The Korean War is variously estimated to have claimed between 1.2 and three million lives, most of them civilian. Who was responsible for this tragedy?
For Western nations, the answer is uncomplicated: North Korea, backed by China and the Soviet Union, launched an unprovoked invasion of its southern neighbor in 1950.
An alternate history has been presented in Chinese textbooks, one in which the illegitimate lackeys of Western imperialists in the South attacked first, but China and the Soviet Union intervened to prevent an aggressive American invasion that threatened to sweep into China. The fact that a significant portion of North Korea’s population perished due to extensive U.S. bombing has made some sympathetic to the suffering of the small nation.
Let’s assess the persuasiveness of these competing understandings of an admittedly complicated conflict. Korea was a formerly unified state that was occupied by Japan early in the twentieth century, then divided by the Soviet Union and United States at the end of World War II under improvised circumstances. Was the government in North or South more authentic and legitimate, and thus justified in attempting to overthrow the other?
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In truth, both governments had effectively been installed by their respective backers to the exclusion of ideologically inconvenient opponents. Opposing political factions were simply not permitted in the North; in the South, there was a left-wing opposition, but its leaders were mostly arrested or assassinated.
The Korean Communist Party arguably may have had stronger grassroots support at the outset of decolonization; on the other hand, the conservative administration in the South was elected by a UN-backed election in 1948. Both North and South were client states of global superpowers, but their respective autocrats were independent-minded enough that it would be wrong to call them puppets.
Who Had the Means and Intent to Start a War?
As the issue of legitimacy is inconclusive, consider the matter from another angle. Wars are sometimes sparked by over reactions and miscommunications—but more often, they happen because one side believes it has the means to overpower the other by force and decides to do so.
South Korea in 1950 had a population of over twenty million. Its president, Syngman Rhee, had spoken of his desire to reunify Korea by force and spurned offers of negotiation from the North. But a war requires more than just tough talk. It requires concrete plans to invade and an army capable of doing so.
The South Korean army numbered around a hundred thousand personnel on the eve of the Korean War, two-thirds of which are combat troops. They were equipped with surplus small arms and light vehicles given by the United States, and were receiving some training from a small American advisory group. A substantial number of these troops were engaged in a bloody counterinsurgency campaign against leftists that was winding to a close.
The Republic of Korea Army had no tanks, which are necessary for rapid offensive warfare. It had only a few battalions of 105-millimeter howitzers for artillery support. Its heaviest armored vehicles were a few dozen M8 Greyhound armored scout cars.
The ROK Air Force counted a single squadron of AT-6 Texan trainers and a dozen unarmed utility aircraft. It had no combat aircraft.
Now consider the North Korean side, which, at 9.6 million, had roughly half the population. However, the Korean People’s Army had more than twice the number of troops, at well over two hundred thousand, mostly concentrated on the border.
The KPA fielded over three hundred T-34/85 medium tanks, a capable design from late in World War II that was nearly impervious to the weak antitank weapons available to South Korea. Backing them up were two hundred artillery pieces, more than enough to smash South Korean border fortifications.
North Korea also had over a hundred Yak-9 fighters and Il-10 Shturmovik armored attack planes in its air force. Though outdated compared to the new jets entering service, they were quite effective for attacking ground troops without air cover and air-defense weapons.
Tanks and warplanes do not magically materialize in a recently decolonized state, nor do they come cheap. They were given to North Korea by the Soviet Union. Similar offensive weapons were not sold or transferred to South Korea.
Like Synghman Rhee, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung also wished to reunify Korea. In March 1949, the former Red Army officer had traveled to Moscow to request the permission for an invasion of the South. However, Stalin thought it too risky, with too many American troops close at hand to intervene.
In April 1950, Kim secretly visited Moscow again. By then, the situation had changed. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb, Mao Zedong had secured his control of mainland China and U.S. forces in Asia were drawing down.