Military History: North Korea’s Surprise Attack, An Important Lesson in Battle Preparation
By James Lint
Faculty Member, American Public University System
June 25 is a day that all military planners and intelligence professionals should remember as a lesson in proper battle preparation. On that date in 1950, North Korea surprised the U.S. military with an attack that swept U.S. and South Korean forces into the Pusan Perimeter and almost off the Korean peninsula. Defeat appeared quick and sudden.
It was only nine years after the devastation at Pearl Harbor and no one believed that a surprise attack could happen to U.S. forces ever again. But it did.
For the United States, intelligence focus on a former small Japanese-occupied territory was a low priority. The mistake was missing the buildup of Communist support and the large amount of combat equipment in North Korea compared to South Korea, obvious indicators of battle preparation that we can see in hindsight. Because the U.S. overlooked these signs of impending combat, North Korea’s invasion led to a long, bloody civil war.
How Did This Surprise Attack Happen?
There are several reasons why North Korea’s invasion came as a surprise to the U.S. military:
- The U.S. was a budding world power and had many places to focus. For example, there were Cold War activities in Europe and Africa. The U.S. had a small intelligence force, with the CIA’s founding in September 1947. By 1950, the CIA was still prioritizing areas to watch and spend assets.
- The U.S. had won World War II, creating a sense of false confidence that no country would have the audacity to attack the U.S. America was the strong victor who had beaten the Germans, Italians and Japanese. But the U.S. did not take into account that other countries saw the massive drawdown and shrinkage of our active military after WWII.
- Military and government leaders did not rigorously review intelligence collection management or intelligence collection requirements. The Army was otherwise occupied with disarming former WWII foes. Korea ended the war as occupied Japanese territory and later broke up into North and South Korea. Russia gained influence in North Korea after this division.
- Military and civilian intelligence services were unprepared for an imminent battle. There was a prevailing sense among intelligence leaders that “a new battle cannot happen”, which proved to be wrong. Even during peacetime, it is wise to be aware of potential combat possibilities and probabilities.
Insufficient Military Forces and Logistics Failure Contributed to U.S. Failure to Anticipate Invasion
Military planners should remember that the military manning the Korean peninsula was insufficient to quickly deploy and logistics had degraded. The 1st Marine Division was not fully prepared to deploy from California and newly recruited Marines had to do their training on the ships that conveyed them to the battlefield. Also, combat personnel had inappropriate footwear for the climate; there were stories of people with dress shoes in wintertime combat.
History shows that most drawdowns go too far. Often, enemies see the possibility for them to advance due to a recent drawdown, especially during the early period of a new war.
Constant Vigilance Against Enemies is Always Vital
This invasion was also an important lesson to intelligence professionals, especially in the military. They must always be energetic and alert for the next December 7 or June 25. Being in the military is not an easy profession. No one hears about the minor successes, but everyone knows mistakes can be costly.
South Korean Post-War Economy Recovers with U.S. Support
U.S. troops have been in Korea since 1945, when they accepted the surrender of Japanese troops at the end of WWII. Many people wonder if remaining in Korea is worth it.
Seoul is a noteworthy story of economic recovery and success after a devastating war. It is an economic power and a member of a vibrant, international business community. The American military assisted in that growth by providing military protection and support. Early on, U.S. support fed a starving population in South Korea. Later, the U.S. helped South Korea to create a strong military for defending the country.
American military support, the Peace Corps and foreign aid all built Korea into a strong country that is now a world-recognized economic power. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks South Korea as the 11th most powerful economy in the world.
The United States took over 200 years to get to our strong economic position. Korea did it in 60 years, going from abject poverty to economic strength with U.S. support.
Strategic Lessons to Be Learned From Korean War
We rarely talk about North Korea’s surprise attack at the start of the Korean War. But it is important to remember our failures and avoid repeating our mistakes. We should remember, that in an attack, the enemy has a vote in the outcome of a battle. Adequate battle preparation can be a decisive factor in combat and can defeat unexpected invasions.
About the Author
James Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded the 40th scholarship for national security students and professionals. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence within the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, contractor, and civil service.
James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has served in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and at the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office. James had an active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and also served 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba in addition to numerous CONUS locations. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” and a new book “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea.”