The Korean War began 68 years ago today. On June 25, 1950, North Korea sent troops into the South, expecting to quickly take over and unify the Korean Peninsula under the communist rule of Kim Il Sung.
What’s largely forgotten is just how global the response against this invasion—which nearly succeeded—was. The United Nations had been formed just five years ago. The Korean War proved to be the first test of its collective-security mechanism, as noted by Sheila Miyoshi Jager in her well-regarded 2013 book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.
Out of 59 nations then in the UN, 48 offered aid or troops to help defend South Korea. Seven non-UN members also sent aid. Adding Japan and Germany—both still under Allied occupation but also pitching in—and South Korea itself, the US-led coalition amounted to 58 nations. Over 20 had “boots on the ground.”
As Jager observed, “Never before in modern history had so many nations committed themselves to a common political and military endeavor as they did during the Korean War.”
This weekend, the US military moved 100 coffins to the inter-Korean border, preparing for the return of the remains of American soldiers from the conflict. Kim Jong Un, the grandson of Kim Il Sung, agreed to returning remains during his historic meeting with Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore, the first ever between a North Korean leader and sitting US president.
Some of the remains North Korea possesses could very well be of soldiers sent by Turkey, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, Canada, Greece, the Philippines, the UK, South Africa, France, Australia, or Thailand, all among the nations that lost hundreds or thousands of soldiers in the war.
The diversity of the fighting force, Jager noted, led to organizational challenges. Providing food was a tricky task. Most of the Turkish soldiers were Muslims and forbidden to eat pork, and they required more bread and stronger coffee than that provided to Americans. (They were unexpectedly modest, too, showering one at a time only.) The Indians were mostly vegetarians. Thais wanted rice and boiled vegetables with lots of peppers and hot sauces.
Ironically, Japan, which ruled Korea for 35 years until 1945, benefited greatly from the conflict. The “war boom,” stimulated by US procurements, put its economy back on track and laid the foundation for its industrial blossoming. And Washington, needing Tokyo’s cooperation, moved to grant Japan independence from the American occupation sooner rather than later.
Each country had its own reasons for sending troops to the conflict. Often it was to get into the good graces of the US, which had emerged as the major post-war world power and could provide significant economic and security benefits. Worries about the spread of communism was another factor, as was the need for a reputation boost. Participation in the war paved the way for Turkey and Greece to join NATO in 1952, for example, and helped Thailand improve its image after having become a member of the World War II Axis in 1941. It also helped France persuade the US to give it military and financial support for its fight against communist forces in Vietnam, its former colony.
The war, with China sending “volunteer” troops to help North Korea, resulted in a stalemate. The conflict never technically ended, though South Korea and others are hoping that an official peace treaty will be signed this year.