Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Decision on War in Korea: Revelations from Russian Archives

Dr. Kathryn Weathersby, a Professorial Lecturer in Korean Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University, Adjunct Professor at Korea University and Visiting Professor at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul, holds a PhD in modern Russian history from Indiana University (1990) with a second field in modern East Asian history. She taught Russian and East Asian History at Florida State University before founding and directing the Korea Initiative of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. She has published widely on the Korean War, North Korean history, and the Cold War in Asia, and has consulted for several documentary films on the Korean War.

Kathryn presented on the politicosocial factors that determined the initiation of the Korean War. The write-up by the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) on the lecture gives a clear overview of how the war started and how scholars now know that "secret" knowledge. The RAS writes:
"The decision to launch a full-scale assault on the Republic of Korea in June 1950 brought incalculable suffering to Korea and its allies and continues to shape the life of the peninsula. Yet it was not until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that records of this fateful decision became available to scholars. Dr. Weathersby, the first Western historian to examine Soviet documents on Korea, will discuss what Russian archives reveal about when and why Kim Il Sung, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong decided to use military force to bring all of Korea under communist control. She will conclude with thoughts about how knowledge of this history can inform our approach to inter-Korean relations today."  
The Lecture

Kathryn received a research grant to go to Moscow right after finishing her PhD. She got to Moscow two weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union and would continue to do sporadic research in Moscow from 1991-1995. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin, desperately needing money for Russia and good relations with South Korea, thought to offer South Korea invaluable archived historical records, of course for a price.

These records include correspondences with Pyeongyang, the location of Japanese industries before the arrival of the Russians, the minute details of the establishment of the DPRK (North Korea), in fact, EVERYTHING, as Russia had control mittens on the total relations of the DPRK and therefore, reflecting the detail work common to Russian communism, systematically documented all Russian-North Korean interactions and correspondences. The records show that North Korea was extremely dependent on Russia for all development (as it was within Russian control), that is, for permissions to travel, for Russian military defense, for educators to seek approval and assistance to study such topics as metallurgy in Moscow, to name a few. Decision were not made in the Korean homeland but through contact and with approval from their Russian overseers.

The Cold War International History Project in the Wilson Center is a digital online library that was started by Kathryn Weathersby and posts records, research and scholarly discussion, etc. on any country involved in the Cold War. Kathryn discussed her research "Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War, 1945-1950: New Evidence from Russian Archives" and demonstrated how to locate resources digitalized from the Russian archives.

Among the resources, Kathryn pointed out dates and content and gave brief summaries of the content, mostly correspondences from North Korea to Moscow, while explaining the political and social unrest affecting decisions made concerning the correspondences. She started with an entry in 1949 when Stalin visited the DPRK as Kim Il Sung asked for military assistance from Russia. In this meeting Kim Il Sung raised the question of military invasion of South Korea, but Stalin said, "No, there are still Americans stationed there." A few months later in September Kim Il Sung contacted Stalin and said they could have a military strike anywhere to the south of them. This suggested military strike was not only limited to South Korea.

In the following two months, discussions initiated by Kim Il Sung for a military invasion and takeover of the south was never a question as being wrong from within their country or from Russia. Bolsheviks had taken power by invasion and that had worked out. The question was about timing, but there was consideration of an immediate attack because by this time the Americans had pulled out of South Korea. There remained questions about how to take over rapidly in order to win large territories so that the Americans principally couldn't fight to win it back.

January 1950, China had accomplished their liberation (with Mao), and Kim Il Sung then felt his situation was intolerable! Kim Il Sung requested permission to go to Moscow to discuss an invasion with Stalin. Stalin's overwhelming fear was the risk of causing financial problems to Russia, a financially unstable country, and the risk of war (and losing) with the Americans. By the end of January, Stalin was willing to discuss because the international relations had changed. That is, the internal struggle had been resolved with China so Russia could then focus its attention on helping North Korea, especially as China had signed a treaty in January 1950 with the Soviet Union so would be in alliance with DPRK and Russia against the Americans to forever expulse those Americans from Asia. (BTW, the American military wasn't large in the Pacific as it is now.)

Russia considered the priorities of the U.S. in Asia, principally there were two:
  1. Japan - Japan was strategically located for accessing the inner parts of Asia, was viewed as valuable for the American economy, among other reasons.
  2. The Philippines - The Philippines was American territory and had been an American colony and still remained a great site for an American naval base.
Russia also considered that the areas further west of Japan and the Philippines (all of mainland Asia and Taiwan) could be taken relatively easily. Americans had limited resources, so these places were thought of as 'outside the American defense parameters'. Stalin looked at the dynamics and thought the time was right, not only to attack South Korea but to gain control of all of Asia. Stalin's ultimate aim was also to occupy and take over Japan. (Japan had controlled much of Siberia barbarously, and was of primary location for maintaining control of all of Asia.) So, the Soviet Union made the decision to support DPRK and in the spring of 1950 moved massive amounts of machinery to North Korea, but Stalin did specify that supplies and weapons would be supplied by the Soviet Union but under no circumstances was Russia supplying troops; troops would have to be supplied by China, and this was approved by Mao.

Kim Il Sung and Mao weren't totally happy with this decision delineated and approved by Stalin to attack on the peninsula first. Kim and Mao wanted to attack Taiwan to get control of the perimeter first, but were forced to follow Stalin's lead. The fear about this was that Americans would return to South Korea.

Both of these pictures are Russian T-34 tanks, the kind of tanks employed during the North Korean invasion of South Korea. These picts, however, are not of the invasion (I couldn't find a picture of it, but then whoever took that kind of pictures probably wouldn't live to show it.) Picture source is Wikipedia.
So, when the DPRK attacked South Korea and wave upon wave of Soviet tanks crossed the DMZ, the world (Americans, French, Turks ...) were stunned and were reminded of the Nazis pouring tanks into Europe, so Americans galvanized as well as Europeans to prevent the communists from spreading across the Korean peninsula and ultimately across all of East Asia. In outcome, the US and 15 United Nations countries rushed to defend the South Koreans and contain communism from spreading.

Q&A with additional information by some participants

Russia finally did consent to provide troops but only because the Chinese absolutely refused to send their troops across the many unprotected bridges. And because the Chinese had not a single plane or pilot (no air force or even money of any kind, but they were great as guerrilla fighters), Russia did consent to send planes and pilots, but on conditions.

Through the course of the Korean War, 17,000 Russian troops participated in the war, but Stalin, not wanting to be militarily "involved" in the war made stipulations that Russian planes were to be painted as DPRK planes and marked with DPRK symbols, the Russian pilots were to dress in DPRK uniforms and not carry any identification of any kind, and, the Russians were to speak Korean so that the Americans would not know the Russians were involved in the war. (The Americans did know but kept the knowledge quiet so as not to start World War III.) The Russian pilots were told under no circumstances were they to be caught. They were not to fly within 60 miles or kilometers of the DMZ, and if they were going to crash and be captured, they were to commit suicide by blowing off their faces so as to be unrecognizable. None are known to be captured.

Just an aside: the 17,000 Russian troops fighting the Americans was the largest military interaction to date between Russia and the US.

No comments:

Post a Comment