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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

K. Weathersby: To Attack, or Not to Attack? Stalin, Kim Il Sung and the Prelude to War

To Attack, or Not to Attack? Stalin, Kim Il Sung and the Prelude to War
By Kathryn Weathersby
Senior Associate and Coordinator of the Korea Initiative, Cold War International History Project
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

The historical record of the Korean War has recently been greatly enriched by Russian President Boris Yeltsin's presentation to President Kim Young-Sam of South Korea, during the latter's visit to Moscow in June 1994, of 216 previously classified high level Soviet documents on the war from Russian archives. The collection totals 548 pages and includes documents from the period 1949-1953. Most of the documents are ciphered telegrams between Moscow and Pyongyang, and between Moscow and Beijing. The collection also includes notes of conversations among key figures in North Korea, the USSR, and China; letters from Kim Il Sung to Stalin; and resolutions of the Soviet Politburo and Council of Ministers.  All of the documents are from either the Presidential Archive or the Foreign Ministry archives and, with a few exceptions, were unavailable to scholars prior to their presentation to South Korea. In July 1994, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea released Korean translations of these documents and in November 1994 the Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVP RF) began granting permission to scholars to read photocopies of the collection.

Unfortunately, these records represent only a portion of the top level documents on the war in Soviet archives, several of which (such as the KGB and Defense Ministry archives) remain largely inaccessible to scholars. The narrative of events we can construct from these materials still has significant gaps, especially for the several months immediately preceding the North Korean attack on June 25, 1950. Nonetheless, these new sources reveal a great deal more than has previously been known about the relationship between the Soviet Union and North Korea, the decision-making surrounding the attack on South Korea, the role of Mao Zedong in all stages of the war, the formulation of the communist positions at the armistice negotiations, and the role of Stalin's death in bringing the war to an end.

These documents, when examined together with the larger body of records declassified in recent years by Russian archives, thus shed light on several questions central to the history of the Cold War (e.g., the efficacy of American threats to use nuclear weapons in Korea) and a full analysis of them requires a full-length study.

The minutes of a conversation between Stalin and Kim Il Sung in Moscow on March 5, 1949, sets the stage, revealing in a most intimate way the nature of the relationship between Kim's newly created state, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and its Soviet patron. The conversation recorded in this report was the first and only formal discussion between Stalin and the official North Korean delegation that travelled to Moscow in March 1949 to conclude the DPRK's initial agreements with the USSR. This rare and intriguing glimpse of Stalin handling a petitioning vassal shows, above all, the importance to both leaders of matters of economic development and material supply. As is shown in exhaustive detail in the thousands of pages of documents on post-war Korea in the Russian Foreign Ministry archive, in the years prior to and during the Korean War, North Korea was utterly dependent economically on the Soviet Union. As a result of the collapse of the Japanese empire, Soviet occupation policy, and the civil war in China, North Korea was cut off from its former economic ties with southern Korea, Japan and Manchuria. Except for very limited trade with Hong Kong and two Manchurian ports, in the period prior to and during the Korean War the Soviet Union was the only source of supply and the only market for North Korean goods.

Furthermore, to an unusual degree, North Korea was dependent on the Soviet Union for technical expertise. Japanese colonial policy had permitted only a small number of Koreans to gain higher education or management experience, and the politics of the occupation from 1945-48 prompted most northerners who possessed such skills to flee to the South. With regard to questions of the origin of the Korean War, these economic and demographic circumstances meant that, for the most basic and profound reasons, in the years prior to and during the 1950-53 war, North Korea was simply unable to take any significant action without Soviet approval, regardless of the nationalist inclinations of the DPRK leadership.

The transcript of Stalin's meeting with Kim Il Sung also reveals that in March 1949 Stalin had a strong interest in the balance of military forces between North and South Korea, but was far from approving a military campaign against the South. The North Korean military was still quite undeveloped; the discussion was instead on basic questions of military formation and supply. From Kim's statement in the Ciphered Telegram from Shtykov to Vyshinsky, January 19, 1950, recording a conversation in Pyongyang nine months later, it appears that during another conversation between Stalin and Kim in March 1949, which may have occurred during a dinner or reception, Kim asked Stalin about the possibility of attacking South Korea and was rebuffed. According to Kim's account in January 1950, Stalin had said that it was "not necessary" to attack the South, that North Korean forces could cross the 38th parallel only as a counterattack to an assault by South Korean forces. In March 1949, American troops were still in South Korea and the Chinese civil war was still not resolved, which led Stalin to reject for the time being any military adventure on the Korean peninsula.

Source: Excerpts from New Evidence on the Korean War. Cold War International History Project Virtual Archive. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20004-3027. Additional documents and analyses are available at the website:

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