Destined to Fail? How the division of Korea led to the Korean War

Rowena Hammal explains why the Korean War broke out in 1950.

F4U-5 Corsairs provide close air support to U.S. Marines fighting Chinese forces, December 1950.If there is one issue on which historians should be able to agree, it is that the artificial division of a country usually creates more problems than it solves. The twentieth century is full of examples: Ireland in 1921, Germany after each of the two world wars, the partition of India in 1947, the creation of Israel in 1948. Korea’s division led to a war which proved as serious as any of the difficulties encountered by those nations. A unique set of internal and external factors combined to create a conflict which almost precipitated a nuclear war. President Truman wrote in despair in December 1950, ‘I’ve worked for peace for five years and six months and it looks like World War III is here.’

Fortunately, Truman was proved wrong. The US was able to restrain itself from using the atomic bomb, and the USSR decided not to become fully involved in the war. Instead, North Korean and later Chinese troops fought a conventional war against the United Nations forces led by the US. International losses were heavy: up to 1 million Chinese, 33,000 Americans, and 686 British soldiers were killed. However, for Korea the war was truly cataclysmic, leaving an estimated 3 million civilians (approximately a tenth of the population) and 500,000 soldiers dead (from North and South), and ending with a stalemate which has left the country divided to this day. This article will examine the division of Korea into North and South, and consider how this led to war.

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