Shattering the Land of the Morning Calm
Seventy years ago, in the predawn hours of 25 June 1950, North Korea launched their invasion of South Korea. The attack started with a massive artillery barrage, followed by 100,000 North Korea People’s Army (NKPA) troops, backed by Soviet built T-34 tanks pushing across the 38th Parallel. North Korean leader Kim Il Sung sought and gained approval from Soviet leaders to invade the South back in January of 1950, in an effort to unite the peninsula under his communist regime.
During the establishment of South Korea in 1948, the North undertook a campaign aimed at inspiring communist uprisings south of the 38th Parallel in an effort to prevent a democratic South Korea from coming to fruition. Additionally they also conducted cross border guerrilla attacks aimed at keeping the South Koreans from effectively countering the uprisings. The North failed in this venture, because South Korea became a nation with Syngman Rhee as president in August 1948. While the North’s strategy failed in preventing a democratic South Korea, they succeeded in hampering the South’s ability to create a strong, well trained military. In the beginning of 1950, American advisors working with the South Koreans stated that less than half of the South Korean military units were ready for a war. It can be safely assumed that North Korea had this intelligence as well.
While the South Korean military was weakened and ill prepared for war, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had been building and strengthening his military. The North Korean high command modeled their armed forces after the Soviet Union’s. Heavy emphasis was placed on mechanized and mobile forces, including the previously mentioned tanks. While the Soviets provided arms and armament to the North Koreans, the Chinese released Korean veterans from their People’s Liberation Army (PLA), following the recent victory of Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War. These battle hardened Korean veterans made up the officer Corp of the North Korean military, whose experience gave them a decided edge over their southern counterparts.
Following the massive artillery barrage in the early morning hours of 25 June 1950, two North Korean Corps burst through the 38th Parallel. The NKPA I Corps pushed south on the west side of the peninsula, with the goal of capturing the South Korean capital of Seoul. The NKPA II Corps pushed south in the eastern sector of the peninsula following the east coast road. Backed by tanks, led by combat veterans from the Chinese Civil War, supplied and trained in the Soviet model, the 100,000 plus NKPA force smashed their South Korean adversaries. The Republic of Korea (ROK) forces of South Korea had little to no anti-armor support and few tanks. They put up as best of a defense as they could but they were no match for the force of the NKPA.
News reached the American government of the invasion in Korea, threatening the American policy of containment against the spread of Communism. President Truman went to the United Nations Security Council for help instead of a declaration of war, worried that time was of the essence in Korea. The United Nations sent a formal declaration insisting that the invasion halt. Truman also ordered General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United States Far East Command based in Japan, to provide air cover and munitions for the ROK troops and also to evacuate American civilians from the peninsula. The American military at this time had seen drastic drawdown following World War Two. The Eighth Army was stationed in Japan, which made it the closest American force for potential involvement in Korea. That being said, they were underequipped and undermanned for what was coming. There will be more on that in an upcoming blog.
On 27 June 1950, US delegates at the United Nations pushed their counterparts to support a resolution to provide military assistance to the ROK. The resolution passed, which coincidentally took place while the Soviet Union, who has veto power, was boycotting the UN in protest of the UN not admitting Communist China as a member nation. President Truman announced that US air and Naval power would be sent to help stem the Communist tide in Korea. Congress approved and supported American military involvement in Korea along with most of the American public.
On 28 June the NKPA entered and captured Seoul, missing their goal of capturing Syngman Rhee’s government and destruction of the ROK army. The ROK troops, while out gunned and out manned, retired in good order and took up defensive positions south of the Han River. Also on the 28th, as the situation in Korea was rapidly deteriorating, the UN Security Council again met. This time they voted to approve UN use of force in Korea. The Soviet Union was still boycotting and thus didn’t use it’s veto power on such a measure. This last measure meant UN (and US) support for South Korea would go beyond just air support.
Given the amount of military draw down that took place following World War Two, the forces of the United States were woefully unprepared for such a conflict as was taking place in Korea. The active duty American military as a whole was far below it’s wartime manpower requirements. The same powerful American military that defeated two empires just five years prior were now low on manpower. On 30 June 1950 President Truman gained congressional approval for calling up the military reserves to supplement the depleted active duty units. Coinciding with this, president Truman agreed to give General Douglas MacArthur two divisions for use in Korea. The Nationalist Chinese offered to send troops to support the US effort in fighting the Communists in Korea, but presidential advisors spoke against that, citing that if Nationalists joined the fight in Korea, Mao would most certainly get involved. In just a few short days the Land of the Morning Calm erupted into full scale war which had the potential to bring the two main superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union on opposing sides. A war in a nation few had ever heard of seemed to be the spiraling towards a third world war.