'The Forgotten War' explained on 62nd Armistice Day

by Katie Lange, DoD News
Defense Media Activity

July 27th marks National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, a day to honor the Americans who fought to keep communism from spreading across Asia.

The war, sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, is often overlooked, so that begs the question: How much do you know about the three-year conflict? In case the answer is, “not much,” here’s an overview:

Korea Split After World War II

The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, less than five years after the end of WWII. Japan had been stripped of all its colonies as part of its surrender, and that included the Korean Peninsula, which was split between Allied liberators. The Soviet Union took responsibility north of the 38th parallel, while the U.S. worked with the south.

Conflicting Ideologies Surface

The country’s division was supposed to be a temporary move. Both sides were to hold elections in the hopes that they would lead to reunification, but while democracy was emerging in the south, communism was taking hold in the north. Despite those ideological differences, a UN agreement required the Soviets and U.S. to pull their militaries out of the region in 1949.

Invasion Begins

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel, invading South Korea. The U.S. saw the attack as evidence that communism was a threat to the free world, so it got the U.N. Security Council to condemn the actions and send troops to stop the north’s advance.

China Gets Involved

Meanwhile, China, a growing communist power, watched as U.N. forces pushed North Korean troops back to the 38th parallel. China then threatened to take action if U.N. forces tried to push further north. U.N. forces, led by U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, ignored the threat and pressed north anyway, nearly reaching China’s border.

That’s when China made good on its promise. It sent an army that was much larger than the U.S. or U.N. expected, and it forced MacArthur’s troops back behind the 38th parallel. Both sides spent months fighting over that line before a stalemate was called in July 1951.

Ceasefire Sets Important Rules

Small skirmishes broke out for two more years as both sides worked toward what became the longest negotiated truce in history; it included 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. The armistice was signed July 27, 1953.

The agreement set up a border near the 38th parallel and created the demilitarized zone (DMZ), which surrounds that boundary and is patrolled by both sides. It also allowed prisoners of war to choose where they wanted to live after the hostilities ended. Because of that, more than 14,200 Chinese and 7,582 North Korean POWs opted against repatriation to their respective countries, while 347 U.N. POWs (21 who were American) chose to live in China or North Korea.

Armistice Doesn’t Lead to Treaty

The ceasefire agreement wasn’t a peace treaty. In fact, one was never signed. It was supposed to be on the agenda at the Geneva Conference of 1954, but that never happened.

Eventually, the U.S. and South Korea’s main army signed a mutual defense treaty, allowing U.S. troops to be part of the DMZ patrols on a semi-permanent basis. To this day, American troops are there, keeping the peace between a volatile North Korea and U.S. allies in the south, who have since created a vibrant, economically sound democracy.

While the war failed to unite Korea, the U.S. achieved its goals of defending Asia from communist advance. But it also brought the Cold War policies of containment and militarization to the region, which would eventually lead to further actions, including in Vietnam.

Never Forget

Although Korea is often called “The Forgotten War,” the men and women who served there — 36,574 who died and 103,284 who were wounded — are always remembered.

In the decades that have passed, more and more soldiers who never made it home are being identified and returned to their families through the efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. According to that agency, there are still more than 7,800 Americans who remain unaccounted for from the Korean War.

If you see a Korean War veteran today, or if you know anyone who served there, don’t forget to thank and honor them for their service!

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