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The Korean War Outbreak In 1950 History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Since the Korean War’s outbreak in June 25, 1950, there have been several questions as to who should be responsible for it. There were so many states involved and the war itself could be linked to the power struggles of World War II and the Cold War. Among those who had a stake in the war were the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South. The Soviet Union and the United States were their trustees, while the newly independent Communist Chinese government became an additional player in Communist faction through an alliance with the Soviets. A further look at the role of these states and their leaders brings to the realization that there are many interconnected factors surrounding the outbreak of the Korean War.

Thus, despite historical complexities and the overlapping motives of the leaders involved, this essay attempts to enumerate the factors responsible for the outbreak of the Korean War, in the hopes of introducing a different set of perspectives on the Korea of the past as well as of the present.

The Korean War Outbreak in 1950

The factors encompass all the events and circumstances that were instrumental to the outbreak of the Korean War. These include the election of hardline Korean leaders in 1948, to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party and their later alliance with the Soviets, Stalin’s role in the Korean War and the United States’ response to North Korea’s invasion of the South.

The Korean Civil War and Its Leaders

Using a revisionist point of view, William Stueck’s observation on the Korean War deems it as essentially “a civil war with… roots on the peninsula itself.” [1] Scholars like Bruce Cumings, however, believed that the outbreak of the conflict in 1950 was “merely a continuation of a civil war that had been ongoing since 1945.” [2] The United States and the Soviet Union facilitated this civil war by respectively installing leaders with strong educational foundations and uncompromising conviction on their inherited ideologies. Kim Il Sung was tasked to head the provisional government of North Korea, while the South elected, in the name of democracy, Syngman Rhee as president. Their “intense nationalistic” goals defined the civil war dimensions of the Korean War. [3] Because they were both “determined to reunite [Korea] under their own rules,” war was inevitable. Kim and Rhee had a common goal of uniting the Korean peninsula by force. However, both were unwilling to compromise their individual political ideologies. [4] 

Kim Il Sung’s aim was to establish a strong Communist Korea. Though it was necessary for him to obtain permission from Stalin out of political, economic and military expediency, Kim had a certain degree of autonomy which gave him a large role in the outbreak of the Korean War. Attacking the South was his initiative and he had been persuasive in executing such a plan. Indeed, some scholars say that Kim did not exactly obtain permission from Stalin, but consulted and even urged him regarding the move to forcefully overrun Rhee’s side. [5] He was able to convince Stalin that added to the support of Mao Zedong, after launching a surprise attack by an estimated 200,000 North Korean forces and communist guerillas from the South, the war would be won in three days, making any intervention on the part of the US pointless. [6] 

Under Kim’s leadership, the “North Korean Communists employed propaganda and even armed violence to instigate the overthrow of the South Korean government.” [7] Scholars had found evidence that, ten months before the Korean War erupted, Kim intended to occupy the Ongjin peninsula, located just below the 38th parallel. [8] For a span of three years, he also supported the guerilla faction in the South so as to further his military advantage once he commenced the attack. Kim Il Sung realized that his military advantage could decline at any rate. Thus, upon hearing that Rhee had planned to invade the North and take it by force, he hastily decided on the course to attack the South. Kim took the unconfirmed information as an alibi to launch a preemptive strike against the South. [9] In some sources, however, it was Kim who deliberately provided this “false information” to make Stalin agree with his “invasion plan.” [10] Yet in his hastiness, Kim miscalculated the capability of his and the enemy’s forces. He was not able to predict the speed of US intervention in the war. Had it not been for the “volunteers” China sent to North Korea, Kim’s communist regime would have been annihilated. [11] 

On one hand, Syngman Rhee wanted a strong Democratic Korea. Rhee’s authoritarian leadership made him unpopular to allies and enemies alike. He frequently called for the reunification of the Korea through force if necessary and was all for the annihilation of Communism in North East Asia. He particularly advocated strong methods to be used against captured communists and their leaders in China and North Korea. [12] Because he vetoed any plan that sought to settle the conflict with North Korea peacefully, or any armistice for that matter, a great portion of the Korean War’s three-year duration can be blamed on Rhee. The violent civil war that caused the division of the Korean peninsula pressured Rhee to build a whole nation. In doing so, he became victim to the usual “temptation faced by leaders of emerging democracies: the centralization and consolidation of power.” [13] He did this by concentrating the state’s resources on increasing the size of the armed forces and aligning himself with corporate and landed elites, so he can control the government apparatus and oversee political dissentions. [14] 

Rhee did have a shared responsibility in the outbreak of the war and not just in prolonging it. However, scholars were not united in how he exactly he was responsible. One source said that by enlarging and rearming Southern forces, some information spread that Rhee was threatening to attack the North. This ultimately triggered the war. [15] In another source, Rhee’s announcements of attacking North Korea by force and unite Korea had provoked Kim Il Sung to “hasten reinforcement,” strengthen the Northern army, “advance the actual invasion date,” and finally, invade the South. Rhee did plan to attack North Korea but was delayed. When US troops withdrew, they left the South ill-equipped and unprepared for war. In fact, during the Korean War, Rhee’s forces were significantly outnumbered. [16] Rhee also had to contend with vague US Asia-Pacific policies, which extended limited aid to South Korea and failed to outline a clear commitment whether or not it will support Rhee’s plans for reunification. [17] 

Stalin’s Approval

The US Secretary of State Dean Acheson considered the Korean War as a “Soviet-inspired conspiracy.” [18] The implication of this accusation was that the Communist state and Joseph Stalin were seriously responsible for the Korean War. Stalin knew his consent would break or make North Korean actions, but he nevertheless gave it. He had also known from the very beginning that Kim was going to attack the South since the North Korean visited Moscow beginning 1949 to discuss the matter with him. Despite his own designs on the peninsula and eagerness to propagate the three-fold Soviet Foreign policy of peaceful coexistence, world revolution and national security, Stalin put off Kim’s requests several times until there was a “changed international situation.” [19] When the situation did change to Stalin’s advantage- American troops withdrawn from the South, and Truman’s administration declared Korea as not included in its Asia-Pacific defense parameter- Stalin saw this as an “impetus for war” and gave Kim his consent between January and April 1950. He was complacent that American intervention was unlikely to happen if Kim could achieve victory rapidly. [20] Given these considerations, Stalin’s role in sanctioning the actions of Kim’s government had therefore set off the Korean War.

The Chinese Communist Victory

Kim also enlisted the support of the newly established People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. He was keen that China became part of North Korea’s support system to “reinforce Stalin’s decision for war” and receive further military assistance. [21] The victory of the Chinese Communist government, along with Stalin’s consent, further encouraged North Korea to attack the South. Early in the 1950s, Mao returned about 14,000 Korean communists who had fought with his party in the Chinese Civil War. This greatly enhanced the military capability of the NKPA and prompted Kim to wage a Korean War without delay. Chinese Communists’ victory over the American-supported Nationalist party also inspired Kim and his people to win a war on a similarly American-supported South Korea. [22] Along with the size and vast resources of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of Mao clinched victory with hardly any support from the Soviets. Stalin even acknowledged China’s prowess, saying that “the Soviet people and the peoples of Europe should learn from [their] experience.” [23] Notwithstanding the miscalculations, North Korea had hoped to replicate this very same experience.

China’s involvement in the war, though somehow reluctant, was primarily motivated by Mao’s decisions to encourage “continuous revolution” in the country as well as to broaden China’s power. [24] Mao wanted to consolidate the Communist revolution and “maintain its momentum.” In doing so, he would be able to restore China’s former role as a major world power and protect it against the imperialist actions of the United States. He also aimed to settle some mutually beneficial relations between and among his Communist brethrens in the region. [25] In keeping with these aims, he supported Kim’s unification plans and later escalated the war by sending 300,000 soldiers along the Yalu River as a counter-attack measure against United Nations troops. [26] 

CCP’s victory, however, was a double-edged sword for Stalin, but in a way, it strengthened his resolve to approve the war. Mao’s defeat of the Nationalists with little Soviet help warned him that his position as the Communist leader as well as Soviet interests in Chinese territories were at stake. On the one hand, a Communist China could be a formidable ally in the Soviets’ Cold War with America and the Truman administration. Stalin compromised with Mao and allowed for the revision of the Sino-Soviet treaty. [27] This was perhaps to avoid the trouble he had with Josep Tito, who adopted a non-aligned stance on behalf of Yugoslavia. Consenting to Kim’s plans may well be a warning to Tito, since Stalin intended to tackle him after the war. [28] Nevertheless, Stalin and Mao were still “deeply involved” in the preparatory and the actual Korean War scenario. While the former “rendered operational and logistic support,” the latter provided manpower. [29] 

The American Response

America’s vague Asia-Pacific defense policy was another vital trigger to the Korean War. The Soviet Union would not have been disillusioned into perceiving a changed international situation nor would it have allowed North Korea to attack had the US clearly committed itself to South Korea’s defense. This very policy was a prime motivation for Kim and Stalin. The inability to “develop and coordinate military strategy and foreign policy” was one of the defining lapses of the Truman administration. Its failure to clarify such commitment forged a conflict that significantly influenced US-Asian policy for decades. [30] 

There were speculations, however, that this ambiguous policy was bait to lure out the enemy. According to Cumings, “US policy had determined only to wait until the moment arrived, when the realm of the feasible might present itself, or might not; the decision would be taken accordingly.” [31] America was also biding time, as Stalin was, so that the turn of event will shift towards its favor.

Adding to the complications of the war were the anti-communist sentiments that surged the US society and the actions of Truman’s administration. Truman had enough cause to escalate the Korean War. First, he was pressured by Congress not to be “soft” on communist countries abroad. Thus, when North Koreans attacked the South, he grabbed the first opportunity to serve American anti-communist sentiments. If ever North Korea did attack first, US would have an alibi to intervene, defend a noncommunist country, and then drive out communist influence so South Korea would not be infected. Secondly, America was caught in arms race with Soviet Union, which launched an atomic bomb in 1949. Fearing an erosion of US nuclear monopoly, entering the Korean War was also in retaliation to the nuclear intimidation. [32] Third, US wanted to quiet the loss of the democratic China (whose economic and military resources could have been of use). By participating in the Korean War, US could protect the Chinese Nationals in Taiwan. At its outbreak in 1950, Taiwan was included in the US “peacekeeping” agenda to the annoyance of Mao. [33] Lastly and more importantly, US saw its involvement as a response to an overt aggression by a Communist state and its Korean satellite. It was the Soviet side that made the first offensive by giving the green light to the Korean War. Truman’s fastest option was to deploy forces to Korea even without consulting the Congress or the public. [34] 


The events and circumstances prior to the 1950s attack on South Korea were directly accountable for blowing up the hardened tensions. Firstly, Syngman Rhee and Kim Il Sung refused to reach an amicable agreement in unifying Korea and insisted on imposing their political beliefs. Both were building up their militaries to take their missing halves by force, hardening tensions that triggered the war. The second trigger for the outbreak was Stalin’s sanctioning of Kim to launch a preemptive strike after the conditions for a changed international situation (i.e. withdrawal of US troops in South Korea, and the vague defense policies of US on Korea) were met. The third trigger was the victory of the Mao and the Chinese Communist Party over the American-backed Chinese Nationals. This was not only a great inspiration to the North Koreans who would be facing America’s Korean ally, but the military prowess of the North Korean People’s Army was also greatly enhanced. Kim felt confident that he could beat Rhee the way Chinese Communists defeated the Nationals. Finally, the fourth contributing factor to the Korean War was United State’s vague policies and its response to the outbreak further escalated the war. It gave the illusion of a changed international situation and pushed Stalin to give Kim the go signal.

In conclusion, the outbreak of the Korean War was caused by several overlapping and interrelated factors. These factors made the Korean War reflective of the problems within the peninsula as well as an inescapable reality especially for the Koreans. Indeed, their fate “was closely tied to the designs of the US, the Soviet Union, and China that their ability to act independently was severely circumscribed.” [35] 

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