Here is the story of the Korean war: A puppet Soviet country (i.e., North Korea) with the help of Russian troops attacks a Democratic and free country (i.e., South Korea). Through a brilliant generalship of MacArthur, the south together with help for the UN wins the war.

A lovely description, but almost no word of it is correct. Due to a fast collapse of the Japanese army in Manchuria in the end of WW II, the panicked US, suggested to split Korea in the middle along the 38 longitude between American & Soviet forces. This decision was made quickly and randomly by middle level and not too experienced officials in the US, and Stalin accepted this offer. The idea was to merge the two portions into one country at some point, but as the cold war became colder, the chances of this became smaller and smaller.

South Korea was in deep Kimchi after the second world war – the elites were contaminated because of their collaboration with the Japanese. The majority were still very poor farmers not necessarily working on their own land (big land owners were quite common). In short, left on its own, South Korea would have probably turned into a communist country and merged with the north. With a hindsight, we might say that it might have been better if that what happened, but this is playing the if game in history – a fantasy game.

The US as such had decided to support the right/conservatives and established what can only be described as a puppet government in South Korea, headed by Syngman Rhee (who did not collaborate with the Japanese). For a long time, the operative high level control of the Korean army was under the US army (I dont think it is any long so, but I am not sure). The north, on the other hand, was well organized, and Kim-Il Sung had a long history of apposing the Japanese occupation.

Both South and North wanted to merge the country by occupying the other parts, and tried repeatedly to start a war. Both super-powers worked hard to contain the misbehaving children. Till the withdraw of American forces from South Korea convinced Stalin that the US would not intervene, and he let the north invade the south.

The Korean war can be best described by the following cold war joke:

A polish farmer catches a golden fish. The golden fish offers the farmer three wishes if the farmer releases it. The farmer thinks for a while, and his first wish is that the Chinese army would come all the way from China to Poland, occupy it, and then withdraw all the way back to China. The farmer second wish is identical to the first – again, he wants the Chinese army to come all the way from China occupy Poland, and then withdraw all the way back to China. And the third wish is again the same wish. The fish is a bit shocked, and he ask the farmer to explain his wishes…

The farmer explains that this is the only way to make the Chinese army go over the USSR six times.

And so is the Korean war, where the north occupied almost all of Korea, then lost it almost completely, then occupied back parts of it, and then the battle lines came back to the same lines where the war started. Three years later, no change, after two million Korean dead, north Korean destroyed completely by American bombings (and about 40,000 American soldiers dead).

The war starts with a quick withdrawal of the south to a small area in the south (the Pusan perimeter). Then a landing by MacArthur in the north near Seoul causes the collapse of the north. MacArthur not happy with just restoring the status quo, continues north of the 38th parallel despite warnings from China that they would join the fighting if the UN forces continue north. Under estimating the China threat, the UN forces continue north. China joins the fighting, and together with a stiff guerrilla warfare by the north forces, the UN forces withdraw quickly south (and Seoul falls again for the third time to the north forces). Stabilizing themselves, the UN forces attack north again, and regain the 38th parallel where they stop, and the war (in the end of 1950) enters a stationary state were neither side can make a breakthrough. Three years later the war ends in the establishment of the DMZ (a demilitarized zone) on the 38th parallel.

Now, the tragedy of this war, is that a stupid decision (partitioning of Korea along the 38th) created a situation were a unification was almost unavoidable. Similarly, two local leaders (Rhee and Kim-Il Sung) were able to play the super-powers like pawns and withdraw them into a war (the Russian participation was limited to pilots and airplanes, but the Chinese were quite committed) that almost escalated into a nuclear war. Finally, the war achieved nothing except for destruction.

Interestingly, China joined the fighting because the Chinese Communists felts obliged to the north for its critical and massive help in the civil war in China, were the Korean help played an important role in the communists victory. Also, the Chinese were not too excited about having US forces on their border. Interestingly, the support of Taiwan by the US considerably increased because (and during) the Korean war, and thus the Chinese lost their chance to occupy Taiwan.

After the war, the two countries started rebuilding. Surprisingly, in the next twenty years, the north did better economically then the south. But in the 70s the south passed the north and never looked back.

Now, South Korea was a dictatorship till 1987. The first remotely democratic elections happened in 1987 when (the general) Roh Tae-woo won the elections (the opposition split before the elections). The first civilian president was Kim Young-sam (who arrested the previous two presidents and charged them for their military coups and corruption [both had gotten about 900 million dollars gifts from industry [my oh my]).

More details on the Korea war can be found here.

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