Limited War: The Initial Failures of Appeasement Policy Toward North Korea

Report Asia

Limited War: The Initial Failures of Appeasement Policy Toward North Korea

August 8, 2000 15 min read
Chuck Downs
Senior Research Fellow

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, it is valuable to remember what brought the United States into that conflict. The issues that created the division in Korea continue today, as we have seen in the June meetings between the President of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the head of the North Korean regime.

We tend to adhere to a false hope that treating the regime in the North favorably will result in forward movement on the issues that divide us. I would like to use this opportunity to review some of the earliest examples of this phenomenon in our dealings with the North.

After accepting the surrender of Korea from the Japanese Governor General on September 9, 1945, the United States' objective was to establish a single, unified Korea under a freely elected government. In September of 1947, the United States proposed a United Nations General Assembly draft resolution calling for elections throughout Korea by March 31, 1948. U.N. observers were to guarantee that both occupying powers held fair elections. Representation in the Korean National Assembly would be proportionate to population.

The principle of proportionate representation--that is, voting power based on the number of people voting--has always been the elusive goal in Korean reunification. It remains a critical issue today and was in the background of the June meetings between Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung. When the Koreans talk of two systems coexisting within one national framework, they are talking about one system which gives power only to adherents of an ideology--that of the Communist Party of North Korea--and another that gives power equally to all of its citizens.

Proportionate representation was unacceptable to the Soviets in 1947 because the more populous South would have had twice the voting power in the National Assembly. The Soviets countered with a Bolshevik proposal for the simultaneous withdrawal of Soviet and American troops, leaving the people of Korea to sort out their disarray. Then as now, such a withdrawal would have guaranteed that violence would play the deciding role in Korea's political development.

The United States and the United Nations sought to avoid the bloodshed that the Soviet approach would have guaranteed. The United Nations General Assembly voted on November 14, 1947, to arrange for free elections throughout the entire country prior to independence. When commission members arrived at the 38th parallel, Soviet military authorities refused to let them cross into the North. Thereafter, U.N.-supervised elections could proceed only in the American zone; elections were held on May 10, 1948.

A legitimately elected majoritarian government was established by the vote of May 10, although 100 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly were left vacant because North Koreans were not allowed to vote for their assemblymen.1 On August 15, 1948, the U.S. military government turned over its powers to President Syngman Rhee and the National Assembly. The United Nations General Assembly, in its Resolution 293 of October 21, 1949, declared that the "Government of the Republic of Korea is a lawfully established government" and "the only such Government in Korea," and that the elections of May 10, 1948, were "a valid expression of the free will of the electorate."2

U.S. occupation troops then began to leave. By June 1949, only 500 American troops remained in Korea, and the United States, fearing that Rhee might attempt to attack the North in an effort to reunify, decided not to provide offensive weapons. The Communists were not so constrained. The Soviets sent fighter planes and tanks to North Korea, and after China fell to the Communists, Mao sent 30,000 soldiers, primarily ethnic Koreans living in China, across the Yalu River to join North Korean Army regulars.3

Unable to stop the May vote, Communists in the North announced their own plans to hold an election on August 25 to create a "Supreme People's Assembly." That assembly, convened in September, claimed to have participation from all of Korea and declared that 360 of its 572 members actually represented the South. The government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed on September 9, 1949, with Kim Il Sung as its premier.

Two distinct, hostile governments claimed sovereignty over Korea, and their rivalry would confound international security for the rest of the 20th century.

In a speech before Washington's National Press Club on January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson described a "defensive perimeter of the Pacific" encompassing countries like Japan and the Philippines which the United States would be compelled to defend. Korea, he said, was an area of "lesser" interest, susceptible to "subversion and penetration" that "cannot be stopped by military means."4 His remarks earned intense public scrutiny. At the same time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) concluded that the United States had "little strategic interest" in its bases in Korea. The JCS conclusion was classified, but Soviet spy Kim Philby may have relayed it to Moscow.

By 1950, the government of Syngman Rhee appeared to the North to be weak and fraught with internal disunity. Hearing Acheson's public statements and seeing that the United States had not intervened when mainland China fell to the Communists, Communist leaders concluded that the United States would not support Syngman Rhee with troops. These indications of U.S. indifference to Korea are likely to have given weight to Kim Il Sung's arguments in Moscow and Beijing. Finally, the Soviet Union and China gave in to Kim Il Sung's persistent pleas to permit him to seize South Korea.5

Such statements by American policymakers before the start of the Korean War show the perils of appeasement, conflicting diplomatic signals, and isolationism. The invasion that followed proved that public indications of America's desire to exit a quagmire do not facilitate such a move.

North Korea had amassed and trained an army of at least 100,000 at the 38th parallel by late spring, 1950,6 and it initiated a series of deceptive peace offensives, including attractive calls for peaceful unification, to distract the South's attention from its preparations for war.7 On June 25, 1950, North Korea's army crossed the line and surged toward Seoul. Inadequately equipped South Korean soldiers fought off the assault of Soviet tanks. Their numbers dwindled from 98,000 to 22,000 within three days of fighting.8

When word of the Communist invasion reached the United Nations, the Security Council acted swiftly to pass a resolution condemning the invasion, calling for the immediate end of fighting and demanding that "the authorities in North Korea" withdraw north of the 38th parallel "forthwith."

A second United Nations resolution on June 27, 1950, called for U.N. members "to provide such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area."9 Fortified by the two U.N. resolutions, President Harry Truman ordered American forces to turn back the North's aggression. General Douglas MacArthur, then Commander in Chief of American forces in the Far East and headquartered in Tokyo, was told to assist the ROK efforts. The U.S. Seventh Fleet was ordered to Sasebo, Japan, the naval base nearest to Korea. American airplanes flew over South Korea to prepare to evacuate American civilians; when one of these was fired upon, the air war began. In addition to taking out a number of Russian-supplied aircraft, American planes destroyed North Korean airfields.

Early engagements demonstrated that a substantial commitment of troops and resources would be required. On July 1, 1950, a battalion at less than full strength was flown to Korea to undertake a holding action against the assault from the North. Task Force Smith, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Brad Smith, could delay but not halt the North Korean advance. In the meantime, American troops from two divisions poured into Korea. MacArthur requested four divisions, was turned down, and increased his request.

Americans began to comprehend the fierce strength and discipline that characterized the North Korean troops. Before he was taken prisoner, General William F. Dean advised MacArthur: "I am convinced the North Korean army and the North Korean soldier and his status of training and equipment have been underestimated."10

On July 7, 1950, the Security Council adopted Resolution 84 (1950) outlining the organization and management of U.N. troops in Korea. The United Nations Command (UNC) was accordingly established under the leadership of the United States and headed by the U.S.-appointed commander, General Douglas MacArthur. By mid-September, 16 nations had contributed ground forces to the UNC.11

My purpose here is not to review the entire combat history of Korea, but it is worth recalling that the allied advance came close to unifying Korea. It is also worth noting that it was clear to Koreans and Americans alike what was at stake. MacArthur returned control of the city of Seoul to President Rhee on September 29, 1950, stating that "[Seoul] has been freed from the despotism of Communist rule and its citizens once more have the opportunity for that immutable concept of life which holds invincibly to the primacy of individual liberty and personal dignity."12

There were obvious reasons for the UNC to continue fighting after the 38th parallel had been reclaimed. Korea was generally viewed as a single polity, the weakened North Korean forces were in retreat, Americans wanted a resolution of the Korean question, and many believed that North Korea should suffer the consequences of its aggression. At the United Nations, the United States sponsored a resolution calling for all necessary steps "to ensure conditions of stability throughout Korea."

But the logic of moral equivalency that would divide Korea so severely for so long was already beginning to emerge. The President of the U.N. Security Council, India's representative Benegal Rau, argued, "it would impair faith in the U.N. if we were even to appear to authorize the unification of Korea by the use of force against North Korea, after we had resisted the attempt of North Korea to reunify the country by force against South Korea."13 This argument set a tone for future positions taken by "neutral," "nonaligned" nations at the United Nations.

Nevertheless, the United Nations Command was authorized to cross the line into North Korea by a resolution passed on October 7, 1950, and victory seemed certain. The allied coalition fought well and captured the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 19, 1950.

Korea's greatest chance at reunification failed because the People's Republic of China entered the war. The two American divisions that had been chasing a retreating force of demoralized North Korean Army regulars back into the mountains of the North in October 1950 found themselves facing an advance of fresh Chinese forces. The United Nations Command's 500,000 troops were outnumbered by a combined Communist force of about 750,000.14 The Communist forces pushed the front line some 50 miles south of Seoul by late January 1951.

The U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution sponsored by nonaligned members calling for an immediate cease-fire. In response, the United States initiated a resolution identifying the People's Republic of China as the aggressor and authorizing continued fighting to defend the Republic of Korea. The American resolution passed, but its goals fell considerably short of earlier American objectives; there was no mention of reunifying Korea or punishing the aggressors.

The policy debate in America became polarized between those who sought an honorable means of resolving the conflict, restoring the status quo antebellum, and those who believed the American military should force the Communists out of the North and unify the country. Upon MacArthur's dismissal, General Matthew B. Ridgway was given command of the United Nations forces. He was able to articulate the notion of limited war, bringing military doctrine in line with political requirements.

U.N. forces again fought their way to the 38th parallel by March 31, 1951,15 and by June 1, 1951, the U.N. Secretary General stated that he believed the objectives of the June 25 and June 27, 1950, United Nations resolutions had been carried out.16

Military strategists generally conclude that the war could have been brought to a successful conclusion. Combat historian Robert Leckie, for example, summarized the condition of the Communist forces in mid-June 1951 as follows:

In one year of warfare, the North Korean Army had suffered an estimated 600,000 casualties (including 100,000 men who had surrendered) and was virtually destroyed. In only eight months, the Chinese Communists had lost an estimated half million men. The April and May offensives had subjected the Red Army to a frightful pounding and the May assault had clearly revealed its inability to support large bodies of men moving against modern firepower. Communist Korea was in shambles, its railroads ruined, its communications crippled, its industry close to nonexistent.17

Eager to avoid a second full-scale U.N. assault north of the 38th parallel, Communist forces appeared ready to cease hostilities. Washington, however, was pessimistic about additional successful military action to reunify Korea and fearful of the consequences of further challenging Chinese interests.

Having achieved a military stalemate that approximated the Soviet and American political zones before the war, American policymakers reassessed their options:

[W]hile in no way renouncing the ultimate political objective which we hold for Korea, the present task should be to bring about a settlement of the Korean problem which at the minimum will deny to Communist control that part of Korea south of the 38th parallel.18

For Koreans, however, negotiating with the Communists was likely to mean the division of their country on a lasting basis. Accordingly, President Syngman Rhee issued his own conditions for peace: withdrawal of Chinese Communist forces north of the Yalu, the termination of arms shipments by China and the Soviet Union, and the disarmament of the North Korean People's Army; no peace settlement without ROK participation; and no terms contrary to the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea.19

The Republic of Korea, however, could not enforce this position in 1951. The objectives of the United Nations Command, on which South Korea depended for its national survival, no longer included Korean unification. Peace had become the objective of the United Nations; negotiation had become an objective of the Communists.

American officials undertook a lengthy diplomatic offensive to test the waters for truce talks.

In Washington, some resisted having the United States initiate the truce. According to the official notes from a Pentagon meeting on June 28, 1951, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg was "unalterably opposed" to the State Department proposal to have the U.S. Commander in the Far East, General Ridgway, initiate a message to the opposing command. Vandenberg argued "that the drain of hostilities was now beginning to tell on the Communist forces and that we should in no sense be put in the position of suing for peace at this point or stopping the fighting just when it was beginning to hurt the other side."20

White House support for an American effort to initiate the truce was already clear, and everyone knew the State Department had devoted months of diplomatic efforts to that end. General Omar Bradley, sensitive to political exigencies, argued that public support for the war effort, both in America and among the allies, would be harmed if the JCS "turned down what appeared to be an opportunity to end the hostilities."21 Bradley ended the discussion by saying, "A simple statement from our side to the opposing side to the effect that if they agree with the proposals made by the Soviets, let us know and we will arrange a meeting did not in any sense mean that we were suing for peace."22

Accordingly, General Ridgway was ordered to send the following message:

I am informed that you may wish a meeting to discuss an armistice providing for the cessation of hostilities and all acts of armed force in Korea, with adequate guarantees for the maintenance of such armistice.

Upon the receipt of word from you that such a meeting is desired I shall be prepared to name my representative. I propose that such a meeting could take place aboard a Danish hospital ship (Jutlandia) in Wonsan Harbor.23

On July 2, Kim Il Sung, as Commander in Chief of the Korean People's Army, and Peng Teh-Huai, as Commander in Chief of the Chinese People's Volunteers, responded:

Your broadcast message of June 30, regarding peace talks, has been received. We are authorized to tell you that we agree to suspend military activities and to hold peace negotiations, and that our delegates will meet with yours.

We suggest, in regard to the place for holding talks, that such talks be held at Kaesong, on the 38th parallel.

If you agree to this, our delegates will be prepared to meet your delegates between July 10 and 15, 1951.24

Since these initial dealings with the West, North Korea has perfected a negotiating strategy that takes full advantage of America's willingness to resolve the issues North Korea creates. North Korea has achieved the following through negotiations in the past 50 years:

  • Seized territory during the armistice talks;

  • Built up its military in defiance of the Armistice Agreement;

  • Gained international influence and recognition through acts of terror;

  • Manipulated South Korea's politics while espousing dialogue;

  • Won concessions by denying inspections; and

  • Perfected, in the four-way talks, long-range weaponry while proclaiming the need for a peace treaty.

Now, in the recent summit, North Korea has excited anti-American passion in South Korea and will attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea.

U.N. self-restraint in the conduct of the war itself was the primary determinant of the negotiation of the truce and the lasting division of Korea that emerged from it. Having decided not to conquer the North, the United Nations accepted the notion of a stalemate before its terms were defined. Limited war led to limited objectives and produced limited results. What is worth noting for our ongoing dealings with the Communist regime in North Korea is that for the United Nations Command, self-restraint has never elicited reciprocity from the other side, even though our Communist opponents have always been the weaker party.

Chuck Downs is a consultant on Asian security matters and the author of Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy (AEI Press, 1999). He has served in policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, on congressional staffs, and in the Department of the Interior.


1. Richard Whelan, Drawing the Line (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990), p. 45.

2. United Nations General Assembly action referred to in United Nations Security Council, Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council, 1950 (New York: United Nations, 1965), p. 4. See also A White Paper on South-North Dialogue in Korea (Seoul: National Unification Board of the Republic of Korea, 1988), pp. 16-17.

3. T. R. Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea: From the War of 1950 to the Pueblo Incident (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1969), p. 54.

4. "Crisis in Asia--An Examination of U. S. Policy," remarks by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, National Press Club, Washington, January 12, 1950, in Department of State Bulletin, Vol. XXII, No. 551 (January 23, 1950), pp. 111-118.

5. Based on the release of documents by Beijing and Moscow, there is no longer a historical question regarding Kim's initiative to use force to reunify the peninsula. See Chapter 3 of Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), esp. pp. 85-90.

6. Sources generally agree that 90,000 troops participated in the North's invasion, but the size of the buildup prior to the invasion is estimated at various levels. South Korean Minister of Defense Sihn Sung Mo claimed in a press conference on May 10, 1950, that the North had amassed forces of 185,000 along the 38th parallel. See Whelan, Drawing the Line, p. 106.

7. A full description of the peace offensive appears in William B. Breuer, Shadow Warriors: The Covert War in Korea (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996), pp. 26-32. See also A White Paper on South-North Dialogue in Korea, p. 18.

8. Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea, pp. 59-60.

9. United Nations Resolution of 27 June 1950, 83 (1950) in Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council, 1950, p. 5.

10. Breuer, Shadow Warriors, pp. 50-51, and Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea, p. 69.

11. The 16 allied nations that contributed troops to the United Nations Command were Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

12. Robert Leckie, Conflict: The History of the Korean War, 1950-53 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962), pp. 152-153.

13. Ibid., p. 130.

14. Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea, p. 84.

15. Headquarters, United Nations Command, "Command Historical Summary," compiled by the Command History Office, Unit #15237, 1996, p. 19.

16. William H. Vatcher, Panmunjom: The Story of the Korean Military Armistice Negotiations (New York: Praeger, 1958), p. 18, and Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea, p. 94.

17. Leckie, Conflict, pp. 291-292.

18. Memorandum Concerning the Sections Dealing With Korea From NSC 48/5, Dated May 17, 1951, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Vol. 7, pp. 440-441.

19. Syngman Rhee statement issued June 30, 1951, summarized in Fehrenbach, The Fight for Korea, p. 97.

20. Memorandum of Conversation by the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, June 28, 1951, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Vol. 7, p. 567.

21. Ibid .

22. Ibid .

23. Memorandum of Conversation by the Director of the Office of Northeast Asian Affairs, Meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, June 29, 1951, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Vol. 7, pp. 586-587, note 3. This version of the text is consistent with Leckie, Conflict, p. 294, and William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 209.

24. Commander in Chief, Far East (CINC-FE) to JCS, July 2, 1951, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Vol. 7, p. 609.


Chuck Downs

Senior Research Fellow