Lashmar, Paul, "Stalin's 'Hot' War," New Statesman & Society, vol. 9, no. 388, Feburary 2, 1996

History may be written by the victors, but in the cold war the losers' tails have retained a powerful sting. The newly opened archives of the Soviet Union are exposing the secrets of the communist world - and in the process casting the conventional wisdoms of western history in a new light.

The archive on the Korean war is one such example. The war was unique - the only "hot" war of the cold war period directly involving all the superpowers. The three-year conflict, from 1950 to 1953, cost at least two million lives and set the tone for the apocalyptic tension that only broke in 1990.

For four decades, historians have been embroiled in dispute over the Korean war, unable even to agree who started it. Traditionalists believed the war was Stalin's prelude to world domination, and that North Korea's leader, Kim II Sung, was Stalin's puppet, ordered to start the war to confront the west. Other historians, labelled "revisionists", said it started as a civil war, and it remains an open question whether North or South Koreans attacked first. At the time, and for the next 40 years, Moscow denied any involvement, and the Soviet Union's true role was kept secret even from the Russian public.

The opening of the state archives has provided an opportunity to compare the theories of every historian of the period over the past 40 years. Some now have egg on their faces.

From 1992, the Russian government allowed specialist historians access to the files. They reveal much about Stalin's mendacity. But almost more interesting is the light that contemporary Soviet documents throw on western policy-making. We can see that western leaders - the hawkish military in particular - were so locked into their own communist conspiracy dogma that they misread Soviet intentions as well as capabilities.

The communists always claimed that the war was started by the South. In the Soviet archives are a number of documents, including this telegram, sent to Stalin by his ambassador in North Korea, General Shtykov, two days after the start of the war, which conclusively show that the North attacked the South with Stalin's full knowledge:

The troops went to their start position by 24,00 hrs on 24 June. Military activities began at 4-40 local time ... The attack by the People's Army took the enemy completely by surprise.

Historian and Korean Pow General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley says: "The new material has exposed beyond question the extent to which Stalin and the Soviet Union were involved in the war. Hitherto we've had direct evidence that they were there, on the periphery. And we've had good reason to suspect they had political influence. Now we know beyond question."

The documents show that Stalin was behind the war. But there are unexpected twists.

Japanese occupation of Korea ended with its defeat in the second world war. The victorious Russians and Americans divided Korea at the 38th parallel. In 1948, both super powers withdrew. In the South, the Americans had installed Syngman Rhee, a long-standing, aggressive nationalist leader. For the North, Stalin chose Kim 11 Sung, a former captain in the Soviet Red Army, to lead the communist regime.

Kim's former aide and translator Valentin Pak, who now lives in Moscow, says: "He was 33 years old when he came to power, a young pup. Stalin was already a monolith, a giant. Of course he trembled before Stalin, he was afraid even to speak to Stalin."

Over the next two years, Kim gained in confidence and developed his own agenda to reunite Korea. The traditional view is that Stalin ordered Kim to start the war. The Soviet documents undermine that theory, revealing that Kim asked Stalin for permission to attack the South.

American academic Dr Kathryn Weathersby was the first foreign historian to gain access to the Soviet archives for the Korean war. "Stalin considered this request from Kim Il Sung for nearly a year, "she says, "from March 1949 to January 950, before he finally approved it. He said no' a number of times over the course Of 1949- It was not 'advisable' for North Korea to engage in offensive action against South Korea."

Asked if Stalin directly encouraged Kim II Sung to attack the South, Paksays: "I saw many of the documents addressed to Kim and I can absolutely confirm that Stalin did not encourage Kim. "

Kim's persistence finally paid off. He overcame Stalin's fear of a war igniting global confrontation. And herein lies another surprise. Stalin did not want to provoke the Americans and most certainly did not want a third world war.

"Stalin wouldn't have allowed the war to be started at all if he had thought that the Americans were going to intervene," says Farrar-Hockley. "Initial involvement was undoubtedly on the understanding that Kim was going to pull off a quick victory against the weak South Korean forces, and present the world with a fait accompli."

Stalin finally agreed in principle to Kim's plan in a telegram dated january I950. His message was as cautious as it was mercenary:

I understand the dissatisfaction of Comrade Kim II Sung. But he should realise that such an immense operation of the sort he wants to undertake in relation to South Korea requires much preparation. The operation should be organised in such away that risk is minimised.

Weathersby says that "Stalin then goes on to say the Soviet Union is experiencing a sharp insufficiency in lead and would be very appreciative if North Korea could provide the Soviet Union with a yearly minimum of 25,000 tons of lead. 'And I hope that comrade Kim II Sung will not refuse us in this. "'

What exactly persuaded Stalin is not clear. The only reference he makes is in a telex to Mao that refers to "the changed international situation". What exactly this means is still the subject of debate among historians. It seems Stalin was taken by the idea of one of his client rulers eliminating America's only ally in mainland Asia. He was anxious that the attack should go to plan and not be botched by the inexperienced North Korean leadership. He provided munitions and Soviet advisers, who actually wrote the battle plan. Stalin insisted that Kim get Mao's permission for the venture. This he seems to have done by skillfully exaggerating Stalin's enthusiasm. In June, the North Koreans were ready.

"The invasion operation was devised by Soviet advisers to the North Korean army," says Pak. "The battle plan was handed to us on tracing paper. The Soviet generals and colonels drew it up, then it was translated by Korean officers on their staff. "

Pak says the North Koreans staged a deception to blame the war on the South. "In order to provoke a war and show that it had been started by the South Korean side, two days before the military operation started the North Koreans put some of their units into green border-guard uniforms. They then made an incursion into South Korean territory, drawing the South into baffle, and the South Koreans started shooting at the North Korean border guards."

Kim II Sung had convinced Stalin that total victory would be achieved within a matter of days. Before his death last December, General Dimitri Volkogonov, a Yeltsin adviser and biographer of Stalin, said: "Stalin sent Kim II Sung a letter in which he already congratulated him on his coming victory. This document exists. Stalin signed himself 'Funsee'. He always used a pseudonym ... But his congratulations were premature."

Within hours of the attack, the UN had condemned the invasion in a resolution drawn up by Secretary-General Trygve Lie. The Russians were unable to exercise their veto at the Security Counsel - they were absent, boycotting the UN over its refusal to recognise the new communist China. Troops from the US and 2I other countries were sent to South Korea.

"Stalin was extremely concerned about the US intervention," says Weathersby. "He ordered his advisers pulled back from the front line, even though that made it difficult for the North Koreans to carry out the war. Heordered Sovietships to return to the imports. He made no public statement, no diplomatic statement, in support of North Korea for a week."

UN troops began to push back the North Korean army. A task force under General MacArthur staged an amphibious landing at Inchon and the UN forces swept north toward the Chinese border. "The Chinese read the run of battle rather better than the Russians,' says Farrar-Hockley. And as early as the beginning of August, they were saying to themselves that the North Koreans had lost the battle. From that moment they began to make movements deliberately towards building up their forces in northeast China."

The most recent batch of documents to be released, at the end Of 1995, concerns China's entry into the war. In December, Washington Post journalist Walter Pincus wrote an article claiming that Stalin was willing for the Korean war to become the third world war. Pincus is the latest in line to get it wrong, all the more surprising since he had the new material.

At the time of the Korean war, China's communist rulers had been in power for only two years. They feared for China's security. Cables show that Mao was reluctant to enter the war. He telexed Stalin expressing concern. On 5 October, Stalin told Mao that the US "is not ready for a big war", and that if the Chinese leader sent at least five or six divisions" to counter the UN forces, Washington Will be compelled to yield in the Korean question to China, behind which stands its ally, the USSR".

Stalin then sent another telex on 7 October saying that if a war was inevitable between the communist giants and the western powers, "then let it be waged now" ... "We will be stronger than the US and England, while the other European capitalist states do not present serious military forces." In his Washington Post article, Pincus interpreted this to mean that Stalin was willing to engage in a third world war. The actual evidence is that Stalin was just disingenuously inciting Mao to sort out what had become a disaster. He had no real intention of getting involved, but was prepared to fight the UN with every last drop of chinese blood. Actual events show Stalin's real attitude.

On 19 October, Mao ordered his army to attack. Hundreds of thousands of troops threw the UN back past the 38th parallel. But despite their success, the Chinese peasant army urgently needed Soviet military support.

Farrar-Hockley says: "Mao turned to Stalin, saying:' look, we need your help."' And Stalin made various promises, some of which he ratted on. The most prominent of those was the withholding of air support, a defection on his part which caused Mao to have a nervous breakdown for 24 or 36 hours.

For more than two weeks, Stalin was in a dilemma: failure to support Mao would weaken his leadership of the communist bloc, while fighting the U S air force could trigger a world war. He finally agreed, sending Soviet airforce units to the Korean border. Elaborate precautions were taken to disguise their arrival.

Eventually, up to 20,000 Soviet military were engaged in the war at any one time, everywhere except the front line.

Colonel-general Nikolai Petukhov of the Soviet Air Force, who was in Korea from T950 tO 1952, says: "We pretended that we weren't there, that these were neither Russian nor Soviet forces. They dressed us in Chinese uniform. We had no documents on us-except for a small badge with Mao Ze Dong on it. The only thing we had in our pockets was some money, a small suminyuan."

So reluctant was Stalin to reveal Soviet involvement which might lead to a wider confrontation that he made sure no downed Russian pilots could fall into UN hands: pilots were restricted to a small zone over the Yalu River on the Chinese-Korean border (known as MiG Valley.) Stalin's air force was thus of limited use to the North Koreans and Chinese.

Once Stalin had committed the Soviets to covert involvement, he helped the Soviet cause by using the war as a major intelligence operation against the US. The Soviets took a particular interest in the F-86 "Sabre", the only jet fighter capable of matching the MiG 15. Pow interrogation records show that captured pilots gave precise details of the F-86's capabilities. The Soviets took at least two salvaged F-86s back to Moscow, for examination at the Sukhoi Design Bureau.

The archives also show how Stalin became an impediment to the peace process. By the summer of 1951, it was clear that neither side could achieve outright victory. The Chinese had enough problems at home. Both sides were prepared to accept, in the well-honed phrase of the time, "a substitute for victory'.

But Stalin had the final veto over any armistice agreement from the communist side. At a 1995 conference on the Korean war, Weathersby, quoting from Stalin's cables to Mao, says the main obstacle to achieving an armistice was Stalin's perception of the advantages to the Soviet Union of the war in Korea. Stalin saw no reason to stop the war while the Soviets were gleaning so much intelligence and tying up the US military machine without spilling Russian blood. It wasn't until Stalin died in March 1953 that the peace negotiations could make progress. A cease fire began on 27 July.

Return To Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Documents Relating to the Cold War

Return to Documents Relating to Stalin