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The History of the World: North Korea invades South Korea

25 June 1950


The following is a brief extract from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad.

In 1945 Korea had been divided along the 38th parallel, its industrial north being occupied by the Soviets and the agricultural south by the Americans. Korean leaders wanted a quick reunification, but only on their own terms, and the Communists taking power in the north did not see eye to eye with the nationalists whom the Americans supported in the south. With reunification on hold, in 1948 the Americans and the Soviets respectively recognized the governments in their zone as having authority for the whole country. Soviet and American forces both withdrew, but North Korean forces invaded the south in June 1950 with Stalin’s foreknowledge and approval. Within two days President Truman had sent American forces to fight them, acting in the name of the United Nations. The Security Council had voted to resist aggression, and as the Soviets were at that moment boycotting the Council, they could not veto United Nations action.

Crossing the 38th parallel. United Nations forces withdraw from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. (c) Public Domain, National Archives and Records Administration

The Americans always provided the bulk of the UN forces in Korea, but other nations soon fielded contingents. Within a few months they were operating well north of the 38th parallel. It seemed likely that North Korea would be overthrown. When fighting drew near the Manchurian border, however, Chinese Communist forces intervened. There was now a danger of a much bigger conflict. China was the second largest Communist state in the world, and the largest in terms of population. Behind it stood the USSR; a man could (in theory, at least) walk from Helsinki to Hong Kong without once leaving Communist territory. The threat emerged of direct conflict, possibly with nuclear weapons, between the United States and China…

An armistice was signed in July 1953… estimates suggest the war cost 3 million dead, most of them Korean civilians.

Reprinted from THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by O.A. Westad.

J. M. Roberts CBE died in 2003. He was Warden at Merton College, Oxford University, until his retirement and is widely considered one of the leading historians of his era. He is also renowned as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series ‘The Triumph of the West’ (1985). Odd Arne Westad edited the sixth edition of The History of the World. He is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has published fifteen books on modern and contemporary international history, among them ‘The Global Cold War,’ which won the Bancroft Prize.

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