What diplomatic documents tell us about the Soviet Union’s position on the Korean War. 

Author: Xianzheng Zhou

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

Although the Korean War is “stigmatized as the forgotten war”, different interpretations of historical diplomatic documents contributed to revealing the true motivations of stakeholder parties at that time. Unsurprisingly, various theoretical works tried to uncover the behind-scene decision-making process of the Soviet Union during the Korean war. This article aims to explore various factors displayed in the diplomatic documents that affected the Soviet Union’s engagement with the Korean War.  As a result, the Soviet Union’s foreign policies towards the Korean War could be deemed as an unbalanced seesaw. On the one side is the cautious nationalism focusing on the realistic calculations of national benefits and costs, and the other side is the aggressive imperialism embodied by the superpower struggle in the context of the Cold War. The coordination of policy shifts between nationalism and imperialism most accurately depicts the Soviet Union’s behaviour during the Korean War.

Before discussing how this “policy seesaw” works, it is necessary to question the revisionist approach that defined the Korean War purely as a civil war or national liberation movement, denying the interactions between different stakeholder parties such as the Soviet Union, US, and China. Therefore, John Halliday and Bruce Cumings’s argument that exploring the behind-scene motivations of different parties to engage in the war is irrelevant because the war was fundamentally the result of long-lasting conflicts. These conflicts were between rightists and the Left in the Korean Peninsula, making it empirically questionable as diplomatic documents showed that the multilateral interactions between the Soviet Union and other parties played an important role in shaping the decision-making process about the war. For example, the telegram delivered in September 1949, by Soviet Politburo to the Soviet Ambassador in North Korea Terenty Shtykov, clearly refused Kim II Sung’s request to attack the South in the pretext of the military inferiority and political disadvantages. The Soviet Union’s commandment then turned to “the development of the partisan movement, the creation of liberated regions and the preparation of a general armed uprising in South Korea”. Therefore, the decision-making process of the Soviet Union affected the development of the Korean War as Stalin’s cautious nationalism throughout 1949 prevented North Korea from invading South Korea. In other words, the Koran War was not an independent and local conflict, but a product of the multilateral interactions in which the intervention of the Soviet Union is crucial. In other words, it seems reasonable that the Soviet Union was the manipulator of the war process and that North Korea’s decision was completely dependent on the leader of the communism camp during the Korean War.

However, the perspective that the cause of the Korean War was explicitly attributed to the collusion between the Soviet Union and its proxies is inaccurate, as this explanation overemphasises the aggressive imperialism of the Soviet Union. This consequently overlooks the hidden realistic nationalism. Some points can illustrate the Soviet Union’s calculation of national interests during the Korean War. First, the empirical fact that the Soviet Union always eschewed the direct confrontation with the US and its cautious operations during the war questions the collusion theories and proves the significant role of nationalism in the Korean War. On 24 September 1949, the telegram delivered from Politburo of the Soviet Union to North Korean ambassador Shtykov rejected the invasion proposal of Kim II Sung in the pretext that the prolonged war would give the US the cause for any kind of interference in Korean affairs. Additionally, on 8 July 1950, Stalin circumscribed North Korea’s request to send Soviet military advisers by commanding Chinese chairman Mao Zedong to send Chinese representatives to Korea. Stalin’s intentional resort to China revealed his concern with the bilateral relationship of the US if Soviet military advisers were involved in the Korean War. Therefore, his political tactic here was to maximise the Soviet Union’s national benefits by making China a bulwark between two superpowers, while maintaining North Korea’s military advantages.

The more dramatic proof is Stalin’s telegram to Shtykov on the same day in which he sharply reprimanded him because of his promise of sending Soviet advisers to North Korea without Stalin’s permission. Stalin also required the advisers in North Korea to dress in civilian uniforms as correspondents of Pravda. Therefore, Stalin’s anxious foreign policy towards non-US intervention sufficiently proves the misconception of US president Harry S. Truman who announced in the statement that “communism had passed beyond the use of subversion to conquer independent nations and will now use armed invasion and war.” This was because this adherence to collusion theories oversimplified the Korean War as the Soviet Union’s imperialistic expansionism in the context of the Cold War, therefore overlooking the hidden realistic nationalism. This cautious nationalism corresponds with Shen Zhihua’s argument that the Berlin Crisis of 1948-1949 had exposed the Soviet Union’s political and military weakness compared with the US, and Stalin as a proponent of Russian great-power chauvinism must also take the nuclear deterrence effects into account when the conflict with the US was inevitable. Also, the empirical fact that Stalin again rejected Kim II Sung’s proposal to attack South Korea even after the withdrawal of American troops proves his reluctance to agitate the US. In other words, scholars such as John Lewis Gaddis who view the Korean War as an ideological conflict in which the Soviet Union and its allies invaded South Korea as a counterbalance to the triumph of the Marshall Plan and NATO in the West Europe is skeptical. The diplomatic documents mentioned above emphasise more on the Soviet’s national interests, rather than the prospects of the communism struggle with the West.

The second point that demonstrates the Soviet Union’s realistic approach towards the Korean War is its complicated relationship with communist China which catalysed the Soviet Union’s involvement in the Korean War. In particular, the signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance as a substitute to the former Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance severely deprived Soviet Union’s benefits in North-eastern China and therefore incentivised it to acquire more Russian national interests throughout the war. For example, the new Sino-Soviet treaties announced that the ‘Soviet Government transfer without compensation to the Government of China all its rights to joint administration of the Chinese Changchun Railway with all the property belonging to the Railway’. Additionally, the agreements of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Arthur port and the end of the Soviet’s monopoly of Dalian administration also reached between two states. These terms are an irreversible blow to the Soviet Union’s distributed national interests acquired from the Yalta agreement because communist camp solidarity in the context of the Cold War’s ideological struggle must take into account at that time. As Shen Zhihua argued, the outcome of the treaty negotiations resulted in the Soviet Union’s strategic loss in the Far East including the free transportation in Manchuria and the important ice-free port on the Pacific. Therefore, the Korean War would be a turning point of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy from the passive defence to the strategic offence because only the Korean Peninsula as a geopolitical resource could meet the requirements of compensation measures. At this point, the Soviet Union again embedded its realistic nationalism into its foreign policies and therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the ideological factor was always secondary in Stalin’s mind compared to the Soviet’s nationalism.

According to the record of talks between Stalin and Mao Zedong on January 22 1950, when Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Molotov proposed the equal participation of both sides in respect to the joint administration of the Chinese Changchun Railway, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhou Enlai rejected this proposal. He pointed out that the ‘existing management of KChZhD and the office of the direct ought to be abolished and that the offices of the commission chairman and of the director should be replaced by Chinese cadres’. Zhou Enlai’s radical reaction can be regarded as an obvious resistance to the Soviet’s nationalism in the context of conflicting national interests. This fragile Sino-Soviet alliance is also a factor, making the Soviet’s involvement in the Korean War necessary to support its nationalism. As Malkasian Carter argued, for the Soviet Union, the Korean War would play a vital role in tying the PRC more firmly to the Soviet Union because the Sino-America rapprochement under the fragile alliance would be detrimental to the Soviet’s strategic orbit. This argument further justifies what Mineo Nakajima said, that considerable difficulties emerging from the Sino-Soviets new treaty made Stalin realise the potential threat of the PRC. Therefore, the communist states’ collusion towards the Korean War is unjustified. Ultimately, the combination of the desire to maintain national interests in the Far East and the fragile Sino-Soviet alliance is the fundamental determinant of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy towards the Korean War, and its nationalism is the driving force behind its operations.

However, although several diplomatic documents demonstrated the Soviet Union’s realistic nationalism towards the Korean War, they might lead to the misconception that the calculation of national interests absolutely overshadowed the imperialistic struggle with the US in the context of the Cold War. For example, on 14 May 1950, Stalin’s telegram to Mao Zedong reversed the Soviet Union’s foreign policy from cautious defence to aggressive offence towards Korean unification: ‘in light of the changed international situation, USSR agreed with the proposal of the Koreans to move toward reunification’. The meaning of “changed international situation” must be interpreted in the discourse of imperialistic struggle with the US, rather than the above-mentioned threat of China or the realistic nationalism. This is because the establishment of US power in the Pacific had already affected the balance of superpower. For example, on January 12, 1950, American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, delivered a speech in respect to post-war American security strategy in the Far East. In this speech, Acheson not only excluded South Korea from the American collective security by dividing the defensive perimeter along the Aleutians, Japan, Ryukyu, and Philippines, but also expressed the firm determination to maintain US power in Japan. These changed situations in the Far East are the real causes to Stalin’s reversal of Korean policies because a revived and remilitarised Japan with the US’s support would be a lingering threat to Soviet security. As John Garver argued, American sole occupation of Japan meant a NATO-like structure of anti-communist allies in the Far East had been established, so for the Soviet Union the communist victory in Korea would not only strengthen the communist power in East Asia, but also would further disassociate Japan from American domination. Therefore, in contrast to Shen Zhihua’s argument that the real intent of Stalin in this telegram was to ‘fob off all responsibility to China should the US unexpectedly intervene’, the strategic importance of the imperialistic struggle with the US also should be taken into account when interpreting the meaning of “the changed international situation”. More importantly, it demonstrates that the Soviet Union’s foreign policy towards the Korean War should not be a simple dichotomy between nationalism and imperialism, but a coordination of them.

Overall, by analysing many diplomatic documents and secondary sources, the definition of the Soviet Union’s foreign policies towards the Korean War should be a complex of both realistic nationalism embodied in the avoidance of direct confrontation with the US and the fragile Sino-Soviet alliance. This is further highlighted through the imperialistic struggle with the US embodied in the struggle over spheres of influence in the Far East. The simple dichotomy between nationalism and imperialism is not accurate.

Feature Image Credits: C. Peter, C., 2012. Vyacheslav Molotov signing the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, Moscow, Russia, 14 Aug 1945; note Song Ziwen and Joseph Stalin in background. [image] Available at: <https://ww2db.com/image.php?image_id=14821&gt;.


Primary Sources:

“Ciphered Telegram No. 3231, Filippov (Stalin) to Soviet Ambassador Roshchin,” July 08, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF, f. 45, op. 1, d. 331, l. 82; AVPRF, f. 059a, op. 5a, d. 3, p. 11, l. 117; and RGASPI, f. 558, op. 11, d. 334, ll.0082-0084. <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110691>

“Ciphered Telegram No. 36275 from Feng Xi [Stalin] to the Soviet Ambassador in Pyongyang,” July 08, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the President of the Russian Federation (APRF); copy available in Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Dmitriĭ Antonovich Volkogonov papers, 1887-1995, mm97083838. Translated by Vladislav Zubok <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117311>

“Ciphered Telegram No. 405976 from Shtykov to Feng Xi [Stalin], transmitting letter from Kim Il Sung to Stalin,” July 08, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF, f. 45, op. 1, d. 346, ll. 143-144; AVP RF, f. 059a, op. 5a, d. 4, p. 11, l. 151; and RGASPI, f. 558, op. 11, d. 346, ll. 0143-0144. Translated by Gary Goldberg. <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/110690>

“Ciphered Telegram No. 8600, Vyshinsky to Mao Zedong,” May 14, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, The document, from the Russian Presidential Archives, was given by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to South Korean President Kim Young-Sam during the latter’s visit to Moscow in June 1994, and was made available to CWIHP by the South Korean Embassy in Washington. A copy was subsequently found in RGASPI, f. 558, op. 11, d. 334, ll.0055. <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/115976>

 Copied the text: Dean Acheson. “Speech on the Far East”. Speech, January 12, 1950. From Teaching American History. <https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/speech-on-the-far-east/>.

“Politburo Decision to Confirm the Following Directive to the Soviet Ambassador in Korea,” September 24, 1949, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF, f. 3, op. 65, d. 776, ll. 30-32, and AVP RF, Fond 059a, Opis 5a, Delo 3, Papka 11, listy 75-77. <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/112133>

“Record of Talks between I.V. Stalin and Chairman of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China Mao Zedong,” January 22, 1950, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the President, Russian Federation (APRF), f. 45, op.1, d.329, ll. 29-38. Translated by Danny Rozas. <https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111245>

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 Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, 14 February 1950, Accessed via The World and Japan Database,<https://worldjpn.grips.ac.jp/documents/texts/docs/19500214.T1E.html>

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Ballis William. “The Pattern of Sino-Soviet Treaties, 1945-1950”. The Annuals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 277, Report on China(September 1951): 167-176 https://www.jstor.org/stable/1030262

Campbell Joel. “The Wrong War: The Soviets and the Korean War, 1945-1953”. International Social Science Review 88, no. 3(2014): 1-29. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=bth&AN=103333081&site=eds-live&scope=site.>

Carter Malkasian. “Outbreak: The Communists Strike”. In The Korean War 1950-1953, 7-10. Botley: Osprey Publishing Ltd, 2001. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat00006a&AN=melb.b7770531&site=eds-live&scope=site>

Gaddis John Lewis. “Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War”. The Atlantic 273, no. 5(May 1994): 138-144. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=edsglr&AN=edsglr.A15183651&site=eds-live&scope=site>

 Garver John.“Polemics, Paradigms, Responsibility, and the Origines of the US-PRC Confrontation in the 1950s.”. The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 3, no. 1(Spring 1994):1-34. <https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.23612544&site=eds-live&scope=site.>

 Nakajima Mineo. “The Sino-Soviet Confrontation: Its Roots in the International Background of the Korean War’. The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs Jan 1979, no. 1(Jan 1979): 19-47. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2159072

Shen Zhihua. “Sino-Soviet Relations and the Origins of the Korean War: Stalin’s Strategic Goals in the Far East”. Journal of Cold War Studies 2, no. 2(Spring 2000): 44-68. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26925062

Shen Zhihua. “Mao’s trip to Moscow”. In Mao, Stalin, and the Korean War:Trilateral communist relations in the 1950s, 88-105. London, New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012. <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=981987.>

Shen Zhihua. “Stalin reverses his Korea policy”. In Mao, Stalin, and the Korean War:Trilateral communist relations in the 1950s, 106-132. London, New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012. <https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=981987.>

Stueck, William. “ The Korean War”. In The Cambridge History of the Cold War, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler, 266-287. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521837194

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