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

Saving North Korea

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Biewen: Now, to skip ahead a little bit…How do the Communists, how do China and the Soviet Union, perceive an American decision to go back across the 38th parallel?

Weathersby: Now, the fall of 1950 is really very interesting from the Communist side. When U.N. forces, that is to say U.S. forces, crossed the 38th parallel in pursuit of the North Korean Army, which was rapidly disintegrating and retreating, the Chinese naturally viewed this with alarm because they were headed to their own border. The forces would have ultimately been along a small border with the Soviets as well, very near the important port of Vladivostok, but primarily this is a border issue with China more than the Soviet Union. But Stalin at that point was still terrified of war with the United States, appreciating how unprepared he was for that. And so he tried to get the Chinese to intervene.

The sequence of what happened is really very interesting. Kim Il Sung first asked the Soviets to intervene, even though in April of 1950 Stalin made it very clear that if he got into trouble, if he needed help, he would have to get it from China, that the Soviets would not intervene. It was not convenient, it "would not be convenient" for us to intervene because we have responsibilities elsewhere, especially in the West. If you need assistance you'll have to turn to China for assistance. And so because of that stipulation by Stalin in April, Kim Il Sung went to China the following month to get Mao's approval before the attack could begin. So that was a really clear bargain.

Nonetheless, when push came to shove and it came time for Kim Il Sung to turn to somebody for help, he didn't turn to China, he turned first to Stalin and sent him a letter asking him for troops. His regime was about to collapse. This was in October, the first of October, so that's interesting.

Biewen: Maybe he thought he'd just go to the top first?

Weathersby: No, it was because China for the previous millennium had been the great power, lording it over Korea. So there was concern on the part of Kim Il Sung of Chinese hegemony reasserting itself over the Korean Peninsula. So things get complicated in here. But then Stalin declined again and told him to ask the Chinese, so the next day he sent a telegram asking the Chinese for support. However it took two weeks for the Chinese to finally decide to enter.

We have good documentation on this from China as well as from Russia. This was a very difficult step for the Chinese to make. They had just come to power a few months before, they were very poor and they had every reason in the world not to get into a war with the United States. So it was hard. There was a lot of resistance to it within the leadership in Beijing.

And so while the Chinese were hesitating, Stalin was holding firm to saying he would not intervene and in the end on October 13th, when he got a message from Beijing saying they would not intervene because they simply couldn't, Stalin sent an order to Kim Il Sung to evacuate. To pull out, to give up North Korea, to pull back his forces into Manchuria and the Soviet Union. I mean - amazing. He was willing to have American troops all the way on the border near Vladivostok, to completely lose North Korea rather than fight the Americans. I think this must have been a terrible trauma for Kim Il Sung and one of the reasons, and perhaps the key reason, for why he became so obstinate and so aggressive for the rest of his life and why North Korea has been so obstinate and aggressive ever since. There was this terrible betrayal by his father, as it were. And then the next day the Chinese changed their mind, sent a telegram to Pyongyang and to Moscow that they would in fact send troops. So North Korea was, in fact, saved. That was the situation.

Next: David and Goliath