/ July 3, 2020
By John J. Metzler
Seventy years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops attacked South Korea launching an unexpected military blitz. Kim Il-Sung’s communists had as their aim the forcible reunification of the divided Korean peninsula, itself a recent legacy of Japan’s defeat in WWII.
The South was stunned and Seoul, the capital, soon fell to the onslaught.
The United States though caught militarily off guard, was diplomatically surefooted and called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council; American Amb. Warren Austin acted with alacrity and summoned delegates on an early Sunday morning. The U.S. passed a resolution calling for an immediate halt in the North’s offensive.
But despite world opinion on the side of beleaguered South Korea, how did Washington avoid a certain Soviet veto in the Security Council?
In a fortuitous twist of good fate, Moscow’s delegation was boycotting meetings given their preference for the seating of Communist China in the UN.
Since the Nationalist Chinese held the seat, (Britain, China, France, Soviet Union, and the United States) were founders of the UN five years earlier and held the coveted veto. The Soviets had scored their own goal!
Resolution #82 demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities was quickly passed with only the abstention of socialist Yugoslavia. Needless to say the powerful North Korean offensive did not stop for a UN resolution in far off New York.
Two days later, the Council passed Resolution #83 which authorized UN military action; “to furnish assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security.”
On July 7, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hero of the Pacific campaign, was designated to command the multinational operation.
Sixteen countries would join the war effort in Korea; Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Ethiopia, Greece, Turkey and the USA among others, though approximately 90 percent of allied forces were Americans.
The war’s early days saw a staggering rout for South Korea; Seoul fell on June 28th and before long UN forces were encircled in what became known as the Pusan Perimeter, an impending Korean Dunkirk with South Korean and UN forces bottled up, backs to the sea and inside a tightening vice of the North Korean encirclement.
Gen. MacArthur’s unexpected seaborne Inchon landings recaptured the initiative and launched a mighty Autumn offense deep into North Korea turning the tide of war until the Chinese communist intervention in late 1950.
The Korean War wasn’t supposed to happen. The Allies had decisively defeated Imperial Japan five years earlier; demobilization and economic prosperity was predictably on the horizon in the post WWII era. But the overlooked Korean peninsula, a former Japanese colony, was divided between the Soviets in the North and the Americans in the South. The arbitrary foreign division of this ancient land in 1945 at the 38th parallel, and the formalization of two separate governments in September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North and the Republic of Korea in the South, codified the division in classic Cold War political stenography.
Korea was overlooked. The American focus was on occupying, rebuilding and politically transforming Japan, rehabilitating the Philippines, and watching nervously as an expanding civil war between the Nationalists and Communists engulfed Mainland China.
Korea, well, we will get to that in “due course” as FDR casually and callously brushed off concerns over Korea’s post-war status after a half century of Japanese occupation.
Contemporary South Korea has created an amazing socio/economic success story. By the late 1980’s the ROK later evolved into a political democracy. Both Korean states joined the United Nations in 1991 and surprisingly a South Korean Ban Ki-Moon, whose family fled North Korea during the war, became UN Secretary General in 2007.
The Korean Peninsula forms the vortex of competing power interests: China, Russia, Japan and the USA.
Korea’s strategic standing has only increased in recent years. As a prosperous and tech savvy democracy, South Korea is no longer just viewed as a geopolitical piece on Asia’s chessboard, but as a key player in the global economy.
North Korea on the other hand has sunk into a dystopian socialist quagmire ruled by a Marxist Monarchy, the Kim family. Nuclear weapons nonetheless give Pyongyang its bargaining chips.
Yet the conflict remains unresolved, ended by a truce in 1953 not a formal peace treaty. For the USA and South Korea, finally resolving the Korean war remains one of the last legacies of the Cold War thus ensuring future peace in East Asia.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).
Free Press International