Useful Notes: The Korean War

"In war there is no substitute for victory."

Known in America mainly as the war (or "police action", as it was officially known) featured in M*A*S*H, the war in the Korean Peninsula, 1950-present. The two Koreas still have not signed a peace treaty, however after a long unofficial armistice, these two states have not resumed fighting, either. Despite the state of war, their relations have been more or less amicable at times, especially after 1998. It's often called "6.25 War" (referring to the date the war started, June 25th) or just "6.25" in South Korea and the "Fatherland Liberation War" in North Korea.

Both Korean states had been harassing each other along the border, and both had aspirations of placing the whole peninsula under their own style of government. On 25 June (6.25) 1950, North Korea took the initiative, crossed the 38th parallel and launched an invasion of South Korea.

The war played out much like a football game in which both teams make it to the one yard line only to fumble. In June 1950 the American forces occupying South Korea were in the process of closing shop, and the remaining soldiers had grown complacent and were unprepared for a war. When the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel, it met ineffective resistance and quickly pushed the American and South Korean forces to the southern part of the peninsula. Even reinforcements flown in from Japan did little to stop the North Korean advance, but the US and SK forces finally established a solid defensive line around Pusan.

In the meantime, the United States appealed to the United Nations for intervention. Normally this might've been a waste of time, as Stalin would have been under strong pressure to use the USSR's veto power to stop any such resolution. Fortunately for both Stalin and the US, the North Korean invasion had come while the Soviets were still boycotting the U.N. security council in protest at the People's Republic of China (est.1949) not being given the Republic of China's (est.1911)'s seat on the Security Council despite the former having conquered virtually all of the latter. This is good for the USA because it means she won't lose South Korea, and good for the USSR because it needs a distraction from the 'reorganisation' of eastern Europe (from heavily-bullied allies into outright satellite states).

Douglas MacArthur led coalition forces in a daring invasion at Inchon, on the Western coast of the peninsula. The expedition forced the North Korean army northward, back across the 38th Parallel and all the way to the Yalu River on the PRC's border. At this point the PRC, concerned as much by the American army on their doorstep as the fate of their fellow communists, rushed in a formidable force of Chinese Civil War veterans which once again sent the UN forces reeling - playing direct into Stalin's hands. For a start, Communist China waging war against virtually the entire world would not be particularly conducive to improving her diplomatic and trade relations with said world (from their already virtually non-existent state). Totally isolated and in dire need of military and economic assistance, she would be totally dependent upon the USSR. This helped Stalin drive a hard bargain in Sino-Soviet negotiations, with Soviet materials and advisors being paid for by Chinese raw materials and development in Manchuria and Xinjiang being pioneered by Sino-Soviet joint-stock companies.

MacArthur promptly advocates the nuclear carpet-bombing of PRC cities to disrupt their supply lines (making him an even worse General Ripper than the later the movie version) and President Truman has no choice but to fire himnote . Breathing a sigh of relief, the PRC's leadership goes ahead with urban education and bomb-shelter programmes anyway just in case the USA changes its mind about nuking them. This makes the first generation of kids to fear nuclear holocaust Chinese. How nice.

The new coalition commander, General Matthew Ridgway, managed to stabilize the situation and soon the UN forces were pushing the enemy northwards again. This time they decided to stop at the 38th Parallel and hold the line until a peace treaty could be signed.

And in a sane world, that's where the war would've ended, after only a single bloody year. But negotiations dragged on for two more years, and men continued to die by the hundreds with no territorial gains for either side (much like World War One a generation earlier). The Soviet Union snuck in some pilots, partly as a show of solidarity with the PRC but also to gain experience in modern air-air combat. The UN forces knew they were there, but weren't keen on starting a war with the Reds with Rockets. Finally, in 1953 both sides agreed to a cease-fire that set up a demilitarized zone between the two countries, and remains in effect today.note 

Although the US and her allies technically won the war — their main goal, maintaining South Korean independence, was achieved — the long bloody stalemate has ensured that the war is remembered as a draw. Another, much more paradoxical, but, ironically, official point of view was that the war didn't technically happen at all. Y'see, both halves of Korea consider themselves the only legitimate government, with their jurisdiction covering the entire peninsulanote , and the other contender as rebels and bandits. Thus, in their books, the whole war only counted as a police operation to bring the rebel provinces back, and Southern representatives weren't even present at the signing of the armistice. Even stranger, in this perspective, is that no official "country" participated in this war. US and its allies participated as the UN force, not as armed forces of the respective countries. The Chinese were all technically and legally "volunteers.". The Soviet pilots were officially never in Korea. And both Koreas denied that the other was a legitimate "country" at all.

The war saw the real start of jet-based air combat (jets had been used in World War II, but only in the very late stages of the war and in no case did jet fight jet). On the plus side, this war took advantage of major advances in antibiotics (penicillin had become as common as sulfa antibiotics), surgery, and transportation (including by helicopter) to create very effective care for the wounded. If you were a UN soldier wounded in combat and arrived at a MASH unit alive in that war, your chances of survival there were a whopping 97%. Amongst the Chinese forces, or European forces just a generation earlier, the average wounded soldier's chances could well have been a mere 50-50.

It's somewhat of a forgotten war in the United States despite seeing just over half as many American deaths as The Vietnam War (36,516 vs. 58,209 respectively, and over a far shorter period of time), 1,109 British deaths and a total body count that must be heading towards 3 million. In North Korea, however, the war has been used ever since as an excuse to villainize the United States and its "puppet government" in South Korea. Most of the population is led from birth to believe that the US is just waiting for the right moment to come in and "finish the job". Technically, the war is still ongoing as both sides have only ever agreed to a ceasefire, not any peace treaty. "Restarting" the war is a fairly common plotnote .


Media featuring the historical war:

Film
  • Fixed Bayonets!, 1951 American film
  • The Steel Helmet, 1951 American film
  • Retreat, Hell!, 1952 American film
  • Battle Circus, a 1953 American film starring Humphrey Bogart and set at a MASH hospital in Korea
  • Men of the Fighting Lady, 1954 American film
  • Men in War, 1957 American film
  • Sayonara, 1957 American film
  • Pork Chop Hill, 1959 American film
  • The opening scene of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) takes place in Korea, and most of the film deals with the aftereffects of one infantry unit's capture and subsequent brainwashing by Communists there.
  • The Hook, 1963 American film
  • M*A*S*H (1970) Of course
  • Welcome to Dongmakgol, 2005 South Korean film
  • Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (AKA: Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, Brotherhood: Taegukgi), a 2007 South Korean film. "Taegukgi" is a name for the flag of South Korea. The movie is about two brothers who get caught up in the war: the older brother does everything he can to get medals so he can request for his younger brother to be sent home; when he believes his brother has died in a fire he does a Face-Heel Turn to North Korea out of despair.
  • Assembly, 2007 Chinese film which also takes place during the Chinese Civil War
  • Silmido is about the Second Korean War, a period of tension and armed skirmishes between 1966 and 1976.
  • Inchon, a 1981 American film funded by Sun Myung Moon. Famously considered one of the worst movies of all time, it "won" four Razzies. As a box office failure, it's often mentioned in the same breath as Heaven's Gate. MacArthur was played by Laurence Olivier, who provided the name for Money, Dear Boy when describing why he took the part.
  • MacArthur, a 1977 film, made in much the same vein as Patton, (shows us the titular General's story from the man's own perspective) shows the glorious career of General Douglas MacArthur during World War II up until the Korean War. The film showcases MacArthur's brilliant successes in Korea and his unexpected failures, but the story maintains that MacArthur's tactics are working and that he is quite capable of winning if President Truman will only allow him to utilize the full military might of the United States. The President refuses and MacArthur becomes disgusted at the politics game that Truman is playing, namely not wanting to start a Total War with Communist China and the Soviets (which would be mind-bogglingly expensive and could kill [tens of] millions) and to avoid possible nuclear war, and claims that there is no substitute for victory in a war and one should either fight with everything one has or not fight at all. MacArthur is relieved of his command over the war and fades into obscurity until his eventual retirement from the Army and in his last moments as a General and as a soldier he addresses many young and aspiring soldiers/cadets at West Point about what his career in the Military has meant to him.
  • Sheriff Will Teasle of the first Rambo film is a Korean War veteran. It is implied on the movie (and explicit on the novel) that his Irrational Hatred for Rambo is because Korea (and his own sacrifices by proxy) has been all but swept under the rug by the American people while Rambo (a Vietnam War vet) is a walking symbol of the "new generation".

Literature
  • James Salter's The Hunters is a novel set in the Korean air war which features an Officer and a Gentleman and a particularly nasty Glory Hound.
  • The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a James Michener novel subsequently made into a film
  • Mash, a novel (1968), film (1970), and TV series (1972-83)
  • This Kind of War, by T. R. Fehrenbach (1960). This is considered by many historians to be THE definitive history of the Korean War, and an excellent read on its own literary merits. It is also required reading for all US officer candidate cadets at West Point and all candidates for promotion to the rank of General or Admiral in the US military.
  • In Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, John is a Korean War veteran, though the reader only gets a few hints about what exactly he did in the conflict.
  • Harry Turtledove's upcoming Alternate History series The Hot War has history change due to a more successful PLA counterattack in the winter of 1950-51 nearly wiping out UN forces instead of just defeating them. Harry Truman follows General MacArthur's advice to use atomic weapons in Manchuria to cut off PLA forces; in return, Josef Stalin attacks US allies in Europe, and World War III begins.

Live-Action TV
  • M*A*S*H, which ran three times longer than the 'hot' part of the war.
  • In Mad Men, Dick Whitman is a soldier in Korea when his commanding officer—in a two-man camp!—is killed. As Whitman isn't doing too well for himself, he takes the dead man's identity- Don Draper.
  • Basil Fawlty appearently served in the Catering Corps. He also claims to have a shrapnel wound on his leg when he needs an excuse.
  • Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files fought in Korea.
  • In Seinfeld, George's father, Frank was a cook in the Korean War, and has traumatic flashbacks about the time he sickened his fellow troops by using bad meat.
  • Red Forman from That '70s Show fought in the war.
  • JAG:
    • Harm and Mac travel to South Korea along with an Army General to investigate an alleged massacre that took place at the time of the war in the fifth season episode "The Bridge at Kang So Ri".
    • Gunnery Sergeant Galindez helps an old Hispanic Marine veteran of the Korean War who fought at the Chosin reservoir in the sixth season episode "Retreat, Hell".
  • Cold Case: "Shore Leave" centres around the murder of a marine preparing to ship out to Korea.
  • On The Greatest American Hero, Bill Maxwell is a veteran of the war.
  • Martin Crane, Frasier's father, served in Korea.
  • George Jefferson on The Jeffersons served in Korea as a cook aboard an aircraft carrier in the Navy.
  • Gy Sgt Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. fought in Korea.
  • Both Blanche's late husband and Dorothy's ex-husband were mentioned to have been Korean War veterans on The Golden Girls.
  • Trevor Ochmonek, the wacky neighbor on Alf, was a Korean War veteran.
  • Jack Arnold, the father in The Wonder Years, was a veteran of the Korean War; a first lieutenant in the USMC to judge from his photographs.
  • Phillip Drummond on Diff'rent Strokes is a Korean War veteran.
  • Dr. Quincy on Quincy, is a Korean War veteran and he served as a Navy doctor.

Video Games
  • The aptly named 2003 title Korea : Forgotten Conflict. Its style of gameplay is very similar to that of the Commandos series.
  • War Thunder includes aircraft that were used in the Korean War. An achievement for advancing up the Soviet tier tree is called "Spain to Korea".
  • The Steel Panthers series has traditionally included a number of campaigns and scenarios focusing on the conflict. The third game in particular included a scenario based on the ill-fated delaying action of Task Force Smith.
  • The Cold War campaign in the Thrones and Patriots expansion of Rise of Nations allows the player (as the US or Soviet Union) to get involved in the war. The US has the option to decide whether to simply hold on to South Korea's original cities or push into the North - the latter action spurs China into action against you and pushes the worldwide DEFCON level down. The Soviets, in addition to taking on a more active role, can also decide whether to accept Chinese help in exchange for a non-agression pact lasting several campaign turns (that you can break early, also for a DEFCON level fall).


Media that discusses restarting the war

Anime

Film

Literature
  • The Dale Brown novel Battle Born
  • Larry Bond's Red Phoenix.

Live-Action TV

  • Deadliest Warrior had an episode featuring a squad-on-squad battle between the US Army Rangers and the NKSOF in this context.

Video Games

Alternative Title(s):

Korean War