THE OUTBREAK OF THE KOREAN WAR: THEN AND NOW

05/11/04 Research Assignment Chris Haynes 0029115

Introduction On June 25, 1950, the army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea. While there had been sporadic fighting along the ceasefire line between North and South Korean forces, this move by the DPRK was the casus belli for the Korean War.

The war lasted from 1950 to 1953 and over one million Koreans, Chinese, Americans, Canadians and Europeans were killed in the fighting. The line that had been drawn by the Allies of World War Two marked both a separation of the people of the Korean peninsula but also of ideologies. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) took into its aegis the northern half, and the Americans the southern half; and both were quick to apply their ideologies, of communism and capitalism respectively, to their protectorates.

Upon the war’s outbreak, a national Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, voiced the apparent element of surprise in the West that accompanied the invasion. Much speculation was made about Soviet involvement. Since 1950, however, other evidence has come to light. The newspaper articles from June 26, 1950 prompt my asking several questions. This paper attempts to answer two of these questions. What was Russia’s role in the invasion of South Korea? And what was China’s role? As can be expected, there are to this day competing theories about the extent of both Soviet and Chinese involvement and I could not profess to be in a position to ascertain these facts. This paper also aims to discover the changes in perspective since the termination of the war on the causes of the war and the actions and reactions to it from some of the parties with a stake

in the war’s outcome. These parties include Mr Stalin, Chairman Mao, Mr Kim, President Truman and General MacArthur. This paper’s objectives are fulfilled in three sections: the historical backdrop, or context in which the outbreak of the Korean War took place; the newspapers and their reactions to the incursion, the actions taken within two days of it and the biases and speculation surrounding it; and the section on history unearthed, as I show some of the previously available and more recent evidence not addressed by the news articles that has lent itself to modern theories explaining the causes and levels of involvement of different actors in the war.

The historical backdrop The height of the Korean War is considered by many to be the height of the Cold War. The McCarthy Trials had begun in February of 1950 to root out subversive communist elements from all walks of American life. Coupled with the North Korean invasion, this witchhunt sent anti Communist hysteria in the US to boiling point. The previous September, the USSR had tested their first atomic bomb. Iosef Stalin had tested the West’s commitment to West Berlin by instituting the Berlin Blockade. With American foreign policy playing defence, the Communist world was rapidly expanding across Europe and Asia.
The Soviet Union had made satellites of Poland, Bulgaria and Rumania, and was working on Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Greece…. Yugoslavia…. The fire of communism seemed to be rising everywhere…. A Communist rebellion flourished in the Philippines. The British were fighting in Malaya to put down Communists; in Indochina the Vietminh revolution was led by Ho Chi

Minh…. [A]nd the Russians were creating a North Korean People’s Republic.” (Hoyt,

52)

General George Marshall had been in China since the end of World War Two, working to mediate talks between the US friendly Nationalist Party and the opposing Communist Party. However, “American political and military involvement in China reached a low ebb” in March 1947, and “Chiang Kaishek was doing everything that General Marshall had advised him not to do.” (50) China, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, completed the transition to Communism in 1949. Stalin and Mao had renewed and ratified the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance. (Goncharov et al., 76) On the other side of the Yellow Sea, in 1947, a UN commission was established to see that Korean people retained the independence granted them by the UN at the end of World War Two by uniting the country and observing that the election process was democratic. When it completed its mandate in 1948, it found that the country had not been united but that democratic elections had taken place in South Korea, which was known as the Republic of Korea (ROK) and later recognised as a UN member state. (Yoo, 183-6) The North was not. When the North attacked, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation forces in Japan, was ordered by the White House to mobilise troops to resist the DPRK.

The newspapers and their reactions Newspapers tend to confirm Tolstoy’s comment that the origins of major events seem simpler to those close to them than they do to those living several years after. (Goncharov

et al., vii) If newspapers simultaneously represent and shape the opinions of the people, the Globe and Mail in 1950 is likely no exception.

One notices, certainly in retrospect if not at the time, the loaded language used in these articles. The word “Red,” for instance, is used frequently. While it appears to be simply a abbreviated way to write Communist, the fact that it was used so derogatorily in the US Congress (Hoyt, 53) and elsewhere implies that it is a way of differentiating the publication’s views from those whom it labels. I also do not know if Red connotes Soviet and its use suspicions of backing from Moscow.

When the US wrote up a UN Security Council resolution ordering a ceasefire in the peninsula, most members of the Council1 voiced agreement with Trygve Lie that North Korea had initiated the conflict and that this breach of the peace was a threat to the entire world. (Globe and Mail, 2) The articles provide further information that lead to my noting two intriguing points. First, among the countries that agreed with the US was China. But did China not play a role in initiating the conflict? The newspapers say little about the possibility that China was involved, and that it is probably the USSR who is the instigator of this conflict. The USSR, the Globe and Mail reports experts as saying, made this move to test the reaction of the US concomitantly in Asia and in Europe with the amassing of Bulgarian troops in the Yugoslav border. (2) Who was (more) to blame, China, the USSR or the DPRK? Second, if the USSR was testing the waters, surely it was not in the mood for another world war. Assuming this argument’s validity, it is interesting that the Globe and Mail also reflects in its audience the fears that another world war was looming. It

compares the assault on the ROK as similar to those of Hitler and seems unconvinced by official reports that there was no evidence “of Communist plans to take military action on any broad international scale, and officials were most careful not to discuss the Korean outbreak as the beginning of a third world war.” (2) I believe the reasoning for presenting the situation as a potential world war is either a) timeless news media sensationalism; b) a reflection of the alarm so many felt knowing that war (which could have been nuclear) could come at any time; or c) a rallying cry to support the West and its allies in defeating the Communist threat. As if backing up this last possibility, the Globe and Mail printed an article in which Tchi Chang-yun, South Korean foreign minister to Britain at the time, had highly rhetorical, highly urgent words for the ROK’s allies in Europe and North America. (8)

History unearthed The news articles do not take into account the history of the past few years in their judgements of the causes of the outbreak; and thus, there are many questions that arise. Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung all had plans for the expansion of their influence and Communist regimes. Who played what part in opening the conflict? Even at the end of 1949, Stalin and Mao both knew that Kim was planning to attack the south. They just did not know when or how. So how could they have helped out? Over the years there have been several different perspectives seeking to explain the outcome of the conflict, from those who believe that domestic and Cold War affairs and how they played out in Korea contributed the most to the conflict, to those who believe that Kim’s contacts with Stalin

and Mao played the biggest role. The literature on the subject lends itself to the latter view.

Kim had been a captain in the Korean battalion of the Soviet Khabarovsk Infantry Officers School, and his battalion was intended to be the future Korean People’s Army. He shared his dream of a united Korea with his fellows, not through a peaceful unification but an armed one. (Goncharov et al., 131) By the time the USSR had control of North Korea, Kim, the puppet, was able to use Stalin like Stalin used Kim. The Soviet army’s 120,000 troops stationed in North Korea left when the Communists created the DPRK in September, 1948, but gave all their military hardware to the Korean People’s Army. (133) Stalin was not inclined to sanction an all out assault on the south because he was afraid of direct conflict with the US. He told Kim to “strike them” but was not very clear on that point. (135) Until a few months prior to the start of the war, China had few formal talks with the DPRK. (134)

Stalin had a reputation of bullying the Chinese. For example, the “Additional Agreement” to the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Stalin demanded broad concessions on the part of the Chinese with few of his own. Mao felt “extremely dissatisfied with the document.” (123) Stalin told Kim that, if Kim got into any trouble in Korea, he would have to ask Mao for help. He knew that Mao would assent and that, because of Mao’s passionate drive to seize Formosa, he would be the target of blame for Kim’s actions. Stalin, the infamous manipulator of men, made it look like Mao was the main backer of Kim’s plan to unite Korea. (145)

The Truman Administration’s policy towards Asia comes into play at this point. Stalin seemed convinced that the US would intervene; or at least, that it was not worth his while to risk that eventuality. North Korean officials, on the other hand, were “absolutely certain” that the US would not intervene. They claimed to base this conviction on the nonintervention of the US into the Chinese Civil War. They had, in the eyes of the North Koreans at least, sat back, wringing their hands. A Korean Civil War would be a comparative nonevent. (141-2) The decision makers of the Truman Administration failed to acknowledge the threat that China posed them and were weak on acting on it. Chinese officials said it would enter the war if the US moved north. When it did enter the war, it moved slowly and let the US gain ground in North Korea. However, pretending to be weak was a tactic they knew the US would fall for. (Hoyt, 135-6) Truman and MacArthur both had reputations—the former for being soft on Communism, a reputation easily won in a majority Republican Congress (53) and well deserved judging by the reactionary way his administration dealt with the spread of Communism in Europe and Russia (52; Kaufman, 45); the latter as seeing the world as Red and Red, White and Blue. MacArthur was at odds with the administration over its foreign policy. (46) After the UN forces, under his command, had been backed into a veritable corner in Pusan, MacArthur drew up plans to not only defeat the North Koreans in South Korea but to destroy the DPRK utterly. His ideology, that Communism everywhere was a mere Muscovite tributary, was becoming popular before and became far more widespread after the outbreak of the Korean War, most likely affecting media sources such as the Globe and Mail who were either swayed by MacArthur (and his contemporaries)’s argument, or who were unwilling to show anything but polarising rhetoric against the communist world. The Chinese saw

him as the enemy, as he saw them. Their differences were irreconcilable, and MacArthur would see the Korean War won at any cost. (Hoyt, 71-74)

Conclusion In my simple analysis of the outbreak of the Korean War I have explained, to some extent, the involvement of the major powers and the newspapers’ reactions to the start of the war. I have tried to capture the mood at the time and the shift new information revealed to those who sought it after the fact. It has taken the passage of time and the cooling of anti Communist passions, fears and rhetoric found more than ever during the height of the Cold War to uncover some of the causes of the war that the newspapers did not tell us at the time. The reasons each of the major players, Stalin, Mao, Kim, Truman and MacArthur, did what they did lend themselves to a fuller explanation for the outbreak of the war. The perspectives given in the Globe and Mail articles seem to reflect the fear of Communism of the time but provide quickly conceived, reactionary perspectives rather than the highly researched materials in the secondary literature.

NOTES 1. Yugoslavia abstained from voting on the US drafted resolution and called instead

for a fact finding mission to determine which side was at fault. The USSR had boycotted the Council since January in protest at the West’s refusal to acknowledge the People’s Republic of China.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Globe and Mail, June 26, 1950. Goncharov, Sergei N., John W. Lewis and Xue Litai: Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao and the Korean War. 1993, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. Hoyt, Edwin P.: The Day the Chinese Attacked: Korea, 1950: the story of the failure of America’s China policy. 1990, McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, New York. Kaufman, Burton I.: The Korean War: challenges in crisis, credibility and command. 1986, Temple University Press, Philadelphia. Yoo, Tae-Ho: The Korean War and the United Nations: a legal and diplomatic historical study. 1965, Librairie Desbarax, Louvain.

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