Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China's Decision to Enter the Korean War, Sept. 16-Oct. 15, 1950: New Evidence from Russian Archives, article and translations by Alexandre Y. Mansourov

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The new documentary evidence from the Russian archives led me to the following conclusions. First, all three supreme leaders of the USSR, PRC, and the DPRK--Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il Sung--were personally and intimately involved in the prosecution of the Korean War. Notwithstanding this, their will often failed to prevail, for the war policies of these states were also shaped by the pressures of intra-alliance bargaining, domestic politics, bureaucratic outputs, and personal preferences of people in charge of the implementation of leaders' decisions, not to mention circumstances created by enemy and external forces.

Second, contrary to the traditional Chinese interpretation, Stalin never reneged on his promise to Mao to provide the CPV with Soviet air cover. From early July until late October 1950 he unwaveringly maintained that if the Chinese comrades decided to intervene in Korea he would send the Soviet Air Force and Air Defense units to protect the Chinese ground troops from the air. He even considered dispatching them directly to Pyongyang. An "account of Stalin's betrayal of Mao" is fictional and should be attributed to Zhou Enlai's entourage, who wanted to have their boss look good after the latter probably purposefully failed his mission at his talks with Stalin in mid-October, 1950 and perhaps even misled Mao about Stalin's true intentions.
Third, the only person who had a legitimate reason to feel that Stalin had betrayed him at that time was Kim Il Sung. Stalin reneged on his commitment to back up Kim at the critical juncture of the war after the UN troops had crossed the 38th parallel: he ordered Kim to abandon the defense of North Korea and pull out the remnants of the KPA into guerrilla camps in northeast China and the Soviet Far East. Although within several hours Stalin reversed himself, after learning of Mao's renewed commitment to fight in Korea, this original decision dramatically revealed the limits of the Soviet national security interest on the Korean peninsula. In Stalin's own words (as recalled by Khrushchev), he was willing to abandon North Korea and allow the United States to become the USSR's neighbor, with its troops deployed in Korea, if this was the price to pay for avoiding direct military confrontation with the U.S. at that time. Moreover, I believe that it was as a result of this incident, not Khrushchev's destalinization campaign, that Kim Il Sung realized the limits of the Soviet support as well as the extent of his personal dependency on Moscow, and made up his mind to begin distancing himself from his Soviet handlers.
Fourth, obviously, there was little political will and much less hope in Moscow, Beijing, and even Pyongyang to defend North Korea to the last man when the military situation collapsed in mid-October 1950. Therefore, had the United States been less ambivalent, more consistent, and more persuasive on the diplomatic front in stating to Moscow and Beijing the goals of its Korean campaign--e.g., that it had no desire to attack Mainland China or threaten the territory of the Soviet Far East--the Soviet and Chinese governments could well have decided to let Kim Il Sung's regime go under and acquiesced to a UN-proposed Korean settlement. However, Gen. MacArthur's repeated unconditional surrender demands, coupled with barely veiled direct threats against the PRC and the USSR, coming out of Tokyo headquarters, literally pushed the insecure Chinese to the brink, compelling them almost against their will to intervene in Korea, thereby providing Stalin a legitimate reason to reconsider his own decision to evacuate North Korea.

1. This article is based on the newly-declassified Russian archival materials related to the Korean War. Researchers were allowed access to these primary sources from Russia as a result of a series of agreements on academic cooperation and joint research on the history of the Korean War, signed by the Center for Korean Research of Columbia University, New York, and the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Moscow. In order to make these materials readily available to researchers in the United States, the Center for Korean Research has agreed to cooperate with the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. in the procurement, translation, custody, and dissemination of these documents. (CWIHP has provided a copy of the documents to the National Security Archive, located on the seventh floor of the Gelman Library at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where they are available for researchers.) The Center for Korean Research acknowledges with gratitude a generous facilitating grant from the Luce Foundation in support of this project.

2. This is according to the field reports filed by several dozen agents sent to the area by the Joint Special Operations Group from the Far East Command's G-2 on the eve of operation Chromite.
3. David Rees, Korea: The Limited War (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, Inc., 1964), 84.
4. See, e.g., David Rees, Korea: The Limited War, op.cit.; Richard Rovere and Arthur M. Schelesinger, Jr., The General and the President, and the Future of American Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1951); I. F. Stone, The Hidden Story of the Korean War (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1951); Allen S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu: the Decision to Enter the Korean War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960); Dean Acheson, The Korean War (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1967); Kim Chullbaum, ed., The Truth About the Korean War (Seoul, Korea: Eulyoo Publishing Co., Ltd. 1991).
5. Russell Spurr, Enter the Dragon: China's Undeclared War against the U.S. in Korea, 1950-1951 (New York: New Market, 1988).
6. See, e.g., Nie Rongzhen, Inside the Red Star: The Memoirs of Marshal Nie Rongzhen (Beijing, 1988); Peng Dehuai, Memoirs of a Chinese Marshal: The Autobiographical Notes of Peng Dehuai (1898-1974) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984); Shi Zhe, Zai Lishi Juren Shenbian Shi Zhe Huiyilu [Beside Great Historical Figures: The Memoirs of Shi Zhe] (Beijing: Central Archives and Manuscripts Press, 1991); and Yao Xu, Yalujiang dao Banmendian [From the Yalu River to Panmunjom] (Beijing: People's Press, 1985).
7. Important scholarly contributions in this respect include Hao Yufan and Zhai Zhihai, "China's Decision to Enter the Korean War: History Revisited," China Quarterly 121 (March 1990), 94-115; Michael Hunt, "Beijing and the Korean Crisis, June 1950-June 1951," Political Science Quarterly 107 (Fall 1992), 453-478; Thomas Christensen, "Threats, Assurances, and the Last Chance for Peace: The Lessons of Mao's Korean War Telegrams," International Security 17 (Summer 1992), 122-154; Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); Kim Chull Baum and James Matray, Korea and the Cold War: Division, Destruction, and Disarmament (1993); Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), and Shu Guang Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995).
8. William W. Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
9. [Ed. note: In addition, some high-level declassified Russian documents bearing on the period examined by this article were published in English translation in Kathryn Weathersby, "The Soviet Role in the Early Phase of the Korean War: New Documentary Evidence," The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2:4 (Winter 1993), 425-458; see also Col. Gen. D.A. Volkogonov, "Should We Be Frightened by This?--Behind the Scenes of the Korean War," Ogonok (Moscow) 25-26 (June 1993), English translation in Vladimir Petrov, "Soviet Role in the Korean War Confirmed: Secret Documents Declassified," Journal of Northeast Asian Studies 13:3 (Fall 1994), 42-67, esp. 48-57.]
10. Although this document has still not been declassified, it is alluded to in a detailed chronology of events prepared by officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry who had access to still-classified materials. In particular, the chronology entry dated 20 September 1950, describing the content of Stalin's reply to Zhou Enlai's inquiry about the military situation in Korea after the Inch'on landing (an inquiry which Zhou had conveyed to Amb. Roshchin and Soviet military advisers Kotov and Konnov on September 18), states: "These Soviet recommendations [regarding what the KPA should do following the Inch'on landing] were transmitted to Kim Il Sung on 18 September 1950." See Chronology of Major Developments on the Eve of and During the Korean War (January 1949-October 1950) [hereafter Chronology]. Archive of Foreign Policy, Russian Federation (AVPRF), Moscow, Fond 5, opis 58, delo 266, list 55.
It appears that this is the same telegram which Stalin referred to in his message to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai on 1 October 1950 [Document 10], in which he stated that on September 16 "Moscow warned our Korean friends that the landing of the USA troops at Chemulp'o [Inch'on] had great significance...." Perhaps the discrepancy can be explained by the fact that although the telegram may have been drafted in or sent from Moscow on September 16, given the time difference and the chaos of the military situation it might have been handed to Kim only on September 18. Further declassification is required to resolve the question conclusively, however.
11. At this point, it is worth clarifying a bit of confusion that has emerged over the fact that there were two senior Soviet military officials with the surname Zakharov at this juncture of the Korean War. Army Gen. Matvey Vasilievich Zakharov (1898-1972), the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, was dispatched to Pyongyang in late September 1950 to inspect and report back to Stalin on the military situation. He signed and received messages using the pseudonym, "Matveyev." In October 1950, shortly after M.V. Zakharov was sent to Korea, Corps Commisar Semyon Egorovich Zakharov (1906-1969) was sent to Beijing as Stalin's personal military envoy to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and remained in the Chinese capital until the end of the war in July 1953, and documents involving him bear his actual name.
12. See Chronology, AVPRF, Fond 5, Opis 58, Delo 266, listy 52-53.
13. In Uncertain Partners (p. 174), Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue refer to a five-man team which was dispatched from China to Korea on September 17 "to survey local topography." This must be the same team of senior military officers to which Zhou referred.
14. Chronology, listy 54-55.
15. See Chronology, listy 55-56.
16. Rees, Korea, 91.
17. These charges are not completely fair because the Soviet military advisers were severely restricted in their mobility by Stalin's early order that under no circumstances they cross the 38th parallel, even when the KPA was on the offensive at the Naktong River front. Hence, their own knowledge of the military situation and ability to influence it were very much limited.
18. See Shabshin's conversation with Pak Hon-Yong, recorded in Document #5. A.I. Shabshin had been the Soviet Deputy Consul in Seoul before the end of the Second World War; as Adviser on Political Affairs; in 1946, he was appointed as a Political Adviser to the Soviet 25th Army responsible for the occupation of North Korea; when the Korean War started, he was assigned to Gen. Matveyev's team.
19. Kim was reported to be very upset that Ch'oe failed to report to him regularly about the development of the military situation in Seoul, despite his access to radio.
20. Kim Il Sung commanded his troops from inside an underground bunker located in the vicinity of Pyongyang. According to Yu Song-ch'ol's memoirs, during the entire war Kim Il Sung made only one visit to the Front Line Command. That was when it was located at the Seoul Capitol Building. Others disagree and insist that he came down as far as Suanbo to inspect the front lines and allegedly even bathed in hot springs there. [See Yu Song-ch'ol, "Recollections," Choong-ang Ilbo (Seoul), 14 November 1990.] Consequently, the only more or less reliable source of updates on the military situation for Kim Il Sung at that time was his Soviet advisers. But as the predicament of the KPA deepened, they seemed to begin to dodge his inquiries, citing insufficient knowledge, and to avoid giving recommendations on strategy and tactics.
21. See Document #5.
22. One should note that two days earlier Zakharov had told Kim that it was wishful thinking on his part to count on manning those nine divisions from among "the southerners" because the UN offensive would most likely cut off and rout them. See Document #4.
23. Such "shyness" was quite unusual for Shtykov, who in the past had pushed Kim Il Sung around as he pleased and often used Kim's name to promote his own ideas in Moscow.
24. The origins of this request were not without controversy even within the DPRK government. In his conversation with A.I. Shabshin on September 28 [Document #5], Pak Honyong mentioned that originally the WPK CC PC intended to ask only for Soviet air support because some nationalistic North Korean leaders advocated only limited direct Soviet participation in the war. As of September 29, Kim Il Sung still insisted, perhaps pro forma, that "we should continue to fight on and eventually unite Korea by our own forces." However, as the military situation continued to deteriorate, increasing the perception in Pyongyang that only an all-out intervention by the USSR could bail out the North Korean regime, which was on the brink of complete disaster, Kim felt compelled to seek full Soviet military intervention.
25. Quoted in Rees, Korea, 103.
26. This timetable may have reflected Stalin's hope that the remnants of Kim's troops would be able to resist the UN troops on their own at least for the next few days while he would be busy seeking Chinese support.
27. His justification for this measure was that most of these enterprises were destroyed by American air raids and out of operation anyhow.
28. I have not located any evidence in the Russian archives as to whether Stalin was informed on October 1 that MacArthur had just made an unconditional surrender demand to the North Koreans to "forthwith lay down your arms and cease hostilities under such military supervision as I may direct." Nor could I find any records indicating whether Stalin knew of U.S. delegate to the UN Warren Austin's famous statement to the UN Political Committee made the day before: "Today the forces of the United Nations stand on the threshold of military victory... The aggressor's forces should not be permitted to have refuge behind an imaginary line because that would recreate the threat to the peace of Korea and of the world."
29. See Chronology, list 61.
30. The purported Mao to Stalin cable of 2 October 1950 appeared in an official Chinese compilation of Mao's writings published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party: Jianguo Yilai Mao Zedong Wengao Diyi Ce (1949.9-1950.12) [The Manuscripts of Mao Zedong Since the Founding of the Nation, vol. 1 (Sept. 1949-Dec. 1952)] (Beijing: Central Documents Publishing House, 1987), pp. 539-541; an English translation appears in Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue, Uncertain Partners, 275-76, reading as follows:
1. We have decided to send some of our troops to Korea under the name of [Chinese People's] Volunteers to fight the United States and its lackey Syngman Rhee and to aid our Korean Comrades. From the following considerations, we think it necessary to do so: the Korean revolutionary force will meet with a fundamental defeat, and the American aggressors will rampage unchecked once they occupy the whole of Korea. This will be unfavorable to the entire East.
2. Since we have decided to send Chinese troops to fight the Americans in Korea, we hold that, first, we should be able to solve the problem; that is, [we are] ready to annihilate and drive out the invading armies of the United States and other countries. Second, since Chinese troops are to fight American troops in Korea (although we will use the name Volunteers), we must be prepared for a declaration of war by the United States and for the subsequent use of the U.S. air force to bomb many of China's cities and industrial bases, as well as an attack by the U.S. navy on [our] coastal areas.
3. Of these two problems, the primary problem is whether or not the Chinese troops can annihilate the American troops in Korea and effectively resolve the Korean issue. Only when it is possible for our troops to annihilate the American troops in Korea, principally the Eighth Army (an old army with combat effectiveness), can the situation become favorable to the revolutionary camp and to China, although the second problem (a declaration of war by the United States) is still a serious one. This means that the Korean issue will be solved in reality along with the defeat of the American troops (in name it will probably remain unsolved because the United States will most likely not admit Korea's victory for a considerable period of time). Consequently, even if the United States declares war on China, the war will probably not be of great scope or last long. The most unfavorable situation, we hold, would result from the inability of the Chinese troops to annihilate American troops in Korea and the involvement of the two countries' troops in a stalemate while the United States publicly declares war on China, undermines the plans for China's economic reconstruction, which has already begun, and sparks the dissatisfaction of [China's] national bourgeoisie and other segments of the people (they are very afraid of war).
4. Under the current situation, we have reached a decision to order the 12 divisions stationed in advance in South Manchuria to set off on October 15. They will be deployed in appropriate areas in North Korea (not necessarily reaching to the 38th parallel). On the one hand, they will fight the enemies who dare to cross the 38th parallel. At the initial stage, they will merely engage in defensive warfare to wipe out small detachments of enemy troops and ascertain the enemy's situation; on the other hand, they will wait for the delivery of Soviet weapons. Once they are [well] equipped, they will cooperate with the Korean comrades in counterattacks to annihilate American aggressor troops.
5. According to our intelligence to date, an American corps (composed of two infantry divisions and a mechanized division) has 1,500 guns of 70 mm to 240 mm caliber, including tank cannons and anti-aircraft guns. In comparison, each of our corps (composed of three divisions) has only 36 such guns. The enemy dominates the air. By comparison, we have only just started training pilots. We shall not be able to employ more than 300 aircraft in combat until February 1951. Accordingly, we do not now have any certainty of success in annihilating a single American corps in one blow. Since we have made a decision to fight the Americans, we certainly must be prepared to deal with a situation in which the U.S. headquarters will employ one American corps against our troops in one [of the Korean] theaters. For the purpose of eliminating completely one enemy corps with a certainty of success, we should in such a situation assemble four times as many troops as the enemy (employing four corps to deal with one enemy corps) and firepower from one-and-a-half times to twice as heavy as the enemy's (using 2,200 to 3,000 guns of more than 70mm caliber to deal with 1,500 enemy guns of the same caliber).
6. In addition to the above-mentioned 12 divisions, we are moving 24 divisions from south of the Yangtze River and from Shaanxi and Gansu provinces to areas along the Xuzhou-Lanzhou, Tianjin-Pukou, and Beijing-Shenyang railroad lines. We plan to employ these divisions as the second and third groups of troops sent to aid Korea in the spring and summer of next year as the future situation requires.
Is the above text--indicating a firm Chinese decision to intervene militarily against the Americans in Korea (albeit with some trepidation and an explicit statement that the "Volunteer" forces would require adequate Soviet weaponry before they could take the offensive)--compatible with the message from Mao to Stalin dated 2 October 1950 which Roshchin cabled to Moscow on 3 October 1950 [Document #12], according to the document recently declassified in the Russian archives? Clearly not. Nor is it compatible with Stalin's statement to Kim Il Sung on October 8, stating that, in response to his own letter of October 1 seeking Chinese entry into the war, "Mao Zedong replied with a refusal, saying that he did not want to draw the USSR into the war, that the Chinese army was weak in technical terms, and that the war could cause great dissatisfaction in China." [Document #13.] That appears to leave two principal alternatives: 1) that both Russian documents, and others in the Presidential Archives collection that are logically and chronologically consistent with the events they describe, are elaborate fakes (which I find highly unlikely, especially as the collection includes plenty of documents that are highly incriminating regarding the Soviet role in the war); or 2) (what I find more likely) that the published Chinese version of the October 2 telegram is unreliable: inaccurate, unsent, or perhaps misdated; nor can one exclude the possibility that the text was altered or falsified by Chinese authorities to present what they deemed to be a more ideologically or politically correct version of history. (In contrast to the case with Russian documents, scholars have not been permitted access to the relevant Chinese archives to examine original documents or facsimiles, and have been forced to rely on published versions.) In any case, numerous important accounts of the events leading to the PRC's entry into the Korean War relying on the Chinese version of the 2 October 1950 Mao to Stalin cable must now be called into question. [Ed. note: Some of the more important of the many examples of recent works using the Chinese version of the cable--an English translation of which was reprinted under the headline, "Mao's Cable Explains Drive Into Korea," in The New York Times on 26 February 1992--include Christensen, "Threats, Assurances, and the Last Chance for Peace," esp. 135-142; Hunt, "Beijing and the Korean Crisis," esp. 460-463; Shu Guang Zhang, Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-1958 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 97; Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue, Uncertain Partners, esp. 176-183; Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War, esp. 175-180; Stueck, The Korean War, esp. 99-100; and Shu Guang Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, esp. 78-80.]
Clearly, further research is necessary, in both the Moscow and Beijing archives, to establish the precise contents and chronology of the communications between Stalin and Mao during the first two weeks of October 1950. In the meantime, the evidence cited here should induce additional caution in treating the Chinese version of Mao's decision to enter the Korean War.
31. N. S. Khrushchev, The Korean War (Moscow: Progress Publishing House), 28, in Russian; for a slightly different English translation, see Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, trans. and ed. by Jerrold L. Schecter with Vyacheslav V. Luchkov (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1990), 147.
32. I believe that Shtykov referred to the members of the DPRK government and various administrative agencies and organizations who originally came from the USSR as Soviet citizens of Korean nationality. This was an "escape clause" for all the so-called Soviet Korean leaders, including Kim Il Sung himself and his guerrilla comrades.
33. I believe that herein Shtykov referred to the Soviet aircraft maintenance and support teams which were transferred from the Maritime Province to the vicinity of Pyongyang in the last week of September. At that time, the Soviet General Staff had still been considering Stalin's order to dispatch a Soviet fighter aviation squadron to provide air cover for the North Korean capital. However, once the UN forces moved over the 38th parallel on October 1 and were rapidly and successfully advancing toward Pyongyang, apparently Stalin made a decision not to deploy the Soviet Air Force directly in North Korea, but to redeploy it in northeast China. Therefore, Shtykov requested authority to send home the remaining aircraft maintenance and support teams.
34. See Goncharov et al., Uncertain Partners, 183.
35. See Goncharov et al., Uncertain Partners, 185, 279.
36. One can notice also that from then on, Kim Il Sung started to conclude his personal letters to Stalin with the words "respectfully yours," instead of "faithfully yours."
37. See Rees, Korea, 108-109.
38. See Shi Zhe, op. cit.
39. The above account of Stalin-Zhou talks in October 1950 is based on the author's June 1995 interview with Dr. Nikolai T. Fedorenko, one of the Soviet participants at these talks who interpreted them and later composed minutes thereof. In the near future, the Center for Korean Research expects to receive copies of the minutes of the Stalin-Zhou talks as part of its project on academic cooperation with the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.
40. Goncharov et al., Uncertain Partners, 190.
41. It is noteworthy, however, that Goncharov, Xue, and Lewis's account is based on the personal recollections of Kang Yimin, a confidential secretary of Zhou Enlai from the CCP Central Committee who accompanied the latter to Moscow. One may speculate that Zhou might have attempted to distort the record of talks in order to manipulate Mao's opinion, and later used his confidential secretary to leak his preferred version of what allegedly happened in Moscow.
42. This conclusion is based on the author's June 1995 interview with a former high-ranking official at the International Department of the CPSU CC who asked not to be identified.
43. Intriguingly, the first time Stalin mentioned his willingness to provide Chinese troops with air cover if they engaged in Korea was in his letter to Zhou Enlai dated 5 July 1950(!). In his ciphered telegram #3172 wired to Beijing at 23:45 p.m., he stated that "we consider it correct to concentrate immediately nine Chinese divisions on the Chinese - North Korean border for volunteers' actions in North Korea in the event of the enemy's crossing the 38th parallel. We will do our best to provide the air cover for these units." For the full text, see Document #7.
44. See Chronology, list 61.
45. See Goncharov et al., Uncertain Partners, 192-195.
46. Although we do not have this ciphered telegram in our physical possession, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to believe that this document actually existed: Stalin cited and referred to this ciphered telegram several times in Documents #20 and #21; also, a reference to it appears in Shtykov's telegram to Stalin in Document #18.
47. Major-General Ch'oe Kyong-dok was a member of the Front Military Council. Before the war he was the Chairman of the DPRK Federation of Trade Unions.
48. This account is based on the author's interview with Dr. V. K. Pak (Pak Gil-yon), former Deputy Foreign Minister of the DPRK (1954-1960) in charge of the DPRK's relations with socialist countries, who has been in exile in the USSR since his purge in 1960. During the Korean War, Mr. Pak served at Kim Il Sung's headquarters as his second personal interpreter. The interview took place in Moscow on 10 July 1995.
49. Although this note was written and wired out in the early morning hours of October 14, Stalin seems to have pre-dated it as of October 13. Perhaps he wanted to make everybody in the loop, as well as posterity, forget about his original evacuation order sent to Kim only a few hours earlier.

Alexandre Y. Mansourov is a doctoral candidate at the Center for Korean Research, Columbia University.

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