Shen Zhihua wrote:
In 1949, Stalin insisted that the unification of the Korean peninsula had to be realized in a peaceful manner. In early 1950, however, he suddenly approved North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s proposal for an invasion of South Korea. Until very recently, the only clue to the reason for this major policy shift was found in Stalin’s telegram to Mao Zedong on 14 May 1950, which was declassified in the early 1990s. In it Stalin simply stated that “in light of the altered international situation, we agree with the proposal of the Koreans to move toward reunification.”1 What Stalin meant by the phrase “altered international situation” has remained a mystery. Scholars have been unable to explain this sudden and dramatic transformation of the Soviet Union’s policy toward Korea in 1950.
In the mid-1990s, the Russian government declassified a number of crucial documents on the Korean War. In addition, many new memoirs and interviews on the subject have recently been published in China. These new sources have enabled scholars to reconsider many aspects of the Korean War and Soviet foreign policy.2 Much of the discussion has focused on Stalin’s shifting attitudes toward Korea in 1950 and the factors that may have motivated him: the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China, the development of Soviet nuclear capabilities, the determination that the United States would not intervene in Korea, and the desire to offset the U.S. presence in Japan with the establishment of a Communist state in Korea.3
In the book Uncertain Partners
, Sergei Goncharov, John Lewis, and Xue Litai argue that Stalin’s main goal in Korea was to expand the Soviet Union’s buffer zone. Korea gave Stalin a springboard from which he could invade Japan in future conflicts. In addition, they contend that Stalin wanted to test U.S. will, aggravate the hostility between China and the United States, and divert American military attention away from Europe.4 John W. Garver places primary emphasis on Stalin’s attitude toward Japan, contending that Stalin hoped to prevent that country from becoming a U.S. military base.5 A.V. Torkunov, on the other hand, concludes that Stalin felt free to do as he wished in Korea, since he assumed that the United States was interested only in the fate of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) in Taiwan. Torkunov also argues that Stalin was influenced by Soviet inroads into the U.S. nuclear monopoly, a shift that, in his view, could deter U.S. intervention in the Far East.6
This essay analyzes the change in Stalin’s policy toward Korea on three different levels. First, it examines the historical and political context of Soviet policy toward Korea in the 1950s. Second, it provides an in-depth look at Stalin’s immediate incentives to give his approval for the war. Finally, it assesses Stalin’s calculations of the means necessary for the success of his new policy. At each level, issues such as the Sino-Soviet alliance, the growing Sino-American confrontation, the complicated U.S.-Soviet relationship, and the postwar context of East Asia are considered.
The Political Context in 1950
The strategic goals of Soviet foreign policy after World War II fell into three major categories: peaceful coexistence, world revolution, and national security. Among the three, priority was given to national security. Stalin alternately exploited peaceful coexistence for propagandistic purposes and promoted world revolution whenever expedient. Both of these strategic goals, however, were ultimately subordinate to his perception of what would best serve the Soviet Union’s national security interests. The three goals sometimes overlapped and reinforced one another, but at other times the first two were at odds with the third. When conflicts arose, the exigencies of national security won out.
Because of the frequent contradictions among the three goals, Stalin’s foreign policy was continually shifting in the postwar period. In the first years after the war, Stalin hoped to cooperate with Western allies and desired to consolidate and develop the benefits he gained through the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. At the same time, Stalin sought to expand into regions such as Turkey and Iran, which the Yalta conference did not cover. But Stalin initially did not let his desire to extend the Soviet sphere of influence undermine his policy of cooperation with the West. The Soviet Union adopted a policy of retreat and compromise when confronted with a firm position by the United States and Great Britain. The Soviet withdrawals from Iran, Manchuria, and North Korea revealed that Stalin’s expansionist objectives were limited. Whenever possible, he avoided direct conflict with the United States.7
The Marshall Plan of June 1947 changed Stalin’s attitude. He suspected that the Plan was designed to create an anti-Soviet bloc in Europe through the expansion of Western influence into Eastern Europe and the rearmament of western Germany, Russia’s historical enemy. Stalin’s reaction to the Marshall Plan pushed the United States and the Soviet Union more deeply into Cold War conflict. After 1947, Stalin’s policy toward the United States and the West became increasingly aggressive.8