The Korean War in Photos, 70 Years After the Truce

The Korean War broke out when a Soviet-backed, Communist North invaded the pro-American southern territory of the Korean Peninsula in 1950, leading to one of the most harrowing conflicts of the 20th century and setting the tone of the Cold War in Asia.

Despite American officials who initially described the Communist invaders as little more than “bandits,” the war dragged on for three disastrous years. Troops from both sides massacred civilians. Rival villagers slaughtered each other. The American-led United Nations forces suffered a crushing defeat when the North Koreans swept down the peninsula in 1950, occupying Seoul, the South Korean capital, before they were pushed back to the north.

Between 2 million and 3 million people — including 36,500 American troops — were estimated to have been killed. China’s intervention on the North’s behalf led to a stalemate between the two sides, and the fighting was halted roughly along the 38th Parallel after a truce was signed on July 27, 1953. But with no formal peace treaty ever established, the two Koreas technically remain at war.

Hostilities between the North and South have escalated in recent years. Kim Jong-un, the North’s dynastic ruler, has threatened to use nuclear weapons should fighting begin again.

On the 70th anniversary of the armistice, The New York Times revisited the early days of the conflict by going through archival photos taken by American and South Korean war photographers. Here is a selection, beginning with an image of American Marines running past the body of an enemy soldier in September 1950. That month, General Douglas MacArthur’s U.N. forces surprised the North Koreans with a daring amphibious landing at Incheon, west of Seoul, turning the tide of the war.

Credit…David Douglas Duncan

This undated photo from North Korea’s official news service purportedly shows North Korean soldiers in action during the war. The North Koreans claimed they started the war in the name of reunifying the Korean nation: the pro-Soviet North and the pro-American South.

Credit…Korean Central News Agency

American B-29 Superfortress bombers dropping their payloads during the conflict. The United States still occasionally sends strategic bombers flying over the peninsula when it wants to warn North Korea against military provocations.

Credit…Keystone, via Getty Images

Villagers waving a South Korean flag at troops heading to the front in January 1951. After the Incheon landing, American troops pushed their Communist enemies to the north. By January 1951, they were retreating south again after China entered the war.

Credit…Lee Kyung Mo

North Korean civilians in Pyongyang surveying the aftermath of a bombing by American planes. More than a million North Koreans, or more than 10 percent of the North’s prewar population, were believed to have been killed in the war. The U.S. military carpet-bombed dams, factories and other key North Korean infrastructure. Because of that memory, North Korea keeps most of its essential military facilities underground, even today.

Credit…Keystone, via Getty Images

American soldiers fighting on the streets of Seoul. The timing of the Incheon landing placed American Marines behind enemy lines. They soon recaptured the South Korean capital.

Credit…LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Villagers arrested in Damyang, South Jeolla Province, in South Korea, in December 1951. They were accused of collaborating with Communist invaders.

Credit…Lee Kyung Mo/Museum Hanmi Collection

A destroyed North Korean T-33 tank in 1950. The Soviet Union supplied weaponry for North Korea.

Credit…Lim In Sik

American soldiers fighting to take the crest of a hill in September 1950. Korea is so mountainous that when American soldiers arrived, they found a terrain that looked like the sea in a gale. Many key battles were fought to determine which side owned a strategically positioned hill.

Credit…David Douglas Duncan

A portrait of Capt. Francis “Ike” Fenton of the U.S. Marines upon hearing reports that his unit was almost out of ammunition during a battle in 1950. “We were pinned down by day and counterattacked by night,” he said​. His Marines were fighting to recapture Seoul.

Credit…David Douglas Duncan

Parachuting allied soldiers and equipment in 1951. Throughout the war, the U.S. military dominated aerial warfare.

Credit…Interim Archives, via Getty Images

American Marines advancing after landing at Incheon in 1950. They moved on to retake Seoul.

Credit…Bert Hardy/Getty Images

South Korean students moving to the front in 1950. They were called “soldiers without dog tags” because they joined the fighting with little preparation.

Credit…Lim In Sik

U.S. Marines retreating from the Chosin Reservoir, also known as Lake Jangjin, in North Korea in late 1950. They suffered a heavy loss from the Chinese and had to pull back through the bitter cold and deep snow.

Credit…David Douglas Duncan

An American soldier comforting a fellow infantryman whose close friend had been killed in action in South Korea in August 1950. Many of the American troops in the early months of the war were inexperienced and had been rushed from police duty in Japan to a desperate fight in an unexpected war and in a land they knew very little about.

Credit…United States Army, via Getty Images

A helmet with a bullet hole was abandoned on a battle site in 1953. The last two years of the war saw fierce attrition along what would eventually become the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which continues to separate the two Koreas today. The South Korean army is still recovering the remains of fallen soldiers there.

Credit…Myeongdong Lee

American soldiers captured by Communist forces in North Korea in 1951. After the armistice was signed, 3,597 American POWs returned home.

Credit…PhotoQuest/Getty Images

South Korean troops entering Seoul after Allied forces retook the South Korean capital in 1950. They vowed to advance north to liberate North Korea from Communists. But they didn’t expect the Chinese to join the war on the North’s behalf.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

Myeongdong in central Seoul in 1950. The district is now an international shopping hub. South Korea has built one of the richest economies in the world from the ruins of the war. North Korea has become a totalitarian dictatorship, ravaged by poverty but armed with nuclear weapons.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

A war orphan in 1950. The war separated numerous family members from each other. With the peninsula still divided, most have died without ever being reunited with their relatives.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

Allied troops guarding the South Korean government headquarters in Seoul in 1950. They retook the city three months after the war began.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

A shell exploding near a U.S. Marine position in April 1952. By this time, the fighting was concentrated along the current inter-Korean border.

Credit…Keystone, via Getty Images

A helicopter taking off to carry a U.N. delegation to armistice negotiations with the Communists in July 1951. Two years later — at 10 a.m. on July 27, 1953 — the armistice was signed at Panmunjom. The fighting stopped, but the war was never officially declared over.

Credit…Lee Kyung Mo

Refugees in Busan waiting for trains to return home in 1953. Throngs of refugees fleeing the fighting had crowded into Busan, a port city on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

The Dapdong Catholic Church in Incheon in September 1950, after American troops landed at the port city. From there, they fought their way into Seoul and to the north.

Credit…Limb Eung Sik

A North Korean boy amid the ruins of his home, all that remained after American troops bulldozed a path through a civilian neighborhood in Hungnam, a port city, in December 1950. After losing heavily to Chinese forces, American troops retreated south through Hungnam’s harbor, taking tens of thousands of desperate refugees with them.

Credit…David Douglas Duncan

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