Perceptions of the Korean War and the real motives animating its key architects have been in a state of flux since the carnage was unleashed with North Korea leader Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea in the early hours of June 25, 1950.
Many in the West believed, for decades, that the war was a sub-component of a global communist conspiracy aiming at world domination that had to be resisted. That thesis shifted somewhat in the 1980s when an analysis that the conflict was a civil war that spiraled out of control rose to prominence. And since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the opening of certain Russian state archives, the differing motives and policy gaps between the USSR’s Josef Stalin, China’s Mao Zedong and North Korea’s Kim have become clear.
Now, another causative factor has been proposed: The Soviet dictator wanted to pin Beijing down in a major ground war in order to prevent Chinese reunification. This thesis is advanced in the just-completed “The World and the Korean War” (Korean language; publication pending; Seoul).
A new view of the Korean War: Stalin’s win-win
Its author has impeccable credentials. Ra Yong-yil is a distinguished professor at South Korea’s National Defense University, a former ambassador to London and Tokyo and a former deputy head of the National Intelligence Service who maintains contacts in China, North Korea and Russia. As an author, his previous works include a biography of North Korea regime insider Jang Song-taek, the uncle Kim Jong-un famously executed in 2013.
“Stalin’s main concern was not North Korea or the Korean peninsula, but Northeast China,” Ra told Asia Times. “Stalin had obtained special concessions in Northeast China from the Chiang Kai-shek government in 1945, which Chiang, because of his weak position, had offered.”
The concessions included exclusive rights to rail lines and harbors in Northeast China, an area in which Russia had traditionally held deep interest: It had been the key loci of the Russo-Japanese War. However, when Mao seized control of mainland China in 1948, he refused to honor the agreement.
This angered Stalin, who was, moreover, looking at a larger strategic chessboard. He sought to play Mao and Chiang off against one another, so preventing the unification of a China that could have challenged the USSR for leadership of the global communist movement.
“Stalin was playing a double game – sometimes Mao and sometimes Chiang,” Ra said. “His main objective was to keep them fighting, as a divided China was easier to handle: If China was united, Stalin had reason to fear a strong country in the same camp.”
And Stalin was looking at a new kind of war which would come to dominate the Cold War: Fighting by proxy. “This is the brilliance of Stalin as a strategist, this was a peculiar, unique type of warfare,” Ra said.
World War I made clear that war between major powers was a horrifically costly form of policy. World War II and nuclear weapons made war between superpowers impossible. “But war was still an attractive means of pursuing policy – more so than years of talks, negotiations and concessions,” Ra said. Stalin’s concept was “limited war – war through client relationships, mostly on the fringes of the great powers, like North Korea and Cuba.”
As has become clear since Russian archives were opened in the Boris Yeltsin years, the war was the brainchild of Kim, who sought to unify his country. Kim pleaded with Stalin in a series of telegrams for two years before Stalin finally relented, offering offensive weapons and strategic planning. But while Pyongyang became an enthusiastic pawn of Moscow – Kim was given clearance for a war he was keen to fight – Beijing was not party to the decision.
Stalin dispatched Kim’s arms shipments by sea, not land, and Mao was only officially informed of the war by Kim’s envoy, three days after the fighting had started, Ra said. Stalin gambled on a victory for Kim or, in the case of a defeat, an intervention by Mao.
“Stalin kept Kim in chains from 1948 – he pleaded and pushed – so it was China that decided Stalin to go to war,” Ra said. “He knew that if Mao was at war in Korea, he would have to give up on Taiwan. Stalin was not sure until very late that Mao would intervene in the war, and he was ready to give up Kim Il-sung. Stalin was playing a big game. Stalin had nothing to lose!”
Once the US intervened – to Kim’s shock – the war turned against him; the hapless dictator retreated to the North Korea-China border in the fall of 1950. Stalin abandoned his protégé, ordering him to retreat across the frontier and prepare for guerrilla warfare.
Kim’s defeat, while not pre-determined, synched with Stalin’s bigger plan. “His design was to get China into conflict with the US in Korea,” Ra said. “The Americans did not know this.”
Mao fights; Stalin applauds; Kim sidelined
As US and UN troops stormed north, Mao acted. Against resistance from most of his politburo and military – Marshal Lia Biao, Mao’s first choice to command in Korea, excused himself on grounds of ill health – the “Great Helmsman” argued forcefully for intervention. Mao saw the situation in North Korea – China’s strategic northeast flank, via which the Japanese and the Manchus had invaded China – through an historical prism.
“The periphery can move; peripheries can be crucial even for big empires,” Ra said. “Sitting with arms folded would have had a bad effect on the communist regime, which was newly established. Mao understood that he would have been on the defensive, if a fight with the imperialists was inevitable.”
US commander General Douglas MacArthur assisted Mao’s plans. Ignored warning signals, he ordered his motorized columns north to the Yalu River. Awaiting them in the freezing high country was a mighty Chinese ambush. The defeat – indeed, the rout – of free world forces in North Korea from Oct-Dec 1950 saved Kim’s state, secured Mao’s border and astonished a world which had previously written China off as a military force.
Thereafter, Stalin – who only deployed jet fighters in China and anti-aircraft units and military advisors in North Korea, all in great secrecy – continued to fight the Korean War to the last drop of blood shed by Chinese and North Korean foot soldiers.
A critical period was summer 1951. Following the failure of the biggest attack of the war, the China-led “Fifth Offensive” in April, the war was in a stalemate. None of the bloodied combatants was willing to risk a major strategic move.
Mao and Kim wanted to end the killing, but Stalin ordered it to continue. Stalin’s explanation to East European heads of state was “keep America fighting in Korea so we can have a free hand in Europe,” Ra said. The result was two years of largely static combat against a backdrop of tortuous, long-drawn negotiations at Kaesong and Panmunjom.
The free world had no idea that the negotiations were being held in bad faith.
Kim, the father of the war, was almost completely sidelined; his country was pulverized from the air for two more years. What explained Mao’s deference to Stalin’s demand?
“I think Mao was more idealistic than Stalin; Stalin was a shrewd, crafty politician,” Ra said. For Mao, “The US was the sworn enemy.”
Only after Stalin’s death, in March 1953, could the war end: An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Winners and losers
The under-the-radar winner was the USSR, which had weakened America and dented US prestige at the cost of virtually no Soviet blood and minimal Soviet gold. China could legitimately claim to have fought the US to a standstill, sparking a virile new national pride, which resounds to this day.
For the first time in her history, America had been unable to prevail in war. The Korean model of “limited war” would resume a decade later, to even more disastrous effect, in Vietnam.
The key combatants – the two Koreas – remained bitterly divided. This stark fact underlines what a massive, bloody failure Kim Il-sung’s gamble of June, 25, 1950, was.
“Kim failed at all his policy objectives – unification of Korea and the realization of socialism [across the peninsula] – as the consequences of the war were the opposite of all that,” Ra said. “The division of the peninsula became fortified and instead of socialism, there was the rise of strong anti-communism in South Korea.”
This was partly because liberals who might have supported Kim prior to 1950, did an about face. “Some had seen the appeal of communism, but after the war, these liberals became anti-communists, as they had experienced communist rule,” Ra said. “The war was much more effective [to change liberals’ stance] than South Korean propaganda.”