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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

North Korean and Chinese Armies Take Seoul, January 4, 1951

Today in 1951, Communist Chinese and North Korean forces captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea. This victory, more political and psychological than strategic, marked the high point of the communist offensive against South Korea. Much of the rest of the war would be fought over the same territory on or around the 38th parallel, the current-day dividing line between North and South Korea.

South Korea, the United States and her allies were caught off-guard by the North Korean invasion in June, 1950, despite the fact that a Central Intelligence Agency report in early 1950 warned of a possible invasion in June. By September of that year, the North Korean Army controlled 90% of the peninsula; the allied coalition controlled a small area encircling the port city of Pusan in the South.

The landings at Inchon, which we discussed here in September, cut the North Korean supply lines and led to a quick liberation of Seoul. Allied forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter and soon met up with the Inchon force. From there, the forces turned north across the border into North Korea. By the third week in October, the UN-sanctioned allied army was occupying Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

These actions were watched with growing concern in China, Korea’s neighbor to the north. The Chinese Civil War had ended only a year before, and Chinese leader Chairman Mao worried that the American-led offensive would not end at the Yalu River, the natural border between the two nations. He ordered the Chinese Army (supposedly made up solely of volunteers eager to defend their homeland), to mass near the Yalu River in the event they were called to battle.

In Washington, President Truman was worried as well. He met with General Douglas MacArthur, who was the overall commander of the allied operation, on Wake Island in the Pacific. MacArthur calmed Truman’s fears by telling him that the Chinese would be slaughtered if they joined in the war on the side of North Korea.

When the Chinese assault into North Korea began on October 25, 1950, the UN troops were once again caught by surprise. While having no air power and few heavy weapons, the Chinese possessed great numbers and were able to sustain heavy casualties. The US Eighth Army began a retreat back down the peninsula, the longest sustained retreat in the history of the United States military. In the eastern part of North Korea, part of the US 7th Infantry Division and US Marines found themselves nearly surrounded at the Chosin Reservoir. Despite bitter cold and the loss of 3,000 men from the 7th, the Americans caused heavy casualties to six Chinese divisions during their retreat to safety. In the northeastern part of the country, UN forces had to be evacuated from the port city of Hungnam by ship.

The retreat of allied forces was as swift as their capture of the north. By time of the communist capture of Seoul on the 4th of January, most of the UN forces were badly beaten and demoralized. It was not until March, 1951 that Seoul would once again be in South Korean hands.

The loss of Seoul spelled the end of General MacArthur’s military career, but it was not the only cause. The General was fired in April, 1951 for many reasons, among them his apparent inability to grasp the immensity of the Chinese incursion into the war. His successor in Korea, General Matthew Ridgway, led a successful counter-offensive but was never able to drive more than a few miles past the 38th parallel. The war dragged on until July, 1953 and when it was over, the two nations were still divided almost exactly as they had been before.

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