Soviet leader approved invasion proposal sent by Kim Il-sung in 1950
Josef Stalin, secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, poses at his desk in the Kremlin, Moscow, in 1950.
By Andrei Lankov
Like it or not, the history of Korea in the last 150 years has often been shaped by external forces and therefore by foreign political leaders. One of these leaders was Joseph Stalin, a brutal and charismatic dictator who led the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s until his death in March 1953. For many people, he became the embodiment of brutality and state terror on an unprecedented scale, but he still has many more admirers in Russia than most Westerners realize. And of course, he was instrumental in bringing about the division of Korea and shaping the political, social and cultural landscape of its northern state.
Revolutions often bring with them a dramatic increase in social mobility. Had the 1917 Russian Revolution not happened, Joseph Stalin would have probably been a reasonably well known poet, journalist or perhaps even a priest. This would still be seen by his fellow villagers as a meteoric rise from his humble origins, but it is nothing compared to what actually happened.
Born Joseph Dzhugashvili in 1880, the son of a cobbler who was a notorious drunk and a hardworking, smart seamstress mother, the young boy attended a religious school with the intent of becoming a priest. Disappointment with religion, in his late teens contributed to the fateful decision to join the revolutionary movement. With a particular zeal for action and violence, he successfully planned and carried out daring paramilitary operations. Perhaps predictably, he spent much time in prison and in exile in Siberia (the common fate of revolutionary activists of his generation in Tsarist Russia).
By the time of the 1917 Revolution, he was a member of the Bolshevik Party’s top leadership, albeit a relatively junior one. He was charged with dealing with policies related to ethnic minorities (he was himself a Georgian and until the end of his days and spoke Russian with a noticeable accent and occasional grammatical mistakes).
However, he was soon to show his skill and efficiency as a bureaucratic manager and became the general secretary of the Communist Party. The job was not originally associated with any significant executive power, rather it was seen as bureaucratic and managerial, but Stalin changed its nature.
Skilfully manipulating ideological divisions and personal rivalries between friends and foes alike, Stalin gradually destroyed all intra-party opposition and by the late 1920s emerged as the unchallenged ruler of the party and of the country itself. He supervised the country’s emergence as a superpower, but also saw 1.2 million of his fellow countrymen executed for political crimes (and many more died in prison or were starved to death). He would remain an absolute dictator until his death in 1953, by which time he had arguably gathered more political power than any other person on the planet.
But how did Stalin shape Korean history? He did it in a number of ways, but perhaps most important was the fact that he created an example to be emulated. When, in 1945, Stalin’s army took over the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and began to construct a country there, the nascent state was to all intents and purposes a miniature version of Stalin’s Russia. It had a near identical political structure, economic system and had the same ideology (at the time known officially as Marxism-Leninism but was in many regards Stalin’s own creation).
But Stalin was to have a far more direct impact on Korean history, as least in the 1945-53 period.
Interestingly enough, until 1945, Stalin, like the entire top leadership of the Soviet Union, had not paid much attention to Korea. It was a country that was seen as small and relatively insignificant, far less important than neighbouring Japan and China. Nonetheless, from the early 1920s, the Soviet government actively supported Korean communists. Korean guerrillas were provided with weapons, trained and, if necessary, hidden in Soviet territory. One of them was a young man called Kim Song-ju, who is much better known by his nom de guerre of Kim Il-sung.
It seems possible, and indeed likely, in the turbulent days of August 1945, that Stalin did not pay much attention to the decision to divide Korea into two halves. It was assumed that the Soviets would fight the Japanese north of the 38th parallel and the Americans would take over the southern part. However, when the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States began to deteriorate in late 1945, the seemingly provisional division soon solidified, leading to the emergence of two mutually hostile states on the Peninsula.
Now, available archival documents show that Stalin became surprisingly interested in Korean affairs from 1946. That summer, Kim Il-sung and Pak Hon-yong (the then leader of the South Korean Communist Party) visited Moscow and spent three weeks discussing the Korean situation with Stalin. Stalin listened carefully and gave them precise instructions about what to do going forward. These instructions were carried out with great precision.
For a brief period in 1945, Stalin did not seemingly know what to do with Korea and even signed a secret cable that demanded that Soviet generals refrain from excessively radical communist policies in the Soviet zone. But things changed in 1946 and from then, the northern zone would go through a series of intensive and extensive communizing reforms. Land was distributed to farmers, all industries were nationalized and opponents of the regime were silenced.
Few people understand the scale to which the top Soviet leadership controlled the daily decision making in then North Korea. The Soviet advisers drafted the land reform law, as well as other legal acts of the new government. The Soviet military police arrested all the major opponents of the emerging communist regime, and they were then sent to prison camps in Siberia – no North Korean penitentiary system existed as yet.
Even the relatively mundane actions of the North Korean government on that stage needed approval from Moscow. The Soviet Politburo, the supreme council of the state, regularly approved the agenda of the North Korean rubber-stamping parliament and even formally “gave permission” to stage a military parade in February 1948 when the establishment of a North Korean army was formally announced.
Stalin himself spent much time in early 1948 editing the draft of the North Korean constitution. The draft, having been prepared in Pyongyang was sent to Moscow, to the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet specialists did not like what they saw and wrote a highly critical assessment of it. Stalin intervened and spent nearly a full working day (or rather a nearly full working night _ Stalin was well known for his nocturnal working habits) editing it. He was much softer on the original draft but nonetheless rewrote a number of articles which, needless to say, were included in the final version of the Constitution.
However, after the emergence of the North Korean state in 1948, Stalin had a major disagreement with Kim Il-sung, the young North Korean leader, whose promotion to top positions Stalin had himself approved. Kim Il-sung wanted to unify the country and he believed that the only way to do so was to invade South Korea. Historians have uncovered about fifty cables and letters which Kim Il-sung sent to Stalin, asking for permission to attack the South. Paradoxically, Stalin, not known for his dislike for violence, might have been the person who for a couple of years prevented the Korean War from erupting. Stalin was afraid that such a conflict would lead to an open clash between Russia and the United States, and he understood that his country – still lacking nuclear weapons at the time – was not prepared for such a confrontation. With that in mind, Stalin explicitly vetoed Kim Il-sung’s invasion plans, and in the 1940s, Stalin’s word was absolute in North Korea.
But things changed quite quickly. By January 1950, the Soviet Union had successfully developed nuclear weapons and equally significantly, communists had taken power in China. In the new situation, Stalin somewhat reluctantly approved an invasion proposal once again sent by Kim Il-sung.
Kim Il-sung spent almost the whole month of April in Moscow where he discussed the invasion plans, which were actually drafted by Russian military officers. However, Stalin made it clear that Kim Il-sung should be prepared to take responsibility if things turned out badly. The Soviet Union promised financial, technical and logistical support but it was made explicit that no ground forces would be sent to Korea.
When, in October 1950, things took a bad turn for Kim Il-sung in the war, Stalin briefly considered abandoning North Korea altogether, even making jokes about ‘Americans, our future neighbours in the Far East’ (the jokes were later recalled by Nikita Khrushchev). However, he would later provide air support and would encourage the Chinese as they prepared to get involved in the war.
It has often been argued that he had some sinister plans (or should we say realpolitik motive?) while encouraging Chinese intervention. Stalin clearly saw the emerging communist China as a potential rival and clearly would not have minded them getting bogged down in a confrontation with the United States. But no documents have surfaced as yet to prove this to be the reason why Stalin encouraged the Chinese to get involved.
Stalin died in March 1953, soon to become the object of ferocious attacks in his native land and across Eastern Europe. But, ironically perhaps, the North Korean leadership remained loyal to his memory. The main street in Pyongyang was still known as Stalin Street well into the 1960s.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.