Sixty-one years ago, on June 25, 1950, North Korea “unexpectedly” invaded South Korea. As we remember our many military personnel who gave their lives during the conflict, we might also think about the reasons it happened and perhaps as well about how to diminish the likelihood of another, in Korea and elsewhere.
The events leading up to the invasion are now ancient history and so are little considered in evaluating current events. That is unfortunate. Stalin, Mao, and Kim il-Sung are dead but their spirits survive and continue to haunt us; we also have others with whom to contend, principally in the Arab lands.
China and Russia are quite different now than they were in 1950, although the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains an enigma — headed for now by Kim Jong-il with an apparent but not certain successor in his son, Kim Jong-un. The course of the succession may not be smooth and that can lead to mischief. So can the DPRK’s miserable economic situation coupled with her probable nuclear capability and general weirdness.
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. 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, very quickly. He then provided substantial military assistance. China’s Mao was not generally consulted during the period leading up to the invasion. He eventually was and agreed to it 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 Republic of Korea (ROK) forces retaliated by pushing into North Korea and soon reaching 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:
[W]hile 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 falsely claimed invasion by the South would serve as a useful pretext for invasion by the North.
It seems that Stalin considered any improvement in U.S – China relations as very dangerous for Russia, potentially ruining his strategic calculations. A takeover 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. A speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson on January 12, 1950, 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.
Although Stalin caved in to Kim’s pleas for permission to attack, he 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 desire for China to butt in:
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.
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.
Stalin’s role, unlike Mao’s, was quite significant at first:
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 been made and it came on June 25. Seoul fell within three days as Kim il-Sung had anticipated; however, the popular uprisings did not occur. President Truman decided almost immediately to intervene, Secretary Acheson’s speech notwithstanding. The United States had little difficulty in persuading the UN Security Council to condemn the invasion 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 soon be kept busy with Korea and in line with Stalin’s world game plan? Stalin was a clever rascal; he could have given lessons to Machiavelli:
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.
On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur mounted his extraordinarily risky but also extraordinarily successful landing at KNPA occupied Inchon. To get to Inchon by sea from the port at Pusan, still under South Korean control and located on the south eastern coast, was a hairy adventure. Invasion by sea was the only possibility because the NKPA controlled most of the country to the north of Pusan. Perhaps the most problematic aspect was navigation of warships through the shallow and in some places narrow Flying Fish Channel, passing islands perhaps occupied by North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) troops. The tides there varied by more than thirty feet and, except at the highest of high tides, passage of an invasion fleet would be impossible. Had the invasion not succeeded in passing through the channel on September 15, the date of the highest tides, it would have had to be delayed for about a month; by then it might well be expected. Surprise played a major part in the success of the September 15th invasion. Seoul was quickly retaken and the U.S. and ROK forces reclaimed all of South Korea with the NKPA forces fleeing back north. All looked rosy. General MacArthur announced that the U.S. forces would be home by Christmas; it did not happen that way.