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.
The US military actually did have plans to use nuclear weapons against the Chinese, with Truman, in fact, signing the orders. However, the president ultimately never sent the orders, partly out of concern from the country’s European allies.
In particular, they feared that the US turning the Korean War into a nuclear war would provoke the Soviets into conquering Western Europe. In the end, Truman and the Pentagon decided to only use nuclear weapons if the Chinese attacked targets outside of Korea. They also decided to use them as a final option in a situation where the Allies would lose unless they used nuclear weapons.
Historians generally consider the possible use of nuclear weapons as questionable in effectiveness.
China’s limited infrastructure at the time meant that nuclear weapons would only have a limited effect destroying their ability to fight the war. Even using nuclear weapons against armies on the battlefield would have limited effect, as the Communists had dispersed their forces across the frontlines. Even nuclear attacks on Chinese cities might only end up strengthening Chinese resolve to win the war. The Chinese leadership would simply evacuate to the countryside, and use the nuclear attacks to rally support from the Chinese population.
Jet planes first dominated the battlefield in the Korean War.
This became clear early on when North Korea’s Yak-9 and La-9 propeller planes simply became overwhelmed by Allied jets like the P-80 and F9F, among others. Later on, the Chinese and the Soviets used the advanced MiG-15 with great effect against the Allies. Only the similarly-advanced American F-86 Saber prevented the Communists from seizing air superiority with the MiG-15.
Helicopters also made their military debut in the Korean War.
Even more amazing, they did so not in a combat role, but in a supporting role, taking wounded soldiers from the battlefield to hospitals. They proved very effective in this role, ensuring 97% of the injured managed to get the help they needed to avoid dying.
The Allies enjoyed overwhelming naval superiority during the war.
In fact, the only potential threat to the Allies at sea involved the 85 submarines of the Soviet Union’s Pacific Fleet. However, with Stalin refusing to commit more than the Soviet Air Force in the Korean War, those submarines stayed at their port.
This forced the Chinese and the North Koreans to use naval mines as their only way to challenge the Allies at sea. The North Koreans also used torpedo boats and gunboats early on, but the Allied cruisers and destroyers quickly sank them. And even the magnetic mines only had limited success, sinking only two minesweepers, two escort ships, and a tugboat during the war.
Tanks actually saw only limited use in the fighting of the Korean War.
Korea’s mountainous land meant neither the Allies nor the Communists could move huge armies of tanks the way they did in Europe during WWII. Tanks only ever fought in large numbers at the start of the war, when the North Koreans used them to overwhelm South Korea’s border defenses. For the rest of the war, both sides used tanks to support their troops as well as a form of mobile artillery.
Chinese government and military leaders argued with each other over the military’s problems in Korea.
Chinese Field Marshal Peng Dehuai became increasingly frustrated with his civilian counterparts as the war continued. For most of the war, the Chinese had to fight with the handicap of limited supplies, not just weapons and ammunition, but also food, fuel, and medicines. This eventually led to a meeting in February 1952, when Peng angrily accused the Chinese Military Commission of only spouting excuses while Chinese troops fought and died in Korea.
The Chinese made a final attempt to gain more territory while negotiations took place in June 1953.
Chinese troops attacked Kumsong, and successfully pushed back Allied forces. However, they failed to achieve anything decisive in the battle, with superior American firepower successfully halting Chinese attempts to push forward even further.
An armistice finally brought the fighting, but not the war, to an end on July 27, 1953.
Negotiations actually started as far back as 1951 but kept on failing again and again. Negotiations took place first at Kaesong, before later moving to Panmunjom.
A major factor in the failure of earlier negotiations involved the repatriation of POWs. In particular, many Chinese and North Korean POWs refused to return, which their respective governments refused to accept. In the end, the negotiators agreed to allow a commission of neutral nations to handle the issue of repatriated POWs separately.
Finally, the Indian-brokered armistice restored the border to its largely pre-war status. This satisfied most of the nations involved, with the sole exception of South Korea. Rhee refused to sign the armistice, insisting on the reunification of the whole peninsula by force under his leadership. And while the armistice ended the fighting, it never actually ended the war, which technically continues to the present day.
The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) was also formed at this time.
The NNSC holds the responsibility of making sure the armistice’s terms remain upheld by all signatories. Those originally included made sure neither North nor South Korea’s allies reinforced their existing troops on the peninsula, as well as did not bring in any new weapons.
Over the decades, however, the NNSC has adapted to changing times, in particular the adoption of new weapons such as guided missiles by both sides. The NNSC’s members have also changed over the decades, though, despite the agreement that formed the organization. Representatives from four nations originally made it up, two of each chosen by the Allies and the Communists. The Allies chose Sweden and Switzerland, while the Communists chose Czechoslovakia and Poland. After the Cold War, only Sweden and Switzerland continue to remain members of the NNSC.
The partition of Czechoslovakia after the end of the Cold War led to an eventual change in the NNSC.
Originally, the Czech Republic inherited Czechoslovakia’s membership in the NNSC. However, North Korea saw the democratic regime in the Czech Republic as biased, in favor of the West. Together with Poland’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after the Cold War, North Korea ended recognition of the NNSC. This has led to Czechoslovakia and Poland ending their membership in the NNSC, whose authority remains recognized by the other signatories of the armistice.
Both sides allowed each other to recover the bodies of the dead.
As best as they could, of course, as in many cases, there simply weren’t any bodies to recover. Operation Glory, as the US called it, lasted from July to November of 1954. An estimated 4000 bodies of dead Allied troops found themselves returned, in exchange for an estimated 14,000 dead Communist troops.
The armistice separated North and South Korea with the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
It runs an estimated 250 km long and 4 km wide, running across the peninsula and literally cutting it in two. It also doesn’t strictly follow the 38th Parallel, with the western end of the DMZ lying south of the 38th Parallel, and the eastern end lying north of the 38th Parallel.
Troops from either side can only enter the DMZ with the approval of the other side, and only in pre-approved numbers and times. Originally, the DMZ did not include a no-fly zone, but in 2018, South Korea and the US declared the DMZ a no-fly zone after North Korea sent balloons across the DMZ.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) lies inside the DMZ.
It is located in none other than the village of Panmunjom, originally part of North Korea, but made part of the DMZ after the signing of the armistice. Troops from both North and South Korea maintain guard duties in the JSA, including where they stand guard facing one another.
The JSA also includes what the media calls the Bridge of No Return, which is the only route that directly links North and South Korea. The JSA also maintains the original buildings where the armistice negotiations and signing took place, updated with modern furnishings. In fact, most negotiations between the signatories in the decades since the end of the fighting have also taken place in the JSA.
Both North and South Korea maintain ‘peace villages’ on their sides of the DMZ.
For South Korea, it’s Daeseong-dong, while for North Korea it’s Kijong-dong. Residents of Daeseong-dong count as South Korean citizens, but do not pay taxes and are exempt from serving in the military.
In contrast, Kijong-dong actually stands as a model village, and is made to look bright and cheerful when in fact, no one lives there. Instead, caretakers regularly perform maintenance to keep the facade of a lively community. And even then, analysis of pictures taken of Kijong-dong shows many buildings lacking window glass. Some even lack interior rooms, and they only stand as concrete shells brightly painted and decorated on the outside.
North Korea dug several tunnels under the DMZ over the decades.
It is unclear when they dug them, but South Korean patrols discovered the first tunnel in 1974. They found two more tunnels before the end of the decade, with the third tunnel actually pointed out to the South Koreans and Americans by a North Korean defector.
For their part, North Korea claimed they built the tunnels to mine coal, but the tunnels’ concrete walls, barracks, and even armories discredited their claims. Nearly two decades later in 1990, the South Koreans discovered a fourth tunnel running under the DMZ.
North Korea claims that South Korea and the US built a wall along the DMZ.
They claimed they did so in the 1970s, burying its northern side with soil, and vegetation on the southern side, to keep its existence hidden. However, the North Koreans first made their claims after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, taking advantage of the symbolism to make propaganda statements against their enemies. In fact, neither South Korea nor the US ever built a wall running along the whole length of the DMZ.
Anti-tank barriers do exist along the DMZ, however.
They take the form of minefields, which has later been revealed in 2018 to include an estimated 800,000 mines. Even then, the minefields did not cover the whole DMZ, instead relying only on expected routes tanks and vehicles would take should they invade from the north.
Seoul lies in the artillery range of the DMZ.
In fact, enough guns cover Seoul that the North Koreans can hit 10,000 shells in a single minute. And they could continue the bombardment so long as they have the ammunition, or until the guns get destroyed.
Experts believed that North Korea deliberately positioned its guns in such a way that they would become a threat to South Korea. That is, North Korea threatens Seoul in a way that will discourage them from potentially restarting the war.
Both North and South Korea conducted propaganda warfare over the DMZ.
Both sides once had loudspeakers set up on their sides of the DMZ, which they used to broadcast propaganda to the other side. However, in 2004, both North and South Korea agreed to end the use of loudspeakers, which lasted until 2015.
A landmine incident that year briefly restarted the use of loudspeakers but ended again after an apology from North Korea. However, after North Korea tested the H-Bomb in 2018, South Korea restarted propaganda broadcasts by loudspeakers, even installing new stereo technology.
South Korea maintains the Civilian Control Line (CCL) south of the DMZ.
It varies from 5 to 20 km in width, depending on location along the DMZ, with the land inside called the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ). Civilians need special authorization to enter the CCL, which actually exists as the reason behind the CCL in the first place.
Barbed wire and military checkpoints mark the CCL, allowing the military to control the number of civilians in the CCZ, thus helping secure the military bases inside. That being said, many people do live in the CCZ, up to 40,000 people in 81 communities, as far back as 1983.
A neutral zone also parallels the DMZ at sea.
It covers the whole estuary of the Han River and has the same rules as that of the DMZ. Civilian ships cannot enter those waters, and military vessels can only do so with approval from the other side.
Ironically, the armistice originally allowed civilian ships to use the estuary, but both North and South Korea closed it off as part of the DMZ instead. This also meant Seoul had no access to the sea, despite lying on the Han River, until South Korea completed the Ara Canal in 2012.
The DMZ ironically enjoys rich biodiversity.
The limited number of people that are allowed inside the DMZ, as well as how dangerous entering it can become, has allowed nature to flourish inside it. Endangered species like the Korean fox, the red-crowned crane, and the white-naped crane, among others, all live inside the DMZ.
Scientists estimate up to 2,900 plant species alone live in the DMZ, along with another 70 mammal species and 320 bird species. And their surveys all point to many more species living undocumented inside the DMZ.
South Korea stagnated in the decade immediately after the war.
The corruption of the Rhee regime did not help, with the regime’s fall in the April Revolution of 1960, leaving the country’s future uncertain. General Park Chung-hee’s 1961 coup restored social order, but even then, South Korea’s prospects remained bleak at the time.
Both China and the Soviets helped North Korea after the war.
China even canceled all of North Korea’s wartime debts, which amounted to 800 million yuan. Over the decades after the war, the Soviet Union and its East European satellites also provided an estimated 1 billion rubles in aid to North Korea. Even then, North Korea remains as one of the most undeveloped countries in the world today.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hugely benefited from the war.
The CCP already gained a great deal of legitimacy after forcing the Nationalists to retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Even then, Jiang Jieshi and the Republic of China still had the potential to eventually return and reclaim China from the CCP.
Instead, involvement in the Korean War and successes against the Allies strengthened the CCP’s position. When contrasted to China’s troubles over the past century and a half, the CCP’s show of strength led the Chinese population to believe that China’s future belonged to the CCP.
Japan also hugely benefited from the war.
Japan, at the start of the war, had only really started to recover from WWII, with only limited industry active. The outbreak of the Korean War led to a massive demand for supplies and equipment, as well as shipping to bring them from the US.
Japan provided convenient ports for Allied shipping, and as the war continued, the Japanese quickened and expanded the reconstruction of their industry. Processing supplies and manufacturing equipment in Japan removed the need to ship them from the US and allowed them to reach the frontlines sooner. It also cemented the American policy of keeping Japan as a way to prevent China and the Soviet Union from free access to the Pacific.
The Korean War strengthened US resolve over Taiwan.
Chinese successes in Korea led the US government to double-down on Taiwan’s continued independence as a way to limit the CCP’s power. While diplomacy has caused changes in the decades since the US remains bound with an Act of Congress to defend Taiwan against a Communist invasion. The US also remains the biggest vendor of military equipment and supplies to Taiwan.
The Vietnam War boosted South Korea’s economy.
South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War not only stabilized, but also encouraged the growth of the economy. The country’s GNP grew by a factor of 5, with its economy becoming one of the fastest growing in the world at the time.
North Korea considered restarting the fighting in 1975.
North Vietnam took the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in that same year, and winning the Vietnam War unified the country under Communism. This encouraged Kim Il-Sung, who believed that he could do just as well as the Vietnamese. This led him to visit China, meeting Zhou and even Mao Zedong, to gain support in breaking the armistice. Zhou and Mao refused to support Kim, however, thus forcing him to back down as North Korea couldn’t fight the Allies on their own.
The Axe Murder incident took place a year later in 1976.
The incident began when a group of American soldiers entered the DMZ to chop down a tree blocking the line of sight from an outpost on their side. They went through the necessary procedures before entering the DMZ, with the North Korean troops knowing full well what the Americans would do.
But when the Americans began chopping down the tree, the North Koreans demanded they leave, claiming Kim had planted the tree himself. When the Americans refused, the North Koreans attacked, killing them with axes. This resulted in a diplomatic incident, with the US ultimately sending a large force of troops to the DMZ.
Covered by their fellow troops, more American troops chopped the tree down while the North Koreans could only watch. An analyst even described the North Koreans as simply stunned at how much firepower the Americans had brought so they could safely chop the tree down.
A North Korean submarine sank a South Korean warship in 2010.
At the time, the US and South Korean navies held their joint naval exercises in the neutral zone. A North Korean submarine used this as an opportunity to torpedo the South Korean ship, ROKS Cheonan. After the investigation discovered the truth, both South Korea and the US demanded answers from North Korea.
North Korea denied involvement and branded both the incident and investigation staged. China and Russia backed North Korea, which led South Korea to impose a new set of economic sanctions against North Korea.
Later that same year, the North Koreans bombarded Yeonpyeong Island.
They did so in the aftermath of the same exercises where they sank the ROKS Cheonan. 170 shells and rockets pounded the island, killing two civilians and soldiers each. North Korea claimed they launched the attack in response to South Korea attacking them, a claim that South Korea denied. The international community condemned North Korea for the bombardment, while tensions rose sharply on the peninsula.
North Korea formally declared itself unbound by the armistice in 2013.
They did so after a fresh wave of sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They also declared that a state of war existed between them and South Korea, with North Korea ready and willing to use nuclear weapons if needed. This led the US to send additional missile defense systems to Guam.
Attempted peace talks in 2016 failed.
North Korea made the offer to the US and did so in secrecy, with the expectation that the talks would also stay secret. But while the US expressed willingness to negotiate, North Korea’s refusal to include nuclear disarmament in the agenda led the proposal to come to nothing.
In 2018, both North and South Korea began destroying guard posts and clearing minefields in the DMZ.
Starting on October 1 that year, both North and South Korea began a 20-day process to remove the landmines in the DMZ. Following their removal, only barbed wire remains as the known obstacle against invasion on the southern side of the DMZ. Each side also agreed to maintain one frontline guardpost each.
Both North and South Korea later reached another agreement in 2018.
This led to the declaration of buffer zones across the DMZ, where neither side can hold artillery drills through which even military aircraft cannot pass. In the west, the buffer zones extend north of Deokjeok Island and south of Cho Island. And in the east, the buffer zones extend north of Sokcho City and south of Tongchon County.
They also attempted to resolve the neutral zone in 2019.
Military officers from both North and South Korea agreed in January to allow civilian shipping to resume in the neutral zone. However, the failure of the Hanoi Summit later that year led to the indefinite postponement of the agreement’s implementation.