There was a funny scene in an episode of the hit Korean Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, where the father asks his daughter’s date when the Korean War started, just to test the suitor’s Korean-ness and make sure he is worthy of a date with his daughter. Passing a test like this may not be a concern for most people. But it can, however, serve as a nudge to brush up on our knowledge of a seismic event that left 10% of the Korean population dead and generations of Koreans forever changed by the scars that continue to be passed on.
At the end of the World War II, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel. Much can be debated about the decision to divide Korea, as well as what could have been done to prevent this atrocity in the first place. But divided it was, and in the subsequent five years animosity between the Soviet-supported North and the U.S.-supported South festered, before eventually boiling over into a bloody civil war.
1. War broke out on ‘Six Two Five’
On the evening of June 25th, 1950, North Korean forces stormed across the 38th parallel which divided North and South Korea. Koreans still ominously refer to this fateful day as ‘six two five’ or yook yee oh (육이오). The surprise attack by the North resulted in a rout of the ill prepared South Korean army, and Seoul was under attack within hours.
Although Bruce Cumings, the foremost American scholar on modern Korean history, argues convincingly in his book The Korean War, A History, that the war did not start on any specific day, but rather was the result of a series of events with fault on both sides, the fact remains that on the 25th of June 1950, the North Korean forces stormed the border and thus started the war.
2. United Nations (and Russia) played a major role
On the day that war broke out, the Security Council of the United Nations met and the US called on North Korea to withdraw to the 38th Parallel. Nine out of the eleven countries on the Security Council supported this view.
Two days later on June 27th, America called on the United Nations to use force against North Korea as they had ignored the Security Council’s Resolution of June 25th. The resolution passed the vote in what might be viewed as a stroke of luck since the Russians were boycotting the United Nations at the time for unrelated reasons, and their absence prevented the possibility of a Russian veto.
3. Sixteen nations sent aid to South Korea
The United Nations was quick to respond and the US led the initiative to fight the North Koreans. But many other countries sent critical military and medical aid.
16 countries sent troops: 1) USA, 2) Great Britain, 3) Canada, 4) Turkey, 5) Australia, 6) Philippines, 7) Thailand, 8) the Netherlands, 9) Colombia, 10) Greece, 11) New Zealand, 12) Ethiopia, 13) Belgium, 14) France, 15) South Africa, 16) Luxembourg.
Medical units and aid were sent from 5 additional countries: 1)Sweden, 2)Denmark, 3) India, 4) Norway, 5) Italy.
4. The US never actually declared war
Under the US Constitution, only the US Congress can declare war on another nation. But it has not done so since World War II. The Korean War was technically a “police action” for which President Harry S. Truman did not have to seek permission from Congress.
“The war was the first large overseas US conflict without a declaration of war, setting a precedent for the unilateral presidential power exercised today,” Emory University law professor Mary Dudziak wrote in a 2019 column for the Washington Post.
5. The US dropped more bombs on North Korea than on the entire Pacific region during WWII
Much of the destruction wreaked on North Korea by the US military was done in a relentless bombing campaign. During the three years of the Korean War, US aircraft dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea. That’s more than the 500,000 tons of bombs the US dropped in the Pacific in the entirety of the Second World War, according to figures cited by historian Charles Armstrong in the Asia-Pacific Journal.
6. The Allies briefly occupied Pyongyang
Today it’s almost impossible for Americans to travel to North Korea or its capital city. But for eight weeks in 1950, Pyongyang was under the control of the US Army. On October 19, 1950, the allied forces captured the North Korean capital, according to US Army histories, and held it until December 5 of that year. (Source: CNN)
7. General MacArthur Was Fired
General Douglas MacArthur had commanded the Pacific troops in World War II and when the Korean War broke out, he was put in command of the United Nations forces against North Korea. Less than a year after his appointment on April 11, 1951, President Truman fired the enormously popular and successful general and replaced him with Gen. Matthew Ridgeway. Many did not think Truman had the nerve to fire MacArthur but as MacArthur pressed his desire to enter full scale war with red China, Truman felt he had no choice but to fire him for insubordination. In his 1956 memoirs, Truman wrote: “If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military. Policies are to be made by the elected political officials, not by generals or admirals.”
8. Nearly 5 million people died in the Korean War
The Korean War was relatively short but exceptionally bloody. The exact number of casualties varies depending on sources but most experts agree that nearly 5 million people died during the conflict. More than half of those killed were Korean civilians, about 10 percent of Korea’s prewar population. This rate of civilian casualties was higher than that of World War II and the Vietnam War. Almost 40,000 Americans died in action in Korea, and more than 100,000 were wounded.
9. The Korean War never officially ended
An armistice signed on July 27, 1953, stopped the conflict, but the war never officially ended because there was no peace treaty signed.
10. The per capita GDP in Korea at the end of the war was $67 — per year
The gross national income per capita in South Korea skyrocketed to $33,790 in 2019, from a shockingly low $67 at the end of the war in 1953. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world in the war’s aftermath but today stands as the 12th largest economy in the world.