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After 61 Years, Korean War Offers Modern Lessons

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.

President Truman authorized General MacArthur to go north of the 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 Third World War. General 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 on the east coast and proceeded 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 she attempted to relay through Indian diplomatic channels was ignored. General MacArthur disregarded the risks and plunged ahead:

The best time for [Chinese] 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.

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,” members of which had been with him in World War II’s Pacific theater) who told him what he wanted to hear and reinforced his sometimes faulty views. General Charles Andrew Willoughby, General MacArthur’s G2 (chief 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 fresh 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 — or any other — conflict, including in the Arab lands. 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.


The massive Chinese intervention came very soon after the Inchon invasion, on November 1, 1950, and things did not go well; for a while, the U.S. and ROK forces were routed:

[T]hey 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.

It became a bitter and bloody retreat through and between snow covered mountains in sub-freezing temperatures for which many troops had not been provided adequate cold weather gear. In April of 1951, General Ridgway replaced General MacArthur, who had different views on how to conduct military operations than did many in the Pentagon and, of greater importance, than did President Truman. At times, General MacArthur appeared to be confused over who was the commander in chief. Changes in command during time of war can be dangerous. They had already become so five months before, with the massive Chinese intervention.

In August of 1951, a year and two months after the 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 only a few months previously and this may have been little more than wishful thinking.

The retreat from the Yalu was difficult and bloody, with much loss of life. The conflict ended in a truce, still in existence although of dubious meaning, with the border between the ROK and North Korea drawn pretty much along the thirty-eighth parallel with some islands to the north of it desired by the DPRK.

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. 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. There are also problems, current and incipient, in much of the Arab world and we seem to have few insights into how to deal with them to our best advantage. We are at sea in Libya and Egypt can become a major problem with the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood. We now have a new secretary of defense and our president, principally for political purposes, is reducing our presence in Afghanistan.

As to Korea, much unfortunately depends on China and on 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.


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