Korean War Essentials

Updated by Robert Longley

The Korean War was fought between 1950 and 1953 between North Korea, China, and American-led United Nations forces. Over 36,000 Americans were killed during the war. In addition, it led to a huge increase in Cold War tensions. Here are eight essential things to know about the Korean War.

of 08

The Thirty-Eighth Parallel

Korean War
Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The thirty-eighth parallel was the line of latitude that separated the northern and southern portions of the Korean peninsula. After World War II, Stalin and the Soviet government created a sphere of influence in the north. On the other hand, America backed Syngman Rhee in the South. This would eventually lead to conflict when in June 1950, North Korea attacked the South leading to President Harry Truman sending troops in to protect South Korea.

of 08

Inchon Invasion

Generals During The Korean War
PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty Images

commanded UN forces as they launched an amphibious assault codenamed Operation Chromite at Inchon. Inchon was located near Seoul which had been taken by North Korea during the first months of the War. They were able to push the communist forces back north of the thirty-eighth parallel. They continued over the border into North Korea and were able to defeat the enemy forces.

of 08

The Yalu River Disaster

Crossing The 38th Parallel
Interim Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The US Army, led by General MacArthur, continued to move its invasion further and further into North Korea toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River. The Chinese warned the US not to near the border, but MacArthur ignored these warnings and pressed ahead.

As the US military neared the river, troops from China moved into North Korea and drove the US Army back south below the thirty-eighth parallel. At this point, General Matthew Ridgway was the driving forced that stopped the Chinese and regained the territory to the thirty-eighth parallel.

of 08

General MacArthur Gets Fired

Harry Truman and MacArthur
Underwood Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Once America regained the territory from the Chinese, President Harry Truman decided to make peace to avoid continued fighting. But on his own, General MacArthur disagreed with the president. He argued that to press the war against China included using nuclear weapons on the mainland.

Further, he wanted to demand that China surrender or be invaded. Truman, on the other hand, feared that America could not win, and these actions could possibly lead to World War III. MacArthur took matters into his own hands and went to the press to speak openly about his disagreement with the president. His actions caused the peace negotiations to stall and caused war to continue for approximately two more years.

Because of this, President Truman fired General MacArthur on April 13, 1951. As the president said, "...the cause of world peace is more important than any individual." In General MacArthur's Farewell Address to Congress, he stated his position: "War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision."

of 08


A Grieving American Soldier
Interim Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Once the American forces had regained the territory below the thirty-eighth parallel from the Chinese, the two armies settled into a prolonged stalemate. They continued to fight for two years before an official ceasefire occurred.

of 08

End of the Korean War

Truce at end of Korean War
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Korean War did not officially end until President Dwight Eisenhower signed an armistice on July 27, 1953. Sadly, the boundaries of North and South Korea ended up being the same as before the war despite the huge loss of life on both sides. Over 54,000 Americans died and well over 1 million Korean and Chinese lost their lives. However, the war directly lead to a massive military buildup per a secret document NSC-68 that greatly increased defense spending. The point of this order was the ability to continue to wage the quite expensive Cold War.

of 08

The DMZ or 'The Second Korean War'

North Korean soldier patrolling the DMZ
Along the Korean DMZ Today. Getty Images Collection

Often called the Second Korean War, the DMZ Conflict was a series of armed clashes between North Korean forces and the allied forces of South Korea and the United States, largely occurring during the tense Cold War years of 1966 through 1969 in the post-war Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Today, the DMZ is a region on the Korean peninsula that geographically and politically separates North Korea from South Korea. The 150-mile-long DMZ generally follows the 38th parallel and includes land on both sides of the cease-fire line as it existed at the end of the Korean War. 

Though skirmishes between the two sides are rare today, areas both north and south of the DMZ heavily fortified, with tensions between North Korean and South Korean troops posing an ever-present threat of violence. While the “truce village” of  P’anmunjom is located within the DMZ, nature has reclaimed most of the land, leaving it one of the most pristine and unpopulated wilderness areas in Asia.

of 08

The Legacy of the Korean War

South Korean soldier guards anti-missile defense systems
Along the Korean DMZ Today. Getty Images Collection

To this day, the Korean peninsula still endures the three-year war that took 1.2 million lives and left two nations divided by politics and philosophy. More than sixty years after the war, the heavily armed neutral zone between the two Koreas remains as potentially dangerous as the deep animosity felt between the people and their leaders.

Deepened by the threat posed by North Korea’s continued development of its nuclear weapons program under its flamboyant and unpredictable leader Kim Jong-un, the Cold War continues in Asia. While the government of the People's Republic of China in Beijing has shed much of its Cold War ideology, it remains largely communist, with deep ties to its allied North Korean government in Pyongyang.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Korean War Essentials." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-korean-war-104794. Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Korean War Essentials. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-korean-war-104794 Kelly, Martin. "Korean War Essentials." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-about-korean-war-104794 (accessed May 28, 2023).