Sixty-one years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea “unexpectedly” invaded South Korea. The events leading up to the invasion are, of course, now ancient history, little considered in evaluating current events. Stalin, Mao and Kim il-Sung are dead. Unfortunately, their spirits survive and continue to haunt us.
Many documents became available during the “global warming” of relations among the United States, the Soviet Union and China. Many if not most have been translated and studied by scholars and they show that North Korea’s Kim il-Sung had wanted to reunify the Korean Peninsula through force since 1948 but that Stalin had resisted until he became convinced that it would work. He then provided substantial military assistance. China’s Mao was not generally consulted during the period leading up to the invasion of the South. He eventually was and agreed to an invasion despite his greater interest in invading Taiwan, which Stalin had pragmatically discouraged. In the end, China bore the brunt, not of the initial invasion but when the United States and South Korean forces retaliated by pushing north into North Korea and reached the Chinese border.
During the two years leading up to the North Korean invasion, Kim il-Sung spent much time in the Soviet Union attempting to persuade Stalin of the benefits of an invasion. It has been claimed that in 1949 Stalin began to have substantial concerns about an attack on North Korea from the South. Still,
while Stalin tried to prevent a war in Korea in 1949, the North Korean leadership increasingly put pressure on the Kremlin, demanding permission to liberate the South. On 7 March 1949, while talking to Stalin in Moscow, Kim il-Sung said: “We believe that the situation makes it necessary and possible to liberate the whole country through military means.” The Soviet leader disagreed, citing the military weakness of the North, the USSR-USA agreement on the 38th parallel and the possibility of American intervention.
Stalin added that only if the adversary attacked Pyongyang, North Korea could they try military unification by launching a counter attack.” Then the Kremlin chief explained, “your move will be understood and supported by everyone.(emphasis in original)
Circumstances changed and it was soon agreed that a claimed invasion by the South would serve as a useful pretext for invasion by the North.
In January of 1950, Stalin caved in to Kim’s pleas for permission to attack but insisted on thorough preparation. Contemporaneously, there were exchanges of cables between Moscow and Beijing. They did not mention that Stalin had given his approval to the invasion. Stalin viewed the largely urban Communist situation in the USSR as different from and superior to the more rural Communist situation in China and had no particular desire for China to butt in. Although Kim visited Beijing about a month before the June 25 invasion, it was more to inform Mao of what was about to happen than to solicit assistance. Mao had Taiwan to worry about and war in Korea was already inevitable. Mao gave his blessing, for what it might be worth.
Other factors were also in play:
Stalin . . . wanted to work out the plans for the Korean war himself without Chinese interference and objections and then present Beijing with a fait accompli when Mao would have no choice but to agree with the invasion and assist it. While in Moscow Mao insisted on the liberation of Taiwan. Stalin was negative to the idea. It would be hard for Stalin to convince Mao in Moscow to help the Koreans before the Chinese had completed the reunification of their own country.
It also seems that Stalin considered any improvement in U.S. – China relations as very dangerous for Russia, potentially ruining his strategic calculations. A take over of the South by the North would further establish a distance between the East and the West as well as perpetuate China’s dependence on the USSR. It would also be of use to the Soviet Union in the event of World War III. Nevertheless, Stalin remained to be persuaded that the North could win a quick victory and that there would be no U.S. involvement. When Kim il-Sung secretly visited Moscow between March 30 and April 25, he assured Stalin that his attack would succeed in three days: there would be an uprising by some two hundred thousand party members and he was convinced that the United States would not intervene. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s January 12, 1950 speech was persuasive evidence. There, Secretary Acheson had omitted South Korea from a list of nations which the United States would defend if attacked. Stalin gave the go-ahead.
Mao’s role then was not very significant. Stalin’s was.
Stalin’s decisive backing for Kim was shown in two ways. First, as soon as Kim returned from Moscow, Soviet weapons “in huge numbers” began arriving at the North Korean port of Chongyin, barely a day’s sailing from Vladivostok. Second, and at about the same time a new team of Soviet military advisors, including at least three major-generals with combat experience, arrived in Pyongyang to oversee the preparations for war. Pyongyang’s military manpower problems had already been solved for, early in 1950, Mao had arranged for the transfer to North Korea of some fifteen thousand ethnic, battle-hardened Koreans who had fought in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. These troops followed two earlier divisions of Koreans sent from China in 1949.
The draft operational plan was written by the Soviet advisors and termed a “counterattack plan” using the tension along the 38th Parallel as a pretext for war. The nomenclature of a counterattack plan, according to one former senior North Korean general, was “a fake, disinformation to cover ourselves.” The Soviet advisors evidently accepted Kim’s belief in a southern uprising, for formal military operations were only expected to last three or four days with the capture of Seoul. Total victory was then expected in less than a month. Kim personally set the timing for the invasion at 0400 hours on Sunday, June 25, 1950 but his Soviet advisors were closely involved in this aspect of the planning as well.
The decision to attack had come between March and April of 1950 and the attack came on June 25. Seoul fell within three days as Kim il-Sung had anticipated; however, the popular uprisings did not occur and the United States intervened.
Mao, who had been marginalized in the final decision-making, quickly realized the implications of [the unanticipated] American intervention. As early as July 7, two days after the first clash between American and North Korean forces at Osan, Premier Zhou Enlai called a special meeting of the Chinese Central Military Commission to assess Chinese options in the conflict. So began the process through which China, not the Soviet Union, paid the major price for Kim and Stalin’s decision to launch the war.
When the invasion came on June 25, the United States had little difficulty in persuading the U.N. Security Council to condemn it and to urge that the U.S. be assisted by at least minimal numbers of international forces, which happened. Russia could easily have vetoed this but did not; it was too busy boycotting the Security Council on account of its refusal to seat mainland China in place of Taiwan (that did not happen until October of 1971). Might this have been a ploy to make sure that China would be kept busy with Korea and in line with Stalin’s world game plan? I have not seen this suggested, but it does not seem excessively far-fetched. Stalin was a clever rascal; he could have given lessons to Machiavelli.
On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur mounted his extraordinarily risky but also extraordinarily successful landing at occupied Inchon. To get to Inchon by sea from the port at Pusan, under South Korean control and located on the south eastern coast, was a hairy adventure. Invasion by sea was the only possibility because the North controlled most of the country to the north of Pusan. Perhaps the most problematic aspect was navigation of warships through the Flying Fish Channel. The tides there varied by more than thirty feet and except at high tide passage would be impossible. Had the invasion not succeeded by passing through the channel on September 15th it would have had to be delayed by about a month; by then it would be expected. The Inchon invasion worked, Seoul was retaken and all looked rosy. General MacArthur announced that the U.S. forces would be home by Christmas; it did not happen that way.
The U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces reclaimed most of South Korea and began to push North in a pincer movement involving a difficult landing on the East, where the harbor had been mined, and another by land more to the west. The massive Chinese intervention did not come until November 1, 1950, following General MacArthur’s September 15 invasion of Inchon and the rapid march of U.S. and ROK forces into North Korea and up to the border with China.
As the victorious forces pursued the fleeing North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), President Truman authorized General MacArthur to go north of 38th Parallel but cautioned alertness for indications of the entry of China or Russia into the war. Korea was seen as part of the fight against world Communism and as possibly the first skirmish in a World War III. MacArthur’s troops promptly moved north. The Eighth Army headed up the west coast to the Yalu River while the X Corps made amphibious landings at Wonson and Iwon and proceeded up the east coast to the border with China. The war seemed to be nearly over. It was not.
There had been signals from China that she would send troops should any forces other than South Korean cross the 38th Parallel. However, China was being isolated politically and a warning relayed through Indian diplomatic channels was ignored. General MacArthur disregarded the risks and plunged ahead.
The best time for intervention was past, they said, and even if the Chinese decided to intervene, allied air power and firepower would cripple their ability to move or resupply their forces. The opinion of many military observers, some of whom had helped train the Chinese to fight against the Japanese in World War II, was that the huge infantry forces that could be put in the field would be poorly equipped, poorly led, and abysmally supplied. These “experts” failed to give full due to the revolutionary zeal and military experience of many of the Chinese soldiers that had been redeployed to the Korean border area. Many of the soldiers were confident veterans of the successful civil war against the Nationalist Chinese forces. Although these forces were indeed poorly supplied, they were highly motivated, battle hardened, and led by officers who were veterans, in some cases, of twenty years of nearly constant war.
they came out of the hills near Unsan, North Korea, blowing bugles in the dying light of day on 1 November 1950, throwing grenades and firing their “burp” guns at the surprised American soldiers of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. Those who survived the initial assaults reported how shaken the spectacle of massed Chinese infantry had left them. Thousands of Chinese had attacked from the north, northwest, and west against scattered U.S. and South Korean (Republic of Korea or ROK) units moving deep into North Korea. The Chinese seemed to come out of nowhere as they swarmed around the flanks and over the defensive positions of the surprised United Nations (UN) troops. Within hours the ROK 15th Regiment on the 8th Cavalry’s right flank collapsed, while the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 8th Cavalry fell back in disarray into the city of Unsan. By morning, with their positions being overrun and their guns falling silent, the men of the 8th Cavalry tried to withdraw, but a Chinese roadblock to their rear forced them to abandon their artillery, and the men took to the hills in small groups. Only a few scattered survivors made it back to tell their story. The remaining battalion of the 8th Cavalry, the 3d, was hit early in the morning of 2 November with the same “human wave” assaults of bugle-blowing Chinese. In the confusion, one company-size Chinese element was mistaken for South Koreans and allowed to pass a critical bridge near the battalion command post (CP). Once over the bridge, the enemy commander blew his bugle, and the Chinese, throwing satchel charges and grenades, overran the CP.
In August of 1951, a year and two months after the initial North Korean invasion and about one year after the Chinese push into North Korea from the Yalu had begun,
General Ridgway’s headquarters in Tokyo put out a statement designed to show a cleavage between Moscow and Peking. Russia, said the statement, had inveigled the Chinese into the Korean war in order “to slash the strength of China . . . because a strong China on Russia’s southern frontier is the Kremlin’s nightmare . . . China fought and bled while Russia looked on. To Mao Tse-tung this could hardly look like bosom comradeship … It may mean China eventually goes the way of Yugoslavia . . . The Reds have been so busy looking for cracks in the structure of the democracies they have not noticed the perch they are sitting on is swaying and slowly crumbling . . . They cannot survive.”
General Ridgway had replaced General MacArthur in April of 1951 and this may have been little more than wishful thinking. On the other hand, it is apparent that Stalin was pleased to let Mao be “The Vice President in Charge of Asia,” provided that he didn’t attempt to start his own business – something Stalin did not think Mao was currently able to do because China and Mao were too dependent upon Russia.
Neither the United States nor the USSR, China nor North Korea had crystal balls and all had ideologies to consider. The fog of war limited the vision of all, something quite common. The problems went beyond that.
Although General MacArthur was indisputably a military genius, as most recently demonstrated by his very chancy but highly successful Inchon invasion which had generally been opposed by the military establishment in Washington. However, he had an unfortunate tendency to rely heavily on staff officers (the “Bataan Gang”) who told him what he wanted to hear and reinforced his sometimes faulty views. General Charles Andrew Willoughby, General MacArthur’s G2 (head of intelligence) was among them. He tended to tell General MacArthur things and, when General MacArthur accepted them, to provide no contradictory information. While often comforting, “yes men” are less valuable than officers who provide new information inconsistent with what they had previously provided. The same is true with presidents.
There was apparently also a focus on expecting the USSR, China and North Korea to behave “rationally” and a tendency to neglect aspects of their ideology and culture. What seems reasonable to the leader of a free people is often very different from what seems reasonable to a dictator far more interested in preserving and enhancing his own position. These factors must be kept constantly in mind in an incipient Korean Conflict.
Part II — Now
North Korea is not our friend, and neither are China and Russia. They tend to look out exclusively for their own peculiar interests as they perceive them and will do whatever it takes to advance them. That is not a criticism; it has been said that nations have no friends, only allies, and that they must act in their (correctly) perceived self-interest. If the Obama Administration fails to recognize these things, and to act on the basis of them, we, South Korea, and many others as well are in for very substantial problems. Indeed, they are upon us with the recent provocative attacks by North Korea on the South.
In many respects, things are even more complicated and less fully understood now than during the lead up to the 1950 Korean Conflict. Then, we had few insights into what might be happening in the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea; that remains the case. Then, many seemed to recognize clearly that North Korea, China and Russia were our enemies; fewer now seem to have that clear a perception as to Russia and China. Additionally, China has developed quite dramatically as a world economic power, transcending Russia; she is a, if not the, principal banker to the United States. She also supplies much of the “cheap stuff” desired by American consumers and many others. In consequence, the United States has become far more subservient to her than ever before.
As other things have changed, North Korea has become an increasing threat internationally with her trade in offensive military material with Iran and others.
Part III — Now and the Future
The naval exercise off Korea’s western coast ran from November 28 through November 30 and nothing untoward happened.
A [U.S.] supercarrier sent jets into overcast skies Tuesday in U.S.-South Korean military drills that North Korea warned could spark war, but signs of diplomacy emerged alongside the tensions over last week’s deadly North Korean attack.
. . . .
Cmdr. Pete Walczak said the ship’s combat direction center was closely monitoring any signs of ships, aircraft of any other activity and that nothing unusual was detected from North Korea.
“Absolutely nothing,” Walczak said. “A lot of saber-rattling, fist-shaking, but once our presence is here, reality says that it’s really nothing.”
It could be that North Korea, like any school yard bully, weak in ability but strong in shouting, simply backed off in the face of obviously greater power. Or, it may have decided to wait until after November 30 when the exercises ended and the USS George Washington departed. No big rush and doing something really stupid would not help to play the China card. Will North Korea attack again? My guess is You Betcha.
In what she may perceive as statesman-like efforts to avoid a hot war, China has called for six party talks on the Korean situation. A United States State Department spokesman has stated,
The six-party talks cannot substitute for action by North Korea to comply with its obligations . . . . We have called on China to urge the DPRK [North Korea] to restrain its provocations and responsibly act in the interests of peace and stability.
Japan and Korea have also declined to participate. Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara stated,
It’s unacceptable for us to hold six-party talks only because North Korea has gone amok . . . . We must first see some kind of sincere effort from North Korea on its uranium enrichment program and the latest incident.
Mr. Maehara’s remarks suggest the difficulty the international community may face in trying to resolve the conflict on the Korean Peninsula through coordinated effort.
The proposal from China, Pyongyang’s close ally, came as major naval drills by the U.S. and South Korea appeared to fuel tensions. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, however, told Beijing now was not the “right time” for the six-party talks.
Perhaps irrelevant, the U.S. and Japanese positions on six-party talks followed the South Korean rejection. South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers are traveling to Washington on December 6 to meet with Secretary Clinton to discuss Korea and other matters. Former President Carter stopped by the White House and discussed “the international work of the Carter Center and several foreign policy issues.” On November 30, he had expressed a hope for good faith negotiations with North Korea.
Some WikiLeak documents suggest that relations between China and North Korea have soured.
One senior Chinese diplomat is said to have told an American ambassador that younger generation Communist party leaders no longer regarded North Korea as a useful or reliable ally.Furthermore, Beijing anticipates the regime will collapse after the death of current leader Kim Jong-Il.
“This is Chinese officials talking to American diplomats, describing North Korea – a close ally that the Chinese have been supporting for decades and supported in a war with the UN – as a ‘spoilt child’.
“They also refer to North Korea’s nuclear capability as potentially destabilising to world peace.
“This effectively puts the Chinese very much in the American camp in terms of their analysis, at least.
“It is an enormous shift from China’s public position, which has supported North Korea, to their private position in talks with American officials.”
It has also been noted that
Chun [South Korea's then-vice foreign minister] predicts the government in Pyongyang would last no more than three years following the death of ailing leader Kim Jong Il, who is seeking to transfer power to his youngest son Kim Jong Un, a political ingenue in his 20s.
Chun also dismisses the possibility of Chinese military intervention if North Korea descended into chaos.
Despite that, China is preparing to handle any outbreaks of unrest along the border that could follow a collapse of the regime. Chinese officials say they could deal with up to 300,000 refugees, but might have to seal the border to maintain order, the memos say, citing an unidentified representative of an international aid group.
At least some of the WikiLeaks concerning the relationship between China and North Korea have been confirmed by Chinese diplomats based in Europe. For example,
The officials admitted to a sense of frustration in Beijing over North Korea’s recent actions, including its nuclear and missile tests – which China opposed – and last week’s lethal artillery bombardment of a South Korean island.
A general discussion was continuing about the direction of North Korea policy, another official said. North Korea produced strong feelings among the Chinese leadership and public, and China had to be careful. Beijing wanted to maintain its friendship with Pyongyang. But it did not want to be led by the nose.
. . . .
The officials said the Chinese government was talking to the North on a regular basis; there were many channels that could be used. But the North was a proud nation and China could not ultimately control it, they said. Beijing told the North’s leaders what it thought – but sometimes they behaved irrationally.
. . . .
“We do not have an effective way to influence them. Sometimes when we try it only makes things worse,” a senior Chinese diplomat said.
Are Chun’s predictions worth considering? Is the other information from the WikiLeaks true or false? Somewhere in between? A disinformation campaign? We may never know for sure. What would an abandoned North Korea do? Try to go out in glory? What would China do about it? Take over the country? Nothing? Something else?
Implosion of the North Korean regime, with insufficient spoils to be shared among Kim Jong-il, his sister and her husband, much less among the other ruling elites, would indeed be interesting to watch. “[T]here is always the chance that other powerful blocs, particularly within the military, [will] try to make a power grab.” This could be followed by chaos and later reunification more or less on the South’s terms.
Leaving aside the Kims, the estimated cost to South Korea would be about one trillion dollars.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has proposed a new tax to help fund the eventual bill for reunification, but the suggestion met a lukewarm response, especially from younger South Koreans, many of whom would resent having to make sacrifices for the sake of their impoverished northern neighbors . . . .
Officials at the Joint Chiefs of Staff told The Associated Press on Monday that the latest drills were postponed after the marine unit on the island mistakenly announced them without getting final approval from higher military authorities. The cancellation had nothing to do with North Korea, and the drills will take place later, one official said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing agency rules.
. . . .
Military trucks carrying what appeared to be multiple rocket launchers were seen heading to a marine base on the island Monday.
It is unclear whether the rocket launcher movements preceded or followed the announcement that the exercise had been postponed. It does seem clear, however, that the “cancellation” had much, rather than nothing, to do with North Korea. Right now, most everything that happens in South Korea, including even bowel movements, is in reaction to North Korea.
South Korea is giving serious consideration to establishing military bases on Baengynyeong Island and others nearby, very close to North Korea, useful for retaliation should North Korea again attack but also easily subject to North Korean attack.
This editorial in the South Korean JoongAng Daily on December 1 may well express public sentiment:
We have grown accustomed to sporadic provocations from North Korea over the last six decades, but never has the possibility of another war felt so real. We feel betrayed and insecure to discover that our frontline forces cannot even respond to artillery fire despite dutiful public spending. We tried to understand that the sinking of the Cheonan warship might have been unavoidable despite our state-of-the-art equipment because of the murkiness and the fast currents of the Yellow Sea.
But how are we supposed to acknowledge that our military’s capacity only amounts to a few dozen artillery shells fired in response to the hundreds of shells that rained down on populated land in broad daylight? The disbelief from the sudden loss of a son, husband or father and the awe of watching the country in a fluster over a security disaster unleash a gush of uncontrollable outrage.
The people cannot understand how a country with one of the world’s most fortified borders and largest armies with hundreds of military experts, hundreds of generals, and thousands of retired generals has been protecting its frontline archipelago with just a dozen howitzers. After all the skirmishes and provocations, the country should have had a contingency plan – a rudimentary strategy of supplementing military power with naval and air forces – to defend the Northern Limit Line, the disputed sea border.
All the war games proved ineffective in real-life conflict. Any military conflict gives priority to protecting populated areas, and an armed forces that cannot deter an unruly enemy firing ruthlessly against innocent people amounts to no more than a paper tiger. The Navy and Air Force that circle around the battlefield doing nothing are no more than a showcase. What was instead revealed on Yeonpyeong Island was defective artillery, a lax war scenario and soldiers ducking away from real combat.
Much depends, unfortunately, on China and our increasing subservience to her. If North Korea initiates a real war — perhaps by directing missile attacks against Seoul and her millions of residents — the likely response of China is unknown and perhaps even unpredictable, beyond that she will do whatever she sees as in her own best interests, defined as the interests of her rulers. Her response cannot be assumed to be what we would consider rational because China’s response will be a function of (a) how she perceives the precipitating events and of even greater importance (b) what the Chinese leaders consider their own best interests. I have very attenuated confidence that the folks at the State Department and elsewhere who are supposed to be watching the situation have many useful clues as to that sort of thing.
Looking back a century, Britain and France had substantial ties with Germany and insights into her intentions during the years leading up to World War I. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August delves neatly into this. Yet neither fully accepted the probability of a German attack violating Belgian neutrality.
Our ties with North Korea are essentially non-existent. Kim the Younger, now North Korea’s fading dictator, seems hardly capable of putting substantial pressure on China as his more illustrious father did with Russia sixty years before. Might he have an obsession with living up to his father’s example? We don’t know what might happen if he does.
Our ties with and insights into China’s intentions are far less than were those of Britain and France with Germany. If China perceived events and interests as we do, it would be far easier to make rational predictions about her responses. As I see rational behavior, China probably would like to weaken the United States further to make her even more subservient, but without substantially eroding her highly lucrative market for Chinese manufactures. Would China apply unprecedented economic pressures on the United States to keep her out of the war? Failing that, would she herself enter such a war on behalf of North Korea? Or might she just leap in ways we would think irrational?
To help pass the time as we await further developments, here is a very frightening scenario; fiction to be sure but frightening none the less. Were a world war to occur, from which Russia would likely refrain, there would be only one winner — Russia. And like it or not, Russia has not shown herself to be our friend.
This on the other hand, unfortunately is not fiction.