Rediscovering the Korean WarThere has been a great deal of activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, but there has been little review of the events that made up the second half of that war.
One may recall the basics: war begins in June 1950, UN responds in July, fighting around the Pusan Perimeter until August, Incheon landing and retaking of Seoul in September, UN forces capture North Korea, Chinese forces push back UN forces from October through December and fighting occurs around the 38th parallel during the first half of 1951. Then details seem to disappear during the two-year stalemate from July 1951, followed by the armistice negotiations with continued fighting until July 1953.
In other words, after the Allied Forces retook Seoul a second time in March 1951, there is little mention, other than the casualties and a few battles. So, what really happened during those ensuing two and a half years?
According to Kathryn Weathersby, a Johns Hopkins historian who did research in Moscow when the Soviet archives were temporarily opened to scholars, Joseph Stalin cynically prolonged the 1950-53 Korean War. At the time, the Americans and their allies did not realize they had stepped into Stalin’s trap set to keep them bogged down in Korea for two and a half years.
Militarily, Stalin was very insecure. He welcomed the United States getting sucked into an Asian land war rather than seeing the Americans once more contest his machinations in other parts of the world. He had already suffered a setback in the Greek Civil War (1946-49) when the United States and the United Kingdom helped defeat the Greek Communists and their allies. Yugoslavia’s Tito already had broken away from Stalin’s command and the United States forced him to withdraw his demand to station Soviet military forces in the Turkish Straits. The Soviet dictator worried the United States would further challenge his attempts to expand the area under Moscow’s control.
Until Stalin’s death, the global Communist movement, apart from Tito, pretty much followed Moscow. Stalin ordered all Communist leaders to support prolonging the Korean War. He wanted time when the United States would not be able to challenge weak Communist regimes and movements. This gave Communist states the opportunity to arm themselves against presumed future conflicts with the West, including a possible third world war.
Furthermore, there was a chain of command in carrying out the war in Korea, starting with Stalin then down one notch to Mao Tse-tung and finally to Kim Il-sung. As a result, all political - and many military - decisions originated or were approved by Stalin. Even Mao accepted this chain of command as long as Stalin was alive during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949.
Consequently, by July 1952, when it became obvious that military victory was not possible, Kim appealed to his Communist bosses to end the war. North Koreans were experiencing needless widespread damage and human suffering from constant U.S. bombing.
Being the least powerful in command, Kim found he was routinely disregarded, with major decisions being made by Stalin and Mao with Kim, at best, being advised and sometimes even ignored. Hiding this humiliation, even before the war’s end, the North Korean propaganda machine began proclaiming that they alone had essentially beaten back the Americans.
Sometimes, however, the Russians would censure these proclamations by insisting that Pyongyang recognize the sacrifices made by the Chinese and the contributions of other socialist nations.
Nonetheless, North Korea’s distortion of the war’s history can be traced back to this national humiliation.
The Americans, not fully understanding what was happening on the other side of the war, became increasingly frustrated by the Communists’ refusal to agree to an armistice. They could no longer move the battle lines northward. The United States used its largely uncontested Air Force to repeatedly bomb the North in hopes of forcing their enemies to come to an agreement. Instead, Stalin pursued the war for an extra two and a half years at considerable cost to the North Koreans. During this time, the United States eventually bombed 85 percent of all buildings in the North. But for the Soviets and Chinese, this was a relatively painless price to pay for keeping the United States preoccupied and away from other sensitive parts of the world.
Actually, the Chinese benefitted during this time. To protect the logistically essential Yalu River bridges, Stalin assigned Russian pilots to fly North Korea-marked jets and successfully fight off the Americans in the northernmost part of North Korea. The Soviet pilots were based in Siberia and Manchuria. The Russian group transferred technology and know-how to the Chinese, who had not yet developed a modern air force. So while almost twice as many Chinese soldiers died than North Korean comrades, the war gave the Chinese the foundation for an air force of their own - something that became even more valuable in the 1950s when China broke away from the USSR following Stalin’s death.
After Stalin died in March 1953, the Communist side finally agreed to an armistice. Yet the North Koreans resented the armistice, since it left the country divided. Furthermore, the North Koreans resented the Russians and the Chinese for prolonging the war by sacrificing the Korean people. Since then, North Koreans have believed that the rest of the world owes their country ongoing reparations. Even today, they often regard foreign aid as reparations.
* The author is president of Soft Landing Consulting, a sales-focused business development firm, and senior adviser to the IPG Legal group.
by Tom Coyner