The Grand Coalition of the Korean War

Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, which officially ended hostilities between North and South Korea and their allies. Up to that point, the three-year conflict had claimed 3-4 million lives, most of them civilians.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the war was technically fought by the United Nations; the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of “U.N. Command” that would lead a multinational force to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. To this day, recovered bodies of foreign troops (including from the U.S.) are draped in the U.N. flag. The U.N. Command remains operational, albeit mostly to observe the truce.

Nearly 2 million troops from 21 countries participated in the U.N. operation, with dozens more providing support of some kind. Participants ranged from major powers like the U.S., U.K., and France, to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Turkey. Nevertheless, 90% of foreign combatants were American, and the U.S. doubtless played the leading role, though troops from other countries are known to have performed well and decisively. When one includes financial and material support, two thirds of all U.N. members at the time participated.

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South Koreans remain grateful to the nations that came to their aid, as evidenced by yesterday’s U.N. Forces Participation Day, which coincides with the commemoration of the armistice agreement. A Korean honor held the flags of each country that sent combat troops; to this day, they enjoy heightened diplomatic and commercial relations, and their nationals (especially descendants of Korean War veterans) are eligible for a special work and student visa. Korean legislators recently passed the Act on the Dignity and Honor of U.N. Korean War Veterans to further “enhance cooperation and friendly relations” with these nations.

Kim Jong Gun: North Korean generals pose like gangsters alongside ...

The War Memorial of Korea even revamped its Korean War exhibits to provide a “grander highlight” the role of the U.N. and all 63 countries that assisted the South in some way. A sample uniform of India’s medical corps is displayed with equal prominence to their American and Korean counterparts. Every nation that assisted in some way is given credit.

Korean War Memorial exhibit

Having begun in 1950, the Korean War became overshadowed by the Second World War, and just years later by the Vietnam War. There is still no peace treaty between the two sides, as the agreement merely called for a ceasefire “until a final peaceful settlement is achieved”. But as the Wilson Center points out, this “forgotten war” and its uniquely multinational nature has left legacy on the world:

The necessity for reexamining the composition, duration, and the impact of the Korean War UN coalition is more apparent when we consider that it was the first UN peace enforcement operation, the aggressive and muscular counterpart to peacekeeping operations. Its importance lies in its success. As Jiyul Kim stated in his Ashgate chapter, “the perception lingers that the UN coalition was more a political symbol of international solidarity than of a substantive military organization…the UN coalition played a key role in the outcome of crucial battles and campaigns and thus the course of the war…but…the greatest legacy of the UN coalition was its impact in resolving conflicts after the Korean War, for it established the enduring principle that the UN has a key political and military role in resolving conflicts through peace enforcement and peacekeeping operations.

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