The Second Korean War: Part I
Tensions with North Korea have been escalating in recent months. The regime has tested numerous missiles and claims to be capable of building nuclear warheads, which, combined with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), would make the Hermit Kingdom a direct threat to the U.S. Such a situation is intolerable to the U.S., and thus there is rising concern about an American military response.
In Part I of this report, we will recap the Korean War, focusing on the lessons learned by all sides of the conflict. We will discuss North Korea’s political development through the postwar period and the fall of communism. This examination will frame North Korea’s geopolitical situation. The next step will be to analyze U.S. policy with North Korea and why these policies have failed to change the regime’s behavior.
In Part II, we will use this backdrop to discuss what a war on the peninsula would look like, including the military goals of the U.S. and North Korea. This analysis will include the military assets that are in place and the signals being sent by the U.S. that military action is under consideration. War isn’t the only outcome; stronger sanctions and a blockade are possible, and the chances of success and likelihood of implementation will be considered. As always, we will conclude with market ramifications.
Echoes of the Korean War
After extensive consultations with the leadership of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Stalin and Mao, respectively, Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea, prepared to attack South Korea. Stalin believed that the U.S. would not risk a wider war by intervening in South Korea. After all, if the U.S. was willing to allow Mao to win China, it seemed likely that the U.S. would not consider Korea important enough to defend. Mao was less confident of American behavior but didn’t act to stop Kim. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops moved south of the 38th parallel and the war began.
Although Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson didn’t include South Korea on his Asian Defense Perimeter, the president was worried that if the U.S. didn’t respond to communist aggression after China fell, it might embolden Stalin and Mao to become even more aggressive. Stalin was threatening Europe and thus taking a stand seemed necessary. It doesn’t appear that Stalin expected a U.S. military response; on the other hand, if one came, it would not be a major problem for the Soviets. The U.S.S.R. was not deeply invested in Kim Il-sung and so, from Stalin’s perspective, Kim’s adventure wasn’t a major risk.
Initially, North Korean troops enjoyed great success, rolling South Korean troops and a few American forces into a corner in southeastern Korea. Soon after, the infusion of U.N. troops, spearheaded by the U.S. military, halted the North Korean advance. Gen. Douglas MacArthur later that year launched the amphibious assault at Inchon. The attack was successful with allied troops routing North Korean forces. Unfortunately, MacArthur overplayed his position as he pushed North Korean troops toward the border with China on the Yalu River. American intelligence did not expect China to intervene given that it was still consolidating its power after the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. But Mao did not want U.S. troops on his border and ordered a counterattack that eventually pushed the allies to the 38th parallel. Although the conflict continued until November 1954, it was really a stalemate by the summer of 1951.
One lesson learned by North Korea was that it really had no outside power concerned about its survival. Kim Il-sung was lured into the war by Stalin but the Soviet leader was more than willing to let the North Korean communists languish rather than risk losing his own troops. China intervened in the conflict but was only willing to suffer massive losses in order to create a buffer state between South Korea, allied with the West, and the PRC. If China felt it didn’t need a buffer, it would not need North Korea. Another lesson learned was that the Kim regime viewed America as irrational and dangerous. It seemed odd that the U.S. would be willing to risk war for a part of the world that wasn’t a direct security threat and, at the same time, America was so resource rich that it could conduct such wars and not face a crisis if it lost or fought to a draw. Such an adversary is frightening because it can seemingly carry out war on a whim.
The U.S. also learned lessons from the Korean War. First, hegemon wars can be successfully fought to a stalemate. For a hegemon, winning doesn’t necessarily require unconditional surrender; merely signaling a willingness to engage can deter behavior. The U.S. inclination to use force in a region that wasn’t a direct security threat to the U.S. showed that it was willing to engage in such wars to prevent communist expansion. Second, the U.S. learned that China would not acquiesce to an unfriendly state on an easily accessible border. In other words, the Yalu River was too close for comfort to China and it was willing to go to war to create a buffer.