Bruce Cumings replies to Kathryn Weathersby

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Oct 30 07:37:12 PST 1998

>To Attack, or Not to Attack?: Stalin, Kim Il Sung, and the Prelude to War
>by Kathryn Weathersby
>The historical record of the Korean War has recently been greatly enriched by
>Russian President Boris Yeltsin's presentation to President Kim Young-Sam
>of South Korea, during the latter's visit to Moscow in June 1994, of 216
>previously classified high level Soviet documents on the war from Russian
>archives. The collection totals 548 pages and includes documents from the
>period 1949-1953.

(clip) ---------------------------------- 11 July 1995

To the Editor:

Since Kathryn Weathersby chose once again to stigmatize my work (as "revisionist") in the spring 1995 issue of the CWIHP Bulletin, perhaps I might be permitted a comment. The documents that she reproduced, selectively culled from a vastly larger archive and handcarried to Seoul by a Boris Yeltsin beseeching South Korea to aid the faltering Russian economy, are quite interesting but in ways that she does not seem to understand.

Document #1, a standard transcript of Kim Il Sung’s meeting with Stalin on 5 March 1949 widely circulated for use inside the Soviet government, is impressive primarily for how bland it is, adding very little to the existing record. If anything it illustrates how distant Stalin was from the Korean situation, probing Kim on what kind of an army he had, what kind South Korea had, and whether he had utilized the "national bourgeoisie" to organize trade (which Kim indeed had done). This transcript adds virtually nothing to what has been known of this meeting, a relatively full record of which can be found in an archive of captured North Korean materials in Washington. But it does appear to show that no secret military alliance or agreement issued forth from this meeting, as the South long claimed.

This document certainly does not provide evidence for Dr. Weathersby’s assertion that the meeting was "revealing in a most intimate way [of] the nature of the relationship" between the USSR and the DPRK or that North Korea was "utterly dependent" on the USSR. The captured archive has large numbers of documents on Korean-Soviet trade, negotiations over various exchanges, and proof that some precious Korean minerals, like gold and monazite (when refined, useful for a thorium atomic bomb) were indeed transferred in large quantities to Russia. (I covered this briefly in my Origins of the Korean War, volume 2 [Princeton University Press, 1990], pp. 151-2, 340-45.) These voluminous materials still do not prove North Korea’s utter dependency on the USSR, especially when contrasted to South Korea, which had half its annual budget and five-sixths of its imports in the 1950s provided virtually gratis by the United States. (Stalin, to the contrary, charged Kim two percent—about what mortgages cost in the U.S. then.)

Document #7, Stalin’s telegram to Russian ambassador to P’yôngyang Shtykov on 30 January 1950, does not say what Weathersby says it does, namely, it does not "reveal so bluntly" Stalin’s strategic thinking or his "perfect mafioso style." Instead it shows Stalin appearing to be more interested than at any previous point in Kim Il Sung’s plans for South Korea, without a hint of what Stalin’s own strategic thinking might be. Dr. Weathersby thinks the timing of this change is to be explained by Dean Acheson’s famed press club speech on January 12, which is to assume a Stalin so inexperienced as to take Acheson’s public statement of a private policy at face value (and even the public statement is always misread by scholars). Finally, Stalin’s request that Kim send 25,000 tons of lead (whether gratis or for a price is not mentioned) is no more "mafioso" than the U.S. more or less telling South Korea that it would require Korea’s entire annual output of tungsten in the early 1950s, to make up for the lost tungsten supplies of southern China.

Documents number two through six are considerably more interesting, but remain inexplicable unless placed against the back- and-forth logic of the developing civil conflict on the peninsula, with full knowledge of what the South and the U.S. were doing. The critical issue in these documents is not a wholesale invasion of the South, but a military operation to seize the Ongjin Peninsula, which juts southward from the 38th parallel on Korea’s west coast, reachable from the South only by sea or by an overland route through North Korean territory. This is where the Korean War conventionally dated from 25 June 1950 began, and where fighting between the South and North began on 4 May 1949—in a battle probably started by the South, according to the most reliable accounts.

According to these Soviet documents, Kim Il Sung first broached the idea of an operation against Ongjin to Shtykov on 12 August 1949. This came on the heels of the biggest Ongjin battle of 1949, initiated on August 4 by the North to dislodge South Korean army units holding Unp’a Mountain, a salient above the 38th parallel which the South had aggressed against in a previous battle and the summit of which commanded much of the terrain to the north. The North sought, in the words of the American commander of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) "to recover high ground in North Korea occupied by [the] South Korean Army." Before dawn it launched strong artillery barrages and then at 5:30 a.m., 4000 to 6000 North Korean border guards attacked the salient. They routed the South Korean defenders, destroying two companies of ROK soldiers and leaving hundreds dead.

Virtual panic ensued at high levels of the South Korean government, leading Syngman Rhee and his favored high officers in the army to argue that the only way to relieve pressure on Ongjin was to drive north to Ch’orwon—which happened to be about 20 miles into North Korean territory. Rhee, who was meeting with Chiang Kai-shek [Jiang Jieshi] in a southern Korean port, returned to Seoul and dressed down his defense minister for not having "attacked the North" after the Ongjin debacle. The American ambassador and the KMAG commander both intervened, since an attack on Ch’orwon would, in the words of the latter, "cause heavy civil war and might spread." The South did not move against Ch’orwon, but attacks from both sides across the parallel on the Ongjin peninsula continued through the end of 1949.

All this is based on unimpeachable American archival documentation, some of which was reproduced in the 1949 Korea papers of the Foreign Relations of the U.S. and which I treated at length in my 1990 book. When we now look at both sides of the parallel with the help of Soviet materials, we see how similar the Russians were in seeking to restrain hotheaded Korean leaders, including the two chiefs of state. Indeed, two key Russian Embassy officials seeking to restrain Kim used language almost identical to that which John Foster Dulles used with Rhee in his June 1950 discussions in Seoul (both, upon hearing Kim or Rhee declaim their desire to attack the other side, "tried to switch the discussion to a general theme," to quote from document #6). We see that Kim Il Sung, like southern leaders, wanted to bite off a chunk of exposed territory or grab a small city—all of Kaesong for example, which is bisected by the 38th parallel, or Haeju city just above the parallel on Ongjin, which southern commanders wanted to occupy in 1949-50.

The Soviet documents also demonstrate the hardwon, learned logic of this civil war by late 1949, namely, that both sides understood that their big power guarantors would not help them if they launched an unprovoked general attack—or even an assault on Ongjin or Ch’orwon. Document #6, a telegram from the Russian ambassador to Moscow in January 1950, shows Kim Il Sung impatient that the South "is still not instigating an attack," thus to justify his own, and the Russians in P’yôngyang tell him once again that he cannot attack Ongjin without risking general civil war. Meanwhile Rhee and his advisors (some of whom were Americans with cabinet-level portfolios in the ROK government) had gotten the message (especially through OSS and CIA operative Preston Goodfellow) that the US would only back Seoul in the case of an unprovoked and unequivocal attack from the North. Thus the 1950 logic for both sides was to see who would be stupid enough to move first, with Kim itching to invade and hoping for a clear southern provocation, and hotheads in the South hoping to provoke an "unprovoked" assault, thus to get American help—for that was the only way the South could hope to win. What better way for both sides to begin than to do it in isolated, remote Ongjin, with no foreign observers present along the parallel?

Other items in these documents also bear comment. They make clear that well before the war Kim already had begun playing Moscow off against Beijing, for example letting Shtykov overhear him say, at an apparently drunken luncheon on 19 January 1950, that if the Russians wouldn’t help him unify the country, "Mao Zedong is his friend and will always help Korea." In general this document underscores my point that the victory of the Chinese revolution had an enormous refractory effect on North Korea (Origins, 1990, pp. 369-71), and that North Korea’s China connection was a trump card Kim could play to create some breathing room for his regime between the two communist giants. The documents also show that Kim’s timing for an invasion was deeply influenced by his desire to get large numbers of Korean soldiers back from China, where they had been fighting for years with Mao’s forces (Origins, 1990, pp. 451-53).

These documents put to rest forever, in my view, P’yôngyang’s canard that it was Pak Hon-yong, the southern communist leader, who argued for war in 1950 and foolishly thought the southern people would "rise up" to greet northern troops (Origins, 1990, pp. 456-57). Kim Il Sung trumped up these charges in show trials in 1953, and then had Pak and his close allies executed. Meanwhile Kim told Shtykov in January 1950 that "partisans will not decide the question. The people of the south know that we have a good army." South Korean "liberation" was to come courtesy of, and only of, the Korean Peoples Army.

Finally, what is absolutely fascinating about documents two through six is Kim Il Sung’s basic conception of a Korean War, originated at least by August 1949: namely, attack the cul de sac of Ongjin (which no sane blitzkreig commander would do precisely because it is a cul de sac), move eastward and grab Kaesong, and then see what happens. At a minimum this would establish a much more secure defense of P’yôngyang, which was quite vulnerable from Ongjin and Kaesong. At maximum, it might open Seoul to his forces. That is, if the southern army collapses, move on to Seoul and occupy it in a few days. And here we see the significance of the collapse of the ROK 2nd and 7th divisions, 25-27 June 1950, which opened the historic invasion corrider and placed the Korean People’s Army in Seoul on the 27th, and why some people with intimate knowledge of the Korean civil conflict have speculated that these divisions may have harbored a fifth column (Origins, 1990, pp. 572-73, 582-85). Kim did not by any means get what he wanted out of the Korean War, but, rest his soul, he got his minimum demand: Kaesong and Ongjin remain firmly on the other side of the 1953 demilitarized zone....1

Readers of this Bulletin may not be as interested in the details of Korean history as I am. But they make the point that Korean history is made first and foremost by Koreans, which is something that much of the Korean War literature (from all sides) still fails to grasp. The Soviet documents also show that they are merely documents, that is, evidence that remains to be interpreted with all the intelligence, hindsight, imagination and care that the historian can muster. Furthermore these documents are highly selective, drawn from one portion of one section of one archive, and proferred to a Seoul still socked into the Korean civil struggle by a mendicant from Moscow. (Can we imagine the reverse? An American president currying favor in P’yôngyang with a handful of half-century-old documents?) And even when we have every document the Soviets ever produced, we will still need the South Korean archives, the North Korean archives, the Chinese archives on both sides of the Taiwan straits, and the American intelligence, signals and cryptography archives, before we will be able to argue on truly solid ground the question we ought all try to forget, namely, "who started the Korean civil war?"

Sincerely yours,

Bruce Cumings

1. The armistice did not end discussions of seizing Ongjin and Kaesông, however. According to American intelligence reports in February 1955, Syngman Rhee had held "meetings in which Rhee told Korean military and civilian leaders to prepare for military actions against north Korea," and in October came reports saying that he had ordered plans for the retaking of Kaesông and the Ongjin Peninsula. This never happened, probably because the U.S. once again prevented Rhee from doing it. See declassified information cited in Donald S. MacDonald, U.S.-Korean Relations from Liberation to Self-Reliance (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1992), 23-24, 80.

Louis Proyect


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