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North Korea and the Big Brother

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Biewen: Another way to put the question is: recognizing the role of the civil war, could Kim Il Sung do what he did without Stalin's blessing?

Weathersby: Right. That's another way of looking at the question. There was a lively debate about this in the scholarly literature in the 1970s and '80s, with the newer scholars coming down, particularly in the wake of the Vietnam War, saying, Well, maybe this was entirely a North Korean action. Maybe the Soviets had very little to do with it. Maybe the North Koreans could have done this on their own. So the pendulum swung very far from the perception in 1950 to the perception that many people had in the wake of Vietnam.

However, since the Russian archives have started to open, which happened in the beginning of 1991, it's become crystal clear that that is not the case. The North Korean government was completely dependent on the Soviets during those years. In later years, after Stalin's death, after Kruschev's attempt at denouncing Stalin, which really weakened Soviet prestige, then the North Koreans became remarkably autonomous in their ability to act on their own. But in '48, '49, '50, absolutely not. They were dependent on the Soviets in every way possible. Economically, militarily, politically. .

What we see is that Kim asked Stalin on several occasions for permission - and with the understanding that he had to abide by whatever Stalin decided. And he did abide by whatever Stalin decided. In January of 1950, the last time he asked for permission, the time just before Stalin said yes, he was very clear in saying: I'm a Communist and so for me the word of comrade Stalin is law. But I ask you for permission to go to Moscow and discuss the problem with comrade Stalin.

So that was the situation. North Korea needed all of its military supplies from the Soviets, it needed Soviet military expertise. It had a newly created army but an army that had never fought as a regular army. He had some people who had fought as guerillas in China but that's very different from staging a conventional military assault.

Economically they were completely dependent on the Soviets - and ideologically. They were the junior partners to the big brother. So the U.S. was right to think that it was absolutely inconceivable that the North Koreans could have acted on their own.

Next: Stalin's Go-ahead

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