The closest the USA ever came to using several hundred nuclear weapons upon the People's Republic of China, the Korean War is variously known as "the 6.25 War" (the war began on the 25th of June) or just "6.25" in South Korea, "the Fatherland Liberation War" in North Korea, and "the M*A*S*H war" in the English-speaking world. While the actual fighting spanned from 1950 to 1953, the two Koreas are still de jure at war, as they only ever agreed to a ceasefire without ever signing a formal treaty. That said, as no serious fighting has ensued in the decades since, the Koreas are considered in a de facto state of peace at best and a miniature version of the Cold War at worst. On April 27, 2018, the two Koreas agreed to officially end the war, but despite this declaration, no official peace treaty has yet been signed, leaving the war — or conflict, as it is often known — to continue in the form of a political and geographic divide.
Korea had been divided between the The United States and the Soviet Union, the latter having declared war on Japan in the final few days of World War II. The Soviets occupied everything north of the 38th parallel and the Americans occupied everything south of it. Kim Il-sung was appointed to lead the DPRK, while elections were held in the south. Those elections proved controversial, with boycotts and protests, but in the end the right-wing Syngman Rhee was elected. Token attempts at reunification were attempted, but it was clear, especially after the 1948 election in the South, that it was not going to happen.
At least 100,000 Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, 'North' Korea) served in at least the final three years (1948-50) of the Chinese Civil War on the side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After most of the Chinese-majority provinces of the Mainland had been conquered, on the 1st of October 1949 Chairman Mao of the CCP declared the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Roughly 1.5 million troops whose warlords were allied with or who answered directly to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMG) continued to hold out along the Chinese-Burman border, Chinese Central Asia, and on Hainan Island (and Taiwan) but the war was effectively over by then. The PRC's People's Liberation Army (PLA) was simply unable to deploy most of its troops in these remote and inaccessible areas, so it demobilised most of its forces and allowed most DPRK units to return to North Korea with their equipment and weapons - and experience in battle. The final 30,000 were repatriated within three months of the outbreak of the Korean War.
Within Korea itself, tensions had grown as the Republic of Korea (ROK, 'South' Korea) began to descend into internicine strife and let groups within its society instigate border incidents with the North which were soon reciprocated. In a curious inversion of present-day affairs, where the South is the orderly and prosperous of the two and the North is the semi-anarchic basketcase, in the period 1945-50 the North achieved a high degree of popular contentment due to state investment in education, basic healthcare, workers' rights, etc where as the South had begun a backslide into kleptocratic mayhem. The US occupation authorities had somewhat unwisely decided to innoculate South Korean society against socialism by defunding the school system and encouraging the clique of oligarchs led by President Park to deny unemployment subsidies, safe working conditions, limited working hours etc. to South Korean workers.
Some historians such as Allan R. Millet have contested that the Korean (Civil) War began as early as the Jeju Island Uprising of Spring 1948, and terrorist attacks and rioting by the (Communist) Korean Labor Party on the peninsula proper. Korean Christian and Pro-Capitalist paramilitary groups were strengthened and in many cases led by 'landlords' and 'capitalists' (rich rentier-farmers who had lost most of their land in the DPRK Land Reforms, factory/mine/shop owners whose assets had been nationalised) whose assets had been seized but had been allowed to flee to the South. These paramilitary groups instituted repression within the south and launched raids into the north, which were combated by regular DPRK forces.
In March 1950, Stalin responded to DPRK leader Kim Il-Sung's latest request for permission to invade South Korea in the affirmative. There were a number of reasons for this. First and foremost was that Stalin knew that the PRC would someday become the most powerful country in the Communist Bloc by virtue of its sheer economic potential (with c.500 million citizens to the USSR's post-WWII 180 million). Secondly, Stalin knew that the realities of geopolitics meant that aside from a common ideology, the USSR and PRC had no common interests or enemies. Thirdly, Stalin knew that the reconstruction and development aid which the USA could offer the PRC was an order of magnitude larger than what the USSR could give it.
The obvious solution was to turn the PRC's ideological opposition to the USA into a very real, very concrete struggle which would force them to turn to the Soviets for aid. Since neither the USA, Britain, nor France would sell armaments to or trade with the PRC while they were at war with it, this would enable the USSR to profit very handsomely from selling arms to, trading with, and developing the PRC. And naturally, just as the USA was refusing to share nuclear weapons technology with Britain and France (under the McMahon Act preserving Nuclear Secrets), so the USSR should refuse to share it with China.
All Stalin had to do was, when the Americans inevitably intervened and, under the ambitious General MacArthur, inevitably sought to conquer northern Korea, promise Mao that the Soviet Union would provide the PRC with 'air cover' and 'air defenses' and 'artillery'. When the Chinese intervened Stalin then revealed that Soviet 'air cover' and 'air defenses' were only going to be in place over Chinese territory and that the 'artillery' was not going to be freely given: it was going to be sold. And it was not going to be sold cheaply.
On 25 June (6.25) 1950, North Korea took the initiative, crossed the 38th parallel and launched an invasion of South Korea.
Geographically at least, the war played out much like a football game in which both teams make it to the final 10-yard line only to fumble. In June 1950 the American forces occupying South Korea were in the process of closing up shop, and the remaining soldiers had grown complacent and were unprepared for a war. Thanks to a probably-justified lack of trust in South Korean president Syngman Rhee, who was at least as aggressive and belligerent as Kim Il-Sung, the United States had chosen not to supply the ROK’s army with any heavy artillery, armor, aircraft, anti-tank weapons, or any vehicle more militarized than a truck, for fear that he would cause unwanted trouble with his neighbors. When the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel with a massive array of Soviet-made tanks and other firepower, it met ineffective resistance and quickly pushed the American and South Korean forces to the southern part of the peninsula. Even US reinforcements flown in from Japan (the hastily-assembled and ill-fated Task Force Smith, who were also sent in without any armor or anti-tank weapons) did little to stop the North Korean advance, but the US & SK forces finally established a solid defensive line around the port-city of Busan (which became the temporary capital of the South after Seoul was taken).
The USA's General Douglas MacArthur led UN 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 Capitalist Imperialist Armies 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 was not 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 was 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 economic development in Manchuria and Xinjiang being pioneered by Sino-Soviet joint-stock companies.
MacArthur promptly advocated the nuclear carpet-bombing of PRC cities to disrupt their supply lines (making him every bit as much of a General Ripper as the later movie version) and President Truman had no choice but to fire him after he did so in publicnote . Breathing a sigh of relief, the PRC's leadership went ahead with urban education and bomb-shelter programmes anyway just in case the USA changed its mind about nuking them. This led a generation of Chinese kids to fear an American nuclear holocaust. 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 thousands with no territorial gains for either side (much like World War I a generation earlier, only this time with jets). The Soviet Union snuck in some pilots, partly as a show of solidarity with the PRC but also to gain experience in modern air-to-air combat. The UN forces knew they were there, but weren't keen on starting a war with the Reds with Rockets.note
In Spring 1953, the US Far East Command endorsed OPLAN (Operations Plan) 8-52 in the event of DPRK non-acceptance of their final ceasefire proposal. This called for a final offensive to occupy DPRK territory, which depending upon results was to end with more favourable ceasefire terms or debellatio (destruction of the opposing state). If resistance was too difficult, the offensive was to be enabled through the employment of an initial bombardment of 480 tactical nuclear weapons upon the towns and cities of the DPRK and Chinese Manchuria which possessed railway stations to annihilate stockpiles of food, ammunition, and concentrations of reserve troops as well as forestalling the movement of these to the front. If this proved insufficient, the use of a further 120 weapons was authorised to maintain the disuse of the DPRK-Manchurian road-rail networks.
Finally, in 1953, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, establishing a demilitarized zone between the two countries, and which remains in effect today.note
With the North's invasion of the South as well as the UN's invasion of the North having both been repelled during the war, both sides declared victory. However, 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.note Even stranger, in this perspective, is that no official "country" participated in this war. The 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 airmen were officially never in Korea. And both Koreas denied that the other was a legitimate "country" at all (and still do to this day).
The Korean War was largely fought by the same commanders and with the same doctrines, weapons, and equipment as the Second World War. The USA and its allies had counted upon their superiority in nuclear weapons to make up for their lack of conventional armament, and the Soviets only sold obsolescent WWII-vintage armaments to the PRC and DPRK - they kept all armaments designed and produced since 1945 for themselves. However, the war did see 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 cases 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 in much higher-intensity combat), 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. This is in large part because a peace treaty would require the two Koreas to officially recognize each other as existing,note which they refuse to do. "Restarting" the war is a fairly common plot.note
In 2018, a summit was held between the leaders of North and South (between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in respectively), focusing on phasing out nuclear weapons. Then-White House resident Donald Trump met with Kim for 2 summits in 2018 and 2019, although both summits failed to officially end the Korean War. Despite the failure of the summits, many South Koreans remained optimistic for the future of more summit talks and following the 2018 summit, Kim Jong-un scored an 80% approval rating in South Korea. In July 2019, Trump became the first sitting US President to set foot on North Korean sovereign territory when he approached Kim to resume talks. However, to this day South Korea reports that North Korea continues to test their missile capabilities, and outside of the peninsula the hope for an end to the conflict remains slim.
Media featuring the historical war:
Anime and Manga
- Patlabor: Kanuka Clancy's grandfather was a US Air Force bomber pilot who left for Korea on Christmas 1950 and didn't come back. In "Eve's Trap", her grandmother visits her over Christmas and then disappears; she turns out to have gone out to visit her husband's old base from fifty years earlier, the last place she ever saw him.
- The manga version of Tiger Mask features it briefly as part of the fake Tiger Mask's backstory, as he was a Korean kid who lost his parents during that conflict. It's implied that, of all the orphans Tiger's Cave took in, he was the one whose life actually improved after that, as not only they probably saved his life but their infamous training wasn't as bad as that war.
- Briefly featured in Tomorrow's Joe when Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation bantamweight champion Kim Yongbi reveals his backstory and his terrifying experiences as a kid during that time.
- EC Comics had many stories set in the Korean War, drawn by Harvey Kurtzman.
- Two of Garth Ennis's many war comics, The Green Fields Beyond and The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova feature this war.
- 71: Into the Fire (2010) - a heavily fictionalized account of the Battle of Po'hang Dong in 1950.
- Fixed Bayonets! (1951)
- The Steel Helmet (1951)
- Retreat, Hell! (1952)
- Battle Circus, (1953), which stars Humphrey Bogart and is set at a MASH hospital in Korea.
- The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
- Men of the Fighting Lady (1954)
- Men in War (1957)
- Sayonara (1957)
- The Hunters (1958)
- Pork Chop Hill (1959)
- 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.
- War Hunt (1962)
- The Hook (1963)
- M*A*S*H (1970), of course.
- Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), a South Korean film.
- Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (AKA: Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, Brotherhood: Taegukgi), a 2004 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, a 2007 Chinese film which also takes place during the Chinese Civil War.
- The Front Line, a South Korean-made war film takes place in the closing days of the war, where an investigation officer goes to the titular front line to investigate the murder of an officer.
- 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 when it originally came out, it "won" four Razzies. As a box office failure, it's often mentioned in the same breath as Heaven's Gate, though like that film, it does have it's share of fans today, some of which think it got way more hate then it deserved. 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 (it depicts 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 in the movie (and explicit in 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".
- Operation Chromite, a South Korean film from 2016 about the Battle of Inchon starring Liam Neeson as General MacArthur.
- The Battle of Changjin Lake, a 2021 Chinese film about the engagement that the West calls the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. "Chosin" is the Japanese pronunciation of "Changjin," since the U.N. forces were relying on Japanese maps.
- Devotion (2022) is a biopic about Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first black US naval aviator, who was shot down over Chosin Reservoir in December 1950.
- Richard Hooker's MASH, which spawned the hit film and TV series.
- 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, which was made into a film.
- The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a James Michener novel subsequently made into a film.
- 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.
- 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.
- Fawlty Towers: Basil Fawlty apparently 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. So did James Garner, who played Jim Rockford.
- 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.
- 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" centers 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.
- Gunnery Sergeant Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. fought in Korea.
- On The Golden Girls:
- Blanche's late husband George served in Korea in the early years of their marriage, and they frequently exchanged letters.
- One of the many stories for Dorothy's first sexual encounter with Stan involved him claiming he was going to be shipped off to Korea the next morning and "it would mean so much". Knowing Stan, this was probably a lie, especially considering most other recollections of their first time involving him slipping her something.
- Trevor Ochmonek, the wacky neighbor on ALF, was a Korean War veteran.
- Jack Arnold, the father on 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, M.E., is a Korean War veteran and he served as a Navy doctor.
- In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Isaiah Bradley fought a brainwashed Bucky Barnes (then known as the Winter Soldier) during the Korean War.
- The historical World War 2 miniature wargame Bolt Action has a supplement aptly called Korea which adds the story of the war, scenarios for battles and army lists. Since the war was very similar to WW 2, there aren't many modifications of the rules. Available factions include the Korean People's Army, the Republic of Korea, United States forces, British Commonwealth and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army.
- 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 top tiers of World of Tanks and World of Warplanes involve vehicles from this era.
- 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-aggression pact lasting several campaign turns (that you can break early, also for a DEFCON level fall).
- Sabre Ace: Conflict Over Korea is an air combat simulator set during the war, with the USAF player starting in an F-51 Mustang and working their way up to an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. The North Korean campaign has you ahistoricallynote playing a Soviet pilot, starting in a Yak-9 and changing over to a MiG-15 jet later.
- Though Call of Duty: Black Ops primarily focuses on Vietnam, the dossier the player can unlock for protagonist Alex Mason mentions that he served in the USMC Force Recon during Korea before being recruited for Operation 40.
- Tom Anderson on Beavis And Butthead is a veteran of the war.
- Frank Murphy from F is for Family speaks often about his time serving in Korea.
Media that discusses restarting the war
- Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex: This happens in the background of the show and is an important event in the second season.
- The Dale Brown novel Battle Born.
- Tom Clancy collaborator Larry Bond published Red Phoenix in 1990 telling the story of a North Korean invasion of South Korea and the efforts of the USA and South Korea to defeat them.
- Deadliest Warrior had an episode featuring a squad-on-squad battle between the US Army Rangers and the NKSOF in this context.
- The video game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a combination of this and events highly similar to the invasion of Iraq. Banned in Korea.
- Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory has the war restart halfway through the game as a result of the bad guys using weaponized computer algorithms to autonomously launch a North Korean missile at a US warship, sinking it and pinning the blame on them. One level has Sam sneaking his way through the missile battery that launched the missile, and the next takes him through a war-torn Seoul (which caused it to be banned in South Korea for a while).
- Ghost Recon 2 is an interesting case, as the "First Contact" version for PS2 and GameCube depicts the same conflict as in Chaos Theory, showing more of the actual battles of it (whereas Chaos Theory focuses more on the truth behind the war)... and then the "Final Assault" version for Xbox concerns the war restarting again a couple years later.
- Command & Conquer: Generals: Zero Hour makes mention of a Second Korean War, which American general Alexis Alexander is a veteran of.
- Steel Panthers, again.
- Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare begins its prologue with a hi-tech North Korean invasion of Seoul taking place in 2054.
- Two of the campaigns in Wargame: Red Dragon take place during a hypothetical second Korean War in 1987 and 1991.