Grade Level: 9th Duration of the History Lab

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History Lab Template (Secondary)

Lab Title: Who “won” the Korean War?

Author, School, School System: Shaina McQueen, Marriotts Ridge High School, Howard County Public School System

Grade Level: 9th

Duration of the History Lab: 1-2 50 minute class periods

Maryland Curriculum Objectives: 1. Describe the development of United States containment policies in Asia as a result of the rise of Communist China (PS, G) 2. Analyze the role of the United States in the United Nations, including the establishment of the state of Israel and participation in the Korean Conflict (PS, PNW, G)

Essential Question: In this lab students will analyze primary and secondary sources in order to develop a claim that answers: Who “won” the Korean War? In order to answer this question students will have to evaluate the primary objectives of the main participants in the war and determine the extent to which these objectives were met.

Teacher Background Essay:

When Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army successfully established a communist government in China in 1949 the United States was both shocked and concerned. Up until this time, the policy of containment had been triumphant in preventing the spread of communist influence beyond Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan, officially the European Recovery Plan, effectively subverted the growth in popularity of communist parties in Western European countries whose economies had been devastated by the war. In 1947, $400 billion in aid to Greece and Turkey had helped defend against communist rebellions. Overall, the strategy of using economic aid to contain communism seemed to be working. So when the People’s Liberation Army defeated the Chinese Nationalist Party, despite receiving support in the form of American money and military supplies, it became clear that in order to contain communism the United States would have to consider more aggressive forms of intervention.

The first major test of the United States’ willingness to use force to stop the spread of communism occurred in Korea, a country the United States had been relatively unconcerned with until the final days of World War II. With the war in Europe already over and the expectation of Japanese surrender any day, the Allied leaders met at Potsdam and made several agreements that included a plan for the post-war division and occupation of Germany and its territories. The situation in Asia was not as clear. The Soviets had been interested in controlling Korea since the Russo-Japanese War, and as the Soviet army advanced quickly through Manchuria, the United States began to worry about the increasing influence of communism in the region. By August 10, 1945, the United States had decided to halt Soviet expansion by participating in the post-war occupation of Korea.1 A proposal to divide Korea at the 38th parallel, a decision that essentially cut the country in half but left the capital of Seoul under US control, was agreed to by the Soviet Union. By early September US troops had landed in Korea.
In occupying South Korea, the United States saw its role as that of a temporary trusteeship responsible only for assisting in the establishment of Korean self-government. However, the realities of creating a unified Korea quickly became apparent. Korea had not had a political system since 1910, and the political vacuum that followed was ripe with factions and ideological battles. In 1947, at the request of the United States, the United Nations discussed the situation in Korea and decided that free elections were to be held in 1948. By this time, the Soviets had assisted with the installment of a Communist regime in North Korea led by Kim Il-sung. When it came time for the elections, the North Koreans refused to participate, thereby guaranteeing that the results of the elections could not possibly hope to reunify the country.
Throughout 1949, hostilities between the North and the South intensified along the 38th parallel. Border disputes became increasingly frequent and violent incursions on the part of both sides regularly occurred. In June 1950, the situation changed drastically when Kim Il-sung’s forces mounted a large-scale invasion of South Korea. Although the exact reasoning behind Kim Il-sung’s decision remains unclear, available evidence indicates that at the very least he sought and gained Stalin’s approval and the commitment of Soviet arms and supplies.2 The invasion began on the morning of June 25th, 1950, and immediately gained worldwide attention. A United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and withdrawal of North Korean troops from South Korea was passed.3 Two days later a second resolution concerning the invasion of South Korea was passed by the UN Security Council asking member nations to “render such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security to the area.”4 The Soviet Union, boycotting the UN Security Council at the time, could have defeated the motion through veto. In absence of their opposition, UN forces led by the United States moved quickly to come to the aid of the South Korean Army.
By September 1950, the North Korean forces in South Korea had been defeated. However the victory did little to bring an end to the conflict in Korea. A new, divisive issue had arisen: whether or not to pursue the enemy into their own territory. While some military personnel and UN member nations argued for the complete defeat of the communist North, others brought up concerns about the possibility of Soviet or Chinese intervention should the 38th parallel be crossed.5 Despite these concerns, UN forces advanced past the 38th parallel in October and rapidly put the North Korean Army into full retreat. By October 19th, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang had fallen. The victory celebrations would be short-lived.
On November 1, 1950, Chinese entered the war and inflicted massive damage to UN and South Korean forces that had driven far into the northern territories of Korea. The Chinese effectively pushed the intruders back past the familiar boundary of the 38th parallel, pushing deep into South Korean territory. By June of 1951, fighting had become focused along the 38th parallel, eventually devolving into a stalemate that lasted until the armistice agreement that was signed on July 27th, 1953.6 In three years of fighting, little had been gained in terms of reunifying Korea but much had been lost in terms of casualties on both sides.
In America the Korean War has colloquially come to be known as the “forgotten war”. It lacks the glory of the American victory in World War II and is often overshadowed by the longer, more polarizing Vietnam War. But it did serve as an initial proving ground in which the United States’ commitment to a policy of containment was challenged. How far the US would go to stop the spread of communism would become the dominant theme of domestic and foreign policy for the rest of the 20th century

  • Who “Won” the Korean War? student packets

  • Video clip from United Streaming: “The Korean War”, a segment from The Unfinished Nation: Fallout

  • Laptop, projector, and chalkboard

Historical Sources with Annotations:

  • Document A: Radio and Television Address on the Situation in Korea given by President Truman, July 19, 1950

    • In his statement to the American public, Truman outlines the reasons for US involvement in the conflict in Korea. This source will be completed as a guided practice with the students in order to review and emphasize historical reading skills in preparation for completing the rest of the lab. In this source students will learn that the US entered the Korean War in order to restore peace in Korea and help resist communist aggression in Southeast Asia.

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. Why does Truman feel that the United States should intervene in Korea?

      • 2. According to Truman, what objective(s) does the United Nations have in Korea?

  • Document B: Report by the National Security Council on the United States Course of Action with Respect to Korea, September 1, 1950

    • In this excerpt from the National Security Council the students will learn that the UN objective in Korea has grown to include reunification of Korea. They will also learn about the concern over possible Soviet or Chinese intervention in the war.

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. According to this report, what are the primary objectives to be accomplished in Korea?

      • 2. Are these objectives similar or different to the ones Truman stated 2 months earlier?

      • 3. What “risk” is posed by trying to meet these objectives?

  • Document C: Radio Report to the American People on Korea and on US Policy in the Far East, April 11, 1951

    • In this radio address Truman explains the motivation behind the North Korean attack on South Korea, revealing that the war is part of a worldwide Communist plot to spread communism throughout Southeast Asia and eventually the world.

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. According to Truman, who is truly behind the attack on South Korea?

      • 2. Based on the information above, what objective(s) do the Communists have in Korea? What objectives do they have for all of Southeast Asia?

  • Document D: Map of Korea During the Korean War

    • This map gives an overview of the advances made by North Korean, United Nations, and Chinese forces in the Korean War. From this map students will learn that both sides made considerable territorial gains that were subsequently lost, ending in a truce line very similar to the international boundary before the war.

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. How far south had North Korean forces advanced in September 1950?

      • 2. How far north had UN forces advanced by November 1950?

      • 3. Which countries have borders along the Yalu River?

      • 4. Based on the map, what prompted the Communist Chinese offensive in November 1950?

  • Document E: General MacArthur's Address to Congress, April 19, 1951

    • Following being relieved from command by Truman, MacArthur gave this address to Congress in which he defended his actions in Korea. In the speech MacArthur admonishes the US for not using every available resource to defeat the Chinese and North Korean forces, claiming that, “In war there can be no substitute for victory.”

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. According to MacArthur, what should be the primary objective of the US in Korea?

      • 2. Based on this excerpt, how do you think MacArthur felt about the armistice agreement that ended the war?

      • 3. If MacArthur was asked to declare a winner, which side do you think he would choose?

  • Document F: Why North Korea Celebrates “Victory Day”, July 28, 2008

    • In this news paper excerpt, Korean newspaper columnist Yoo Gwan Hee, reports on the “Victory Day” celebrations in North Korea. Through this article students will learn not only that North Koreans are taught that they won the war but also some of the reasoning behind this belief.

    • Guiding Questions:

      • 1. According to this article, why does North Korea claim that they were victorious?

      • 2. Do you agree or disagree with their reasons and why?


  1. Introduce the Essential Question

    1. Hook activity: Begin by asking students to define “tie” (example: no clear winner; a contest that ends in a draw). Next, ask students to volunteer examples of how to break a “tie” – these examples should include different types of sports and games.

    2. Tell students that today they will be investigating a “tie” in history, the Korean War, which ended in stalemate.

  2. Initiate the History Lab

    1. Context setting: Use the short video clip “The Korean War”, a segment from The Unfinished Nation: Fallout, available at to give students a broad overview of the Korean War. Alternatively, have students read their textbook account of the Korean War at home the night before this activity.

  3. Frame the Essential Question

    1. Share the following with students:

The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27th, 1953, by the United Nations, North Korea and China. It effectively ended the war although no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. To this day the Demilitarized Zone is one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world and approximately 28,500 US troops remain in South Korea. In this history lab you are asked to develop a claim that answers the question: Who “won” the Korean War? In order to answer this question you will analyze several sources

  1. Modeling and facilitating the historical process

    1. Read Document A: Radio and Television Address on the Situation in Korea given by President Truman, July 19, 1950, and answer the guiding questions as a class in order to model the historical process for students.

    2. Divide students into small groups to analyze and answer the guiding questions for Documents B-F. As students are working, circulate to groups in order to answer any questions or clarify information as needed.

    3. When students have finished analyzing all documents have students complete the table in order to organize their information. Instruct students to not begin writing their responses at this point.

    4. Conduct a brief discussion in response to the following question: Based on what you have read and your prior knowledge, who “won” the Korean War? You may wish to record student answers on the board.

      1. Possible responses may include:

        1. The United Nations led by the US won the war because they successfully pushed North Korean forces out of South Korea and prevented North Korea from unifying Korea as a communist nation.

        2. North Korea, assisted by communist Chinese forces, won because they prevented the reunification of Korea by the UN and preserved their independence as a communist nation.

      2. If students are having trouble presenting evidence, remind them that it is important to consider the objectives of both sides and whether or not those objectives were achieved.

  2. Assessment

    1. Argumentative Writing Task:

      1. Students are to write a well-organized paragraph that answers: Who “won” the Korean War? Remind students that there is no right or wrong answers, but that in order to receive credit they must make a claim, present evidence to support their claim, and address counterclaims.

    2. Multiple Choice Items:

      1. Which of the following statements best describes the outcome of the Korean War?

        1. North and South Korea were annexed by China.

        2. North and South Korea remained divided into two countries.

        3. North and South Koreans were reunited under a communist government.

        4. North and South Koreans were reunited under a democratic government.

      2. Which event is most responsible for prompting Chinese forces to enter the Korean War?

        1. The landing of UN forces at Inchon.

        2. The invasion of South Korea by North Korean forces.

        3. The UN advance towards the Yalu River.

        4. The entrance of UN forces into the war.

    3. Weighted Multiple Choice

      1. Which of the following most accurately reflects the primary objective(s) of the United States during the Korean War?

        1. Defend South Korea from an unjustified attack by North Korea. (3)

        2. Demonstrate US military strength and superiority over communist nations. (0)

        3. Ensure the reunification of North and South Korea. (1)

        4. Prevent the spread of communism throughout Asia. (4)

    4. Historical Thinking Performance Tasks

      1. Read the following document and answer the questions that follow.

Broadcast on Radio Peking (Beijing, China)
October 10, 1950

The following message was broadcast over the radio in Beijing as UN forces pushed through North Korea towards China.

The American War of intervention in Korea has been a serious menace to the security of China from the very start… The Chinese people cannot stand idly by with regard to such a serious situation—created by the invasion of Korea by the United States and its accomplice countries and to the dangerous trend toward extending the war.
1) What is the purpose of broadcasting this message?

2) How might Chinese citizens react to hearing this broadcast?

3) How might US officials react to this radio broadcast?

  1. Read the following document and answer the questions that follow.

President Truman’s Statement Announcing the First Soviet Atomic Bomb

September 23, 1949

President Truman made the following announcement just 9 months before North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War.

I believe the American people, to the fullest extent consistent with national security, are entitled to be informed of all developments in the field of atomic energy. That is my reason for making public the following information.

We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.

Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us.

1) What else was going on at the time this was written?

2) How might this information impact Truman’s decision to limit the war in Korea?

1 Max Hastings, The Korean War (New York: Touchstone, 1987), 26.

2 Ibid., 51.

3 United Nations Security Resolution 82 (New York, 1950).

4 Max Hastings, The Korean War (New York: Touchstone, 1987), 60.

5 Ibid., 119-122.

6 Ibid., 324.

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