After 65 years, North and South Korea still struggle to reach peace and an understanding of how the Korean War began.
By Kathryn Weathersby*
Caught in the grips of nuclear crisis, people on the Korean Peninsula commemorate the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice agreement – on July 27, 1953. Kim Jong-un wants this agreement converted into a peace treaty, among conditions for denuclearization. Given disagreement over the war’s origin, the seemingly easy task entails complex considerations with serious implications for contestants.
The ceasefire has the dubious distinction of being the longest in existence without a peace treaty. It was signed at the truce village of Panmunjom by military commanders from the United States, China and North Korea. The three-year war killed or injured 2 million Koreans from both sides of the peninsula, 2 million Chinese who fought on the side of North Korea, and 150,000 combatants from the United States and UN member countries. More than 36,000 American troops lost their lives.
North Korea is seeking a formal peace treaty ending the state of war with the United States and South Korea. On July 23, the North’s state media demanded that the South implement the commitment President Moon Jae-in made during the April 27 summit talks with Kim Jong-un that he would work toward declaring an end to the Korean War. “It is a historic task that cannot be delayed any more to build a solid peace regime by ending the current abnormal state of armistice on the Korean peninsula,” declared the North’s official website Uriminzokkiri.
Concluding a peace treaty is not a straightforward task. Numerous questions must be resolved, beginning with who should be at the negotiating table. The negotiators must also consider how a peace regime would affect the US–South Korean military alliance, under which 28,000 American troops are based in the South.
Foremost is the question of whether a peace regime should be contingent on North Korea’s denuclearization and elimination of its chemical and biological weapons. A related question is whether a peace regime should be tied to a reduction of conventional forces on both sides. With more than a million troops in its standing army, the North ranks fifth worldwide in terms of active manpower. Even more fundamental is the disagreement between the North and South over the war’s origin. The South points to an invasion by the North on June 23, 1950. North Korean publications maintain that the war began with an “unprovoked attack” on the North by South Korea, acting as a puppet of American imperialists. The Great Fatherland Liberation War, as the conflict is called in the North, is described as a heroic victory achieved under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, the North’s regime founder, who freed his country from a rapacious foreign invader. Kim found such a story useful as he tried to survive the utter devastation his ill-advised offensive against the South brought. Similarly, his successors, including his grandson Kim Jong-un, have relied on the tried and true benefit of an ongoing foreign threat to retain public loyalty.
The two sides may struggle to craft a peace regime when they hold diametrically opposing views of the origin and nature of the war. Until the early 1990s, when documentary evidence of the decision-making behind the outbreak of the war emerged from Russian archives, some South Koreans, Americans and others were willing to accept theories asserting that then South Korean President Syngman Rhee and the United States were actually responsible.
Over the last 25 years scholars and journalists have analyzed archival evidence opened after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet government. The materials reveal when, how and why top officials planned a full-scale conventional offensive against the South – and make it abundantly clear that the Korean War was not simply an escalation of border fighting of 1949, but the result of deliberate decisions made at discreet times by Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-sung, seconded by Mao Zedong. The question of responsibility for the war is no longer debatable.
While Rhee talked about a wish to “march north” to end the country’s division, the United States did not want to be dragged into the conflict and ensured he could not do so. For similar reasons, throughout 1949, Stalin refused to approve Kim Il-sung’s repeated requests to mount an attack, though Moscow provided Pyongyang with enough weapons, supplies and training to create a formidable attacking force. The Korean People’s Army was further strengthened by the return from China of at least 40,000 Koreans who had fought for years with the Chinese Communist Party. North Korea was ready for offensive action should circumstances allow.
Such circumstances arrived in January 1950. The Chinese Communist Party came to power in Beijing in October 1949. Stalin learned that the United States had reformulated its security strategy in Asia in the wake of the “loss of China.” The new American policy was to prioritize defense of Japan and the Philippines and exclude Korea and Taiwan from their “defense perimeter.”
Kim Il-sung made an urgent request on January 17 of that year for permission to attack the South. Stalin, against that backdrop, responded to Kim that he “would help him in this matter.” Kim’s Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong spent the month of April in Moscow planning the campaign with Soviet military officials experienced in large-scale offensive campaigns. Stalin explained he could support the request because of the “changed international situation.” The victory of Chinese Communists meant that China could send troops to Korea if the North needed help. The United States did not fight to prevent a communist victory in China and was not expected to fight for the smaller prize of Korea. Stalin added that “information from the US shows that it really is so. The mood is not to intervene.”
Kim in turn assured Stalin that his surprise attack would conquer the South in a matter of days – he expected assistance from an uprising of 200,000 communist party members and guerrillas in the South. The United States would have no time to assist. On these assurances, Moscow provided the Korean People’s Army with necessary weapons and supplies and dispatched experienced officers to prepare the offensive with North Koreans. Stalin also told Kim to travel to Beijing and secure Mao Zedong’s support ahead of the invasion.
It is worth noting that Kim Il-sung was preoccupied with the political cost of initiating a fratricidal war. In discussions with Soviet officials on 14 September 1949 about the advisability of an offensive, he admitted that the offensive would “produce a negative impression in the people and therefore it is politically disadvantageous for them to begin it.” On the previous day, however, he had told the Soviet leaders that “the people will welcome an armed attack by the northerners and that if they begin military actions, they will not lose politically because of this.”
The “negative impression” Kim’s invasion left among people of the South and its allies lingers today. For a peace treaty to actually serve as an effective security regime for the peninsula, it must be founded on an honest reckoning with the war’s origins. Until this is done, the mistrust that has undermined all previous agreements will remain and continue to sabotage efforts to heal Korea’s division.
*Kathryn Weathersby is adjunct professor of history at Korea University in Seoul.