The Cold War




Inside The Cold War


This page tells kids the story of the Korean War. It's designed for adults to use with middle school students, but some elements may also be thought-provoking or interesting for teens. The lesson includes key facts about the Korean War for kids, including the causes of the Korean War for kids.


This is not a detailed history of the Korean War, but instead an understandable, accurate and brief summary of the Korean War for kids, a Korean War lesson plan and an interesting "story" for students curious about this chapter of American history.


Kids can also help their eligible veteran parents and grandparents get the free Korean Defense Service Medal (for service in Korea after the war) from the U.S. Government. See the easy steps to get this honor here.

Teachers may also be interested to know the Korean War has never officially ended: A truce but not an official peace treaty exists between North Korea and South Korea/the US and United Nations. From 1953 to today, thousands of American troops have been assigned to defend South Korea and many have been killed by North Korea, including from 1966-9 during the so-called Second Korean War or DMZ War (named for the Demilitarized Zone separating the Koreas). For more on this topic, visit our sister site

Teachers should review this page first to identify which content is suitable for their students' age and state of development.

[Note for grown-up visitors: We're told teachers of older students and also adult Web researchers find this page a useful sort of Korean War for Dummies. We're happy to have you visit as well; the basic concepts here are for all ages.]

The Korean War for Kids

Plus: What's Happening to These Children? 

Learn About It Here

Korean War Orphans
Map of Korean Peninsula

The Korean Peninsula juts down from continental Asia toward Japan, about the same size in square miles as the state of Utah. Many times over history this peninsula -- a sort of land bridge from the Asian mainland to Japanese islands -- served as a meeting point and battlefield between the traditional adversaries of China and Japan. Despite this, the Korean people developed their own rich, unique culture and language.



Japan had occupied Korea before and during World War II and the Korean people hoped the end of the war would lead to a free and unified peninsula. Instead, a communist regime backed by the Soviet Union took charge in the North and a pro-American government in the South.


As the Cold War grew more frigid around the world, North Korea (officially called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and South Korea (Republic of Korea) both claimed to be the rightful government of the peninsula. Military tensions increased. But in a move that some believe contributed to a war, in early 1950 the US Secretary of State did not include South Korea in a list of countries in America's Cold War "defense perimeter."  At the same time, the North Koreans and Soviets were considering an attack on South Korea to unify the peninsula under communism.
The cause of the Korean War was mainly the Cold War battle between the United States and Soviet Union to determine the winner of the Cold War. It was the first major proxy war of the period. The Soviets and their communist North Korean allies believed it would be possible to seize South Korea. If successful, the Soviets hoped it would be the first of many victories in the Cold War. But America was not about to let that happen.

The attack came on June 25, 1950, as North Korean troops swarmed across the border into the South.


With the South Koreans being forced back, the US and soon United Nations pledged support.


American troops rushed from Japan, but they were initially no match for the North Koreans. Their weapons proved ineffective against North Korea's modern Soviet-made tanks and the GIs (American solders) were not adequately trained. 


As more American and UN forces rushed to Korea, it seemed possible that North Korea might drive the US and South Korean armies into the sea.

This was a "do or die" mission, and somehow the US and South Korean troops were able to stop the North Koreas along a perimeter far down the Korean Peninsula.
Meantime, more US and UN toops and supplies reached South Korea. In September 1950, the US launched a daring amphibious operation, the "Inchon Landing," behind enemy lines. It succeeded and the North Koreans were now on the run, retreating north to avoid punishing allied ground and air attacks.
It seemed the Korean War might soon be over. Some  people were even saying the GIs might be "home by Christmas."
Korean War for Kids Video: US forces liberate Seoul, the South Korean capital, in fierce house-to-house fighting after the Inchon Landing. A note to explain terms: The communists are called "Reds" in this movie, a common expression during the Cold War.

But as US forces marched up the Korean Peninsula, new faces began to appear on the battlefield: Soldiers from the People's Republic of China, North Korea's other communist ally.


American analysts debated whether China might enter the war in a large-scale attack. Top US generals thought that would not happen. They were wrong.


In November 1950, a massive Chinese force attacked, driving America and its allies south amid horrible casualties. Another enemy -- terrible cold weather -- added to the misery.


Once again, the outcome of the war seemed in grave doubt.

The Chinese soon occupied Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which had only recently been liberated from the North Korean invaders. In the coming months, the two sides would trade offensives, pushing forward and back across the Korean Peninsula.
Many towns and cities, including Seoul, changed hands repeatedly. The toll was high, both among troops and civilians. Many families were split up and children left orphaned.
Korean War Jet Fighters

The battle extended to the sky. Korea became the first jet fighter war. US pilots engaged in deadly dogfights with Soviet pilots fighting for North Korea, their jets screaming above the massed armies below.


American bombers pounded North Korea, destroying much of the nation's infrastructure.

Korean War Video for Kids: Watch a US fighter jet mission and dogfight with Soviet jets in the skies of Korea. The video covers a mission from planning to aerial combat and return to base. It highlights the role of Korea as the first jet fighter war and depicts direct US/Soviet combat.
By late 1951, the war had essentially turned into a stalemate. The two sides faced one another from defensive positions across the middle of the Korean peninsula.
The fighting devolved into trench warfare, with endless patrols and fierce battles to take an enemy hilltop or defensive position.
The two sides began to talk peace. It became clear both would accept an end to war with the same general situation as before - a Korean Peninsula split more or less along the 38th Parallel boundary that had existed in 1950.
However, one issue proved a sticking point. Each side had thousands of prisoners-of-war (POWs) captured from the other. Many of the communist POWs -- men captured by the US/UN while fighting for China or North Korea -- did not want to return home. They had often been forced to fight in the communist armies and hated communism. They wanted to go to South Korea or Taiwan, the home of anti-communist Chinese.
Some of these men, such as the North Korean soldier pictured above, even had South Korean flags or other anti-communist emblems tattooed on their bodies. They fought bloody battles with pro-communist prisoners in the POW camps.
The communist side demanded that all these men be returned, whether they wanted to go back or not. The US/UN side insisted on "voluntary repatriation," meaning each POW could decide where he wanted to go. The deadlock dragged on.

By 1953 both sides were tired of the war. Early that year the Soviet Union, sponsor of China and North Korea, got a new leader.


Negotiations picked up, with the communists agreeing to voluntary repatriation of prisoners. On July 27, 1953, the sides signed an Armistice Agreement to stop the fighting.


A POW exchange followed. Thousands of communist POWs decided to go to South Korea or Taiwan instead of going home. 21 US POWs elected to stay in China. Many other Americans were simply not returned from communist captivity.

The war exacted a horrific cost on both sides. More than 30,000 Americans were killed, many of them teenagers. Korean and Chinese deaths were measured in the hundreds-of-thousands. By some estimates, the war claimed more than 1 million lives -- soldiers, civilians and children.

Legacy of the Korean War

The Korean War left a complicated inheritance to people today. Many American, Korean and Chinese families, and those from UN allied countries, lost loved ones. Some American prisoners were not released by the communists and have never come home (see, and many more are still buried in North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula and Korean people remain divided at the same general place from before the war. The marker you see in the picture shows the Military Demarcation Line, or border between North and South Korea. The border is inside the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, a swath of land that still cuts across Korea. In the years since the war, low-level fighting has sometimes broken out along the DMZ, killing yet more Americans and Koreans. The 1953 Armistice ended large-scale fighting, but a peace treaty has never been signed.
North Korea is still a communist totalitarian state -- ruled by a family dynasty -- with a disastrous economy. It starves and oppresses its people while threatening South Korea and America with nuclear weapons (for more on the secrets of North Korea, visit 
On the other hand, South Korea has grown from an impoverished dictatorship to one of the world's top economies with a vibrant democracy.
For many people, the costs of the Korean War were high, but worth it in the end. Yet everyone agrees the final chapter of the Korean War has yet to be written.
Remember these kids? They were orphans helped by the US soldier in the picture. American soldiers created and supported many orphanages around Korea, allowing thousands of Korean children to grow into healthy adults. There is now a monument to the children of the Korean War in Washington State (see the picture below).
To be sure, the Korean War was a terrible experience for everyone who lived through it, especially children. But now South Korea is a wealthy country with good schools and happy children. Some older people who were kids during the war, or in the crushing poverty soon after it, may even have a good memory or two of being helped by an American soldier.
Korean War Children's Memorial
Gilbert Ashley and Hidemaro Ishida were captured and held by North Korea. Alive at the end of the war, they were never returned. To learn about these two men and other American POWs kept by the communists after the Korean War, visit

Did Your Parents or Grandparents Serve During the Cold War?

If So, They May Be Eligible for the U.S. Cold War Recognition Certificate

The Certificate is provided by the U.S. military at no charge. Have them get details by clicking on the document.