The Significance of the Korean War in the History of Warfare


Clockwise from top: A column of the U.S. 1st Marine Division’s infantry and armor moves through Chinese lines during their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir; UN landing at Incheon harbor, starting point of the Battle of Incheon; Korean refugees in front of an American M26 Pershing tank; U.S. Marines, led by First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, landing at Incheon; F-86 Sabre fighter aircraft.

In spite of its limited nature, the Korean War was tremendously destructive. Korea’s industrial base was wiped out. Four million Koreans, 10 percent of the population, were rendered casualties and five million became refugees. The North Korean armed forces lost approximately 600,000 men in the fighting, in addition to two million civilian casualties. The Chinese suffered an estimated one million casualties. Losses to the ROK armed forces are estimated at 70,000 killed, 150,000 wounded, and 80,000 captured (the majority of whom died from starvation or mistreatment). One million South Korean civilians were killed or injured. The USA lost 33,600 men killed and 103,200 wounded.

The Korean peninsula was divided along the line of contact at the end of the war and remains so to this day. A political conference called for in the armistice agreement was held in Geneva in 1954, but the two sides’ demands were too far apart to permit any compromise. The peninsula became a microcosm of the Cold War itself. Heavily armed, North and South Korea faced each other across the demilitarized zone. But, other than desultory skirmishing, a second war has not broken out.

South Korea emerged from the war militarily secure but domestically unstable. The ROK armed forces had grown to number 600,000 men. They could hold their own against the North Koreans and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese. Following his unilateral release of North Korean POWs, Rhee had secured from the USA a mutual defense treaty, long-term economic aid, and assistance in expanding the ROK armed forces. Additionally, the Eighth Army remained in South Korea throughout the Cold War. The ROK was now an important bulwark against Communist expansionism in east Asia. It would be one of the few nations to provide a sizable military contribution to the American war effort in Vietnam. However, South Korea would not experience substantial economic growth until the 1960s. The constant threat of war led Rhee toward greater authoritarianism and high levels of military spending, which detracted from economic development. The political context of South Korea was marked by authoritarian governments and intermittent student protests. Rhee himself was overthrown in a coup d’état in 1961.

North Korea remained a potent military power after the war. Close ties were maintained with the Soviet Union and the PRC. Indeed, North Korea became intensely-Communist. The re-indoctrination of Communism was necessary to mobilize sufficient resources for economic reconstruction. The effort was largely successful, and the North Korean economy was rebuilt by the late 1950s. Politically, the defeats of the Korean War undercut Kim Il Sung’s leadership position. In order to stay in power, he executed a number of his opponents. He then built a cult of personality around the myth that North Korea had won the Korean War. Kim ultimately survived the Cold War, and North Korea remains a Communist state to this day under his son’s leadership.

The Korean War is often considered a draw or even a defeat for the UNC. The Soviet Union and the PRC had achieved their minimal goal of defending their positions in east Asia. The two countries remained powerful obstacles to American hegemony in the area. The independence of North Korea had been preserved. However, this reasoning assumes that the lack of total victory was a defeat. In fact, the Korean War was an unmistakable victory for the UNC.

First, the important UNC demands were met in negotiations. Concessions were only made on minor points. The line of contact, not the 38th Parallel, became the border between North and South Korea, and voluntary repatriation was enforced. Second, in the course of military operations, the Communists suffered far greater manpower and economic losses than the UNC. For the PRC and North Korea, the opportunity cost of these lost resources for internal development was great. Third, the West halted the first major Communist attempt at overt aggression. Without delving into a counterfactual, it is reasonable to assume that if South Korea had not been successfully defended, China and the Soviet Union would have continued with a more overtly aggressive foreign policy against the West. Instead, for the remainder of the Cold War, they resorted to guerrilla warfare as the primary means of expanding their influence. There were no truly decisive battles in the Korean War. Success for the Communists or the UNC ultimately depended on their ability to sustain protracted warfare through a combination of economic strength and military efficiency. The Communists proved less able to do so. Despite their numerical superiority, the Communists needed to break the military ascendancy of the UNC before the weakness of their economic systems made continued warfare unacceptably expensive. Instead, the clumsy Communist tactics in the first year of the war and Ridgway’s generalship crippled their war effort. Deng Hua and Yang Dezhi did a remarkable job reforming the CPV in 1952. But by the time these reforms took effect, the Chinese could no longer shoulder the costs of war.

After overcoming the initial Chinese intervention, the UNC became an exceptionally efficient military force. The UNC mounted offensives without sustaining heavy casualties; repeatedly halted Communist attacks; conducted air strikes throughout North Korea; and controlled the seas surrounding the peninsula. Technological superiority, abundance of firepower, a core of experienced soldiers, and innovating commanders engendered military efficiency. Moreover, the economic strength of the USA meant that the UNC could fight the war virtually indefinitely. China’s economy, on the other hand, had never recovered from the Chinese Civil War or the Second World War. As the Korean War dragged on, the need for internal economic development and an end to the burden of military expenditure created an impetus for compromise. For the Soviet Union, the heavy costs of financing and supplying a major regional war were not worth the marginal reward of enforcing the Communist bargaining position in negotiations. Hence, by 1953, the Communists preferred to compromise rather than overburden their economies with an interminable war.

The Korean War had wide implications for the entire international system. First, as technically a United Nations action, the Korean War was pivotal in the development of that organization. Second, in the area of military strategy, Korea was significant as the first limited war. Hard practical experience in the Korean War had raised major questions regarding the usability of nuclear weapons. Third, and most importantly, the war affected the balance of power between the two superpowers.

It was in Korea that the UN first authorized the use of force in the name of collective security. Unfortunately, the Korean War showed that, in reality, the UN was not a guarantor of collective security. UN action was a fluke resulting from Soviet absence in the Security Council. The UN was not acting out the will of the entire international community, but that of the West. Later in the Cold War, UN action in support of collective security was usually impossible because of opposition from either the USA or the Soviet Union, depending on whose sphere of influence the UN was considering intervening in. Nevertheless, several important diplomatic initiatives originated in the UN, including the first cease-fire resolution in December 1950 and Jacob Malik’s proposal for negotiations in June 1951. The ‘Uniting for Peace’ procedure was also created in the Korean War. It would be used again in the Cold War, most notably as a means for the USA to punish the British and French during the Suez Canal Crisis. Most importantly, the fact that the Korean War was heavily debated in the UN by all member states validated the UN’s role as the legitimate mediator of international conflicts and a forum for diplomacy.

Regarding military strategy, the Korean War was the first illustration of the new context of warfare that emerged in the Cold War. The former aim of warfare, the total annihilation of an opponent, was excessively dangerous. The dramatic victories of the North Korean blitzkrieg, the Inchon landing, and the Second Phase Offensive caused a rapid escalation of the Korean War that brought each combatant to the brink of world war. A limited aim was now the goal of most wars. In Korea, and frequently thereafter, a limited aim embodied seeking minor political gains through a negotiated resolution of the war. Military operations were carefully restrained in order to reduce the risk of escalation. Similar restrictions on military operations would reappear in subsequent wars, such as Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Wars, and the Indo-Pakistani Wars. The methods of warfare implemented under these restrictions in the Korean War – attrition, air power, and nuclear threats – were the first adaptations to limited war. Consequently, the Korean War was the formative experience in the strategic thought and operational doctrines developed during the Cold War.

Attrition was the first method of warfare that the UNC applied to fighting a limited war. Ridgway found that gradual and careful attrition could defeat the Communists on the battlefield and enforce the UNC bargaining position yet not escalate the conflict. The significance of attrition was underlined when Peng Dehuai and Deng Hua adopted it as the operational doctrine of the CPV. However, because of its protracted nature, attrition on the ground entailed a steady flow of casualties for both the UNC and the Communists. Indeed, after 1953, the Eisenhower administration forswore the use of conventional force largely because of the costs of attrition in Korea. Nevertheless, attrition would be applied as a strategy in many later conflicts in the Cold War – not always successfully – such as Vietnam, the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition, and the Iran-Iraq War.

The use of air power was less effective as a means of fighting a limited war. It could not inflict the damage necessary to make the Communists crack. Nevertheless, it remained a preferred, if often overrated, means of applying force after Korea. In the US air force, the perceived success of the air campaign was used to confirm the decisiveness of air power in modern warfare. Strategic air campaigns that were very similar to Operation Strangle and the sustained air pressure strategy were implemented in Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Although rarely decisive, the allure of a painless and quick victory makes air power the West’s principal means of waging war to this day.

Eisenhower’s nuclear threats represented the final new method of warfare implemented in Korea. As noted above, while the nuclear threats signalled that the USA was resolved to fight a heightened war if necessary, they probably had only a marginal effect on the Communist decision to compromise. Historically, the nuclear threats were a part of the development of deterrence strategy, which dominated strategic discourse in the Cold War. In 1954, Eisenhower and Dulles instituted the New Look doctrine, hoping to repeat the supposed success of their nuclear threats at the end of the Korean War. The New Look threatened that Communist aggression anywhere in the world would be the subject of a devastating American nuclear strike. It was believed that this threat of massive retaliation would deter future Communist expansionism. Although massive retaliation was eventually discredited, nuclear threats, as a component of deterrence, were used again in international crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In terms of the balance of power, the Korean War motivated the Western powers to view Communism as an imminent threat to their security and take a more determined stance against its expansion. The USA mobilized meaningfully to enforce containment throughout the world. As the Soviet Union strove to match this impressive military build-up, Western rearmament set the tone for the arms races that marked the remainder of the Cold War. The size of the American armed forces multiplied. Massive programs for new ships, missiles, tanks, and aircraft were implemented. In Europe, England and France also increased the size of their armed forces. NATO was greatly strengthened through the establishment of unified command with strong military forces under its authority. Moreover, the impetus had been created to rearm West Germany as a part of NATO, which would actually occur in 1950s.

Outside Europe, the USA ceased neglecting east Asia in its geostrategic planning. The Japan-US Security Treaty facilitated the long-term stationing of formidable American air, ground, and naval forces in Japan. Additionally, increased American military spending in Japan during the Korean War helped it on the path to economic recovery. With its relatively secure island status, large population, and growing economy, Japan became the centrepiece of American security architecture in East Asia.

The USA also took greater interest in the defense of Taiwan. In the Taiwan offshore islands crises of 1954-55 and 1958, the USA appeared willing to defend Nationalist territory against Communist encroachment. But the Korean War also caused the USA to embrace global containment and the precepts of NSC 68 too tightly. In Indochina, the USA was paying for 80 percent of France’s military operations by 1954. With the losses of Korea fresh in mind, Eisenhower would not send military forces to fight the Viet Minh, nor would he agree to use nuclear weapons to save the French at Dien Ben Phu. Later administrations were less cautious and believed that the ultimate success of the Korean War in halting Communism meant that the USA would also be successful in a war in Vietnam.

The growth of American power in east Asia was inhibited by the emergence of the PRC as a military power in the region. The world now viewed the PRC as a major Communist military power and not a backward agricultural state. The Chinese military had proven that they could contend with the best forces of the West. The catastrophic defeat of the US Eighth Army in November and December 1950 showed that liberating Communist countries could be excessively dangerous. After the defeat, the USA never again tried to liberate a Communist state by invasion. For example, in the Vietnam War, the USA would not invade North Vietnam for fear of Chinese intervention. The PRC enjoyed increased influence in east Asia and the Third World. Its veteran officers became advisors in numerous national liberation movements, particularly in Vietnam. Mistakenly, the USA predominantly treated China as the unswerving and unpredictably dangerous ally of the Soviet Union. In fact, the PRC was denied entry into the UN until Nixon’s presidency.

The Korean War also had implications for China’s relationship with the Soviet Union. In the short term, fighting the USA reinforced the Sino-Soviet Alliance. The level of military and economic assistance provided during the war continued after 1953, with a tremendous amount of technology being transferred to the PRC. However, the war also caused the beginning of cracks in the alliance. The Chinese had fought the war largely on their own and were disappointed by the limited military involvement of the Soviet Union. The Soviet demand that China pay for all of the military equipment provided was particularly galling. More fundamentally, by the late 1950s, Mao found deep Soviet involvement in Chinese economic development and military affairs to be curtailing the PRC’s independence. By the mid-1960s, these cracks would widen and the Sino-Soviet Alliance would break apart.

Finally, the Korean War symbolizes the superpower competition of the Cold War. It was the only occasion in the Cold War when the armed forces of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the United States – plus the other Western powers – were regularly in direct combat with one another. Later in the Cold War, the superpowers only fought each other’s proxies or client states. But in Korea, Soviet fighter pilots engaged in dogfights with American pilots, and Chinese infantry grappled with American infantry. Hundreds of thousands of men were taken prisoner, injured, or killed. Some of the most modern new weapons were utilized and the best generals of the three countries planned operations for the war. Historian William Stueck has gone so far as to describe it as a substitute for a Third World War. In any event, the Korean War brought the superpowers to the brink of world war. Less dramatically, the Korean War was the point where the differences between Communism and democracy, the Soviet Union and the USA, actually warranted major conventional warfare. The fact that the Korean War was a conflagration of this magnitude and intensity is sufficient reason that it should not be forgotten.

2 thoughts on “The Significance of the Korean War in the History of Warfare

  1. I’m currently studying the significance of the Korean War as part of my Year 11 exams, and I’d like to commend the author on such a useful resource. It’s got everything I need, and literally covers every topic that can be associated with the significance of the Korean War. Thanks very much, and congrats on being the most useful Korean War website out there.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 朝鲜战争在战争史上的意义 | 李氏筹码选股法

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