written by Todd DePastino, with special thanks to Mary Klepper
A professor of mine once said statistics are useful not as answers to questions but as starting points for inquiry.
Mary Klepper shared with me a wonderful animated map that serves as a great starting point for study of the Korean War. It’s replete with statistics and moving representations of troops and frontlines. Here it is below, from #mapsinanutshell on YouTube, a firehose of information packed in one short minute:
Mapsinanutshell accomplishes what is perhaps the most important part of the learning process: capturing your attention, stimulating interest, and barraging you with questions to answer and puzzles to figure out.
Why do the frontlines move so fast and wildly for the first 20 seconds and then settle mid-peninsula for the rest of the time? Why couldn’t North Korea finish the job at 00:04, when it looked like they had the war won? If each flag represents 10,000 troops, where did they come from, and why do some come flying into the scene suddenly from every direction? What do the casualty figures say about this war? Who, in the end, won the Korean War?
These are all excellent questions, and if I were to enter the classroom again and teach the Korean War, I might use this map on the first day of class. I encourage you to check out the #mapsinanutshell channel, which has similar maps for all kinds of conflicts, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza.
As for the Korean War, if you want a quick primer, watch the eight-minute version, and read a summary, like the one below, to give you a sense of context.
The Korean War took place from 1950 to 1953 between North Korea and South Korea, with international involvement that included the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the end of World War II when Korea, which had been under Japanese occupation since 1910, was liberated. The Allied powers decided to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States occupying the south.
In 1948, both North and South Korea declared themselves independent nations, establishing separate governments. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was led by Communist Kim Il-sung, while the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was governed by pro-American strongman Syngman Rhee. In the larger Cold War context–Soviet (and, after 1949, Chinese) Communism vs. US Capitalism–tensions quickly escalated between the two Koreas as each sought to reunify the peninsula under its own ideology.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces, backed by the Soviet Union and China, launched a surprise invasion of South Korea, crossing the 38th parallel. The international community, led by the United Nations, condemned North Korea’s aggression and swiftly intervened. The United States, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, spearheaded a UN coalition that included troops from various countries such as Britain, Canada, and Australia.
In the initial stages before the UN coalition could fully mobilize, North Korean forces quickly advanced, capturing Seoul and pushing South Korean and UN forces to the Pusan Perimeter in the southeastern part of the peninsula. However, a daring amphibious assault at Inchon by UN forces in September 1950, led by General MacArthur, turned the tide of the war. UN forces recaptured Seoul and rapidly advanced northward, pushing North Korean forces back across the 38th parallel.
The Chinese, which had just experienced a Communist Revolution led by Mao Zedong, intervened in late 1950, sending hundreds of thousands of troops to aid North Korea, many without weapons. This led to a protracted and brutal conflict characterized by trench warfare and large-scale battles. The frontlines stabilized along the 38th parallel, creating a situation reminiscent of World War I.
The war became a geopolitical chess game, with both the United States and the Soviet Union supporting their respective allies in Korea. The conflict took an enormous toll on civilians. The use of air power and artillery by UN forces particularly caused widespread destruction.
Negotiations for a ceasefire began in 1951, but it took two years to reach an agreement. The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, establishing a demilitarized zone (DMZ) near the 38th parallel. The armistice brought an end to the fighting, but a formal peace treaty was never signed. Consequently, technically, North and South Korea remain in a state of war.
The Korean War had lasting implications for the Korean Peninsula and the broader Cold War dynamics. Korea remained divided along the 38th parallel, with the DMZ acting as a heavily fortified buffer zone. The conflict solidified the division between North and South Korea, each developing its own political and economic system. The war also had a profound impact on the geopolitical landscape, contributing to the militarization of the Cold War and influencing U.S. foreign policy in East Asia for decades to come.
So, the next time you read news about Kim Jong Un launching a satellite or testing a missile, think about the map, and the stubborn history of this region.