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The Korean War (1950-1953) did not have vast public support. World War II left Korea separated into a northern and southern half, each backed by a world power. Territorial disputes were common, and when the Soviet (and to a more limited extent, Chinese) backed North attacked the South, the United States responded with support. Overall, there were no victors. At the end of the war in 1953, established borders were very similar to what they had been before. South Korea gained 1500 square miles of territory and a 2 mile wide demilitarized zone was established between the two nations.
While unpopular, the Korean War was also an unjust war on both sides. There are six primary conditions for a war to be just. First, it must be fought with overall good intentions. Second, it must be aimed at correcting a wrong against a nation, such as an unsolicited attack. In addition, other means of resolving the dispute should be pursued first, if possible. It should not cause more harm than necessary, as that would outweigh the benefits that war is being fought for. War should be fought openly and honestly, with the nations involved declaring their intentions and desires. Finally, a war should be fought only if there is a reasonable chance of success. Wars also must be conducted in a certain way to be just. In order to be just, nations must be discriminating in their attacks and civilians should never be targeted. Attacks should also not cause more damage than is necessary, forbidding scorched earth, or similar policies.
We will examine the qualifications for just war and compare them to the Korean War. First, the origins of the war are very important. North Korea justified their invasion based on the assertion that South Korean troops had attacked first. This is unverified, but the response of an invasion is not warranted simply due to a border skirmish. In addition, the North aimed to execute Syngman Rhee, the South Korean leader. With this knowledge, the United States became involved to aid the defending forces in the South but also to stop the spread of Communism, something the US believed to be a great threat to world democracy. With respect to the first two conditions of just cause and having the right intention, the North was unjustified in starting the war but the South and the United States were justified in their defense.
The third condition of a just war is vaguer. The North could have explored other options to stop the border skirmishes other than an all-out invasion, which means that they were unjust. It is for debate whether the United States and South Korea had the ability to negotiate peace. However, Northern forces were moving swiftly and reached the South Korean capital of Seoul within 3 days. The swiftness of the attack adds to the argument that South Korea had no reason to negotiate and were justified in their defense. The United States saw a great need to aid the South, and forces arrived within a few weeks of the initial attack.
The fourth condition of political proportionality is also up for debate. North Korea was mostly fighting for territory, although border clashes would have ended if they were victorious, eliminating future political dispute and loss of life. South Korea was engaging in defense and were justified in doing so. The United States, believing that Communism was a threat to global democracy, was justified in their attempt to defend Asia from its expansion. In addition, all nations involved were very clear in their intentions, so they were all justified with regards to the fifth condition.
The Korean War ended in what amounts to a stalemate. This would suggest that each party was justified with regards to condition number six. Had the war continued longer, one side would likely have been a definite victor. However, the war was ended since it was a source of great loss of life for what was amounting to little gain. It is the gross loss of life, however, that is the next problem. Civilian deaths are to be avoided at all costs and collateral damage is also greatly discouraged. About 2.5 million civilian deaths occurred during the war, which is an incredible amount compared to the approximately 4 million total deaths during the war.
The Korean War was an overwhelmingly unjust war when you consider the conditions and the facts. This conclusion is explained by the incredible loss of life for no gain for either side. In hindsight, both sides were at fault for participating in a bloody conflict that should not have been fought.
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