A Complicated Narrative: The Korean War
Image Credit: Wikicommons

A Complicated Narrative: The Korean War


For a compact, relatively small-scale conflict, the Korean War—this week’s sojourn for the Strategy & War Course at the U.S. Naval War College—abounds in insights. The historical narrative appears straightforward—an invasion, two outside interventions, eventual equilibrium at roughly the midpoint of the Korean Peninsula—yet the conflict defies easy classification. Or rather, it can be classified in a multitude of ways.

That may help explain why it was so hard for the belligerents to wring lasting political value out of fighting on the Korean Peninsula, and why the war ended disappointingly for them.Think about it. The Korean War was a post-imperial, anti-imperial struggle amid the ruins of the Japanese Empire. Who would rule territories vacated by Japan? Speaking from the decks of the battleship Missouri, General Douglas MacArthur proclaimed that the guns had fallen silent with the downfall of Imperial Japan. MacArthur’s words might ring true for Americans. But the fighting for supremacy resumed in East and Southeast Asia almost instantly—if it paused at all.

The struggle was especially acute in Korea. Japan had annexed the peninsula in 1910, gone to extravagant lengths to expunge Korean culture, and played divide-and-rule among Korean factions to neutralize the opposition. Venomous politics was the rule following Japan’s departure, strife on the peninsula almost a foregone conclusion.The Korean War, then, convulsed Northeast Asia during the aftermath of World War II, when the victors were still trying to sort out a durable postwar order. Prosecuting a new war within war termination poses a challenge of a high order for statesmen and commanders.

To complicate matters further, the Korean War took place during the war-termination phase of the Chinese Civil War. Mao’s China could hardly look indifferently on events on the Korean Peninsula, which shares a border with Manchuria and overshadows the Yellow Sea, at Beijing’s maritime door. After debating with Stalin, Mao resolved to intervene. Japan might rearm and revert to militarism, returning to mainland Asia. To prevent a rerun of history, it seemed imperative to keep Japan from again using the peninsula as a geopolitical springboard. The Chinese Communist regime, furthermore, stood to gain domestically if it could fight America, the world’s predominant power, to a standstill. Military success in the near abroad helped cement communist rule at home.

Finally, and most obviously, the Korean War was a theater in the Cold War. It was an event that was more complex than it might appear. Korea constituted a remote, secondary, hot theater in a global, uneasy, peacetime strategic competition. Such asymmetries rendered diplomatic and strategic calculations awkward indeed. Clausewitz, for instance, declares that a belligerent should open a secondary theater only if the endeavor appears “exceptionally rewarding,” the belligerent commands “decisive superiority” in the principal theater, and the diversion of effort won’t place the main theater in jeopardy. But what if it’s not obvious whether the larger war—i.e., the Cold War—is a war at all? How much manpower and how many resources do you apportion to the more important yet quieter theater, and how much to more immediate concerns? Messy times beget strong, clashing opinions.

The Korean War, then, may offer a glimpse of strategic debates yet to come as Asia enters another age of peacetime competition.

Kim's Uncle
January 31, 2013 at 06:35

Why is china’s ally n best friend North Korea is a toilet while s. Korea a thriving, prosperous democracy? US fought to keep s. Korea to determine its own destiny and now s. Korea is a major trading partner and ally of the US while china has a pile of turd North Korea!!! So red Chinese died by several hundred thousands in order for North Korea remain a pile of turd? LOL. Chinese communists are very bright!

Thomas Fox
January 21, 2013 at 16:07

I respectfully disagree that the Chinese intervened in the Korean War for fear a resurgent, militaristic Japan. At the end of WW2 Japan was emasculated militarily and by treaty-this still holds true some 60 years later. But I predict that will soon change. Chinas current bullying of its neighbors will soon lead to war.

peter a. wilson
January 14, 2013 at 22:48

Dear Professor Holmes,  One of the most profound consequences of the Korean War was how it militarized the Cold War.  By giving Mao the ok to support Kim IL Sung's "adventure" Stalin committed one of his greatest strategic blunders.  The U.S. expanded its nuclear arsenal by two orders of magnitude in five years and launched a high technoloy arms race that the Soviet Union was in a very poor condition to compete.  NATO was militarized along with the U.S. forward deploymnet of nuclear strike forces around the Soviet Union's periphery during the Eishenhower New Look era.  See "Super Powers in Economic Decline" by R. Cohen and P. Wilson for a more extensive discussion in this regard.  Peter Wilson

January 14, 2013 at 20:37

"Mao’s China could hardly look indifferently on events on the Korean Peninsula, which shares a border with Manchuria and overshadows the Yellow Sea, at Beijing’s maritime door."
This sentence sums it all up. Today, the US thinks that by encouraging its proxy Japan, to reassert its 1895 claims over China's annexed territories close to Taiwan, at China's maritime door, it is containing China. This will unquestionably lead to all out war. No Chinese I know will allow Japan to claim the Dioyu Islands.

January 14, 2013 at 17:07

"Mao’s China could hardly look indifferently on events on the Korean Peninsula"
But in doing so, Mao gave up Taiwan.  How would the world be different today if Taiwan fell to the communists, and Korea was a unified country?

Nan Yang
January 14, 2013 at 12:29

In United States, the Korean war was called the forgotten war, the wrong war in the wrong place and the wrong time for good reasons. Until recently there wasn't even a monument for it.  

Chuck Hill
January 14, 2013 at 03:54

At the Naval War College they taught a principle we jokingly refered to as the Law of Conservation of enemies, which boiled down to making only the minimum number of enemies. In other words, try not to piss every one off. China needs to relearn this principle. Its previous leadership understood this.

The Great Bug-Out
January 14, 2013 at 01:48

The U.S. or rather the UN general who signed the ceasefire agreement was General Mark W. Clark, sorry for earlier omitting his name. He was a good man, very unlike MacArthur.

The Great Bug-Out
January 14, 2013 at 01:45

General MacArthur (the man responsible for freeing members of Unit 731 and allied offenders) was so confident of his "putting $5 into a box and finding $50,000 upon reopening it"  that he ignored repeated warnings not to reach or cross the Yalu. He violated the warnings and the result was the biggest bug-out operation ever done in the modern history of the U.S. military. U.S. commanding general at the time of the signing of the Korean Armistice remarked that it was the first time the U.S. agreed to a ceasefire without a victory. This is perhaps the most important narrative or reminder of the Korean War.

Leonard R.
January 13, 2013 at 17:41

" It was an event that was more complex than it might appear."
It doesn't seem so complex to me. It was a waste of American blood and treasure, for what? So that South Koreans can get rich trading with Chinese and their Pop stars can hurl blood insults to American women and soldiers. 

Let Beijing have the ungrateful *****. The US should was its hands of the place, pack up and leave. 

wack job
January 12, 2013 at 21:06

do not feed the troll, plz, ppl
somebody call the psychiatric hospital. the inmates are running the asylum

Barney L. Cornett
January 12, 2013 at 13:46

What an ignorant and non-informing piece of commentary this is! You must only write these articles so you can constantly quote Clausewitz!

January 12, 2013 at 09:48

I am wondering if the Strategy & War Course at the U.S. Naval War College ever teaches the reason why Americans could win against much stronger Japan and lost to much weaker China?
Americans did not have any of the three elements of war in Korea.

John Chan
January 12, 2013 at 06:40

I have been working thru the holidays on the Diplomat. Anyhow good turkey, wine and gifts are enjoyable X'mas events. Hope you had a good holiday too.

Rick Macey
January 12, 2013 at 06:28

This "anaylsis" is useless. The writer is punching the clock, nothing more.

January 12, 2013 at 05:50

Ah, the old JC is back. Hope you had a good holiday.

John Chan
January 12, 2013 at 01:37

China fought Korean War to secure peace of Yellow Sea, an entrance to its capital; due to the weakness China could not secure the peace of its Northern East corner; Japanese bellicose aggression is the result of the unfinished job of Korean War.
The predatory imperialist USA is the source of ills to the peace of China’s Northern East corner; in according to Clausewitz, a belligerent should open a secondary theater to resolve their dispute, Japan’s homeland definitely meets Clausewitz’s criteria this time.

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