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Who Started Korea?

Paul Wingrove looks at the roles of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung.

Soviet troops in Korea, 1945
Soviet troops in Korea, 1945

On June 25th, 1950, Communist North Korea launched an invasion across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. Initially taken aback, the West, under American leadership, quickly recovered and within days had obtained United Nations Security Council agreement to repel the attack. For President Truman this was a decisive encounter. As he saw it, North Korea’s Communist leader Kim Il Sung was not acting independently, nor was the aim of this attack simply limited to reunification of the divided Korean peninsula. In this aggressive action he discerned the hand of the USSR, and possibly that of Communist China. In Truman’s words: ‘The Reds were probing for weaknesses in our armour; we had to meet their thrust without getting embroiled in a world-wide war’. His Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, also concluded that ‘it seemed close to certain that the attack had been mounted, supplied and instigated by the Soviet Union...’, and:

To back away from this challenge... would be highly destructive of the power and prestige of the United States... we could not accept the conquest of this important area by a Soviet puppet under the very guns of our defensive perimeter with no more resistance than words and gestures in the Security Council.

Only recently, however, have the roles of Stalin and Mao in unleashing the Korean War become better known, thanks to the opening of the archives of former Communist bloc countries. Researchers have also benefited from President Yeltsin’s personal decision in 1994 to present to the South Korean government hundreds of pages of high-level declassified documents relating to the origins of the war. Even so, the record is far from complete. In Russia many documents from the highly sensitive ‘Presidential Archive’ and from KGB and military archives are simply not available, while China’s archives are effectively closed to outsiders.

Nonetheless, fifty years on we are much clearer about the war’s origins. Who wanted the war, and why? The answer seems to be that it was primarily Kim Il Sung who sought reunification of Korea through military action, but as a client state of the USSR he needed, and was given, the support and encouragement of Stalin. Kim was driven by the cause of reunification, but was also perhaps too easily impressed by Mao Zedong’s successes in the Chinese civil war of 1946-49. Stalin came to see an attack on South Korea as a potentially cheap Cold War victory.

Reunification through war seems first to have been raised as a serious possibility in March 1949 when Kim travelled to Moscow to meet with Stalin. Their exchange of March 7th is recorded as follows:

Kim Il Sung: We believe that the situation makes it necessary and possible to liberate the whole country through military means. The reactionary forces of the South will never agree on a peaceful reunification and will perpetuate the division of the country until they feel themselves strong enough to attack the North. Now is the best opportunity for us to take the initiative into our own hands. Our armed forces are stronger, and in addition we have the support of a powerful guerrilla movement in the South. The population of the South, which despises the pro-American regime, will certainly help us as well.

Stalin: You should not advance to the South. First of all, the Korean People’s Army does not have an overwhelming superiority over the troops of the South. Numerically, as I understand, you are even behind them. Second, there are still American troops in the South which will interfere in the case of hostilities. Third, one should not forget that the agreement on the 38th Parallel is in effect between the USSR and the United States. If the agreement is broken by our side, it is more of a reason to believe that the Americans will interfere.

Kim Il Sung: Does it mean that there is no chance to reunify Korea in the near future? Our people are very anxious to be together again and to cast off the yoke of the reactionary regime and their American masters.

Stalin: If the adversary has aggressive intentions, then sooner or later it will start the aggression. In response to the attack you will have a good opportunity to launch a counterattack. Then your move will be understood and supported by everyone.

Whatever his inclinations, Stalin was clear that this was not the time for military action. Indeed, for some time in 1949 his concern was the opposite – that the South might launch an early attack against the North. In a telegram of April 17th to Terentii Shtykov, Soviet ambassador to North Korea, Stalin suggested that:

In April-May the Southerners will concentrate their troops near the 38th Parallel. In June the Southerners will start a sudden attack on the North in order to finish off the total destruction of the Northern Army by August.

Kim was undeterred by Stalin’s caution. Indeed he was spurred on by events such as the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea in mid-1949, and by Mao’s victory in China. On September 3rd, 1949, Shtykov reported to Moscow that Kim had requested permission

... to begin military operations against the South, with the goal of seizing the Ongjin peninsula and part of the territory of South Korea to the east of the Ongjin peninsula, approximately to Kaesong, so as to shorten the line of defense. Kim Il Sung considers...that if the international situation permits, they are ready to move further to the south. Kim Il Sung is convinced that they are in a position to seize South Korea in the course of two weeks, maximum two months.

Shtykov prudentily counselled Kim that this question was ‘very large and serious’, and not to do anything until Moscow had considered the matter. Moscow, in the person of Andrei Gromyko, replied a week later, with instructions to the ambassador to ‘give your evaluation of the situation and of how real and advisable is the proposal of our friends’, indicating some change in Stalin’s policy following the US withdrawal. After consultations in Pyongyang the Soviet chargé d’affaires, Tunkin, reported back to Moscow on September 14th, that Kim had again indicated that he planned only a ‘partial’ operation on the Ongjin peninsula, with the possibility of moving further south if this attack resulted in ‘demoralisation’ of the enemy forces. Irrespective of the scope of Kim’s plans, Tunkin stated that he personally remained unconvinced of the ability of the north to carry out an invasion, or to contain the war:

…the northern army is insufficiently strong to carry out successful and rapid operations against the south. Even taking into account the help which will be rendered to the northern army by the partisans and the population of South Korea it is impossible to count on a rapid victory. Moreover, a drawn out civil war is disadvantageous for the north both militarily and politically…After their lack of success in China, the Americans will probably intervene more decisively than they did in China…

Despite his over-optimistic expectations of the population of the south, Tunkin’s assessment was sound. The message to Kim, formally delivered from the Soviet Politburo on September 24th, reflected this judgement:

...it is impossible to acknowledge that a military attack on the south is now completely prepared for and therefore from the military point of view it is not allowed.

Yet Kim remained committed to his plans. In mid-January 1950, at a rather emotional lunchtime meeting, he told Shtykov:

Lately, I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country. If the matter of the liberation of the people of the southern portion of Korea and the unification of the country is drawn out, then I can lose the trust of the people of Korea.

Kim then:

...placed before me [Shtykov] the question, why don’t I allow him to attack the Ongjin peninsula, which the People’s Army could take in three days, and with a general attack the People’s Army could be in Seoul in several days.

Shtykov replied that Kim should put such questions to Stalin personally, and reported this conversation to Moscow. In the event, an emboldened Stalin informed Shytkov in January 1950 that he agreed to a second meeting with Kim, now hinting at his new view of things:

I understand the dissatisfaction of comrade Kim Il Sung, but he must understand that such a large matter in regard to South Korea as he wants to undertake needs large preparation. The matter must be organised so that there would not be too great a risk. If he wants to discuss this matter with me then I will always be ready to receive him. Transmit all this to Kim Il Sung and tell him that I am ready to help him in this matter.

From now until the outbreak of the war on June 25th, 1950, Stalin encouraged Kim and armed him in preparation for an attack on the South. Why this change of heart? Partly because US troops had departed, but also because the ‘international situation’ had changed in a number of ways advantageous to the Communist world. According to a document prepared by Soviet Communist Party officials which summarised the second Stalin-Kim talks, held in April 1950, Stalin reasoned that

The Chinese Communist Party’s victory over the Guomindang has improved the environment for actions in Korea... if necessary, China has at its disposal troops which can be utilised in Korea... the Chinese victory is also important psychologically...[and] now that China has signed a treaty of alliance with the USSR, Americans will be even more hesitant to challenge the Communists in Asia... Such a mood is reinforced by the fact that the USSR now has the atomic bomb.

Having decided that US intervention was unlikely, Stalin now made clear what would happen if, against his expectations, the war should spread:

Comrade Stalin added that the Koreans should not count on direct Soviet participation in the war because the USSR had serious challenges elsewhere to cope with, especially in the West. He again urged Kim Il Sung to consult with Mao Zedong and mentioned that the Chinese leader had a good understanding of Oriental matters. Stalin repeated that the USSR was not ready to get involved in Korean affairs directly, especially if Americans did venture to send troops to Korea.

Kim’s argument had always been that American intervention was unlikely and that the war would be short. From a more calculated perspective, Stalin had come to accept this view, while taking precautions against the event of a different outcome.

Given that China was to play such a crucial role in the war, it is surprising that these Moscow-Pyongyang interactions were largely hidden from Mao. While some writers suggest that Stalin and Mao may have discussed Korea during the latter’s visit to Moscow from December 1949 to January 1950, this was almost certainly not the case. Indeed, in a telegram from Stalin to Shtykov sent in February 1950 Stalin commanded that:

The question he [Kim] wants to discuss with me must be completely confidential. It should not be shared with anyone even in the North Korean leadership, as well as the Chinese comrades.

Although Mao was in Moscow until the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship on February 14th, 1950, Stalin chose not to talk to him about Korean affairs. Mao did not discover what was afoot until May, following Kim’s month-long visit to Moscow in April. On Stalin’s suggestion, Kim had travelled to Beijing to see Mao to lay out his plans. While Mao and Kim were in talks Vyshinsky, writing on May 14th, informed Mao that Stalin had already agreed to Kim’s ‘proposal’, and hinted at a role for Beijing:

In a conversation with the Korean comrades Filippov [Stalin] and his friends expressed the opinion that, in light of the changed international situation, they agree with the proposal of the Koreans to move toward reunification... In this regard a qualification was made...that the question should be decided finally by the Chinese and Korean comrades together, and in case of disagreement by the Chinese comrades the decision on the question should be postponed until a new discussion.

Thus, China was to be tied into the war, if only loosely. Mao gave a rather lukewarm agreement to Kim’s plans, although for Kim this was sufficient. Stalin had proved himself generous in his support and Kim took the view that since ‘all his requests were satisfied in Moscow’ there was no need to bother Mao too much. This meeting, which ended with Mao’s muted approval for the enterprise, cleared the way for the June 25th attack.

The North’s invasion turned out to be spectacularly successful for the period that it took the West to recover, re-group and send troops to Korea. Stalin, taken aback by a United Nations intervention which confounded his calculations, initially pretended he was not involved in the war – a ploy that dismayed Kim and failed to deceive the West. MacArthur’s bold execution of the landings at Inchon in September turned the tide, producing heavy defeats for the North Koreans. In a ciphered telegram of September 30th, Kim pleaded with Stalin:

If the enemy does not give us time to implement the measures which we plan, and, making use of our extremely grave situation, steps up its offensive operations into North Korea, then we will not be able to stop the enemy troops solely with our own forces. Therefore, dear Josif Vissarionovich, we cannot help asking you to provide us with special assistance. In other words, at the moment when the enemy troops cross the 38th Parallel we will badly need direct military assistance from the Soviet Union.

This, of course, was at odds with Stalin’s intentions. Fortunately, Kim went on to request the formation of ‘volunteer units in China and other countries of people’s democracy’, a request Stalin was only too eager to assist with. He immediately fired off a message to Mao:

If in the current situation you consider it possible to send troops to assist the Koreans, then you should move at least five-six divisions towards the 38th Parallel at once.

As Stalin had always intended, he was not going to pull North Korean chestnuts out of the fire; the Chinese would undertake that task. In later years Mao recalled that it was only when the Chinese had proved their mettle in combat in Korea that Stalin lost some of his earlier suspicion of them. But this was no comfort for Mao, for not only did the Korean war involve huge sacrifices for his country, it also put off indefinitely the higher priority – the conquest of Taiwan.

This was an unnecessary war, for which the responsibility lies mainly with Stalin. His miscalculation damaged the interests of the USSR and the Communist world in general, and it is not surprising that upon his death in 1953 his successors quickly sought a formal end to the conflict. Nor is it surprising that Mao Zedong held a rather jaundiced view of the man who had armed the North for this war, permitted it to be launched, then expected others to save the day.

Paul Wingrove is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Greenwich.

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