Subject: Korean War: how it started

Date: 30 Aug 95 From: Mark Jarvis via email
To: Hal Barker

History of the Fatherland "Stalin, Kim Il Sung, and the 38th Parallel," Krasnaya Zvezda, 5 August 1995, page 7. -- Anatoli Torkunov, Professor Yevgeniy Ufimtsev.

Krasnaya Zvezda has already brought to light the existence of the book The Korean Problem: A New View by A.V. Torkunov and Ye.P. Ufimtsev. It is the first one to make primary use of recently declassified documents from the archives of the President of the Russian Federation, the archives of the internal policies of the Russian Federation, and other classified sources about the Korean war of 1950-53, which are based on the thoughts and words which were exchanged between Kim Il Sung and Iosef Stalin about the way to armed solution of the problems of uniting North and South Korea.

This is substantial, and its miserly printing (less than 3,000 copies) which is far from sufficient to reach the circle of potential readers, has goaded the editors to ask the authors to prepare a version of their book for this paper.

Kim Il Sung first raised the question of the probability of an advance into the South during the course of a conversation with I.V. Stalin during March 1949. Stalin knew at that time that "there was no way they could advance on the South" as the Korean Peoples' Army (KPA) did not have numerical superiority over the forces of South Korea. Besides that, American forces were deployed in the southern half of the peninsula in accordance with the Soviet-American agreement over partition at the 38th Parallel. The North, as the Soviet leader stressed, would only have the moral right to enter into combat operations in the case of an unprovoked attack upon them by the forces of the South.

Not finding full understanding of his plans in Moscow, the North Korean leader decided then to improve his relations with China. On 14 May 1949, Kim Il Sung informed the Soviet ambassador in Pyongyang, T.F. Shtykov, that Mao had agreed to an immediate return to the DPRK of two of the three Korean divisions which were then located at Mukden and Chanchun, not far from the Korean border.

The Chinese leader stressed that the North Koreans must be prepared in a flash for combat operations at any moment, and the reason was in case the Japanese would move into the southern side. But at the same time, they were not likely to fight, as the Soviet Union and China were both located next to the DPRK and would step in on their side if the Japanese did place their forces in Korea.

The impression has been made that in May 1949 Mao supported the idea of an immediate strike against the South. Observations of additional council which Kim Il Sung sought from the Soviet leader on 12 September 1949 and 17 January 1950 indicate that is not completely right.

It turned out what Mao Zedong had said was that in the near future an advance into the South would be inadvisable. He clarified this by stating that the situation was not advantageous for that goal at this time, as the Chinese Communists were still tied down by their struggle with the forces of Chiang Kaishek, and thus could not provide decisive aid to the North Koreans. He advised them to wait until that moment in time when the Kuomuntang army was destroyed and China was in the power of the Chinese Communist Party.

The differences in Kim Il Sung's account were supported by additional discussions with the Chinese leader in May and September where he made things completely clear. In the spring North Korea would strive to put pressure on the doubting Stalin by stressing that they had the complete support of Mao Zedong for their plans: in September 1949 and again in January 1950 Kim Il Sung again strove to press the Soviet leader, but this time from another tack. By this time, the civil war in China had reached its conclusion, and that meant that the time had come for Mao Zedong to begin to carry out the previous agreement to support real action to unite the Koreas. Kim Il Sung was very crafty in his actions at all these instances, and taking into account the psychology of the Soviet leader, who was apprehensive of the surprising and unwanted independence of Mao.

BETWEEN those times, American troops began to withdraw from South Korea in the spring of 1949. The previously established certainty of the Soviet leader that the South would not strike first into North Korea was changed, and the most significant fact which supported his conclusion was the withdrawal of American forces. Here, where they had been a "deterrence factor", this change the ability to operate to the point where Moscow now began to consider the possibility of a surprise strike against the North by the South as very real, and this was supported by intelligence agent observations.

In early April 1949, Moscow received the observations of their ambassador in Pyongyang that North Korean intelligence felt that in the April-May timeframe the Southerners would concentrate their forces along the 38th Parallel to launch a surprise attack on the North in June, and by August 1949 have completely destroyed the DPRK. An immediate advisory from the ambassador on 4 May indicated that the South Koreans were massing along the 38th Parallel, especially along the Pyongyang direction, where they had gathered some 300,000 troops.

On 27 May, T.F. Shtykov was informed that terrible battles were taking place near the strategically important Ondin Peninsula, which were seen as the prelude to a major war.

On 3 May, a letter was sent to Kim Il Sung in the name of I.V. Stalin which said: "Due to the changing situation in Korea it has become necessary to reinforce the technical equipment of the KPA." In subsequent discussions with Ambassador Shtykov, Kim Il Sung was able to delineate the types of new units and subunits which were planned to reinforce his army, for which the North Korean leader would use the armaments received.

The plans of the DPRK leader were as follows: he wanted to create a mechanized brigade consisting of two tank regiments (each of 33 vehicles), a self-propelled artillery battalion (with 16 SU-76 weapons) an antitank artillery battalion, a motorized rifle regiment, and a motorcycle battalion; in addition, an independent tank battalion equipped with SU-76s; an army artillery regiment consisting of 24 ZIS-3 weapons; and, a mixed aviation division, composed of assault and fighter regiments (each of 43 aircraft).

On 4 June, Moscow advised him that it concurred with providing the primary items to satisfy the order, payment for which was to be "30,000 tons of husked rice".

Having taken measures to strengthen the military power of the DPRK, Moscow initially wanted to ensure that the aid provided would only be used for defensive ends, and not to strike against the South. Moscow was also counting on the expediency of eliminating the Soviet naval base in Mondin, as well as our aviation komendaturas in Pyongyang and Kanege, as this would be sure to displease Pyongyang.

To the leaders of the DPRK, up until the time they asked the Soviet Union to primarily supply them with weapons, they wished for the South Koreans to attack the North, since in that case they could feel fully justified in calling for a "crushing counterattack" against them.

In mid-August 1949, T.F. Shtykov intended to fly to Moscow. Kim Il Sung decided to make use of him in that instance: twice, on 12 and 14 August 1949, he met with our ambassador before he departed in an attempt to bring the most pressing of his plans and arguments before Stalin. Shtykov reported these at once when he arrived in Moscow. Kim Il Sung was sure that the South Koreans did not intend to bring about a peaceful reunification of the country, so the North alone would remain prepared for a drive into the South, where for a long time it had followed the hints there of a widescale peoples' uprising against the regime of Syngman Rhee.

After Shtykov's arrival in Moscow, and his report of the subsequent meetings with Kim Il Sung, he was told to immediately prepare his recommendations in accordance with the positions taken by the North Korean leader. On 27 August, these were presented to I.V. Stalin. The Soviet ambassador came to the conclusion that the concept of a drive into the South was impossible.

Kim Il Sung thought otherwise about what was known in Moscow, as the temporary charge d'affaires for the USSR in the DPRK, Tunkin, who had remained in Pyongyang, regularly advised the North Korean leadership.

THE POSITION of the Soviet side was very clearly laid out in a directive from the Central Committee of the CPSU to the USSR Embassy in Pyongyang. This document categorically rejected the possibility of a North Korean attack on the South. It stressed that in the case of an attack on South Korea, it would become inevitable that the Americans would militarily intervene under the UN flag on the side of Syngman Rhee, permanently occupy the South, and perpetuate the division of the peninsula.

The directive did support the idea of an active partisan movement in the South with the goal of turning Seoul towards peaceful negotiations or the overthrow of the ROK government. Finally, it directed that the possibility of peaceful reunification of the country was far from exhausted and that the North must begin to actively mobilize societal opinion, to include those Koreans living in the USA, Canada, and Japan, to prepare and present to the UN materials which supported the societal position of Pyongyang towards peaceful reunification.

When he returned to Pyongyang on 4 October 1949, Ambassador T.F. Shtykov informed Kim Il Sung and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pak Hang Yen about the directives from I.V. Stalin. During the subsequent interval, the directives from Moscow were perceived as "restraints" by the North Korean leadership, as well as practically being in diametrical opposition to their initiatives.

KIM IL SUNG, dissatisfied with Stalin's prohibition on launching an offensive against the South, decided, naturally, to move toward the realization of his tactics without Stalin's permission and without Moscow's blessing. When he did this, it indirectly supported Soviet Ambassador Shtykov, who had earlier supported some of Kim's thoughts which had been rejected by Stalin.

In mid October 1949, after a vicious battle the KPA captured several important heights along the 38th Parallel. Shtykov, knowing what his orders stated, did not report this event to Moscow. Observations of the border clashes reached the Kremlin via other channels.

In concert with these events, on 22 October 1949 the Minister of the Armed Forces, A.M. Vasilievskiy, and the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, A.A. Gromyko, presented a special meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party a prospective message which was to be sent to T.F. Shtykov. In this document, very curt language was used to inform the ambassador of his failure to present timely information to the Center on combat actions as well as his failure to implement the directive. It ordered the ambassador in no uncertain terms that he was forbidden to agree to any sort of activity along the 38th Parallel by the North Koreans without Moscow's sanction. For his failure to implement the directives, some time later the ambassador was "rebuked". These facts support the conclusion that, during that period of time, I.V. Stalin was striving to prevent the North Koreans from opening hostilities with the South.

Kim Il Sung continued to use his tactics of "prevailing" upon the Soviet leader. In an interview with our military advisors in Pyongyang which was held on 19 January 1950, he noted that after the unification of China, and in turn now the liberation of South Korea, without which he could not sleep a night, thinking about the dangerous loss of faith by his people as the result of the delayed unification of their country. Kim Il Sung called for a direct meeting with I.V. Stalin.

This meeting took place in April 1950. During those negotiations, the leader of the USSR said that "due to the changing international situation" he would agree to the Koreans moving towards unification. In this, what was implied was that the final agreement to this question must be decided together with the PRC; if China did not agree, the decision must be postponed.

Mao Zedong learned the thoughts of Kim Il Sung during a visit to Beijing in May 1950. At the same time, he voiced his confidence that the Americans would not interfere in such a conflict. If the Japanese sent in their forces, then China would come to the aid of the DPRK. In the opinion of Mao, the Soviet Union would not subsequently participate in a Korean conflict as long as they had an agreement with the USA over the 38th Parallel, but China had no such obligations to the United States.

There was a "strange" series of exchanges between the Soviet ambassador in Pyongyang and Moscow immediately prior to the commencement of hostilities by the North Korean army against the South in June 1950. On 20 June 1950, T.F. Shtykov informed Moscow that at 2000 hours Moscow time the DPRK had intercepted orders saying that the South would commence hostilities against the North at 2300 hours. On 21 June, Kim Il Sung informed Stalin via the Soviet embassy that the South Koreans had been given the news about a prospective offensive by the KPA. In this communiqui he also noted that he would begin combat operations precisely on the 25th. And this is what did take place.

IF WE are to be objective in our analysis until the end, then we must bring up the participation by the Chinese volunteers and the Soviet aviation units in the war, along with how a tremendous amount of material support from the USSR played a decisive role in North Korea, which, after the adventurism of Kim Il Sung, let the DPRK remain as an independent government. Right after the naval landing of American troops at the port of Inchon in September 1950, the Korean Peoples' Army was practically wiped out, and by October 1950 the joint American-South Korean forces had advanced to the Chinese border.

The question which arises is, after I.V. Stalin was so sharply opposed to the ideas of Kim Il Sung in his quest to use military means to reunite Korea, why did he "flip-flop"? The answer to this question, naturally, can be found in the Stalinist thesis of the "changing international situation." This was signified, as can be seen, by the victory in the Chinese revolution. Stalin felt that the USA, "removing themselves from the ultimate fate" of Chiang Kaishek in the inter-Chinese conflict, would not therefore participate in a Korean conflict. And there was one other not insignificant factor -- the Soviet Union had just created its first nuclear bomb, which literally broke the American monopoly on nuclear power, and thus gave him the chance to play the "nuclear card" against opposing the Soviet Union. And that, as it turned out, was the final diplomatic miscalculation.

Ultimately, Stalin was aware of that. Difficult negotiations were begun to bring an end to combat operations, which were only signed in 1953 between the UN representatives on one side and the DPRK representatives and the Chinese volunteers on the other.

Back to: Korean War Reference

Return to Korean War Project - Looking For
Return to Korean War Project Home Page