Korean War Facts, Costs and Timeline

The Roots of the North Korea Crisis

Crossing the 38th Parallel
View of United Nations forces, traveling in trucks, crossing the 38th parallel as they withdraw from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, 1950. Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images

The Korean War was a military campaign launched by the Truman administration 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 $276 billion in today's dollars

The war killed 36,000 American soldiers and wounded 100,000 more. The North and South Koreans lost 620,000 soldiers and 1.6 million civilians.

Causes

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.

Timeline 

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. Syngmun Ree 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 a 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. Conventional bombing had destroyed almost all cities and towns in North Korea. That included 650,000 tons of bombs, including 43,000 tons of napalm bombs. Twenty percent of its population were killed. Civilians were reduced to living in caves or temporary villages hidden in canyons.

1953: On May 20, President Eisenhower and the U.S. National Security Council approved the use of nuclear bombs if China and North Korea did not agree to the Armistice. They did so on July 27, 1953. But that wasn't because of a nuclear threat from Eisenhower, as is commonly thought. It was because Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had died in March. His successors wanted to end the war. Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung agreed. Technically, the Korean War is not over. A formal peace treaty was never signed.

On October 3, 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. 

Costs

The Korean War cost $30 billion in 1953, or 5.2 percent of gross domestic product.

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. 

Effects

U.S. GDP by year reveals that the war boosted the economy out of a recession caused by the end of World War II. But after the Korean War ended in 1953, it caused a mild recession. The economy contracted 0.6 percent in 1954. 

The U.S. threat of using nuclear weapons on North Korea helped create that country's obsession with building its own atomic bomb. After the war, the U.S. stationed nuclear missiles in South Korea, in violation of the armistice. 

On January 21, 1968, North Korea solders 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 eleven 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 ward off participants in the Olympics. The United States designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism.

 In 2008, President Bush lifted the designation to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

On November 20, 2017, President Trump reinstated the state sponsor of terrorism designation. As a result, the administration will impose more sanctions. The designation 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.

What the United States Wants

U.S. leaders want North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missile program. It uses economic sanctions to pressure the "Supreme Leader," Kim Jung Un, to return to the negotiating table.

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. 

China wants to avoid an implosion of North Korean refugees flooding its border. Estimates are that between 40,000 to 200,000 refugees already live in China. For that reason, it supports the regime to prevent mass starvation or revolution. That's why it continues trade despite UN sanctions.

China provides 90 percent of North Korea's trade, including its food and energy. Trade between China and North Korea increased 10 times between 2000 and 2015. It peaked at $6.86 billion in 2014. In 2017, China reacted to North Korea's nuclear tests.  It temporarily suspended coal imports and fuel sales. Trade in the first six months of 2017 was only $2.6 billion.

China is also South Korea's top trading partner, taking in one-fourth of South Korea's exports. Conversely, South Korea is China's fourth largest trade partner. 

It would like to resume the Six Party Talks to denuclearize North Korea. The talks collapsed in 2009. Before that, Japan, South Korea, and the United States joined China in supplying aid to North Korea.

What North Korea Wants

North Korea wants a formal peace treaty. 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. 

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 threat to its own security.