The Korean War, lasting from 1950-1953, had many participants, including women. Women from both sides of conflict had essential noncombat roles. These ranged from nurses to supply clerks, as well as intelligence analysts and communications technicians.
South Korean women became refugees during the war, but many of them ended up becoming active participants as well. They served a diverse array of roles, from nurses to dentists to even surgeons. The war effort caused a labor shortage, and women were a practical solution to fill the gap.
Under U.S. military command women from the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia filled a variety of subordinate roles. They were healthcare providers or worked in logistical or administrative positions. In sharp contrast to their Western and South Korean counterparts, women in North Korea were active military participants, serving in units alongside males. They also served military support roles as well.
Before the end of World War II the Korean Peninsula had been occupied by Japan. After the occupation had ended women in Korea were able to make gains in education and began entering the workforce in increasing numbers. The 1948 constitution actually gave women the same equality as men. The Korean War served to further change the status of women. Not only did women receive medical training in the army medical field school, but they were also employed in war industries, making guns, ammunition, and bombs.
The need for servicewomen increased as the war went on, and the women of South Korea responded by enlisting. Female recruits were given basic military training, the same as the men, and afterwards assigned to units as needed. Some women even received office training as well. As the war continued women also received specialized training and became attached to specialized units.
For non-Korean servicewomen, the most in-demand role by far was nursing. Between 500 and 600 female U.S. Army Nurse Corp members served in the war zone during combat. Several thousand more worked in hospitals under the Far East Command. By the war’s end, over 120,000 women were assigned to active duty. They served as administrative aids, translators and stenographers. Non-American women also participated in the war effort. Women from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Great Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey and Thailand served during the Korean war. The majority of these, like their American counterparts, served noncombat roles as nurses in hospitals.
Women in North Korea found themselves in a similar, but different, scenario. After taking control and consolidating his power, Premier Kim Il Sung promoted gender equality, incorporating equal rights into the North Korean constitution. Women in North Korea were able to join organizations along with men, such as the Worker-and-Peasant Red Guard. There were also political organizations solely for women.
When the Korean war began women were immediately integrated into the ranks of North Korea’s military. Women did logistical tasks such as transporting supplies and materials to the front lines. However female soldiers were not limited to only support roles. They also served as front line troops along with their male counterparts. They also served as spies and saboteurs, posing as refugees to infiltrate behind enemy lines, either to gather intelligence or carry out surprise attacks on unsuspecting enemy troops. Women also served and fought with guerilla units, using hit-and-run attacks as well as acts of sabotage.
Women were not solely victims and refugees during the Korean War. May were active participants, putting their time, effort, and sometimes even their lives into supporting the war effort. While not flashy or glamorous, their roles were necessary and essential to the war, and their sacrifices were no less vital than the men they served alongside.