In early 1949, North Korea seemed to be on a war footing. Kim's New Year's speech was bellicose and excoriated South Korea as a puppet state. The army expanded rapidly, soldiers drilled in war maneuvers, and bond drives began to amass the necessary funds to purchase Soviet weaponry. The thirty-eighth parallel was fortified, and border incidents began breaking out. Neither Seoul nor P'yongyang recognized the parallel as a permanent legitimate boundary.
Although many aspects of the Korean War remained murky, it seemed that the beginning of conventional war in June 1950 was mainly Kim's decision, and that the key enabling factor was the existence of as many as 100,000 troops with battle experience in China. When the Rhee regime, with help from United States military advisers, severely reduced the guerrilla threat in the winter of 1949-50, the civil war moved into a conventional phase. Kim sought Stalin's backing for his assault, but documents from Soviet and Chinese sources suggested that he got more support from China.
Beginning on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces fought their way south through Seoul. South Korean resistance collapsed as the roads south of Seoul became blocked with refugees, who were fleeing North Korean columns spearheaded with tanks supplied by the Soviet Union. Task Force Smith, the first United States troops to enter the war, made a futile stand at Suwn, a town some thirty miles south of Seoul. Within a month of the start of the invasion, North Korean forces had seized all but a small corner of southeastern Korea anchored by the port city of Pusan. Repeated North Korean efforts, blunted by heavy United States Air Force bombing and stubborn resistance by the combined United States and South Korean forces on the Pusan perimeter, denied Kim Il Sung forceful reunification of the peninsula. The fortunes of war reversed abruptly in early September when General MacArthur boldly landed his forces at Inch'n, the port city for Seoul in west central Korea. This action severed the lines of communication and supply between the North Korean army and its base in the north. The army quickly collapsed, and combined United States and South Korean forces drove Kim Il Sung's units northward and into complete defeat.
The United States thrust in the fall of 1950, however, motivated China to bring its forces--the Chinese People's Volunteer Army--in on the northern side; these "volunteers" and the North Korean army pushed United States and South Korean forces out of North Korea within a month. Although the war lasted another two years, until the summer of 1953, the outcome of early 1951 was definitive: both a stalemate and a United States commitment to containment that accepted the de facto reality of two Koreas.
By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, North Korea had been devastated by three years of bombing attacks that had left almost no modern buildings standing. Both Koreas had watched as their country was ravaged and the expectations of 1945 were turned into a nightmare. Furthermore, when Kim's regime was nearly extinguished in the fall of 1950, the Soviet Union did very little to save it--China picked up the pieces.
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