Stalin and the Korean War

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To what extent was Stalin’s policy the principle cause of the Korean War (1950-53)?

Introduction

The Korean War is often referred to as a battle between communism and capitalism. It succeeded the end of the forty-year Japanese occupation of Korea. When Japan fell during the Second World War, Korea was free, and hoped to finally decide the fate of their own country. In the years following, both radical and nationalist groups became apparent, aiming for independence, however these groups failed to unite in one national movement.[1] The majority of Koreans fought for a unified state.[2] The United States and the Soviet Union, however, had alternative thoughts. The President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, wanted to stop Russia gathering anymore territory[3], therefore the United States countered by encouraging the establishment of democracy.[4] At the Potsdam Conference, in Germany, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel between the North and the South. The thought was that South Korea would be capitalist and North Korea would be communist. The Republic of Korea (ROK) was set-up in the South and led by Syngman Rhee who was undemocratic and anti-communist but was recognized as the sole legal government of Korea.[5] The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was set-up in the North and led by communist Kim Il-Sung. There was hope that one day the unification of Korea would commence.[6]

The Korean War is one that killed over 2.5 million people.[7] The conditions of the Korean war were inconsistent; Korea is a country with freezing snowy winters and boiling hot summers, which made conflict extremely difficult on both sides. The war began at 4:30 AM on June 25, 1950 and lasted for three straight years, the bipolar weather conditions meant that the soldiers were constantly fighting disease, malnutrition and frostbite.[8] Dean Acheson (1893-1971), the U.S. Secretary of State, once said that “if the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location in the world to fight this damnable war, the unanimous choice would have been Korea.”[9] The failure to unite Korea after WWII was an important factor in the beginning of the Korean War. In 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman, and, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, gathered in Potsdam, Germany, from July 17 to August 2. It was agreed to temporarily divide Korea and accept joint responsibility for reinstating Japanese forces. They decided upon an essentially arbitrary line which was the 38th Parallel which was to be used as a division between the North and South. The 38th Parallel is a circle of latitude which is 38 degrees north of the equator, it happened to roughly divided Korea in the middle, therefore was chosen to divide the two Koreas.

The Role of Stalin

When Kim voiced his frustration that his bid for reunification remained heavy on his mind, he reached out to both Joseph Stalin (the leader of the Soviet Union) and Mao Zedong (the chairman of the communist party of China). The definite reason for Stalin giving Kim permission to invade South is uncertain to this day. Either the victory of Communist China, or the Soviets gain of the atomic bomb could have led to Stalin’s decision being made.[10] One of Stalin’s main aims was to avoid conflict with the United States, he did this in many ways, one of which was denying Kim’s strategies for the war. The withdrawal of American troops from South Korea were significant, however, Stalin was under the impression that a harsh military campaign wouldn’t go unanswered, therefore he decided against refutation in the moment[11]. Stalin had promised both cultural and economic aid to North Korea, during a meeting between Stalin, Kim, and representatives from both governments, on March 5, 1949. Regarding military operations across the 38th parallel, Stalin was not yet prepared to support Kim’s political and strategic objectives of reunification.[12] Stalin brought Kim to Moscow to ensure that Korea did not fall under the influence of the new People’s Republic of China (PRC).[13] According to Stalin’s interpreter, in the Spring of 1949, in the course of a meeting between Kim and Stalin, “Kim complained that ‘…the southerners are making trouble all the time. They are violating the border; there are continuous small clashes.’ Stalin became gloomy; ‘What are you talking about? Are you short of arms? We shall give them to you. You must strike the southerners in the teeth.’ After thinking for a while, he repeated, ‘Strike them, strike them.’”[14] This extract from the meeting reinforces the point that Stalin was providing North Korea with weapons and supplies, which demonstrates that the Korean War wouldn’t have occurred without the help from Stalin and The Soviet Union.

Stalin decided that he needed to bring Korea into the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviets wanted to expand the sphere of communist influence into Korea, this was because Stalin and the Soviet Union wanted to be surrounded by communist countries as a layer of protection for Russia and so if the threat of invasion or war occurred they would have support around them. Stalin was afraid that Mao was considering opening China to capitalist influence; therefore, he decided that he could not allow North Korea to do the same.[15] Throughout the spring and summer of 1949 that Kim was making significant strides to increase the potency of the KPA (Korean people’s army).

Stalin was essentially only interested in how the Korean War would affect his relations with the United States[16]. On September 3rd, 1949, Kim sought permission from Stalin and the Soviet Union to commence military operations against the south.[17] Kim most likely believed that Korea would be next in line for the Asian communist movements; thus in early 1950, Kim renewed his requests for military reunification with Stalin[18]. In January 1950, the first Soviet Ambassador to North Korea, Terentii Shtykov, feared that Kim was looking to move forward toward reunification without approval from Stalin, so he sent a telegram with a forlorn warning: “Kim Il-sung is constantly nurturing his idea about an attack.”[19] In 1950 Stalin eventually began to support the plans for a war as at this point he was more hopeful about winning. The Communist victory in China and the development of the USSR’s first atomic bomb persuaded Stalin to act and help North Korea. The USSR was using the Korean war as a proxy war, a war instigated by a major power which does not itself become involved.

The Role of Truman   

At the Council of Foreign Ministers’ Moscow Conference, in December 1945, the USA and the Soviet Union agreed to create a temporary government in Korea that would lead to independence[20]. However, independence was never achieved and the Cold War developed individuals of higher power who became less willing to co-operate. Separate governments emerged on both sides of Korea. Both Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee fought the Japanese during the occupation and wanted to end the division of Korea, however they had different ideas for how to do so. The failure of uniting the two Koreas led to the permanent governments of Korea. The USA was also using the Korean War as a proxy war. The Americans enforced the idea of containment, a foreign policy used to contain the spread of communism. The US was fearful that if a united Korea became communist if would lead to a ‘domino effect’ and the spread of communism around the world would occur[21]. Truman feared that the next ‘domino’ would be Japan[22]. The possible reaction from Stalin had to be taken into consideration if the U.S. did involve themselves in the Korean War. On a similar note, the Truman administration was concerned of the possible expansion of the Korean War into a larger war taking place over Europe.[23] Nevertheless, it was clear that there was little indication that the United States or even the United Nations could shy from the war.[24] It is thought that the US and UN feared what would happen if North Korea won the war and subsequently Kim Il-Sung came to power, with the support of Stalinist regime and the Soviet Union. President Truman believed if the aggression from North Korea went unnoticed, it would encourage Communist aggression elsewhere.[25] The UN Security Council accepted the abuse of force to aid the South Koreans. This is noteworthy because Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) is one of the permanent seats upon the UN council, however, interestingly, the Soviet Union did not oppose the use of force against North Korea, even though the Soviet Union were responsible for sending troops and supplies into the war. This demonstrates that the Soviet Union were confident in the ability of their troops, so confident that in fact they did not fear the force that would be against them. The Truman administration, however, continued to restrict themselves from sending soldiers because according to their advisors, North Koreans could be stopped by purely both naval and air power. Subsequently, immediately upon hearing this news, the U.S. began utilizing whatever air and naval forces that they could, to help with the war.[26] Following China’s input into the Korean War, General MacArthur landed two divisions 150 miles in the South Korean port of Inchon. Following a seize of communication between them and the US, the North Koreans are reported to have fled North, escaping[27]. “If we let Korea down,” Truman said, “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.”[28] General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of staff of the United States Army, believed that only a total victory was an acceptable outcome for the US. President Truman disagreed but MacArthur was adamant.[29]

The Role of Mao

Unlike America, China decided to take a passive response during the initial stage of the Korean War.[30] The People’s Republic of China, in October 1950, was only one year old. The Beijing regime was already facing difficult tasks of economic reconstruction and regime consolidation.[31] Therefore it was predicted that China would have little to no interference in the Korean War. There is some evidence that suggests that there was an exchange of views between Kim, Mao Zedong and Stalin on the North’s plan of military invasion.[32] However, besides giving Kim moral support, only material support was provided by China at beginning of the war. They sent approximately 14,000 Korean Chinese soldiers who were then serving in the Peoples Liberation Army back to Korea.[33] Mao’s reasons for supporting North Koreas invasion of the South are often debated. Some believe that Mao was an unwilling participant in the war due to the concerns about the effect it would have on China[34]. Mao feared that if he supported North Korea it would have a negative impact on China as it could trigger an invasion from America, due to their aid for the South. Some others further argue that Mao was in some way manipulated or compelled into sending troops to North Korea by Stalin and Kim-Il-Sung.[35] On June 27, President Truman revealed that America was supplying South Korea with air and naval support, which lead to the Chinese leaders reassessing American intentions towards China and redeploy some of its troops to the Northern border. [36] Mao asked if Stalin would send air support to North Korea and he would send troops. Stalin decided against sending air support. Mao, after a substantial amount of thought, sent Chinese troops into Korea on 19 October 1950, even though he was currently dealing with a difficult military situation himself[37]. This fundamentally changed the relationship between China and the Soviet Union forever.

Barely 12 days after the Chinese troops had enrolled in the war, Stalin soon declared that the Soviet Air Force could provide air cover, and aid to China[38], due to North Korean assistance from China. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which was signed in February 1950, mentioned that ‘all-out’ support would be supplied by the Soviet Union if China was entangled in any military conflict with the ‘imperialist countries’.[39] This treaty ensured that if China intervened in the Korean War, there would be less of a threat from an American invasion because of the support from Stalin and the Soviets. The security treaty therefore significantly decreased the possibility of an American invasion. The Communist China Party (CCP) had a Marxist-Leninism ideology that greatly influenced the decisions of senior members, especially Mao[40]. Presumably, it was this ideology that lead them to assist North Korea in the war, because turning the whole of Korea into a communist country would be not only be beneficial to Russia and the Soviet Union, it would also benefit Mao and the CCP.

The Role of Kim Il-Sung

In September 1948, the North founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), founded by Kim Il Sung, recognized as the communist side. Kim Il Sung was the leader of North Korea from 1948-71. Kim was born born to Kim Hyŏng-jik and Kang Pan-sŏk. They originally bestowed upon him the name of Kim Sŏng-ju, however, he later changed his name to Kim Il-Sung. Unsurprisingly, the Kim family, like an abundance of Korean families, were opposed to the Japanese occupation of the Korea, which began on 29 August 1910.[41] Kim’s parents, especially Kim’s mother, is said to have played a role in the anti-Japanese struggle that was sweeping the peninsula.[42] This is suggested to be where Kim Il-Sung’s anti-imperialism attitude originates. In October 1926 Kim founded the Down-With-Imperialism Union[43], in order to fight against Japanese imperialism and to promote Marxism-Leninism[44]. As previously mentioned, both Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee wanted to reunify Korea on their own terms, however neither side could unify Korea on their own due to lack of strength and supplies. Kim understood that his goals of reunification would require help from another communist’s patron, namely the Soviet Union or China. This suggests that Kim knew he didn’t have the army or the weapons that he needed to begin the war himself, he knew he needed support from elsewhere.

With this growth of the North Korean army in mind, Kim renewed his request to unify Korea with Stalin. One likely reason that Kim renewed his efforts at this time was that since June 29, 1949, the American military had withdrawn troops from South Korea.[45] Kim was convinced that the U.S. would not enter the Korean War, or even if they did enter the war, they would not hold sway over the destiny of the war.[46] Kim had little concern if the South had the support of the US as he doubted the impact of their influence. Stalin ultimately contemplated the request from Kim to begin the war for approximately a year, even though he did say ‘no’ several times, he did eventually approve the proposal.[47]

Conclusion

The role of individuals in the causes of the Korean War are essentially insignificant. Ultimately, the Korean War wouldn’t have occurred without the division of Korea, after the Japanese occupation, decided at the Potsdam conference. But this decision wasn’t made by one person, it was made by the three super powers, Stalin, Churchill and Truman. But then, the war also wouldn’t have occurred if Stalin and the Soviets hadn’t appointed Kim Il-Sung as the leader of the north as he was the one who thought of invading to conquer the south. Mao was influenced by Stalin to participate in the war, therefore China’s input was down to Stalin. Stalin’s influence was powerful as Kim didn’t have the army, weapons or supplies to be at war for 3 years. This proves that it wasn’t just the work of one influence, these put together influenced the beginning of the Korean War.

To answer the question of “to what extent was Stalin’s policy the principle cause of the Korean War (1950-53)?”, Stalin had an obviously large impact on the initiation of the Korean War. It can, however, be concluded that the Korean War was a combination of civil and international conflicts.

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[1] Buzo, A., 2002. The Making of Modern Korea. 1st ed. London: Routledge.

[2] Study.com. 2017. United States Involvement in the Korean War: Causes and Effects. [ONLINE] Available at: http://study.com/academy/lesson/the-korean-war-causes-and-effects.html. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[3] History.com Staff. 2009. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[4] Study.com. 2017. United States Involvement in the Korean War: Causes and Effects. [ONLINE] Available at: http://study.com/academy/lesson/the-korean-war-causes-and-effects.html. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[5] The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. 2016. Syngman Rhee. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Syngman-Rhee. [Accessed 24 January 2018].

[6] History.com Staff. 2009. Potsdam Conference. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/potsdam-conference. [Accessed 2 January 2018].

[7] Allan R. Millett. 2017. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/event/Korean-War. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[8] History.com Staff. 2009. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[9] History.com Staff. 2009. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[10] Dr. Evgeni Bajanov on, Kim, D., 1995. The Korean War: An Assessment of the Historical Record : [report of a Conference Held]. 1st ed. Washington DC, United States: Georgetown University.

[11] Millett, A., 2005. The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning. 1st ed. United States: University Press of Kansas.

[12] Digital Archive International History Declassified. Terenti Shtykov. 1949. Meeting between Stalin and Kim Il Sung. [ONLINE] Available at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112127. [Accessed 2 March 2018].

[13] Thornton, R., 2001. Odd Man Out. 1st ed. United States: Brassey’s Inc.

[14] Goncharov, S., Lewis, J., Xue, L., 1993. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. 1st ed. United States: Stanford University Press.

[15] Goncharov, S., Lewis, J., Xue, L., 1993. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. 1st ed. United States: Stanford University Press.

[16] Goncharov, S., Lewis, J., Xue, L., 1993. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. 1st ed. United States: Stanford University Press.

[17] Digital Archive: International History Declassified. Terenti Shtykov. 1949. Telegram from Shtykov to Vyshinsky. [ONLINE] Available at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112129. [Accessed 2 March 2018].

[18] Digital Archive International History Declassified. Terenti Shtykov. 1949. Meeting between Stalin and Kim Il Sung. [ONLINE] Available at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112127. [Accessed 2 March 2018].

[19] Digital Archive: International History Declassified. Terenti Shtykov. 1950. Telegram Shtykov to Vyshinsky on a Luncheon at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK. [ONLINE] Available at: http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112135. [Accessed 2 March 2018].

[20] Avalon Project: Yale Law School. 2008. A Decade of American Foreign Policy 1941-1949 Interim Meeting of Foreign Ministers, Moscow. [ONLINE] Available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/decade19.asp. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[21] History.com Staff. 2009. Domino Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[22] History.com Staff. 2009. Domino Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[23] Rhees, D., 1964. Korea: The Limited War. 1st ed. United States: St Martin’s Press.

[24] Rhees, D., 1964. Korea: The Limited War. 1st ed. United States: St Martin’s Press.

[25] History.com Staff. 2009. Domino Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[26] History.com Staff. 2009. Domino Theory. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/domino-theory. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[27] Michael Hickey. 2011. The Korean War: An Overview. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml. [Accessed 2 March 2018].

[28] History.com Staff. 2009. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[29] History.com Staff. 2009. Korean War. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war. [Accessed 1 March 2018].

[30] Hao, Y. Zhai Z., 1990. China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited. 1st ed. United States: The China Quarterly.

[31] Sheng, M., 2014. MAO’S ROLE IN THE KOREAN CONFLICT: A REVISION. 1st ed. United States: Routledge, Twentieth Century China

[32] Goncharov, S., Lewis, J., Xue, L., 1993. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. 1st ed. United States: Stanford University Press.

[33] Hao, Y. Zhai Z., 1990. China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited. 1st ed. United States: The China Quarterly.

[34] Zhou, B. 2015. “Explaining China’s Intervention in the Korean War in 1950.”. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=1069. [Accessed 4 March 2018].

[35] Sheng, M., 2014. MAO’S ROLE IN THE KOREAN CONFLICT: A REVISION. 1st ed. United States: Routledge, Twentieth Century China

[36] Chen, J., 1994. China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. 1st ed. United States: Columbia University Press.

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