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Thread: Origins of the Korean War

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    Origins of the Korean War

    I wrote this for my high school essay requirements back in 2009.
    Original motivation was from OoE's posting of one article waaay back called 'Reluctant Dragon Conspiracy'. I had a lot of fun trying to fit in the smaller events into a larger strategic picture. Feel free to criticize any points; while the work is pretty faint in my head, I'll answer to the best of my abilities.

    Why did Communist China decide to intervene in the Korean War and was this decision pre-planned or spontaneous?


    Over fifty years after the Korean War, historians still debate its origins. The conflicting accounts of the war’s beginning can be attributed to the fact that the Korean War was a Cold War event; its analysis had been influenced by political agendas and restriction of access to crucial information. During the following decades, two interpretations of the war’s beginning emerged.

    The traditionalist view, agreed upon by Western historians shortly after the war, held that both Communist China and the Soviet Union were complicit in Kim Il Sung’s planned invasion of South Korea. These historians also believed that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made the pre-emptive decision to intervene in the event that America got involved in the Korean peninsula. However, starting in the late 1960s, historians began to challenge these views and a revisionist analysis gained popularity. The revisionists argued that Mao Zedong, the leader of the PRC, was reluctant to get involved in the Kim’s conquest of the South. Furthermore, the revisionist theory asserts that during the course of the war, China attempted to resolve the issue diplomatically and was forcibly drawn into the conflict only after General MacArthur’s UN troops directly threatened Chinese security by marching towards the Yalu.

    This essay will analyse the events surrounding the early stages of the Korean War and take both interpretations into consideration. It will investigate the causes that prompted China to enter the war and whether the decision was pre-planned or spontaneous. This investigation will refute much of the evidence put forth by the revisionist theory and come to a conclusion that China was actively involved in the planning and made the decision for entry well before the UN counter offensive starting at Inchon. The investigation of China’s involvement in Korea will be useful in explaining Mao’s foreign policy decisions, especially regarding Taiwan. Moreover, studying China’s entry into the Korean War allows for the assessment of the newly formed communist state’s role in international affairs as well as its future relationship with the two superpowers.

    The period after the end of World War 2 marked a spread of communism in Asia. After the retreat of the Nationalist forces to Taiwan in October 1949, the PRC began focusing on the takeover of the three remaining areas of the traditional Chinese state boundaries: Hainan, Taiwan, and Tibet. During this period, Kim Il Sung, the communist leader in North Korea, was trying to acquire the approval and support from Stalin for his proposed attack on South Korea. On January 19th 1950, Kim messaged the Soviet ambassador in North Korea that with the success of the communists in China, the time was right for the extension of the communist cause in Korea. Unlike the previous times, Stalin approved, but warned Kim not to “expect great assistance and support from the Soviet Union.” Stalin then delegated the task of the war in Korea to the PRC, stating that the question of proceeding the Korean unification “must be decided finally by the Chinese and Korean comrades together.”

    Conflicting explanations exist for Stalin’s shift of responsibility to Mao. The orthodox view states that Stalin wished to avoid a direct Soviet-American confrontation in Korea and the possible escalation of war to other parts of the world. However, the extent of Soviet help in the preparation of war was undeniable. Soviet military advisers were sent into North Korea and arms shipments, including ammunition and tanks, constantly arrived by rail and sea from the Soviet Union. Both Mao and Stalin knew that the American intelligence would be aware of these developments. Therefore, the more convincing argument is that Stalin was trying to manipulate Mao into committing China in a conflict against the West over Korea.

    Stalin`s actions were prompted by a series of actions that took place in early 1950. On January 5, the Truman administration announced that the United States would cease support for the Nationalist forces in Taiwan. Later that month, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson made an address that outlined the American defensive perimeter in Asia. This perimeter included Japan and the Philippines, but South Korea and Taiwan were excluded. Acheson’s speech had the effect of portraying an American reluctance to defend these areas. These announcements worried Stalin: he believed that an understanding was being developed between China and the US for the “liberation of Taiwan in exchange for the normalization of Sino-American relations.” Such development would hinder Stalin and his plan to spread Communism to other parts of Asia. As such, he was prepared to risk a war in Korea to isolate China and ensure that it remained within the Soviet influence.

    Stalin’s manoeuvres put Mao in a dilemma; the Chinese leader was forced to decide whether or not to pledge support for Kim’s actions. China had just finished fighting three years of a bloody civil war and much of the country was in ruins. Mao wished to disband military units, other than the ones required for the conquest of Taiwan and Tibet, and begin focusing on economic recovery. For the invasion of Taiwan and the ending of the Nationalist opposition, Mao needed Soviet military support. Mao believed that China’s reluctance to support Kim in Korea could result in the reciprocal response of Stalin’s withdrawal of support for the Chinese effort to take Taiwan. , Mao also had to consider his efforts to gain recognition for his government in the United Nations, and a Chinese involvement in Korea would seriously hamper this goal. Stalin, aware of this, proposed to Mao on January 7 that if the Chinese request to be admitted into the UN was denied again, Soviet representatives would refrain from participating in the UN.

    Taking these factors into consideration, Mao responded with enthusiasm. He approved of Kim’s plan in Korea and stated his doubt about the Americans intervening in what was an internal Korean matter. Furthermore, he stated that “[China] still should help ‘Xiao’ Kim. Korea now faces a complicated situation.” Mao needed to easy Stalin’s anxiety about a possible US intervention since that same worry could make Stalin hesitant towards supporting another communist action in Taiwan. The request to be admitted into the UN was made and denied, and Soviet representatives responded by walking out of all UN activities. Proponents of the revisionist theory argue that China would not have chosen to get involved in Korea, citing the greater priority placed on the conquest of Taiwan and the loss of reputation at the international level. However, it can clearly be seen that these two factors were considered before Mao committed China to the war in Korea.

    Here is more evidence of Mao`s pre-planning. Since the end of 1949, the repatriation of the Korean soldiers who fought in the Chinese Civil War had been taking place. The veteran troops from China’s 164th and 166th Divisions were returned to Kim and formed into North Korean Army’s 5th and 6th Divisions. On January 19, Kim made a request to Beijing for the “transfer forthwith all remaining North Korean troops who had fought in the Chinese Civil War.” The final transfer of the troops began in February and finished in May; around 23,000 troops from the Chinese 156th Division returned to form the North Korean 7th Division. Revisionist historians argue that these troop transfers should be considered normal considering the developing relationship between the two communist states and Mao’s plan to reduce the size of his army to establish a civilian economy. However, it must also be noted that Chinese troop deployments were also made at the North Korean border.

    In April 1950, the Fourth Field Army, the best equipped and the most experienced in the PRC, completed the conquest of Hainan. Afterwards, it was positioned back to north-east China, a process that continued until June. Meanwhile, the 66th Army was deployed to Shenyang, the capital of the north-east, and began combat training. Kim had told Mao earlier in January that “America would not participate in such a small war on the Korean Peninsula,” reasoning that the US had not intervened during the Chinese Civil War. Moreover, Kim stated that a US intervention would be irrelevant as communist sympathizers would spark rebellions in the South, ending the conflict in “just a few days.” Mao did not share the confidence of Kim and subsequently had his troops deployed in Manchuria in case the war did not go as planned. As can be proven, Mao had already considered a possible American intervention and made the relevant preparations even before the war began.

    Kim had prepared and planned well for the invasion. He had over 200,000 troops ready, and around a third of them were combat veterans returning from China. On the morning of June 25 1950, the North Korean forces invaded, taking the defenders by surprise. The South Korean units and the small number of US forces garrisoned along the North Korean border were quickly overrun and destroyed. While the invading army made a rapid advance down the peninsula, the United Nations Security Council met in its first ever emergency session only hours after the initial invasion. Led by the United States, the UNSC passed a resolution condemning North Korea’s “unprovoked aggression” and called for an immediate cease-fire by North Korea.

    Two days later, on June 27, the UNSC convened again, this time passing a resolution calling for UN states “to furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.” Both Mao and Kim were surprised by the swiftness of the American action. Kim’s hope of achieving a quick victory in Korea was shattered. Unlike Mao, Kim had not taken an American involvement into account. The UN actions elevated the war in Korea from an internal strife to an international ‘police action’. Furthermore, the Truman Administration identified the event as part of a “worldwide initiative by Communists to spread their ideology by force,” and announced that the communist forces must be confronted.

    The passing of the UN resolutions was made possible by the fact that the Soviet Union had been boycotting the UNSC over the refusal to recognize Mao’s government. Some historians cite this occurrence to suggest that the Americans manoeuvred the development in Korea to “take advantage of the absence of the Soviet veto in the UN,” and to form a UN force hostile to the communists. These historians argue that the South and the North had been engaging in border skirmishes for several years, and that “a particularly deep cross-border raid [of June 25] was ‘designated’ an invasion by the Americans.” This interpretation claims that it is unlikely that Stalin would arrange for the war to begin when the Soviets could not exercise their veto power.

    What these historians may have overlooked was Stalin’s broader scheme involving Mao. The assertion that Kim acted independently of Stalin can be refuted by the observation that Stalin wanted a western involvement in the Korean War. Using the refusal to recognize Communist China as an excuse, Stalin may have deliberately fabricated the boycott of the Security Council so that a UN mandate calling for an armed intervention in Korea could be passed. Stalin benefitted from this action in two ways. First, the western involvement escalated the war guaranteed a Chinese intervention. Second, a UN mandate decreased the chance that when the Chinese intervened, the United States would issue a separate declaration of war. Due to the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship of February 1950, such action would bring the Soviet Union into the conflict against the West as well, a scenario that Stalin wanted to avoid at all costs.

    Meanwhile, American military involvement in Asia intensified. On June 27, in conjunction with the second UN resolution, Truman ordered that the US Navy position the 7th Fleet at the Taiwan Strait to neutralise the area and “prevent a Communist attack.” The American military support of Taiwan ensured that Mao’s planned conquest there would not take place. As Mao considered Taiwan a part of China, he viewed the American action as an act of war. Events were not taking place as Mao had hoped. The anticipated Communist uprising in South Korea did not take place and a swift victory there was not achieved. Mao had hoped that once Kim achieved his victory in Korea, China would carry on with its preparations for the attack on Taiwan with the Soviet support. US Secretary of Defence Johnson noted that during June, Chinese troops stationed opposite of Taiwan “increased from less than 40,000 to about 156,000.” Kim’s failure and the US Navy intervention in Taiwan shattered Mao’s plan for the Taiwan assault.

    As a response to the swift American actions, Mao reinforced the units stationed along the North Korean border by making a second troop deployment on July 13. This decision was made even as the North Koreans were making a rapid advance down the peninsula with the UN forces struggling to form an effective resistance. The deployment included China’s Central Reserve, bringing the total Chinese force at the border to 255,000 men. The Central Military Commission announced for the first time that the liberation of Taiwan would be postponed due to the Korean War. On August 2, anti-aircraft artillery units were deployed around the Yalu river area to provide air cover for the infantry when they crossed the bridges. These deployments indicate the aggressive stance Mao took against the Americans even before Chinese soil was threatened.

    After the successful UN landings at Inchon on September 15, the tide of war turned. The US 8th Army broke through the Pusan Perimeter and Seoul was recaptured on September 27. On October 7, the UN passed a resolution calling for the “establishment of a unified, independent, and democratic Government in Korea.” The new UN resolution went beyond the original call for a status quo, and authorised the overthrow of Kim’s communist government. With the approval to engage in combat above the 38th parallel, General MacArthur’s forces began their assault. The North Korean Army in disorganised retreat and MacArthur expected a quick victory that would unify all of Korea under UN authority.

    As the collapse of North Korea seemed inevitable, the Chinese Politburo met to discuss the merits of intervening in Korea on October 2. The majority of the Politburo members were still opposed to fighting in Korea. However, Mao argued that the US action regarding Taiwan was an act of war, and that a conflict between the two states was unavoidable. He argued that American success in Korea would free up troops “for action against China from two directions, Taiwan to the east and Vietnam to the south.” Additionally, Mao stated that an American takeover of North Korea would be perceived as signs of Beijing’s weakness and encourage domestic rebellions from those opposed to the Communist rule. Mao also reasoned that facing the Americans in Korea was better than in Taiwan or Vietnam as the mountainous terrains limited the mobility of the US Mechanized columns.

    After the meeting, the Politburo issued a statement that if the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel, China would be forced to intervene to protect its borders. When General MacArthur sent a surrender ultimatum to Kim on October 7, the Chinese replied with a warning that they would not “tolerate seeing their neighbours being savagely invaded by imperialists.” With the ongoing development in Korea, notably MacArthur’s continuing attack up north, Mao ordered the formation of the People’s Volunteer Army on October 8. The Chinese soldiers were designated as volunteers to allow them to participate in hostilities without the Chinese government making a formal declaration of war, which would have triggered a Soviet intervention as well. Beginning in mid-October, the Chinese began entering Korea, hiding in caves and the woods during the day. By October 25, over 100,000 Chinese troops had entered Korea, poised to strike.

    The Americans were sceptical of a Chinese intervention, reasoning that China had more pressing economic issues to deal with, and that China would not be able to afford the time, money, and resources for a war against the US. The UN forces continued northwards, capturing Pyongyang on October 20. Even when American and South Korean encountered a small number of Chinese troops in the final days of October, the US military officers remained convinced these were isolated incidents. They noted that the ideal time for China to enter the war had “long since passed” and that in any case, American air power would “inflict the greatest slaughter” on the invading Chinese forces.

    Revisionist historians point to the delay in fighting as evidence that the Chinese were seeking all possible diplomatic solutions before a clash. However, this delay in the intervention can be attributed to the fact that Mao was seeking a Soviet support in the joint defence of North Korea. Mao feared that American air power would take a heavy toll on the exposed Chinese infantry as it crossed into Korea and requested Soviet air support to cover the Chinese advance. When Stalin refused, Mao responded by delaying the Chinese advance to allow the North Korean Army to be destroyed by the UN. Subsequently, Mao used his forces to shift the North Korean regime from pro-Soviet to a pro-Chinese buffer state.

    When the Chinese Volunteers and the Americans encountered each other in a solid engagement for the first time on November 1, the American forces were caught unprepared. The Central Intelligence Agency had predicted that a Chinese intervention was “not probable in 1950.” The fighting went on for several days, with each side taking heavy casualties. Chinese night attacks took a heavy toll on many American lives as did the American artillery and air strikes on Chinese lives. After this initial clash, the Chinese forces disappeared into the hills. During the period from November 4 to November 22, the Chinese forces restrained from confrontations with the UN force, and the period came to be known as ‘the November Lull’. The revisionist claimed that this observance was proof of Mao`s reluctance to fight America.

    Those that argue that China was reluctantly drawn into the Korean War in order to protect its borders point to this duration as an indirect offer of truce from Beijing to Washington. They believe that the correct thing for the UN forces to have done was to withdraw 20 miles from the Chinese border and establish a buffer region. However, documents released by the Chinese government in 1997 disprove this view. On October 2, three weeks prior to Chinese movement into North Korea, Mao sent a message to Stalin that China was “jumping into the war to drive the Americans out of Korea and assist in the expansion of communism.” This reveals that China was not engaging in a defensive action, but an offensive one aimed at a triumph over the entire Korean peninsula.

    Meanwhile, the Americans remained unsure of the extent of the Chinese commitment. Unaware of the Chinese motive behind the lull, President Truman issued a statement on November 16 outlining the US objectives in Asia. He reassured China that the UN forces would respect China’s borders, claiming that America has “never at any time entertained any intention to carry hostilities into China.” The real reason behind the Chinese withdrawal concerned military strategy. After the preliminary fighting, the Chinese needed to regroup and rest before they could continue fighting. When the Chinese forces learned that the UN would resume its advances before its troops were ready, they withdrew further north in mid-November to set up a trap. This strategy was outlined in Mao’s book, On Protracted War: “We have always advocated the policy of ‘luring the enemy to penetrate deep’ precisely because this is the most effective military policy for a weak army in a strategic defence against a strong army.”

    Indeed, when the UN forces resumed their offenses on November 24, the Chinese counterattacked in massive waves. The magnitude of the Chinese involvement, the commitment of over a million soldiers, and the six subsequent offensive campaigns aimed at driving the UN forces out of the Korean peninsula further support the view that China was involved in a war of total destruction, not a border enforcement. Major Chinese offenses continued until mid-1951, indicating that China was following the strategy of annihilation. Chinese forces only reluctantly accepting protracted warfare later on when its attempts to break through the UN lines failed.

    In addressing the first part of the investigation, Communist China decided to intervene in the Korean War part out of design and part out of necessity. Stalin had designed a scenario in which China would have to get involved in a conflict against the West and isolate itself internationally. Stalin took advantage of the fact that Mao needed Soviet support for the invasion of Taiwan and manipulated him into committing China in a conflict that it could not benefit from. Because of Mao’s decision, China lost all hope of regaining the island of Taiwan. It also suffered massive casualties and the economic recovery plans were disrupted. Relationship with the United States suffered, and China’s international status plummeted. Ironically, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union worsened as well, due to the bitterness over the minimal support from the Soviet Union for China.

    China’s entry into the war can also be attributed to Mao’s fear of an American invasion to overthrow his government. The deployment of the US Navy’s 7th fleet to Taiwan led Mao to think that a war between the US and China was inevitable, and forced him to choose Korea as the battleground. China could not permit a UN victory in the Korean peninsula as such outcome would result in domestic disturbances.

    Whether or not the Chinese would have intervened if the UN forces had stopped advancing towards the Chinese border is harder to conclude. Preparations for the intervention were made before the war, months before the UN advance into North Korea. As previously stated, Mao could not allow a UN victory to take place in the Korean peninsula. In light of these two facts, it can be determined that Mao’s decision to intervene in Korea had taken place well before the MacArthur’s forces crossed north across the 38th parallel. China’s warnings that MacArthur’s actions would provoke Chinese response served only as justifications for the entry; Mao had made the decision beforehand.

    The revisionist argument that China was provoked into war by MacArthur’s actions and that it fought only to repel the UN forces from its border is neither supported by Mao’s actions or his intentions. Mao had clearly intended to fight a war of annihilation in Korea, aimed at a complete defeat of the UN forces there. The chain of events surrounding China’s actions in Korea support the traditionalist analysis that China was actively involved in the war’s planning and that the decision to support the North was made before the UN advance towards the Yalu.

    Word Count: 3831
    Last edited by sm7mathca; 16 Aug 10, at 18:21.

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    Very interesting read.

    Thankx!
    Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup.

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    New Member sm7mathca's Avatar
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    Thanks. It was a rushed work and I wish I had more time to proof-read and edit. This is my first time reading it in over 15 months, and the small typos and grammar mistakes are just killing me. PS. Proper citations are given in original work.

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    As noted here,

    http://www.worldaffairsboard.com/war...spiracies.html

    I cannot agree with the traditional timing as you wrote. The decision to move 2 Army Groups must have been made earlier, espeically when you consider that they were moving onto foreign soil and must even bring their own rice with them.

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    Interesting, but when you do a point-counter point you need to get all of the major players involved. I didn't see much of anything about the US complicity in the war. Your talked briefly about the US' declared defensive perimeter in Asia but what does that mean?

    What did the US have in Japan and the Philippines?

    Was NSC 68 influenced by the building pressure in Korea.

    Did the US want another small war like Greece to validate NSC 68?

    What role did the new Soviet A-bomb play in shaping Stalin's decisions? Would he have dared to act without the bomb?

    What role did the Soviet's having the bomb play in Mao's willingness to risk war with the US? Did he have nuclear assurances from the Soviet Union?

    How much did Soviet penetration of the US reveal about US combat capabilities in the Pacific?

    Did the risk/prospect of facing MacArthur influence communist thinking.

    Given US support to the French in IndoChina was it realistic to expect the US would sit it out?

    Given communist uprisings in Malay and Indochina did the US see a communist conspiracy in the Pacific?

    Given Malay, Indochina, Greece and Churchill's speech, was Truman under public pressure by the American people to respond, did the communists consider American public opinion?

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    Very interesting reading, thanks for sharing.

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