Stalin and Korean War

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

On September 30, 1950, at 11:30 p.m., the Eighth Department of the Soviet General Staff received a coded message from Pyongyang. It took about an hour to decipher it, and then a courier was dispatched to deliver it to Stalin’s residence on the outskirts of Moscow. It was 2:30 a.m., but the Soviet dictator liked to work at night. At any rate, the message was so important that perhaps they would wake him anyway. Kim Il-sung had reported that the North Korean army had ceased to exist, and that the only way to save the North Korean state would be through an urgent dispatch of troops from the USSR.

Stalin was hardly surprised. He was never an enthusiast for Kim Il-sung’s invasion plans, and when in January 1950 he finally granted permission to invade the South, he did so on the assumption that the U.S. would have no time, and perhaps, no will, to interfere. Hence, when Stalin learned of the Incheon landing, he was quick to appreciate what had happened.

Thanks to the recent efforts of historians, especially Alexander Mansourov and Pak Myong-rim whose research I use for this article, we know what was happening in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang during the fateful two weeks which followed MacArthur’s amphibious operation in Incheon.

The landing did not come as a complete surprise: the Soviet _ and, obviously, Chinese _ intelligence expected something like it, and the Chinese even warned the North Koreans about the danger.

When Stalin learned about the large-scale landing, he realized that a disaster was looming. As early as Sept. 18, he cabled his instructions to Pyongyang. He requested a stop of the push toward Busan, and demanded the withdrawal of troops from the South to reinforce Seoul’s defenses. This was a reasonable suggestion, but Stalin did not appreciate the degree of U.S. military superiority. It is doubtful whether such a withdrawal would have accomplished much.

But Stalin’s representatives in Korea, including Gen. Shtykov, the first Soviet ambassador to Pyongyang, were even less appreciative of the new dangers. While the U.S. and South Korean forces were fighting their way to Seoul, soon to cut the North Korean troops off from their supply bases, both Shtykov and Kim Il-sung still hoped that the landing force could be contained. The documents confirm that even when the U.N. forces took over the Gimpo airfield and entered the outskirts of Seoul, the North Korean command still hoped to take Busan in the following few days.

The North Korean press remained silent about the landing. By Sept. 18, the sounds of battle were well heard in Seoul, but the official propaganda and communist activists assured everybody that nothing special was taking place. Kim Song-chil, a historian and author of a famous diary, described how his Communist interlocutors insisted that the sounds of distant artillery were merely produced by the field exercises of the North Korean troops.

On Sept. 20, Stalin repeated his demand, and required the withdrawal of forces from the southern part of the country to Seoul, in order to “establish strong frontline positions to the north and east of Seoul.” It indicated that Seoul should be surrendered to the U.N. forces. But Kim Il-sung, with his trademark stubbornness, kept pressing on toward Busan.

Only on the evening of Sept. 25, did Kim Il-sung admit that there was no chance of pushing the South Korean forces into the sea near Busan. He ordered a withdrawal, but it was too late. The next day, heavy battles unrolled into the streets in downtown Seoul where the North Korean forces tried to resist. They did what they could. Kim Song-chil wrote about their bravery with great admiration, and the historian was no fan of the communists.

Over the two days of Sept. 27-28, the North Korean command system disintegrated. Kim Il-sung could not even contact his own Defense Minister Choe Yong-gon, who was in Seoul doing his best to keep the city. An emergency meeting in Pyongyang created a new command structure, presided over by Kim Il-sung, himself. But he was a general without an army; after the battle of Seoul, the North Korean forces ceased to exist.

For a while, there was some hope that the U.N. troops would not cross the 38th parallel. But by Oct. 1, it became clear that such a turn of events was very unlikely. Thus, Kim Il-sung and Pak Hon-yong, his foreign minister and future victim of the purges, wrote a cable in which they desperately asked for help. They admitted “if the enemy were to take advantage of the situation and step up its offensive in North Korea, then we would be unable to stop the enemy by our own forces.” Accordingly they asked for Soviet troops.

But Stalin did not want to launch a third World War. He hoped that the Chinese would take the military responsibilities on. After all, their stake in the situation was greater than his. He eventually succeeded, but it took much effort on his part.


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