Korean War Facts, Costs, and Timeline
The History of the War and How Much Money Was Spent
The Korean War was a military campaign launched by President Harry Truman in response to North Korea's invasion of South Korea. It lasted from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953. It cost $30 billion, or about $325 billion in today's dollars.
The war killed roughly 33,000 American soldiers and wounded 103,000 more. The North and South Koreans lost 620,000 soldiers and 1.6 million civilians. The war is the root cause behind ongoing crises between its participants today.
In September 1945, the winners of World War II decided to divide Korea instead of unifying it. They believed Korea did not have the experience to rule itself. Japan had ruled Korea since 1910.
The 38th parallel split the Korean peninsula in half. The 38th parallel is the circle of latitude that's 38 degrees north of the equator. The Soviet Union took the northern territory. The United States took the southern territory, making sure it had Seoul, Korea's capital. As a result, North Korea became communist, and South Korea based its economy on capitalism.
But dividing the country had economic consequences. Japanese occupation had left the north with most of the country's infrastructure. The Japanese had located their railroads, dams, and industry where they needed them. The south produced most of the food, particularly rice. As a result, the north needed the south for its food production.
1945: The roots of the Korean War began when the country was divided.
1948: Kim Il Sung took command of North Korea. The Soviet Union and China supported his ascension to power. Syngman Rhee was the U.S.-backed leader of South Korea.
1949: On October 1, 1949, communist Mao Zedong took over China.
1950: In January, U.S. intelligence analysts warned that troops were massing at the border. In June 1950, North Korean and Chinese troops, armed with Soviet military equipment, invaded South Korea.
On July 9, General MacArthur requested President Truman use nuclear bombs to shorten the war. Truman decided to threaten the north instead. He sent 20 B-29s, the only aircraft large enough to carry the behemoths, to Guam. The aircraft had assembled Mark 4 nuclear bombs, although without their plutonium cores. By August, the north had chased South Korean and United Nations troops south to Pusan. It seemed the north would win.
In September, United Nations forces made an amphibious attack on Inchon. They retook Seoul and cut off the North Koreans' supplies.
In October, UN troops invaded north of the 38th parallel. They bombed almost all military and industrial targets in North Korea. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to take over the entire country, eliminating the North Korean threat for good. But President Truman did not want to provoke China or Russia into direct conflict. His administration wanted to "keep the war little."
The North Koreans fought back, with fresh reinforcements from China. The force of 200,000 troops reestablished the 38th parallel as the boundary. Truman's ploy of staging the B-29's in Guam did not deter China.
Truman upped the nuclear ante by allowing nine fully operational atomic bombs to be transported to the military base in Okinawa. But they were never used.
On November 30, Truman publicly declared he would use "whatever steps were necessary" to deter the communists. When asked if that included atomic weapons, he said, "That includes every weapon we have."
Armistice negotiations began after a few months. But for the next two years, the two sides fought in a bitter stalemate.
1951: General Ridgeway replaced MacArthur. He initiated Operation Hudson Harbor. It used B-29s to simulate nuclear bombing runs over North Korea.
1952: Ground warfare had stalemated and casualties amassed without clear gains on either side.
1953: On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed that effectively ended combat.
Technically, the Korean War is not over. A formal peace treaty was never signed.
After the signing of the armistice, the United States and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty. South Korea granted free military bases to the United States. In return, the United States would automatically defend its ally against any attack. It wouldn't need Congressional approval.
As a result, the 38th parallel became a demilitarized zone. Troops from both sides patrol it constantly. The United States has 29,000 troops in South Korea. It continues exercises in the area to remind the North it is still involved.
The Korean War cost roughly $30 billion by the time active combat ended. Compensation benefits for Korean War veterans and families still cost $2.8 billion a year. Surviving spouses qualify for lifetime benefits if the veteran died from war wounds. Veterans' children receive benefits until age 18. If the children are disabled, they receive lifetime benefits.
How the War Created the North Korean Nuclear Crisis
Eisenhower's threat of using nuclear weapons on North Korea helped create that country's obsession with building its own atomic bomb. Tensions were heightened when, after the war, the United States stationed nuclear missiles in South Korea in violation of the armistice.
On January 21, 1968, North Korea soldiers came within 100 meters of assassinating South Korean President Park Chung-hee. On January 23, 1968, North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo, killing one member and taking the rest hostage. They were freed 11 months later.
On August 18, 1976, North Korean soldiers hacked to death two U.S. Army officers in the DMZ. The officers were cutting down a tree that blocked the view of United Nations observers.
On November 29, 1987, North Korea detonated a bomb hidden on Korean Airlines Flight 858, killing 115 passengers. It was trying to upend the South Korean government and frighten participants away from the Olympics. The United States designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism.
In 2008, President George W. Bush lifted the terrorism designation. He hoped that would persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.
On November 20, 2017, President Donald Trump reinstated the state sponsor of terrorism designation. It allows civil liability claims against North Korea for acts of terrorism against Americans. It also imposes more disclosure requirements on banks. The designation restricts U.S. foreign assistance and bans exports of military-related products. Eight days later, North Korea launched a missile that landed in Japanese waters.
What the United States Wants
U.S. leaders want North Korea to halt and dismantle its nuclear weapons program. It uses economic sanctions to pressure the "Supreme Leader," Kim Jung Un, to negotiate. It wants denuclearization before agreeing to sign a peace treaty. North Korea must release a list of its atomic weapons stockpiles, production facilities, and missiles.
What China Wants
China wants to keep a friendly Communist country on its border. It does not want a U.S.-backed South Korea to expand north. A stable North Korea is in its best interests. North Korea is also a major trade partner for China.
While China doesn't necessarily want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, a stable North Korea prevents an influx of refugees from streaming into China. Estimates are that hundreds of thousands of refugees could flood into China if the regime were to collapse.
What North Korea Wants
North Korea wants a formal peace treaty before it ends its nuclear program. The people want assurances they won't be attacked by the United States or anyone else. Kim Jung Un wants formal recognition that North Korea is a legitimate country. Kim wants a guarantee U.S. forces won't depose him like Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. He wants assurances he won't be eliminated like Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein. North Korean hackers found evidence of U.S. plans to do just that.
Meetings Between Trump and Chairman Kim Jung Un
On March 6, 2018, Chairman Kim said he was willing to hold talks with the United States about giving up its nuclear weapons program. In return, he wants a U.S. guarantee to safeguard his regime. He would also be willing to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April. It would be the third-ever summit between top leaders of the two countries.
On March 8, Kim invited Trump to a summit. Trump accepted a meeting to occur possibly in May. Trump will insist on denuclearization. Kim may only be willing to offer a freeze on further development.
On April 27, Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. They agreed to work toward a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War. In May, North Korea began shutting down a nuclear test site. Kim agreed to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for a U.S. security guarantee.
On June 12, 2018, Kim met with Trump at a historic summit in Singapore. The two leaders signed an agreement. In it, Trump “committed to providing security guarantees..." He also promised to suspend joint war games with South Korean forces. Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization..." Sanctions against North Korea remain in place. The negotiations could lead to a formal peace treaty 65 years after the war's end.
On July 7, 2018, Trump administration officials met with their North Korean counterparts in Pyongyang. The U.S. goal was for North Korea to dismantle the bulk of its nuclear assets within a year. But satellite imagery taken a week earlier revealed North Korea was expanding a weapons-manufacturing plant that produced solid fuel missiles and upgraded its main nuclear research facilities. In return for denuclearization, the Trump administration promised an end to sanctions and a boost in foreign direct investment. The administration also asked for security assurances and the repatriation of the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War.
On August 10, 2018, North Korea insisted the United States declare that the Korean War is over before taking its first steps toward denuclearization.
On February 28, 2019, a meeting between the two leaders was aborted mid-session when the two couldn't come to an agreement. Trump wanted Kim to freeze work on all nuclear and missile programs. Kim wanted partial sanctions relief without freezing the programs.
On June 30, 2019, Trump became the first sitting president to visit the demilitarized zone. He met with Kim to restart denuclearization talks.
What a War With North Korea Would Look Like Today
North Korea has conventional weapons near the DMZ targeted at Seoul. South Korea's capital is only 24 miles away and contains 24 million people. North Korea could also launch a chemical weapon attack. Its troops could sabotage infrastructure.
The U.S. and South Korean air force would quickly end any threat from North Korea's 800 military aircraft. The allies' navy could also quickly take out the North's submarines.
But North Korea has the skill in cyber-warfare to disrupt South Korea's financial and communications systems.
The war would look very different if China got involved. The 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty obligates China to intervene against unprovoked aggression. China wouldn't get involved if North Korea initiated the conflict. China doesn't really want to get into a war with the United States, its best customer.
China advocates a "freeze for freeze" approach. The United States and South Korea would freeze its military exercises in exchange for a freeze in North Korea's nuclear and missile testing. China sees the 2017 U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense against North Korea as a threat to its own security.