Sixty years after it started, the Korean War is not yet officially over, and the story of its origins is still unfolding. A batch of newly declassified CIA documents indicates the United States and the South Korean government were caught unprepared for the conflict, in part because of intelligence failures and mistaken assumptions.
The war began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean army stormed across the 38th parallel that served as the dividing line on the Korean peninsula between the Soviet-dominated northern half and the U.S.-controlled southern sector. Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, intended to bring all of Korea under communist rule.
He nearly succeeded. South Korean forces offered little resistance to the invading North Korean army. U.S. forces had been withdrawn from South Korea the previous year, with only about 400 advisers left behind to assist the South Korean government in the development of its military capabilities.
President Truman, upon learning of the North Korean action, decided it was a test case for the United Nations, which had been established just five years earlier. He asked Secretary of State Dean Acheson to ask for an immediate meeting of the U.N. Security Council, and within 24 hours the U.S. ambassador, Warren Austin, was asking the U.N. to come to South Korea's defense.
"The Republic of Korea has appealed to the United Nations for protection," Austin told the council. "I am proud to report that the United States is prepared to furnish assistance."
But help did not come fast enough for the South. The North Koreans were far superior in numbers and weaponry, and the declassified CIA reports tell a story of panic and disarray on the southern side of the 38th parallel.
"Latest official reports indicate that the capture of Seoul is imminent," said a CIA memorandum dated June 26. "South Korean units, their morale deteriorating, are incapable of resisting the determined artillery-tank-air assaults with the equipment now available."
Within days, the North had seized control of the entire peninsula, except for a small area at the southern tip.
The United States, with U.N. support, rushed to South Korea's defense, with the news relayed to the U.S. population through movie newsreels.
"Against the Red invaders from North Korea, U.S. planes and U.S. ships are ordered into action," one announcer dramatically intoned. "Based in Japan, U.S. Air Force jets and Mustangs are within striking distance of Korea."
U.S. ground forces soon joined the fight, but the going was tough. In a radio and television address on July 19, Truman said the attack had taken the United States by surprise, because the "communists" had kept their activities in North Korea a secret.
"It was from that area, where the communist authorities have been unwilling to let the outside world see what was going on, that the attack was launched against the Republic of Korea on June 25th," Truman said. "That attack came without provocation and without warning."
Truman meant that the Soviet and North Korean leaders had provided no warning of their war plans, but neither had the CIA, as the agency's own reporting made clear.
Some U.S. officials saw another intelligence blunder, reminiscent of the failure to foresee the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A newly declassified CIA memorandum from Jan. 13, 1950, shows that the CIA had not fully understood what was happening in North Korea in the months preceding the invasion. In that memo, the CIA noted the gradual southward movement of the North Korean army but said it was probably "a defensive measure to offset the growing strength of the offensively minded South Korean Army." That report concluded that an invasion of the South by the North was "unlikely."
Whether the CIA should be faulted for its failure to predict the invasion, however, is debatable. At the time, the agency was just three years old and lacked resources.
"They didn't have the human capabilities or the technical collection capabilities to provide that kind of warning," says CIA historian Clayton Laurie. "That was something expected [by] the Truman administration, to prevent another Pearl Harbor, but nobody in the government had that kind of capability at the time."
Whatever the explanation, the consequence was costly in U.S. and Korean lives.
The initial intelligence failure was followed four months later by another one. This time the question was whether China would join the fighting on the North Korean side.
Again, the recently declassified documents are revealing.
In a secret report prepared for the White House on Oct. 12, 1950, the CIA said it saw "no convincing indication" that a Chinese intervention in the war was forthcoming. Even after Chinese forces began moving into North Korea a few weeks later, CIA analysts failed to understand what that movement meant.
CIA historian Laurie says the agency was providing strategic guidance but not "tactical" warning, which is far more specific.
"They know there are Chinese troops in Korea, engaging U.N. forces," Laurie says, "but they do not provide the warning that this is China involved in the war and that this is the precursor of a bigger invasion."
One explanation for the CIA's failure to predict neither the North Korean invasion nor the Chinese intervention in the war is that the agency, along with the rest of the U.S. government, was paying attention primarily to Moscow's actions.
A Kremlin-Centric View
Truman himself, describing the Korean War in a radio and television address to the nation in April 1951, portrayed it as being instigated from Moscow.
"The communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world," Truman said. "If they were to succeed, the United States would be numbered among their principal victims."
That Kremlin-centered view characterized all CIA reporting from the time. One report, titled Current Capabilities of the Northern Korean Regime and issued just six days before the North's invasion of the South described the North Korean regime as "a firmly controlled Soviet satellite that exercises no independent initiative and depends entirely on the support of the USSR for existence."
A candid 2001 summary of prewar Korea reporting, written by a CIA case officer and published by the agency's own Center for the Study of Intelligence, concluded that the agency's assumption that the Soviets controlled North Korean decision-making "accounts for the failure to predict the North Korean attack."
The failure to predict China's October 1950 intervention in the war may also have been due to the agency's assumption that Moscow was calling all the shots in Asia.
The Oct. 12 report, titled Threat of Full Chinese Communist Intervention in Korea, concluded with this statement: "While full-scale Chinese Communist intervention in Korea must be regarded as a continuing possibility, a consideration of all known factors leads to the conclusion that barring a Soviet decision for global war, such action is not probable in 1950." [emphasis added]
"The belief here is that this is monolithic communism," says CIA historian Laurie, "that things are being orchestrated worldwide by the Soviet Union, and that nothing is going to happen in Asia or Africa without the Soviet Union saying, 'This is permissible,' or 'Go ahead and do this.' "
The situation in Korea appears rarely to have been considered on its own merits.
Still Paying The Price
A key moment had come in January 1950, when Secretary of State Acheson, in a speech, defined "the defensive perimeter" that the United States was committed to protecting. Korea was on the other side of the line.
That thinking may have explained the controversial U.S. decision, a few months earlier, to withdraw its forces from South Korea.
Korea historian William Stueck of the University of Georgia says the issue should have been given more thought and reflected the idea at the CIA and throughout Washington that it was Moscow that mattered, not Seoul or Pyongyang.
"Given the fact that Korea was not high on our list of priorities, it wasn't given the kind of attention at the very top level that could have resolved the bureaucratic conflicts that existed," Stueck says.
Arguably, the United States is still paying the price for the intelligence mistakes of 60 years ago. There was a cease-fire in 1953, but no peace agreement. The United States has long since made peace with both Russia and China, but the Korean conflict continues to this day, with analysts still struggling to understand the Koreans on their own terms.