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Korean War: Open Questions

Scholarship is driven by open questions. What don’t we know? The Korean War is no exception.

Researchers have never stopped exploring the conflict, and the opening of new archives in the U.S., Europe, and Asia are helping them do it.

For our Summer 2020 issue, “Korea: 70 Years On,” we asked four distinguished historians to address what they see as the most important open questions about the war and its legacy.

Open Question: The Lived Experience of North Koreans in the War

The Korean War was experienced in different ways by different people. Much of the literature about the war in the United States focuses on the experiences of a relatively predictable set of actors: political and military leaders and U.S. combat forces. When bookstores and public libraries have any books on the Korean war at all, they tend to be military histories that are written from the American perspective. They focus primarily on U.S. strategic thinking or the combat experience of American forces.

While the new international history of the war that developed in the 1990s expanded on this perspective by incorporating the communist world, much of it was still focused on political elites – Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and the like. Missing from these elite-driven histories is a sense of the war’s traumatizing impact on those who felt it most viscerally: the Korean people.

For three years, the Korean War turned the entire Korean peninsula into a ghastly war zone. Millions perished and violence was endemic. The waves of retaliation and counter retaliation carried out by leftist and rightist partisans in many areas rent the fabric of Korean society so badly that it took decades to recover. Even those who survived had their lives shattered, their property destroyed, and their opportunities narrowed. Historians have been far slower to turn their attention to these more human dimensions of the war.

Scholars have done a little better when it comes to the war’s impact on South Korea. We now have a limited understanding of how the presence of massive numbers of UN forces, the transition to a wartime economy, and the political chaos caused by the fall and recapture of cities and villages permanently changed life in South Korea. Our understanding of these phenomenon is still insufficient, but it is growing nonetheless as the most recent generation of historians finds new sources and tests different theoretical approaches.

The lived experience of war in the North has been almost completely neglected. When Americans pay attention to wartime North Korea at all, they mostly see a place where their armies slaughtered – and were slaughtered by – a ferocious and evil adversary, and a landscape in which major cities were transformed into ashes and rubble by relentless aerial bombing.

Americans don’t see it as a place where real human beings struggled for survival, mourned the loss of family members, and suffered permanent trauma because of the three years that they spent living under constant fear of death. And they care little about the social or cultural history of the war there. As a result, we know about the massive bombing campaigns carried out by American fighter planes and wartime atrocities committed by South Korean forces in North Korea. Yet we don’t understand much about their real human impact.


Gregg A. Brazinsky is professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University. He is the author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War and Nation Building in South Korea: Korean, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @GBrazinsky.

Open Question: The “Long Peace” Between America and China

One of the great open questions about the Korean War regards what did not happen after the armistice was signed in July 1953.

In retrospect, it is almost miraculous that another Korea-style direct military confrontation between China and the United States did not happen for almost two decades following the end of the conflict. The possibility of such a confrontation was virtually eliminated only by the Chinese-American rapprochement in the early 1970s.

This Chinese-American “long peace” has been largely ignored by scholars of Chinese-American relations. Yet the absence of a war between China and America in the wake of the Korean War should in no circumstances be taken for granted.

Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, China and the United States regarded each other as a mortal enemy. For Beijing, “imperialist America” was China’s number one foe, serving as a principal justification of its support to revolutionary insurgences in East Asia. This animus was also the main source of Mao Zedong’s excessive domestic mobilization, which culminated in such disastrous Maoist programs as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

For Washington, Communist China, compared with the Soviet Union, was a “more daring, therefore, more dangerous enemy.” Although the emphasis of America’s global Cold War strategy lay in Europe, and the Soviet Union was America’s presumed primary enemy, a large portion of America’s resources also were deployed in East Asia to cope with the “Chinese communist threats” there.


Chen Jian is Distinguished Global Network Professor of History at NYU-Shanghai and NYU. He is also Hu Shih Professor of History Emeritus at Cornell University. He is nearing completion of a major biography of Zhou Enlai.

Open Question: The Lasting Legacies of Korean War Special Operations

The failure rate of the missions was shocking, the full scope of which we still do not know because the records are incomplete, lost or remain inaccessible. In a literal sense, the history of Special Operations in Korea is truly the forgotten part of the Forgotten War. Thousands of Koreans – we do not know the actual number – never returned from their suicidal missions behind enemy lines in North Korea during the Korean War. Their courage and lives were expendable. But their sacrifices, and those of the Americans who led them, helped to restore U.S. unconventional and covert warfare capabilities that were almost completely eliminated after the Second World War.

The Korean War caught the United States with its proverbial pants down. The post-World War II demobilization precipitously reduced the Armed Forces by nearly 90 percent – from over 12 million to 1.5 million by June 1947. For many service personnel, the pace was too slow and demands for faster demobilization were backed with protests and demonstrations. The process, by necessity both political and social, was “willy-nilly,” and the consequences for military capability and readiness were devastating. In September 1946, the War Department estimated that the combat effectiveness was down to just 25 percent for all units in the Pacific. A 1952 Army study concluded, “When future scholars evaluate the history of the United States during the first-half of the twentieth century they will list World War II demobilization as one of the cardinal mistakes.”

A little noticed loss in the demobilization was the almost complete elimination of special operations units. World War II had spawned a plethora of these organizations – famed units such as Army Rangers, Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT), Marine Raiders, and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – that accumulated an expertise paid for in blood. They conducted the kind of irregular, covert and clandestine activities known as special operations. These military activities were usually conducted behind enemy lines and ranged from intelligence collection and direct actions such as raids, sabotage, assassination, and kidnapping to guerilla warfare and psychological operations.

The landmark National Security Act of 1947, which reorganized how the U.S. would handle the foreign policy and military challenges of the Cold War, created the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to provide national-level strategic intelligence. The scope of its concerns was quickly expanded to include covert paramilitary operations of the kind conducted by wartime organizations.

A year later, the National Security Council decided that the CIA would be responsible for, among other things, covert propaganda, sabotage, and subversion operations to include guerilla warfare. The military initially endorsed the decision, but the outbreak of the Korean War changed all this. For one thing, General Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Command (FEC) quickly recognized the need for developing these capabilities itself. The war had served as an abrupt reminder that their elimination had been premature and unwise.


Sheila Miyoshi Jager is Professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College. Her most recent book is Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea. She is finishing a new book project, The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea and the Birth of Modern East Asia, 1876-1905, which is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

Jiyul Kim is a retired U.S. Army officer with over 28 years of service. He is a Visiting Instructor of History at Oberlin College.

Sheila Miyoshi Jager and Jiyul Kim are collaborating on The Korean War: A New History, which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Open Question: Memorials – Remembering an Unfinished War?

Historians have not yet written the final chapter of the Korean War, even as memorials to the never-ended conflict rise across the American landscape.

Often referred to as the “Forgotten War,” the Korean conflict of 1950 through 1953 was sandwiched between World War II of the “Greatest Generation” and the long tragic nightmare of Vietnam. However, the Korean War has never been forgotten by historians.

In recent decades, an avalanche of significant new studies has provided a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the war’s origins, conduct, and consequences. As the war continues, halted only by an uneasy armistice that has lasted for nearly seventy years, studies of the Korean War proliferate. Their profusion has been made possible, in part, by access to greater international materials made available to scholars by the newly-opened archives and the declassification of government documents.

Meanwhile, manuscripts, memoirs and oral histories of participants in the conflict continue to surface. These new primary sources present historians with a further appreciation of the complex and continuing struggle for dominance on the Korean peninsula.

Public memory provides an additional area of exploration for the study of the Korean War, and examining how wars are remembered in popular culture, museums, memorials, and historic sites, has increasingly attracted the attention of the scholarly community. Both remembrance, as well as the need to acknowledge the costs and ravages of war, have become an essential element of a national psyche. And in recent years, our nation has experienced a memory boom, whether dealing with international warfare of the early 20th century or the fragmentation of warfare since 1945. In the United States, memorials now tend to be more inclusive of ethnic and racial minorities who fought in these wars, and the service of women in conflict. They also tend to focus on the soldiers who saw combat, instead of great generals, or leading political figures. Furthermore, it is the veterans of these wars and their families who have taken the lead in advocating for these memorials, as well as in funding and creating them.


Michael J. Devine is an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Wyoming. From 2001 until his retirement in 2014, he served as director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. He has twice been named a Senior Fulbright Lecturer to Korea (1995 and 2017-2018), and was the Houghton Freeman Professor of American History at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Graduate Center in 1998 and 1999. He is the author of John W. Foster: Politics and Diplomacy in the Imperial Era, 1877-1917 (1981), and the editor of Korea in War, Revolution and Peace: The Recollections of Horace G. Underwood (2001).

Read entire article at Wilson Quarterly