The Korean War (CIE A-Level History)

Written by Aaron

In this CIE A-Level History guide, we’ll go over the Korean War. This is a key event mentioned in the CIE Syllabus, so it is critical that you are well versed in it. Questions specifically on the Korean War have been asked in the past.

Given this is a Cold War course, questions on the Korean War will revolve around the Cold War context, not specific domestic issues etc. So you might get a question like:

“Was the USA justified in saying the Korean War was an example of successful containment policy?”

But you won’t get a question like:

“To what extent did the Korean War devastate South Korea’s economic and political institutions?”

Quick Facts

These are a few facts you can sprinkle on your essay:

1m South Korean civilians killed.
0.6m North Korean civilians killed.
0.6m Chinese troops killed (including Mao Zedong’s son)
0.4m North Korean troops killed
0.2m South Korean troops killed
36,000 US troops killed
USA spends roughly $67 billion on war.
USA provided 50% of ground troops, 85% of navy, and 90% of airforce on South Korea’s side.

Key Takeaways:

1) From this alone, you can see that North Korea / China suffered more casualties than the South Korea / USA side. You can use this to evaluate the success of the war for the USA.

2) While the USA provided the most aid of all foreign countries on South Korea’s side (navy/airforce especially), most of the grunt work was done by South Korea. South Korea’s soldiers suffered the most casualties — the Americans only suffered 36,000.

Pre-War Context

This isn’t too important. Just note a few key facts that will help you understand what’s going on here:

  • In WW2, Soviets defeated Japanese troops in the North while USA troops defeated Japanese troops in the South.
  • UN was supposed to organise free elections in Korea. This did not happen. Soviets barred UN from entering and installed communist dictator Kim Il Sung in North Korea.
  • USA also skipped elections and installed anti-communist dictator Syngman Rhee in South Korea.
  • Both Koreas divided at the 38th parallel. South Korea is surrounded by communists: Russia, North Korea and China!

Flow of the War

I’ve distilled the key bits of what you need to know.

  1. North Korea invades South Korea in June 1950
  2. North Korea drives South Korean troops all the way to Pusan (imagine them moving down the South).
  3. South Korea appeals to UN for help. UN declares North Korea an aggressor and a 16-nation coalition led by US General MacArthur is deployed to help.
  4. The UN coalition makes a seaborne landing at Inchon and pushes the North Korean troops to the Yalu River (this is near the border of China).
  5. China warns UN not to approach the Yalu River. MacArthur is all gung-ho and wants to go into China. He gets sacked by Truman for disobeying orders not to do that.
  6. General Ridgeway replaces MacArthur. In October 1950, a surge of 300,000 Chinese troops (supplied by USSR) are sent to help North Korea.
  7. UN troops are pushed back to the 38th parallel. Stalemate occurs.
  8. Peace talks begin in 1951. Eisenhower replaces Truman in 1952. Khrushchev replaces Stalin in 1953. A ceasefire is then reached in July 1953.

Key Takeaways:

1. It’s a 16-nation coalition, but it’s mainly the US leading it and calling the shots.

2. UN (i.e. USA) military support was key. South Koreans were losing badly (pushed to Pusan). But with UN/US intervention North Korea pushed all the way to Yalu River.

3. Overall outcome: containment was successful (communism did not spread to South Korea). However, rollback was a failure (North Korea still communist)

General Effects of the Korean War

1. Casualties (see quick facts)

2. Cold War intensifies (example of a proxy war with US and USSR/China supporting opposing sides. USSR provided covert support (training, medical aid, airplanes). China provided explicit support (troops).

3. UN proves to be stronger than League of Nations. Diplomatic victory for the USA — managed to use UN to its advantage (funny story: The USSR could’ve vetoed the UN’s support of South Korea in the UN Security Council, but they were boycotting the UN Security Council at the time).

4. SEATO, ANZUS pact are consequently formed.

Making Complex Arguments

Easy Questions Most of the time, you’ll use the Korean War as a brief example in a globalisation or Thaw/how were relations in the 1950s essay. So all these details mostly don’t matter.

Medium Questions You can point to how a ceasefire was negotiated once Stalin died. This can be used to analyse Khrushchev/Eisenhower’s policy/behaviour questions. You may use this as an example of relations improving because of new leaders / example of Peaceful Coexistence as well.

Hard Questions The hardest questions involving the Korean War are the ones that ask you to specifically analyse the Korean War in the wider context of the Cold War. It may ask you to evaluate policies like containment/rollback in the Korean War.

To best do this, make use of the following tools:

1. Statistics for casualties. This allows you to argue success/failure on either side by casualty count. Also bear in mind US spending on the war (see above in Quick Facts)

2. Flow of the war. Knowing the roughly chronology of the war (Pusan -> Yalu River -> 38th Parallel) allows you to narrate how US/UN presence shifted the tide of the war to some extent. It’s up to you to argue it out.

3. Diplomatic effects. Knowing that SEATO/ANZUS Pact was formed + the UN was put to good use allows you to analyse the wider repercussions of the war on US foreign policy success. The war allowed the pacts to be formed. But maybe the pacts were pretty useless… it’s up to you to argue it out again.

See also:

Globalisation of the Cold War Factsheet