The Korean War broke out when a Soviet-backed, Communist North invaded the pro-American southern territory of the Korean Peninsula in 1950, leading to one of the most harrowing conflicts of the 20th century and setting the tone of the Cold War in Asia.
Despite American officials who initially described the Communist invaders as little more than “bandits,” the war dragged on for three disastrous years. Troops from both sides massacred civilians. Rival villagers slaughtered each other. The American-led United Nations forces suffered a crushing defeat when the North Koreans swept down the peninsula in 1950, occupying Seoul, the South Korean capital, before they were pushed back to the north.
Between 2 million and 3 million people — including 36,500 American troops — were estimated to have been killed. China’s intervention on the North’s behalf led to a stalemate between the two sides, and the fighting was halted roughly along the 38th Parallel after a truce was signed on July 27, 1953. But with no formal peace treaty ever established, the two Koreas technically remain at war.
Hostilities between the North and South have escalated in recent years. Kim Jong-un, the North’s dynastic ruler, has threatened to use nuclear weapons should fighting begin again.
On the 70th anniversary of the armistice, The New York Times revisited the early days of the conflict by going through archival photos taken by American and South Korean war photographers. Here is a selection, beginning with an image of American Marines running past the body of an enemy soldier in September 1950. That month, General Douglas MacArthur’s U.N. forces surprised the North Koreans with a daring amphibious landing at Incheon, west of Seoul, turning the tide of the war.
Credit…David Douglas Duncan
This undated photo from North Korea’s official news service purportedly shows North Korean soldiers in action during the war. The North Koreans claimed they started the war in the name of reunifying the Korean nation: the pro-Soviet North and the pro-American South.
American B-29 Superfortress bombers dropping their payloads during the conflict. The United States still occasionally sends strategic bombers flying over the peninsula when it wants to warn North Korea against military provocations.
Villagers waving a South Korean flag at troops heading to the front in January 1951. After the Incheon landing, American troops pushed their Communist enemies to the north. By January 1951, they were retreating south again after China entered the war.
North Korean civilians in Pyongyang surveying the aftermath of a bombing by American planes. More than a million North Koreans, or more than 10 percent of the North’s prewar population, were believed to have been killed in the war. The U.S. military carpet-bombed dams, factories and other key North Korean infrastructure. Because of that memory, North Korea keeps most of its essential military facilities underground, even today.
American soldiers fighting on the streets of Seoul. The timing of the Incheon landing placed American Marines behind enemy lines. They soon recaptured the South Korean capital.
Villagers arrested in Damyang, South Jeolla Province, in South Korea, in December 1951. They were accused of collaborating with Communist invaders.
A destroyed North Korean T-33 tank in 1950. The Soviet Union supplied weaponry for North Korea.
American soldiers fighting to take the crest of a hill in September 1950. Korea is so mountainous that when American soldiers arrived, they found a terrain that looked like the sea in a gale. Many key battles were fought to determine which side owned a strategically positioned hill.
A portrait of Capt. Francis “Ike” Fenton of the U.S. Marines upon hearing reports that his unit was almost out of ammunition during a battle in 1950. “We were pinned down by day and counterattacked by night,” he said. His Marines were fighting to recapture Seoul.
Parachuting allied soldiers and equipment in 1951. Throughout the war, the U.S. military dominated aerial warfare.
American Marines advancing after landing at Incheon in 1950. They moved on to retake Seoul.
South Korean students moving to the front in 1950. They were called “soldiers without dog tags” because they joined the fighting with little preparation.
U.S. Marines retreating from the Chosin Reservoir, also known as Lake Jangjin, in North Korea in late 1950. They suffered a heavy loss from the Chinese and had to pull back through the bitter cold and deep snow.
An American soldier comforting a fellow infantryman whose close friend had been killed in action in South Korea in August 1950. Many of the American troops in the early months of the war were inexperienced and had been rushed from police duty in Japan to a desperate fight in an unexpected war and in a land they knew very little about.
A helmet with a bullet hole was abandoned on a battle site in 1953. The last two years of the war saw fierce attrition along what would eventually become the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which continues to separate the two Koreas today. The South Korean army is still recovering the remains of fallen soldiers there.
American soldiers captured by Communist forces in North Korea in 1951. After the armistice was signed, 3,597 American POWs returned home.
South Korean troops entering Seoul after Allied forces retook the South Korean capital in 1950. They vowed to advance north to liberate North Korea from Communists. But they didn’t expect the Chinese to join the war on the North’s behalf.
Myeongdong in central Seoul in 1950. The district is now an international shopping hub. South Korea has built one of the richest economies in the world from the ruins of the war. North Korea has become a totalitarian dictatorship, ravaged by poverty but armed with nuclear weapons.
A war orphan in 1950. The war separated numerous family members from each other. With the peninsula still divided, most have died without ever being reunited with their relatives.
Allied troops guarding the South Korean government headquarters in Seoul in 1950. They retook the city three months after the war began.
A shell exploding near a U.S. Marine position in April 1952. By this time, the fighting was concentrated along the current inter-Korean border.
A helicopter taking off to carry a U.N. delegation to armistice negotiations with the Communists in July 1951. Two years later — at 10 a.m. on July 27, 1953 — the armistice was signed at Panmunjom. The fighting stopped, but the war was never officially declared over.
Refugees in Busan waiting for trains to return home in 1953. Throngs of refugees fleeing the fighting had crowded into Busan, a port city on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.
The Dapdong Catholic Church in Incheon in September 1950, after American troops landed at the port city. From there, they fought their way into Seoul and to the north.
A North Korean boy amid the ruins of his home, all that remained after American troops bulldozed a path through a civilian neighborhood in Hungnam, a port city, in December 1950. After losing heavily to Chinese forces, American troops retreated south through Hungnam’s harbor, taking tens of thousands of desperate refugees with them.