Shen Zhihua

Translation By Ren Zegang

Shen Zhihua is a professor of history at East China Normal University and adjunct professor at Peking University and Renmin University of China. Shen is an expert in the history of the Soviet Union, Sino-Soviet relations, and the Cold War and Korean war. 

The origination of hostile attitude of North Korean to China

The earliest batch of decrypted Russian files about Korean War that I read were the 216 letters sent by President Boris Yeltsin to President of South Korea Kim Yong-san in 1994. The release of these classified documents revealed so many facts about Korean War that were previously kept in dark.

Some of the Chinese files on Korea War also opened to public around 1994, such as Mao Zedong’s military anthology, Zhou Enlai yearbook, Liu Shaoqi yearbook, Zhou Enlai’s military anthology and Peng Dehuai’s military anthology.

Though the release of documents was substantial, it was by far from complete. To my knowledge there are still so much information about Korean War are kept in secrete.

However the files opened to public are sufficient to trigger retelling of the stories, some of which are fundamental. One of examples is that Mao Zedong proposed to send Chinese troops to Korea even before MacArthur’s Inchon landings.

Mao repeatedly told Stalin and Kim Il-sung that China should send troops to Korea to help North Korean’s military assault on Pusan or defend the north army by preventing Americans from landing at its back.

In my previous articles I suggested that Kim Il-sung had opposed the Chinese military involvement. However the telegraphs released in 2005 between Stalin, Kim Il-sung and Soviet ambassador to North Korea indicated that Kim Il-sung had required military support from China. Though hesitate at times, Kim Il-sung came to conclusion that his force was insufficient to win the war.

During middle of August 1950, Mao at least told Kim Il-sung three times to reinforce the defence of the middle ground of Korean peninsular by shifting major army blocks from Pusan front-line; otherwise Americans could land behind the north army and cut off its supply line.

Mao was precisely predicted that the place where Americans would land was ether Inchon or Wonsan. Kim Il-sung understood what Mao told him but when he asked Stalin for permission, Stalin rejected the notion.

On what basis Stalin made rejection? The obvious conclusion is that Stalin did not care the outcome of the war. Stalin must know that by sending 400 thousands or even 150 thousands Chinese troops to Korea, it would eliminate any chance that MacArthur would successfully land his 70,000 men in Inchon.

This warrants a rethinking of the nature of Korean War. Korea used to be a dependency of China and later to be occupied by Japan until 1945 when it was turned into Soviet’s hands. Obviously North Korea was not independent.

Even before the withdraw of the Chinese army from North Korea in 1958, North Korea was only nominally independent. North Korea had to listen to foreign big powers on key decisions. lack of independence had played a key role in the formation of mentality to Kim Il-Sung and North Korean government, which was rebelling to foreign powers at times.


Soviet Union: To wage Korean war in order to control China’s Northeast 

Korea was under Japan’s occupation when World War II nearly came to its end.

During Potsdam Conference, Soviet Union and the US had a basic agreement on the division of sphere of influence in north Asia. The US was focused on Pacific War while Soviet attacked Japanese army in China’s Northeast (Manchuria). There was no clear mentioning of Korean peninsula. It was a common sense that Soviet should be responsible for Korean peninsula which is geographically connected to China’s Northeast.

What was Stalin’s thinking? we don’t know today as no specific material found on this issue. But one incident could tell what was Stalin’s basic thinking.

By the mid of September 1945, the Soviet Red Army occupied Seoul. By then the US had not yet conquered Japan’s homeland. The Red Army could easily match south and occupy whole Korean peninsula.

Heard Soviet Red Army had occupied the entire northern half of Korea, the US Defence Department felt a kind of emergency as they thought the US should have a place in Korean peninsula.

Consequently President Truman made a proposal to Stalin basically dividing Korea equally into two parts in accordance with north latitude 38 degree. Truman directly handed over his requirement to Stalin. To everyone’s surprise Stalin accepted Truman’s proposal, a move to be considered mindless by the US Defence Department.

However by judging Stalin’s telegraphs, his division of Korea in accordance with latitude 38 degree should extended to Japan’s Hokkaido. To my understanding Stalin’s division of north Asia should facilitate the control of Soviet Union over China’s Northeast, Mongolia, Sea of Japan and the sea routes to Pacific.

What had caused abrupt changes to Stalin’s strategy? It was funding of People’s Republic of China in 1949 and Mao Zedong’s effort in regaining the control over China’s Northeast.

Mao made a visit to Moscow in 1949. We don’t know how Mao was able to sign Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance with Stalin. In accordance with the treaty, China took back the control of the railway systems in China’s Northeast and harbour cities of Lushun and Dalian.

China’s regain of its northeast, made Stalin’s gain on Far East since Yalta Conference falling apart. In particular the return of harbour cities to China would send Soviet Pacific Fleet back to Vladivostok, which made Japan’s Tsushima Strait the only path for the soviet fleet entering into Pacific. As Tsushima Strait was controlled by the US, it was like putting a rope on the neck of the Soviet Pacific fleet.

Mao Zedong came back from Moscow satisfied while Stalin was angry. Mao Zedong made it clear that he would not leave Soviet Union unless signing the treaty.  Americans kept spreading rumours about Mao’s stay in Moscow made things more messy. Stalin had no choice but to satisfy Mao in order to prevent  China from becoming hostile.

Stalin had to adjust his strategy in Asia accordingly. Stalin’s solution was to occupy Korean peninsula. Many people do not agree with me, but I insist my view as no one can refute it rationally.

The purpose of Stalin to start Korean War was to compensate what Soviet had lost in China. By controlling Korean peninsula Soviet Union could restore its original objective which was to secure its pathway into Pacific.

People opposed to my view argue how Stalin could be so sure about a victory in Korean War; How about losing Korean War or the war entering a deadlock. These are legitimate questions. I do not know what Stalin had in mind exactly, but historical developments could provide clues through which to analyse what his thought was.

After the signing of China-Soviet Treaty, within days Soviet Union raised a supplementary agreement which stipulated that if a war broke out or there was a war crisis in Far East, Soviet Union could still use the railway system in China’s northeast for free.

Obviously what Stalin really cared was a war in the region, as long as there was a war, it would allow Soviet Union to restore the strategic framework Stalin had originally planned.

Things was developing in line with Stalin’s thinking. In September 1952, it was the time originally set for the transfer of control over the railway systems and harbour cities from Soviet Union to China. However Zhou En-Lai came to Moscow asked Soviet Union to stay as leave of the Soviet fleet could open a loophole in defence to the enemy.

This warranted a new agreement to be signed between China and Soviet Union allowing Soviet fleet’s stay in harbour city of Lushun.

Despite not winning Korean War, Soviet Union got Lushun harbour back and regained usage of the railway systems in China’s northeast for free. Was that fulfilling Stalin’s objectives?

The US: Taking part in Korean War in order to encircle the communism  

Being uncertain between the Chinese communists and nationalists, the US was hesitate in making choice between the two and adopted a wait and see approach during China’s civil war.

Upon funding of P. R. China in Oct 1,1949 and flee of nationalist government to Taiwan, the US had to make a decision.

The US military and defense department had complained that the US had been too weak and resulted in a total defeat in China. Being pushed to corner, the US had to stand up supporting Chiang Kai-shek and protecting Taiwan which was of great strategic importance to the US.

The US government, Department of State had a different view, Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued that it was paramount to identify who was the enemy of the US. Was China or Soviet Union? He considered that the enemy of the US was not China but Soviet Union. The main objective of the US strategy should be separating China from the Soviet camp. It would be a huge success for the US as long as China would stay away from Soviet Union. At least the US should try to make China standing in a middle ground between the US and Soviet Union as it would provide a huge buffer and reduce the chance of conflict between the US and Soviet Union. This would be particularly beneficial to stability in Asia.

However with the signing of China-Soviet treaty, the US started to change its position. The alliance between China and Soviet which had developed a nuclear capability had pushed communism spreading across the entire Euro-Asia continent, “the world has come to its most dangerous period”.

The US escalated its containment policy to the global scale. In response to the China-Soviet treaty,  not Korean War, the US set up a huge encirclement around the Euro-Asia continent.

The broke out of the Korean War in June 25, 1950 had reinforced the position of the US government and led to formation of US-South Korea alliance and the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. By 1955, such a structure against China and communist block was intensified and reinforced.

China: Sending troops to Korea so as to ensure its security  

The China-North Korea relationship has been changing all the time. There have been times that the relationship was so close that China would feed north Korea even itself was hungry. Basically the relationship can be divided into different time frames:

Before 1949, North Korean helped Chinese communists in the border area as the Chinese communist troops would retreat to Korea when they were beaten by the nationalists. The Chinese communist troops also placed their stores and hospitals in North Korea.

However such help was originated indeed from Soviet Union rather than from Korea. Kim Il-sung was impossible to make key decisions then as Soviet Red Army had total control of North Korea until its withdraw in 1949.

For example, Kim Il-sung had to report to Stalin for the permission of establishing a diplomatic relation with P. R. China.

The second stage was during the Korean War period in which China was mainly in control of North Korea based on its massive military intervention. The relationship between the two was confrontational on every major issue.

First, who should be the commander of the Chinese troops sent to Korea. Kim Il-sung argued that he should be commander as the Chinese troops were in Korea. Chinese commander Peng Dehai was a stubborn general who would not hand over his power to Kim Il-sung. The argument between the two men lasted continuously only to be settled by Stalin’s telegraph in favour of the Chinese.

Secondly when Chinese army reoccupied Soul after third-attacking campaigns, Peng halted attack as Chinese troops were impossible to continue. At the time the US had total air superiority, Chinese troops lacked basic suppliers ranging from food, ammunition, fresh reinforcement to capability of transferring wounded soldiers back. General Peng argued his troops in need of an adjustment and Mao agreed with him.

However the slowdown of the Chinese military campaign made Kim Il-sung angry and he argued with Peng for three days. This matter was also settled by Stalin who supported General Peng.

Why Stalin always supported Chinese, one of the key factors is that the decision of sending troops to Korea was extremely difficult for China.

Why Mao was so determined to send troops to Korea? His intention was to place China’s national security and stability on the basis of the alliance between China and Soviet Union. Without such alliance everything for China would be baseless. Many commentators said that China’s military action in Korea was for border security. I think such judgement is too shallow.

Why almost all Chinese leaders then, especially military generals opposed the Chinese invasion? Mao said sending troops to Korea was the decision of one and a half men. He was the one and Zhou Enlai was the half, Zhou Enlai was not very sure.

Why? The main concern was that they thought, except Mao, it would be no chance for China to win. It would be illogical to send troops to a war deemed to be beaten badly. If the worries of the Chinese leaders was true, then border security must be a false assumption to support China’s full scale military involvement in Korean War.

China’s decision of sending troops to Korea was absolutely not for border security but the security of whole nation and stability of the regime. Mao intended to place such security and stability on the basis of the alliance between China and Soviet Union. Mao Zedong pressed ahead with this policy and achieved what it was aimed for.

Mao sent Chinese troops to Korea at the time when Stalin considered it was impossible (at the initial stage China had no air force and the Chinese army was so badly equipped). It was mentioned that Stalin was moved to tears when he was informed by the Chinese authority that China decided to send troops.

I have not read related files on this matter. According to my research, Stalin was not a man easily to cry, but demonstrated from his telegraphs, he was very emotional. One of the proofs was that only a few days after China’s invasion into Korea, Stalin gave 270 the most advanced MiG fighters to China.

The closeness between Stalin and Mao on very major issues made Kim Il-sung depressed. In terms of the North Korean railway transportation, Kim Il-sung argued that as the war would last long, it would not be appropriate for the Chinese military to control the railway transportation which was a key symbol of national sovereignty.

It might be Mao who informed this matter to Stalin who sent a telegraph stating that the railway had to be controlled by the Chinese military. Kim Il-sung was very unhappy about that.

Right through the Korean War, Kim Il-sung was felling bad as he argued almost on every major issue with the Chinese such as war prisoners and conditions for cease-fire.

Korean War was full of bloody sacrifices. Has such scarifies cemented a unbreakable friendship between China and North Korea? Not really, on the opposite it had caused endless disputes and hate. What I mean is for the leadership, ordinary people surely are not aware of what have really happened.

After Korean War, Mao, fully understood the felling of Kim Il-sung, decided to make compensation. When Kim Il-sung came to Beijing in November 1953, Mao offered him 800 million yuan free financial aid. During the entire 1950s China’s foreign aid was 2 billion yuan (North Korea 800 million, Vietnam 800 million and 400 million for the rest countries in the world). In addition Mao waved all the debts Korea owed to China in the three-year Korean War. It should point out that at the time China, just recovering from long period of war, was desperately in need of money.

Mao intended to ease Kim Il-snug’s dissatisfaction or hate through economic aid. However this method is not very successful.  By the time of 1956, the confrontation between the Chinese and Korean leadership was severe.

Later Zhou Enlai visited Korea in Feb 1958, Kim Il-sung organised a very high profile welcome ceremony. Then the both parties started negotiation on withdrew of the Chinese army from North Korea. By October 1958, all the Chinese army in North Korea came back to China.

Since 1958, China-North Korea relationship went into honeymoon period. Kim Il-sung visited China almost every year, some kept in secret. It was the time that Mao waged Great Leap Forward movement and People’s Commune. Kim Il-sung learned from China on these initiatives and waged similar campaigns  in North Korea which made Mao very happy.

Following I make a brief conclusion on the issues related to the relationship between China and North-Korea. Chinese leaders especially those in Mao’s era have an impractical view on Korea as well as all countries around China. Mao lacked the senesce of sovereignty and territory which are important to a modern country. His thinking was like those of emperors in ancient China. Being the central kingdom and all the rest around are dependencies, China had a responsibility to protect them. To a degree this concept is in line with the ideology of international revolution which also makes borders between nations blur.

The origination of the relationship between China and North Korea was not the normal relationship between modern countries. It was a combination between the country of sovereignty and dependency and members of communist family. Both side had not understand what were the desire of the opposite and this was the particular case on the Chinese side.