The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first armed conflict of the Cold War era, and historians agree that communist North Korea would not have invaded South Korea in 1950 without the endorsement of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless and autocratic leader of the Soviet Union. from 1922 to 1953.
But what did Stalin hope to gain from a war in Korea? According to a letter dictated by Stalin himself months after the 1950 invasion and discovered in Soviet archives in 2005, one of the main reasons Stalin supported a Communist invasion of South Korea was to “entangle the United States in a costly war in the East. Asia and “divert” America’s attention from Eastern Europe, Stalin’s real concern.
“Doesn’t that give us an advantage in the global balance of power [to have America entangled in Korea]?” wrote Stalin. “It is without a doubt the case.”
But while Stalin clearly wanted to portray himself as a chess grandmaster playing two steps ahead of his opponents, some historians are skeptical of the dictator’s account. It is true that North Korea, a Soviet creation, needed Stalin’s approval to invade the South, but it is doubtful that Stalin really intended to drag the Americans, a nuclear superpower, into the war.
According to experts, it is more likely that President Harry S. Truman’s decision to send US troops to Korea took the Soviets by surprise, given that all public statements by the US government (as well as spy reports Soviets) indicated that America would not intervene militarily in Korea. Korea. Prior to the invasion, Stalin obtained assurances from Mao Zedong that China would send all necessary reinforcements. Then, during the war, Stalin strove to prevent Soviet forces from openly engaging American forces in combat.
The North Korean leader was eager to invade
With Japan’s defeat in World War II, it ceded control of Korea to the Allies, who agreed to divide the country roughly in half at the 38th parallel. The United States oversaw democratic elections in South Korea, while the Soviet Union installed a communist government in North Korea, known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In 1948, Stalin and the communist leaders of the Soviet Union chose 36-year-old Kim Il Sung to be North Korea’s first leader. Kim had made a name for himself as a daring guerrilla and staunch communist. Interestingly, Kim gained most of his military experience in the Chinese province of Manchuria, where he first led Soviet-backed Chinese forces against the Japanese and then against Chinese Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War.
“Kim Il Sung spoke Russian and Chinese better than Korean when he took power in North Korea,” says Samuel Wells, author of Fearing the Worst: How Korea Transformed the Cold War.
While Kim was clearly an instrument of the Soviet Union, which provided key economic and military support to North Korea, he was also ambitious. Kim was eager to unify Korea under Communism, and he repeatedly pleaded with Stalin for an invasion of South Korea throughout 1949. But Stalin, whose first priority was to avoid military conflict with the United States, initially rejected the idea.
With China on Board, Stalin Gives the Green Light
The geopolitical balance of power shifted once again on October 1, 1949, when communist revolutionary Mao Zedong announced the defeat of the Chinese nationalists and the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao was eager to enter into a formal alliance with the Soviet Union, the richest and most powerful communist country in the world at the time.
Mao traveled to Moscow to meet Stalin and sign a treaty, but Wells says the two sides clashed over the terms of the deal, until Stalin saw a way to use Korea as a currency. trade with China.
This all happened in the early 1950s, after the Truman administration made it clear that it was not interested in sending American troops to fight in Asia. Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, gave a speech on January 12, 1950, in which he specifically named the territories that were under U.S. military protection—Japan and the Philippines—and intentionally left out Korea and Taiwan, another hotly contested territory.
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This speech, along with intelligence reports from the Soviet Union’s vast spy network, indicated that the United States was not an immediate threat in Korea. But Wells believes that Stalin wanted an additional insurance policy before supporting Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea, and that this insurance policy was China.
Wells says that Stalin met with Mao and agreed to China’s terms for a Sino-Soviet alliance – which included generous economic support from the Soviets – on one condition: Stalin wanted China to give Kim Il Sung its approval for the invasion of South Korea. That way, if the invasion dragged on and the Americans entered the fray, it would be China sending troops, not the Soviets. Mao agreed and Stalin gave Kim the green light to invade.
Soviet pilots shoot down American bombers in “MiG Alley”
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army stormed the 38th parallel and took Seoul, the South Korean capital. The United Nations Security Council (in the absence of the Soviet Union) passed a resolution to send peacekeeping forces, including American troops, to defend South Korea.
In September 1950, UN forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, led a daring amphibious invasion into the coastal city of Inchon and recaptured Seoul. Unfortunately, this initial success did not last. MacArthur impetuously (and some say foolishly) marched his army north towards the Yalu River on North Korea’s border with China, which Mao took as a direct provocation.
Mao sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops across the border from Manchuria to overwhelm UN and US forces, which were forced to retreat south. After the disastrous Battle of the Yalu River, the Americans sent fleets of World War II-era B-29 bombers to strike targets in the North to slow the flow of Chinese reinforcements and supplies.
Stalin desperately wanted to avoid direct combat with the United States, but he had promised Soviet air support to Mao as part of their alliance. Wells says Stalin dragged his feet, but eventually committed a dozen regiments of Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets to defend the Sino-North Korean border.
The MiG-15, with its swept-wing design, was incredibly fast and maneuverable, especially compared to the heavy B-29 “Superfortress”. But even America’s finest fighter, the F-84 Thunderjet, was no match for the MiG’s climb speed and firepower. Stalin’s MiGs inflicted heavy casualties on American bombers and fighters in an area along the Sino-North Korean border known as “MiG Alley”.
The MiG-15 was clearly a Soviet aircraft, but Stalin went to great lengths to mask direct Soviet involvement in the war. The MiGs were painted with North Korean insignia, and when Soviet pilots flew on missions, they not only wore Korean uniforms, but were taught basic radio commands in Korean. All Soviet pilots shot down over UN-controlled areas were ordered to commit suicide rather than risk capture.
Stalin’s bet in Korea backfires by strengthening NATO
The Korean War lasted three years and ended in a stalemate as North Korea and South Korea agreed to establish a demilitarized zone dividing the two countries along the 38th parallel. Stalin died a few months before the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953.
In Stalin’s 1950 letter explaining his support for the North Korean invasion, the Soviet dictator was convinced that the United States would “expand” into Asia, leaving a power vacuum in Europe that the Soviets could exploit. But Wells argues that the exact opposite has happened.
Before the Korean War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was an alliance in name only, but after the Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea, NATO created a structure military and appointed its first Supreme Allied Commander in 1951, General Dwight Eisenhower.
“To some extent, Stalin’s gamble backfired,” says Wells, “because it led to the creation of a real, functioning military alliance within NATO.”