1950's Korean War, North Korea (Democratic People's Republic Korea) and South Korea (Republic Korea) Were Exploited by the Superpowers for Their Own Agendas
The closing decade of the 20th century witnessed the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union collapsed and its former Warsaw Pact allies flocked to join their former enemies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The end of the Cold War also resulted in the United States emerging as the world's only remaining superpower, but the 21st century promises to truly be the "Century of Asia" with China taking the lead. The Russian bear that played such a crucial role in the Cold War is down, but it is certainly not out and stands to play an important role as an emerging superpower in the future as well. These outcomes were the result, at least in part, of how these three countries prosecuted their respective Cold War strategies during the 20th century, beginning most notably on the Korean peninsula during the early 1950s following the division of Korea into the north and south constituents that remain in place today. In fact, the stalemate that was reached in the form of an armistice after three years of bloody warfare placed the belligerents essentially back where they were before the Korean War began, causing many observers to wonder what the struggle was all about in the first place. To gain some additional insights into the rationale used to support military intervention in Korea, this study reviews the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature to examine how the two Koreas were used essentially as pawns on the larger Cold War chessboard by the United States, China and the Soviet Union to further their own political and military agendas. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview
According to Sandler, "The Korean War (25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953) emphatically marked the end of the post-Second World War era" (1999, p. 3). The end of this era also marked the end of the allied powers that had brought about this successful conclusion to the greatest war the world had ever known, which consisted primarily of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, with China playing a more strategic regionalized role during the conflict (Sandler 1999). The events that unfolded following the end of World War II, though, would soon have these former allies facing each other on the field of battle, albeit in a proxy fashion. For instance, Jasper reports that, "On June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean forces backed by the Soviet Union and Red China swept across the 38th Parallel in a massive invasion of South Korea. The lightly armed South Korean defenders and their American advisers quickly fell back before the much larger, better equipped Red Army. All of the Korean Peninsula would soon have fallen to Stalin's Korean troops, except for the intervention of U.S.-led Allied forces. Americans, the majority of whom probably could not locate Korea on a world map, were soon to pay a terrible price in blood, treasure, national sovereignty, and world standing for this Asian venture" (2003, p. 19).
Few observers at the time could have predicted the long-term consequences of this military action. In this regard, Guo and Ren emphasize that, "This seemingly local dispute quickly developed into the biggest international conflict since the Second World War" (2003, p. 274). The international nature of the Korean War was amplified further when the United States succeeded in gaining United Nations (UN) assistance to repel the North Korean forces from south of the 38th parallel (Sandler 1999). For instance, Patterson, Schamel and Potter report that, "On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea. NKPA troops launched a coordinated attack at several strategic points along the 38th parallel and headed south toward Seoul. In the absence of the Soviet representative, who had walked out of the United Nations Security Council earlier in the year, the Council condemned the invasion and called for UN member nations to assist South Korea. Fearing that Communist China, and possibly the Soviet Union, had encouraged the attack (Kim had, in fact, persuaded both Stalin and Mao Zedong to support the invasion), President Harry S. Truman quickly committed American forces to the combined United Nations effort and named General Douglas MacArthur to be Commander in Chief of UN Forces. Although fifteen other UN nations contributed to the war effort, the United States took the lead both in strategy and firepower" (2000, p. 441). Notwithstanding the conflicting reports concerning which side was primarily responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, most observers in the West blamed North Korea and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union for approving the action. As Casey emphasizes, "In Korea, the pretext for war seemed clear cut, at least in the early stages, for the United States was responding to a brazen case of Communist aggression and was fully supported by the United Nations" (2005, p. 691).
Even before the United States and its UN allies were lining up to go to war once again, the North Korean leadership had been soliciting approval and support from the Soviet Union to prosecute such a military action. Although the "official" accounts of the Korean War place the blame squarely on the North Koreans, documentary evidence indicates that there had been a series of military incursions by both North Korea and South Korea (supported by the United States) for several months prior to the outbreak of full-scale hostilities (Sandler 1999). In this regard, Roe reports that, "Since the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in September 1948, Kim Il Sung had sought support from his Soviet sponsors for the reunification of Korea by force. In China, Mao Zedong concurrently sought Joseph Stalin's support for the invasion of Taiwan" (2000, p. 25). This point is also made by Fritz who reports, "Recent releases of Soviet documents on their involvement in the Korean War have brought a sea change in our knowledge of these activities. Kim II Sung, North Korea's leader, made several pleas to Stalin to support a North Korean invasion of South Korea to reunite the country" (2004, p. 63). Initially, Stalin was worried that such a unilateral military action would prompt a response by the United States; however, by the end of 1949 after the U.S. had withdrawn all of its military forces from the Korean peninsula, Stalin felt assured that the United States would regard a military action by North Korea as a localized matter and remain out of the conflict (Fritz 2004). Despite these initial misgivings and reluctant approval thereafter, Stalin continued to insist that China support Kim during the conflict (Fritz 2004).
The veracity of these claims is further supported by other documents that confirm that Stalin was hesitant to approve of the North Korean's plans or the Chinese plans to invade Taiwan for much the same reason: the potential for U.S. response and involvement in the conflicts. According to Roe, "Stalin was reluctant to assist either effort. Both ventures would improve his strategic position and further isolate China and Korea from the United States, but Stalin feared provoking an American declaration of war" (1999, p. 192). Following his trips to Moscow in late 1949 and early 1950, though, the North Korean leader was successful in persuading Stalin that his military forces were capable of overwhelming the South Korean forces so quickly that the United States would be unable to mount a defense (Roe 1999). Consequently, Stalin approved of North Korea's plans providing the North Korean leadership could also gain the support of China (Roe 1999). From a tactical perspective, Roe suggests that Stalin had never been more mistaken about the intentions of his former ally. "It has to be considered one of Stalin's most interesting missteps," Roe points out, "approving an attack at the one place in the world where the United States had significant troop strength close at hand Just across the Tsushima Strait in Japan were four U.S. infantry divisions -- far from ready, but available nevertheless" (2000, p. 25). Not only did the U.S. have more than 40,000 troops and the materiel to support them positioned strategically nearby at the time, Stalin did not consider the potential for a response by United Nations' forces either. Despite the multinational force that was deployed to the Korean peninsula under the UN flag, the lion's share of the military forces was drawn from the United States. In this regard, Prince emphasizes that, "Although the Korean War was fought under the banner of the United Nations, the ostensibly overwhelming predominance of American decision-makers has led most standard American history texts to treat the conflict as a purely American one. Even if one rejects this oversimplified American view, the central importance of U.S. forces in nearly all aspects of the UN Korean effort is undeniable" (1999, p. 129).