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Home | Cold War Turns Hot | The Armed Forces Integrate | What the Experts Say

The Korean Civil War

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Biewen: Isn't it true that it's Kim Il Sung who really sort of drives it and because [Kim] has this more aggressive stance, [Stalin] goes along?

Weathersby: Well, that's a tricky question.

Biewen: Let me put it to you this way: we started out by talking about the American perception [of the North Korean attack on South Korea]: a Soviet move by proxy. Is that accurate?

Weathersby: What we didn't appreciate adequately was the role of the domestic situation. Many people saw this as something Stalin ordered the North Koreans to do. The North Koreans were just sort of there, passive participants; Stalin ordered the North Koreans to attack South Korea. That's quite far from the truth.

The reality is that on the Korean peninsula there was a very intense competition on the left and the right after the collapse of Japanese colonial power. That was predictable. That happened after the collapse of colonial power all over the world. It was a great political struggle. That got geographically polarized because of the split in the occupation. So the communists ended up gathering in the North and the right wing gathering in the South. And then of course separate countries became established eventually in '48 because the Soviets and the Americans could never agree on creating a government for the whole country.

But when that happened, both sides in Korea were determined to reunite Korea under their control. No Korean accepted the division [at] the 38th parallel. That was completely arbitrary, horrible. Suddenly their country, which had been a unified country for a thousand years, was now divided in this strange way. What is this line on a map? It means nothing. It just goes through fields and villages. It has no reality on the ground. And so they were of course bitterly opposed to the division of their country and they desperately wanted their own side to gain power, naturally.

So Kim Il Sung was quite determined that he would be the ruler not of just North Korea but of the whole country, just as the rulers of the South were, as well. And so in a sense Kim Il Sung presented Stalin with this opportunity. Stalin just didn't create it out of cloth. And this is really quite important because the pattern is - how Stalin is different than Hitler is - that Hitler did create these things out of whole cloth. He was much more overreaching in his goals. Stalin was much more cautious. He was an opportunist. He would take advantage of opportunities that were presented to him. It was a subtle difference but it's an important difference. As we think about how the U.S. can respond to dangers, it's quite one thing to think of an enemy being just aggressive in an unlimited sense so that anything that happens around the world we think, Oh that's a signal that there's going to be some invasion, some massive action - versus thinking of the opponent as an opponent that will take advantage of an opportunity that might be created by other circumstances.

Next: North Korea and the Big Brother