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From 1950 to 1953, the most powerful countries in the world engaged in a major conventionalwar on the Korean peninsula. Arguably, the world has never been so close to a third World War, not even during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At times, both combatants thought the war was a preamble to a much larger and more destructive global conflict. It was the only occasion in the Cold War when the military forces of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Soviet Union, and the USA (plus its Western allies) met in combat. On the ground, Chinese armies engaged in huge battles with the American-led United Nations Command (UNC). In the air, hundreds of Soviet, Chinese, and American jet aircraft fought for air supremacy over North Korea. Thus, the Korean War was not merely a war fought between proxies of the major powers, like the later conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but a much more significant conflagration. The war changed how the East and the West dealt with one another and was part of a revolution in the conduct of war.
The Korean War was a conflict over two prizes: first, political control of Korea; and second, power in east Asia and the world as a whole. Historically, Communists and rightwing Nationalists vied for political control of Korea. Following the Second World War, the Communists gained control of North Korea and rightists gained control of South Korea. Both then wanted to unify the entire peninsula under their respective authority. This was what motivated North Korea to invade South Korea in June 1950. However, Korea was also an object of Cold War superpower competition. After 1945 the USA was the dominant power in the Pacific. The other superpower, the Soviet Union, led by the paranoid Josef Stalin, was cautiously seeking to expand its global power by promoting Communism in regions important to its security. Korea was one of those areas. The Soviet Union and the PRC believed that a Communist Korea provided insurance against American aggression; hence the Soviet Union's backing of the North Korean invasion and China's later intervention in the war. The USA reacted to the North Korean invasion as a threat to its influence in east Asia. More broadly, American leaders believed that if the invasion were not confronted, the Soviets would be encouraged to engage in military expansionism elsewhere in the world.
The course of the Korean War can be divided into two periods, one of maneuver and one of attrition. The first six months of the war was a period of maneuver. First, North Korea invaded most of South Korea in a blitzkrieg assault on 25 June 1950. Next, US General Douglas MacArthur conducted a brilliant amphibious attack at Inchon and drove the North Koreans out of South Korea. Then, threatened by the UNC advance into North Korea, the PRC intervened and pressed the UNC back into South Korea. Instead of unifying Korea or ending the war, each of these decisive victories led to an escalation of the war. To prevent the conflict from spiralling into a Third World War, the USA abandoned its goal of attaining a total victory and decided to fight a limited war in December 1950.
The remainder of the war, from 1951 to 1953, was marked by indecisive attrition. The UNC's object was to hold the Communists on the battlefield while seeking a resolution of the conflict based not on unifying Korea, but on preserving the integrity of South Korea. The Communists agreed to negotiations following the defeat of their Fifth Phase Offensive in June 1951. Negotiations proceeded slowly because neither side wanted to compromise on issues like the location of the cease-fire line and the fate of the prisoners of war. Military operations continued in the form of limited attacks, air-to air battles, and strategic bombing campaigns.
The Korean War by: Carter Malkasian has Lots of Pictures and Maps. Permission granted by publisher "All rights reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright. Design and Patents Act, 1988."