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The 'not forgotten' war

Thomas Kohlmann / sbJuly 25, 2013

It was a proxy war in the classic sense; a war over political systems; a bloody civil war. Millions of Koreans were killed between 1950 and 1953 and for the US, it was a military disaster.

Korean War Veterans Color Guards march on the ground of the Korean War Veterans Memorial during a ceremony at the Korean War Veterans Memorial July 27, 20004 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

In the end, neither the US-led UN forces nor the North Koreans backed by their Chinese allies and large amounts of Soviet machinery were able to win. Aside from a few territorial tradeoffs, everything remained the same: a Communist dictatorship in the north, supported by the Soviet Union and red China, and the anti-Communist South Korea, supported by the West.

In an attempt to bring the entire country under Communist rule, Dictator Kim Il Sung deployed troops on June 25th, 1950 to attack the South. Backing him were Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and his Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong. Three days later, the South Korean capital Seoul was captured.

Within only a few weeks, the South Korean military, which was poorly prepared for such an attack and only had support from a few small US units, was pushed back to a small territory in the southeast of the peninsula around the port town of Busan. A few US military units were also cornered between Seoul and Busan.

UN military intervention

On July 30th, 1950, the UN Security Council decided in the absence of veto power Soviet Union to intervene in the conflict and authorized the deployment of UN forces. Prior to that, the Council had condemned North Korea for "breaching the peace."

A North Korean farmer flees to the South in 1950
A North Korean farmer flees to the South in 1950Image: picture-alliance/dpa

With help from UN security forces, the US and South Koreans were able to squelch the North Korean advancement. UN, US and South Korean forces then passed over the line of demarcation and were able to take Pyongyang and vast parts of the country. China responded by deploying hundreds of thousands of so-called volunteers, who pushed back the enemy soldiers to the 38th parallel. Bloody trench warfare followed. The world was on the verge of a nuclear war.

On July 10th, 1951, negotiations for a ceasefire began. But it was to take two more years - until July 27th, 1953 - for the aggression to cease. Historian from the University of Innsbruck and expert on the Korean War Rolf Steininger said the Soviet Union played a major role in prolonging the war, which ended up taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. "Kim and Mao Zedong wanted to end the war but Stalin said no. We know that much today."

"We are only losing people and we have enough of those," Steininger quoted Stalin as saying. "Stalin's strategy was to 'bleed the Americans out' in Korea." The realization that the war could not be won by military means coupled with the US' increasing battle fatigue, according to Steininger, paved the way to a ceasefire treaty. But it was the death of Stalin on May 5, 1953 that made the agreement possible.

Forgotten, not forgotten

In the US it was to take around 40 years for the Korean War to really enter the public conscience. Inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. in the year 1983: "A number of well-known actors and later American astronauts got together and opened the Korea War Memorial in 1995. Up to that point, it had been the only war for which there was no memorial," said Steininger. On a website for US veterans, the war is referred to as "No longer The Forgotten War." Around 37,000 US soldiers died in the Korean War.

For Koreans, the war is anything but forgotten. Han-kyung Lee was 12 years old when the war broke out on June 25th, 1950 in what is referred to today as the demilitarized zone. "The phrase 'forgotten war' would imply that the war is over. But Korea is still technically at war; it's not over. So it is a poor way to refer to the war, really."

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin speaks onstage during Spike TV's Guys Choice 2013 at Sony Pictures Studios on June 8, 2013 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Spike TV)
US Astronaut Buzz Aldrin supported the Korean War Veterans MemorialImage: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Spike TV

Lee, who has lived in Germany since 1965, remembers the American air-raids: "I remember exactly how the war started. I saw North Korean and South Korean soldiers. And I remember the Americans bombing Korea. It was horrific - beyond words."

"At first we didn't know what was going on when the B-29 long-range heavy bomber flew overhead and started dropping bombs. We thought they were aid boxes or leaflets." Lee, now 75, will never be able to forget the images of playing children killed by American shells.

Mainly civilians, many of them children, were killed in the airstrikes. The big cities - Pyongyang and Seoul - were completely leveled. Steininger confirmed the extent of the air raids: "By the end of 1951, American pilots were complaining they had no targets left. The place was destroyed by then."

Implications for post-World War Germany

Steininger told DW the Korean War also had consequences for Germany. "The decision made by Western powers to re-arm Germany in December 1950 would never have happened had it not been for the Korean War. It was a military disaster for America and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer used that to his advantage." Steiniger added that the young Federal Republic also benefitted economically from the war; the last restrictions placed on the economy were dropped over the course of the war.

Lee Han-kyung in his garden in Germany
Lee Han-kyung has lived in Germany since 1965Image: Rebecca Sumy Roth

After the German reunification in 1990, people also started speaking of a unification of the Korean Peninsula. But many people in South Korea have given up on this idea - and for a good reason, too: "If the North Korean system fell apart, the South would have to shoulder an extremely heavy load - a burden much larger than West Germany had to take 20 years ago."