Korean War: Battles for Seoul
The First Battles
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Just about any history of the Korean War, even serious ones, will tell you that it began on 25 June 1950, with a massive North Korean offensive aimed at overwhelming South Korea’s defenses. That certainly happened, and it went very well for the North Korean side, at least until it stalled out in front of Pusan. But that was not the first time that North and South Korean soldiers had engaged in combat.
In August 1945, a State Department foreign service officer, Dean Rusk (later the U.S. Secretary of State under Lyndon Johnson) suggested the 38th Parallel as the dividing line between Soviet and American occupation zones in Korea. Rusk selected the line using a National Geographic map, rather than any sort of survey or local input, and so it cut across the Korean peninsula like a razor.
The Americans never expected the Soviets to accept their proposed dividing line, as the Red Army already had troops in Korea and many more on the way, while the Americans had none and no plans to land there. But they did, and so the rough nature of the boundary line stood.
American and Soviet occupation forces withdrew from Korea in late 1948, leaving Korean forces in charge on either side of the border. In February 1949, North Korean security troops (a separate service branch) crossed the border along Korea’s eastern coast and commenced a spree of looting, arson and kidnapping. The ROK 10th Regiment attacked them, driving them back across the border (though apparently without recovering the kidnapped civilians or the loot). The ROK troops then staged an invasion of their own, attacking a North Korean training center and bombarding North Korean positions with 105mm howitzer fire.
The action then moved to the opposite coast. The formal division of Korea had placed the textile-making city of Kaesong on the South Korean side, but right on the border. It would be an early target for any North Korean invasion, and soon became a focus of armed provocations. The first of these came on 3 May 1949, over a year before the start of the Korean War, when a battalion-sized North Korean force seized a hill on the outskirts of Kaesong. A South Korean counter-attack, backed by artillery and anti-tank guns, failed to eject the North Koreans from their concrete-lined machine-gun positions. A second South Korean attack followed, spearheaded by ten volunteers carrying explosive charges. These men hurled themselves into the North Korean bunkers and blew themselves and the North Korean machine-gunners to pieces.
The South Korean version of the story – the North Koreans have not told their side, at least in any version accessible in the West – seems to have a few holes. If the South Koreans promptly counter-attacked, then how did their enemies manage to construct concrete-reinforced positions in time to require a suicide squad to evict them? There seems to be a possibility that this action actually took place on the other side of the 38th Parallel.
A ROK gun crew and their 57mm anti-tank gun, 1950.
Whatever the reality, the North Koreans are accused of attacking again two weeks later at Paech’on, a town on the 38th Parallel about ten miles west of Kaesong. A battalion-strength North Korean unit crossed the line and engaged two South Korean companies in a firefight before withdrawing.
In July 1949, the North Koreans began lobbing mortar rounds into Kaesong’s city center. The South Koreans crossed the parallel this time, sending an infantry battalion to clear North Korean spotters off the ridges of Songak-san that overlooked Kaesong. Fighting there continued for nine days. The South Koreans secured three key hills; it’s not clear whether they ever left them.
Further to the west, the boundary line cut through the Ongjin Peninsula on the Korean coast, leaving the southern end part of the American zone and thereafter South Korea. It could only be accessed by sea, as North Korean territory blocked access by land, and high tides limited ships to entering the peninsula’s small port, Port Bupho, just twice a day for brief periods.
That made the peninsula a focus of North Korean military planning (mostly conducted on their behalf by Soviet advisors). The South Koreans stationed troops there, just 80 miles from Pyongyang, by far the closest Southern territory to the North’s capital.
On 21 May 1949, a few days after the attack on Paech’on, North Korean security troops invaded the Ongjin enclave and skirmished with South Korean infantry and militarized police. The South Korean counter-attack failed to eject them, and they renewed their advance on 7 June after receiving reinforcements.
The South Koreans dispatched several battalions from the 2nd and 18th Regiments, and these additional troops allowed them to hold off a renewed North Korean attack on 4 August. The North Koreans had more success with an attack on 14 October, taking a ridge line just south of the parallel and fending off South Korean counter-attacks. The South Koreans retaliated with a series of cross-border probes but did not mount a full counter-attack.
Another cross-border raid took place in June, near Pocheon north-east of Seoul. This time the South Koreans had advanced warning, and when about 200 security troops crossed the parallel, they ran into a South Korean ambush. The South Koreans took no prisoners.
On 6 August, even as fighting continued in Ongjin, a battalion of security troops crossed the parallel after a mortar barrage and seized several hills near Chuncheon, just about in the center of the Korean peninsula, held by South Korean outposts. The ROK 7th Regiment counter-attacked, but the North Koreans stubbornly held onto one of the hilltops in the face of seven separate attacks. Finally reinforcements from the 8th Regiment allowed the ROKs to push the North Koreans off the hill and back over the border.
By the winter of 1949-50, the cross-border incidents came to an end as Soviet staff officers took over planning for a full-scale invasion. All of the incursions had been conducted by the security brigades charged with patrolling the border; the regular People’s Army units were not involved. While seemingly random and meaningless, like many North Korean actions then and since, the raids appear to have had a specific purpose. They tested the readiness level of the new ROK Army, and created a mindset among the South Koreans where North Korean troops crossing the border and attacking nearby ROK positions might not actually herald an invasion but only yet another small-scale pinprick attack. ROK complacency could provide a valuable weapon.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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