The Cold War and the crisis in Korea

The Korean War began on 25 June 1950 and ended on 27 July 1953...

North Korea invaded the south in an attempt to unify the country under the north's government. The attempt failed, and Korea is still divided in two. Both sides maintain armies along the border where there is an uneasy peace sometimes interrupted by exchanges of artillery fire.

Members of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) take in the view of Pusan harbour and lighthouse, from the deck of the US troopship Aiken Victory. From Pusan they will move on to Taegu to prepare for their first operations in the Korean War. [AWM HOBJ1346]

The war cost more than two million lives and ruined the economy of Korea for twenty years. It also had implications for a wider conflict, the Cold War. The main protagonists of that political, economic, military and ideological contest, the Soviet Union and the United States of America, intervened in the Korean War. The Soviet Union and its ally China backed North Korea, while the United States gathered an alliance under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) to support the south. One of the 21 UN countries offering support was Australia which sent almost 18,000 army, navy and air force personnel. These are remembered in Australia each year, especially the 340 who died, on 24 October, United Nations Day.

The most famous leaders of the time were closely involved with the war – two American presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, China's Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin. Korea was the only occasion in the Cold War when there was prolonged fighting between Chinese, Russian and American land and air forces. The fighting took place in a rugged, mountainous theatre of war.

Korea was a new kind of war. With both superpowers possessing nuclear weapons, neither side could aim for total victory as the threat of escalation to nuclear war hung over the conflict. The outcome of the Korean War determined the United States to maintain large military forces to constrain communism. The war saw the rise of China as a significant military power and it was the first time jet aircraft fought jet aircraft. For Australia, Korea was the first war of the newly formed Australian Army, the only time an aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy conducted air operations in war, and the last time the Royal Australian Air Force engaged in air to air fighting.

Teaching and learning activities for the classroom

Cold War crisis in Korea: map exercise

For the teacher

For this map exercise the students will need an atlas (or computer access), coloured pencils, and the downloadable map and instructions.

For the student

  1. Using an atlas, first write on the map the names of all five of these countries in the middle of each country.
    Communist: China, the Soviet Union (now called Russia), North Korea.
    Anti-communist: South Korea and Japan.
  2. Now lightly colour in red a band around the borders of each of the three communist countries. In blue, do the same for the anti-communist countries–those that supported the United Nations (UN).
  3. Using your atlas, mark on the map the following 11 places:
    Yellow Sea, Korea Strait, Sea of Japan*, Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea), Seoul (the capital of South Korea), Inchon and Pusan (now called Busan) – other important cities in Korea, (leave a gap between Inchon and Seoul), Iwakuni – an Australian base in Japan, Sasebo, also in Japan (the main UN navy base), Shenyang (the main Chinese base for the Korean War) and Vladivostok (the main Russian base for the Korean War).

Now follow these instructions carefully: Use one colour (not blue or red) for communist events or places of importance, and another colour for United Nations places or events. Also, write the numbers below next to each arrow or dot you make on the map.

  1. Imagine, but do not draw, a line from Inchon to the easternmost end of the border between North and South Korea. Half way along this line make a dot and write the word Kapyong (now known as Gapyeong). This was the scene of Australia's most famous Korean War battle.
  2. Half way between Inchon and Seoul make a dot and write the word Kimpo. This was the Royal Australian Air Force airfield during the Korean War.
  3. Anywhere just off the coast of North Korea in the Yellow Sea and in the Sea of Japan draw a simple outline of a ship in each sea. The Royal Australian Navy patrolled these waters to prevent North Korea's allies supplying North Korea by sea.
  4. Draw an arrow by land from Shenyang to Pyongyang. This was the way China sent troops and supplies to help North Korea.
  5. Draw an arrow by land from Vladivostok to Pyongyang. This was the way the Soviet Union sent supplies to help North Korea.
  6. Draw an arrow from Sasebo to Pusan. This was the route by which most United Nations troops and supplies came to Korea from their bases in Japan.
  7. Draw a quarter of a circle in the bottom right-hand corner of Korea. The quarter circle should at all points be about 60 kilometres from Pusan. Use your atlas to calculate this. The area within the quarter circle was known as the Pusan Perimeter. The first North Korean attack on South Korea pushed the South Koreans and the United Nations troops all the way back to here.
  8. Draw an arrow by sea from Sasebo through the Yellow Sea to Inchon. When the North Koreans were attacking the UN at the Pusan Perimeter the UN landed a large force behind them at Inchon to cut them off.
  9. Draw a straight arrow from Seoul to Iwakuni. This is the air route Australian nurses flew in Australian transport aircraft to bring wounded soldiers from the battlefront to hospital in Japan.

* The Australian Government and the Department of Veterans Affairs do not take a position on whether the body of water between Japan and the Republic of Korea should be referred to as the "Sea of Japan" or the "East Sea".


Last updated: 7 April 2021

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2021), The Cold War and the crisis in Korea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 4 August 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/korean-war-1950-1953/korean-war/cold-war-and-crisis-korea
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