China was North Korea's chief ally during the thee-year Korean War, but Russia's Stalin was a key player. Photo: US Army/Wikipedia Commons
China was North Korea's chief ally during the thee-year Korean War, but Russia's Stalin was a key player. Photo: US Army/Wikipedia Commons

July 27 marks the 65th anniversary of the signing of the 1953 armistice that brought a tenuous end to the Korean War. However, much about how the war began, and how a cease-fire was eventually arranged, is not widely known – particularly when it comes to communist motivations.

Research shows that the three major communist powers involved – China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union – were not of one mind.  Russian historian Alexander V. Pantsov uses the wealth of material in the Central Party Archives of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party – now the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History – in his 2012 book Mao: The Real Story. He especially delves into why the war dragged on for two years after it was clear the communists could not win.

T.R. Fehrenbach’s classic 1963 book This Kind of War illuminates how the war came about, while Sheila Miyoshi Jager’s 2013 book Brothers at War exposes the ploys and propaganda employed by China and North Korea to prolong truce negotiations.

Competing motivations

The war “officially” began with North Korea’s invasion on June 25, 1950, but fighting had started long before. Bloodily suppressed insurgencies had roiled the South, and according to the US military, “hundreds of small-scale assaults occurred across the [38th] parallel during the first half of 1950.” These skirmishes were as often initiated by Seoul as by Pyongyang.

South Korean President Syngman Rhee frequently petitioned Washington for permission to invade the North and unite the country. However, after World War II, the US had pulled most soldiers and weaponry from the South. Claiming that Seoul was not equipped for the task was correct – and self-serving.

Over the border, however, war was definitely the intent of Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea hand-picked by the USSR. From 1948, Kim began sending telegrams – 48 over the next two years – to Joseph Stalin, the premier of the Soviet Union, seeking permission and support for a takeover of the South.

Secretly, Stalin sought to weaken the US, but was too cautious to engage Washington directly. Recognizing an eager pawn in Kim, Stalin manipulated him – along with Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China – into fighting a proxy war with the US.

In a January 1950 meeting with Mao, Stalin casually brought up the subject of assisting North Korea in its defense, should the need arise, but made no mention of Kim’s intent to attack the South.

Stalin had instructed Kim to keep that to himself, but Mao had learned of Kim’s intent in 1949 and was unhappy about being kept in the dark. Nonetheless, he promised troops for North Korea – after China’s civil war ended. A communist Korea would keep America from Mao’s doorstep.

In March 1950, Stalin informed Kim that Mao had promised troops “in case of emergency.” Kim believed it would take only 27 days to subdue the South and that the US would not move. Stalin, however, calculated that the US would not sit on the sidelines.

Kim requested from Mao three Korean-manned divisions of the Peoples’ Liberation Army. Mao agreed, and offered Chinese soldiers if the need arose.

Stalin finally informed Mao in mid-March 1950 of Kim’s plan to invade the South. Mao pledged total support, knowing that battle plans had been drawn up by Soviet advisors, but warned Kim that the US might step in. Kim’s invasion was unleashed on Sunday, June 25, at 04:00.

As the UN Security Council convened, Stalin instructed his representatives to boycott the session to demonstrate solidarity with Mao, whose opponent, Chiang Kai-shek, held the UN’s “China” seat.

Stalin’s action ensured that the US would intervene, bogging Washington down in an Asian land war. The purpose? “Exhaust the United States economically and make [the] Americans soften their positions in Europe where Stalin planned to make a breakthrough,” Pantsov said.

The war started well for the North. But despite being pushed almost to the sea in southeast Korea, US-led UN forces held out. General Douglas MacArthur’s famed Inchon on the west coast landed UN forces in the North Korean rear. Supply lines broken, the Northern troops retreated across the 38th parallel in September-October. The time for Chinese intervention had come.

China wades in

Mao had massed 120,000 “volunteers” – three armies – near China’s border with North Korea. However, he was having second thoughts. He messaged Stalin, saying his soldiers were ill-equipped, that joining the fight would open hostilities between the US and China and that his own advisers were against it.

Stalin explained that it had been his intent all along to have Chinese forces take on the US and informed Mao that he could not provide air cover. Mao advised Stalin that he could not deploy right away. Stalin then informed Kim that Beijing had refused support and directed Kim to withdraw from Korea, and prepare for cross-border guerrilla actions.

That jolted Mao into action. He sent troops – as Stalin had anticipated, for Mao feared an American troop presence across the Yalu River, within easy range of China’s northeast.

On October 19, 1950, four field armies and three artillery divisions of “volunteers” covertly entered North Korea. Shocked UN forces were routed and driven back to the South. However, by spring 1951, UN forces had rallied and driven communist troops back to roughly where today’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is.

Talking and fighting

For the next two years, neither side launched a major offensive. Instead, both jockeyed for position, fighting for limited tactical gains.

By summer 1951, Kim recognized that the war could not continue. With the backing of senior Chinese officials in Moscow, Kim was able to convince Stalin to open talks with the UN side. However, Stalin refused permission to end the war.

Mao complained that the war was causing financial problems for China, and in January 1952, Stalin learned of hunger and hardships in North Korea, where American airpower had reduced the country to a wasteland. Stalin paid no attention. In August 1952, Stalin informed a Chinese delegation that the war was to everyone’s advantage because it was “getting on America’s nerves. The North Koreans have lost nothing, except for casualties ….”

Only after Stalin’s death in March 1953 could Mao prevail upon the Soviet Union’s Council of Ministers to negotiate in earnest to end the war. Related instructions went from the Soviet Union to Kim.

An armistice establishing the inter-Korean frontier where the fighting ended was signed on July 27, 1953. It created the DMZ, with the Military Demarcation Line – the actual border – running down the middle of a four-kilometer, or 2.5 mile, wide buffer zone.

Unexpected facts, unanswered questions

One major misconception regarding the Korean War is that Kim was responsible. While Kim certainly invaded, Stalin was in control. Stalin manipulated Kim into starting a war that was almost certain to involve the United States, and coerced Mao into joining. Stalin alone was responsible for the delaying tactics that stalled peace negotiations for more than two years.

Communist charges that the United States had engaged in germ warfare were eventually disproven. The USSR’s Council of Ministers, worried that the hoax was damaging the Soviet Union’s reputation, claimed they had been misled.

Still, questions persist. There are no records of some talks between Stalin and Mao, and between Stalin and Kim, that took place in Moscow. Where are they? The reasons for Mao entering the war against the advice of his own staff remain puzzling. And whether Kim and Mao ever realized the degree to which Stalin was using them for his goals remains unknown.

These questions may never be answered. But one thing is certain: The Korean War is not over and – despite current warming relations – the Korean peninsula is still a very dangerous place.

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