10 Things You Might Not Know About the Korean War
North Korea has been in the news of late because of its nuclear saber rattling. The United States has deployed antiballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast, and sent B-2 bombers to South Korea for training missions and a show of force. While it’s hard to imagine war on the Korean Peninsula, it’s a good time to look at the last war fought there. Here are ten things you might not have known about the Korean War.
1. The North Koreans captured an American general.
A month after the Korean War broke out, Major General William F. Dean, commander of 24th Infantry Division, was separated from his forces in Taejon while trying to help wounded soldiers. While out seeking water for a particularly injured G.I., he fell down a cliff and was knocked unconscious. He would be isolated in the mountains for the next 36 days, losing 80 pounds in addition to the broken shoulder and head wound he had sustained. When two South Koreans found him, they pretended to lead him to safety, but in fact brought him to a North Korean ambush site. Though Dean tried to fight his captors, he was down to 130 pounds and too weak to resist for long. He was taken prisoner on August 25, 1950, and remained prisoner until the end of the war. (This would have been like the Iraqi insurgency capturing David Petraeus when he was commanding the 101st Airborne in Mosul.)
2. The Army built an impromptu special operations unit.
The United States lacked a guerrilla warfare capability at the start of the Korean War, and had to put one together, and fast. The result was the 8240th Army Unit, comprised of Rangers and other soldiers with unconventional warfare experience from World War II. They advised indigenous “partisan forces” in Korea on how to fight behind enemy lines to undermine the North Korean Army. In 1952, soldiers with the new designation of “Special Forces” graduated from the U.S. Army Psychological Warfare Center and School, and supplemented the 8240th. At its height, the unit advised 38,000 partisan fighters.
3. The Korean War combined old tactics and new ones on land, sea, and air.
The paratroopers of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team (known as the “Rakkasans”) conducted all of the airborne operations of the Korean War. They jumped into Sunch'ŏn, North Korea in 1950, and Munsan-ni, South Korea in 1952. The Rakkasans fought in a total of six campaigns in Korea. Today, the unit’s heirs are part of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
The Battle of Inchon (1950) was an amphibious invasion of Incheon from the Yellow Sea. It was a major victory for United Nations forces, and turned around what was then a losing war. The U.S. Marine-led force was commanded by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur.
Meanwhile, the Korean War is the first war fought with jet airplanes. Propeller-driven aircraft gave way to P-80 Shooting Stars and Soviet MiG-15s.
4. The 38th parallel is a recurring theme before, during, and after the war.
In 1896, the Japanese government proposed to the Russian government that Korea should be split in half along the 38th parallel, with Russia taking control of the north. This probably would have saved everyone a lot of trouble down the line, but the Russians balked and Japan consolidated its hold of Korea in 1910. After World War II, Japan relinquished control, and the U.S. State Department again looked to the 38th parallel to establish two separate countries. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, launching the Korean War. Today, the demilitarized zone dividing the two countries intersects—you guessed it—the 38th parallel.
5. The Korean War goes by many names.
In the United States, we call it the Korean War (and sometimes the Forgotten War). North Korea calls it the Fatherland Liberation War. In South Korea, it’s called Six-Two-Five, after the day it started. China’s subtle name for the conflict is the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.
6. CIA on NKA: Nothing to see here!
Months before the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel, the CIA noted the southward movement of NKA forces, but called it a defensive measure, and called the possibility of an invasion “unlikely.” On June 24, 1950, Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, had to telephone President Truman. “Mr. President,” he said, “I have very serious news. The North Koreans have invaded South Korea.”
7. The American occupying force in Japan provided manpower for the Korean War.
At the war’s start, it was pretty clear that Republic of Korean forces were outmatched by the North Korean Army. General MacArthur personally went to the front lines to get a look at the situation. He quickly requested ground troops to help save the situation. President Truman eventually authorized the movement of two full divisions from Japan to Korea. The divisions, coming from the relatively peaceful job of occupying Japan following World War II, were something less than battle-ready—especially when compared with the North Korean veterans. It was during the successful two-month defense of Busan, South Korea, that American forces were finally hardened for war.
8. The Korean War provided an early victory for a secret American signals intelligence agency.
As I describe in my new book, the American intelligence community faced its worst fears on Friday, October 29, 1948, when the Soviet Union disappeared. While post-war America dismantled its signals intelligence and cryptanalysis capabilities, the Russians were doubling down. On “Black Friday,” as it was called, the Soviets activated a new communications grid and encryption methodology. Signals began transmitting by cable, cutting off most radio interceptions; what little remained was indecipherable. In response, the Secretary of Defense ordered the creation of a Top Secret organization known as the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA).
Though AFSA suffered from institutional dysfunction and wasn’t particularly effective against the Soviets, it had good fortune during the Korean War, intercepting high-level North Korean broadcasts. To the astonishment of the agency’s signals-intelligence specialists, North Korea was broadcasting the details of its most sensitive military operations in plaintext, with no encryption at all. When the North Koreans finally got wise to America’s interception prowess, AFSA made short work of the new ciphers. AFSA would eventually be reorganized as the National Security Agency.
9. The United States had dropped the Bomb only five years earlier, and was ready to do it again.
In 1950, the Bomb was only five years old and the wonder of the atomic age promised a bright nuclear future. It was just assumed that atomic weapons would be part of any future conflict—like the Korean War, for example. The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the employment of the atomic bomb against China if it sent troops or bombers into Korea. China ignored the threat. Likewise, there were plans to drop the Bomb on the Soviet Union if it got involved, but European leaders objected to such an escalation, fearing the Soviets would us it as a justification for the conquest of Europe. Accordingly, the United States promised to use atomic weapons in Korea only to prevent a “major military disaster.”
10. The Korean War never ended.
On July 27, 1953, American Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. and North Korean General Nam Il signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, ending “all acts of armed force” in Korea, until both sides were able to find a “final peaceful settlement.” The agreement was notably not a peace treaty, but rather, a ceasefire. Sixty years later, it seems we are no closer to a peaceful ending of the conflict.