Shelton WOODS

A Chinese soldier, killed by U.S. marines in Korea on 23 May 1951. PHOTO BY N. H. MCMASTERS.

The Korean War was a bloody attempt by the opposing governments of North and South Korea to reunify the divided country by force. China supported North Korea, while the United Nations, led by the United States, supported South Korea.

The Korean War was fought between North Korea and South Korea from 1950 until 1953 as each country attempted to reunify Korea (which had been divided after World War II) under its respective government. North Korea was supported by China, and South Korea was supported by U.S.-led United Nations troops.

On 25 June 1950 North Korean forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, which had been established as the border between the two Koreas, and invaded their southern neighbor. At the time of the invasion the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was less than one year old. China’s post–World War II civil war exacerbated its domestic, social, and economic chaos, which had begun in 1937 when Japan had invaded and occupied China’s east coast. The PRC was bolstered by the February 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. Nonetheless, in June 1950 the PRC was an infant state whose immediate goal, apart from survival, was to recapture Taiwan from the fledgling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang [KMT]) soldiers and politicians. The PRC was hardly in a position to confront the world’s superpower, but that is what it did.

Kim Il Sung, leader of North Korea, wanted to unify the peninsula and establish a Communist economic structure. However, he was blocked by the Western-backed Syngman Rhee, president of South Korea. Kim Il Sung believed that the southern peasants would support communism and that his invasion would galvanize a grass-roots movement in favor of communism.

One month before the invasion Kim met with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong in Beijing, and Kim told the CCP leadership that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had approved the plan for a southern advance. Although Mao urged caution, he promised support to North Korea and vowed that China would enter the war should the United States intervene. It is possible that Mao did not know the exact date when Kim would cross into South Korea, but he and the CCP were fully aware of North Korea’s impending actions.

North Korean forces swept south in a blitzkrieg-like push that forced the South Korean and U.S. forces into the southeast area around Pusan. On the day of the invasion the United States called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which passed a resolution calling for the cessation of hostilities and a return to the antebellum border arrangement on the peninsula. Two days later, on 27 June, the United Nations agreed to provide assistance to the retreating South Korean forces. U.S. president Harry Truman responded to Kim’s invasion by ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Straits. Mao declared that this action demonstrated the true imperialistic colors of the United States.

Through the summer of 1950 North Korean forces advanced and occupied almost the entire peninsula. However, on 15 September, on the peninsula’s western region of Inchon, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur, the U.N. commander, and his forces landed and began to push the North Korean army back to its original position, north of the thirty-eighth parallel. The sudden reversal of momentum in the war alarmed Mao. As South Korean and U.S. forces neared the thirty-eighth parallel, China feared that the United States might use Korea as a stepping-stone to China. Mao and the CCP politburo met to discuss the continued advance of U.S. forces. Zhou Enlai communicated to an Indian official that China would intervene should U.S. forces step north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

Caution Outvoted

On 7 October the U.S. First Cavalry Division crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. The next day Mao decided to send an army of Chinese troops called the “Chinese People’s Volunteers” (CPV) across the Yalu River and into the peninsula. This action was taken after weeks of debate among the CCP leadership. Some of the CCP elite, such as Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai, expressed grave concerns about a potential war between the United States and China. They argued that apart from China’s domestic, economic, political, and social crises, the United States was the planet’s greatest power and the only nation with atomic weapons. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had just finished fighting a brutal civil war and was in the process of downsizing. Although Mao and the other CCP leaders appreciated these challenges, other considerations outweighed the cautious voices. First was Mao’s earlier promise to Kim. If China did not come to North Korea’s defense, all of Asia would consider China an unreliable ally. Second, some in the CCP believed that a confrontation between the United States and the PRC was inevitable. The three areas where this would most likely take place, according to Mao, were in Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Of the three locations, Mao thought that the Chinese would do best in Korea because of its proximity to China and its favorable terrain. Most importantly, if the United States successfully united Korea with a pro-capitalist government, China would have a 1,000-kilometer-plus border that it would have to defend.

Mao appointed Peng Dehuai, a remarkable military strategist, to lead the CPV army and insisted that the most important element of the initial CPV engagement was that of surprise. MacArthur did not take the Chinese force seriously, and his underestimation of the CPV was, Mao believed, to China’s strategic advantage. Indeed, MacArthur was so confident that he stated publicly that he would be completely victorious by Thanksgiving and that U.S. troops would be home by Christmas.

Mao’s 8 October 1950 decision to enter the conflict was predicated, in part, on Stalin’s commitment to support the CPV invasion with air cover. However, on 10 October Stalin gave notice that the Soviet Union would not supply air cover for the CPV. The Soviet leader feared that if Soviet planes and pilots engaged the U.S. Air Force, the peninsula war would escalate into a third world war.

Various North Korean and PRC leaders felt betrayed by Stalin. Stalin had approved Kim’s plan to move south of the thirty-eighth parallel; he had encouraged Mao to send Chinese troops to North Korea’s aid. And now that North Korea and the PRC desperately needed the support of the Soviet military, Stalin reneged on his commitments.

Faced with the realities of a demoralized, reeling North Korean army and no Soviet air support, Mao nonetheless pursued an aggressive course of action; he ordered Peng to proceed with the CPV move across the Yalu River.

Truman Reassured

At this same time, on 15 October President Truman met with MacArthur on Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean. The general assured his commander that the Chinese forces were weak and demoralized and that even should the Chinese cross the Yalu River, they did not have sufficient transports to quickly move large numbers of soldiers across the river. MacArthur’s impressive Inchon landing and subsequent victories added to his legendary self-confidence, and at Wake he exuded authority and a mistaken omniscient view of the Korean War.

Close to 400,000 CPV troops began crossing the Yalu on 19 October, and six days later at the Unsan-Onjong region the Chinese caught the United N
ations Command (UNC) and South Korean forces by surprise. Thousands of U.S. and South Korean soldiers were killed or captured. The news of CPV successes delighted Mao and Stalin. Both leaders encouraged Peng to use these initial victories as momentum to push the enemy forces not only south of the thirty-eighth parallel but also out of Seoul, the south’s capital city. Mao also instructed Peng to concentrate on defeating the South Korean forces, which would leave the U.S. forces bereft of indigenous allies and make them appear as imperialist invaders to the local population.

These sideline suggestions and orders began an ominous cycle of frustrations for the Communist leaders. Peng resented Stalin giving suggestions that would expose the CPV to dangerous counterattacks. At one point Peng suggested that if Stalin wanted the CPV to move farther south, then the Soviet leader should send his own troops to the peninsula. Peng even found Mao’s orders somewhat unrealistic. Peng was unwilling to throw caution to the wind and carry through with an all-out offensive against the retreating UNC. He was concerned about the possibilities of his army being spread too thin and cut off from needed supplies. MacArthur’s successful Inchon landing was still fresh on his mind, and he feared another such powerful counterattack.

Between 19 October and 21 December the CPV launched three offensives against the UNC. Zhou Enlai wanted to combine this military success with a diplomatic victory. On 17 January 1951 Zhou proposed that a multinational conference convene to discuss foreign troop withdrawal from Korea and the return of Taiwan to the PRC.

Zhou’s hope for a quick end to the war ended just eight days later when U.S. general Matthew Ridgway followed his military instincts and launched a counterattack against the unprepared CPV, taking the CPV leadership by surprise. Mao ordered Peng to launch a counterattack, and this strategic gamble led to the first major CPV defeat on the peninsula. Both armies dug in, and the skirmishes that followed included alternate victories and defeats for the CPV.

MacArthur Sacked

After UNC victories during the 1951 winter campaign MacArthur publicly stated that the CPV’s losses might be just the first phase of the eventual PRC defeat. He noted that China’s eastern seaboard might be the next UNC target and that the United States might bring Kuomintang troops back to the mainland from Taiwan. President Truman viewed MacArthur’s unauthorized public statements as needlessly provocative. On 11 April MacArthur was relieved of duty. Several weeks later the CPV, under pressure from Mao, launched its fifth offensive, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 CPV casualties. This military debacle finally convinced Mao that sheer numbers and combat bravery were insufficient against a technologically superior enemy. On 26 May Mao ordered Peng to dig in along the thirty-eighth parallel and to abandon the human wave of attacks against the UNC.

During the summer of 1951 both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts because of the ever-increasing likelihood of a military stalemate on the peninsula. General Ridgway, having replaced MacArthur, proposed a parlay at Won-San Harbor. Peng rejected the location but accepted the idea of a face-to-face meeting between the two sides. Mao insisted that the meeting take place at Kaesong, a site near the thirty-eighth parallel. The negotiations were productive, and it became clear to the United States that the real authority in North Korea was Peng, who took his orders directly from Mao.

Two disagreements led to an impasse at the Kaesong talks. The first disagreement was over the suggested border between North and South Korea. The Chinese and the North Koreans insisted on the antebellum border along the thirty-eighth parallel. Ridgway and other U.S. advisors and politicians claimed that a return to the thirty-eighth parallel border would mean that the United States had fought for nothing and that Kim Il Sung would have no consequences for this unprovoked aggression. The United States suggested that the border be located somewhere between the Yalu River and the current location of the UNC troops, which was well north of the thirty-eighth parallel. Mao rejected this suggestion and insisted on a thirty-eighth parallel division.

The second disagreement concerned the exchange of prisoners. The Chinese assumed that the United States would observe the Geneva Convention and that a free exchange of prisoners on all sides would conclude hostilities. However, the United States insisted that all prisoners be afforded an opportunity to choose whether to defect to the enemy or return to their homeland. Many of the CPV and North Korean soldiers were demoralized by their experience during the war, and the United States encouraged the POWs to defect and live with greater freedom in South Korea, Taiwan, or other capitalist-friendly nations.

Compromise Reached

The two sides could not get past these two issues, and so the war continued for the next two years. These years were punctuated by excessively costly victories on both sides; battles resembled the give-and-take of World War I trench warfare.

Several events took place that encouraged Mao and Zhou Enlai to compromise on the POW issue. On the domestic front China was eager to launch its first five-year Soviet-model economic plan. Mao was keen to launch China into a dramatic economic recovery, and this was difficult to achieve given the budget drain of the CPV. Indeed, the PRC was able to keep its army on the Korean battlefields only through Soviet loans. The PRC leaders were also aware of growing CPV morale problems. Inadequate basic supplies translated into summers of hunger and winters of frostbite for the CPV. Furthermore, the North Korean economy was incapable of sustaining a civil war.

The United States was also seeking peace while concomitantly demonstrating its fighting resolve throughout 1952. On 24 October 1952 Secretary of State Dean Acheson addressed the U.N. General Assembly and stated that the United States would not compromise with regard to POW exchanges. The U.N. suggested that neutral parties tackle the POW problem. The next month an Indian diplomat suggested a compromise whereby every POW could meet with neutral-country diplomats and freely express his or her relocation preference. Zhou Enlai rejected this suggestion, and talks stalled again.

On 5 March 1953 Joseph Stalin died. Two weeks later the Soviet Union’s top officials encouraged Mao to compromise on the POW issue. This softer line coincided with the Soviets’ hope for better relations with the United States. By the end of March Zhou agreed to the proposal that neutral parties could interview POWs who were uncertain about repatriation. This represented a diplomatic defeat for the PRC, but it was difficult to ignore the wishes of the Soviet Union.

On 13 June 1953 the POW compromise was reached, and both sides prepared to exchange prisoners. However, South Korean president Syngman Rhee was unhappy with the agreement and released fifty Chinese prisoners without the prescribed interviews. China responded on 13 July with its last major offensive. Both sides were tired of fighting, and the United States insisted that Rhee had acted on his own and that this would not happen again. Two weeks later, on 27 July, the signed armistice brought the war to an end. All parties had to compromise. The United States settled for the thirty-eighth parallel border, and the Chinese agreed to a negotiated repatriation of prisoners.

POWs Repatriated

The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC), made up of personnel from India, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, took custody of all nonrepatriated prisoners to ascertain if the prisoners wanted to return to their h
ome countries. The final numbers were not flattering for the PRC. The UNC returned 75,801 POWS. The CPV returned 12,773 prisoners, of which 3,326 were U.S. POWs. However, 14,227 Chinese prisoners met with the NNRC and expressed their desire to defect from the PRC. On the other side, only twenty-one U.S. POWs defected to the Communist states. U.S. officials claimed that these numbers demonstrated the tyrannical nature of the PRC.

The PRC’s participation in the Korean War was both a blessing and a curse for the embryonic state. On the positive side the Korean War united the Chinese. Mao preached the gospel of anti-imperialism, economic equality, and human dignity. He and his lieutenants rallied the Chinese around the belief that the United States on the Korean Peninsula represented a century-long continuation of Western imperialism and economic exploitation in East Asia. A national PRC movement entitled “Resist America and Aid Korea” illustrated the Chinese unity that came about because of the war. Further, the Chinese people believed that they had finally stood up against the West. Mao, the son of a peasant, had fought the great United States to a standstill. The CCP and its top officials gained domestic credibility because of the CPV triumphs in Korea. The PRC’s stock also rose at an international level. Despite MacArthur’s claim to the contrary, the PRC and its army were not paper tigers. Peng brilliantly led the CPV against overwhelming odds. The world took notice of the PRC, even if the United States would wait until 1979 to recognize the twentieth century’s most populous country.

However, for all these advantages, the Korean War had dire consequences for the PRC. First and foremost was the human cost. An estimated 3 million people perished during the war, making it, after the two world wars, the third-costliest war in the twentieth century. As many as 1 million Chinese soldiers lost their lives in the war. This loss could never be repaid.

The war also chilled relations between the PRC and the USSR. Some among the PRC leadership accused the Soviet Union of being a merchant of death. They believed that Stalin had pushed China into the war and then used the war to keep China weak. In fact, China had to borrow money from the Soviet Union to fight this war—a debt that would be repaid on the backs of the farmers during the 1959–1961 Great Leap Forward.

For all of China’s global prestige in fighting the United States to a standstill, the Korean War made China an international outlaw. The U.N. condemned Kim Il Sung, and the international forces in Korea fought under the United Nations Command. Although the United States might have used the UNC as an excuse to send thousands of U.S. troops, the CPV was fighting the United Nations. A generation would pass before the PRC could join the U.N.

Finally, the Korean War irrevocably changed the PRC’s plans with regard to Taiwan. Mao intended to reincorporate the island into the PRC in August 1950. Plans were drawn up, and the United States intimated that it was finished with the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang [GMD]) and its leadership. Truman’s decision to protect Taiwan gave the KMT badly needed protection and aid. Thus, although China found security from Western imperialists on its Korean border, it entered the twenty-first century still unsure of its future with Taiwan.

Current relations between the Koreas and China are relatively good. In fact, political leaders around the world look to China to keep a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea from threatening neighboring states. South Korea and China enjoy cordial relations, but part of this is due to the lingering animosity both feel toward Japan for what Japan did in both countries during World War II.

Further Reading

Chen Jian. (1994). China’s road to the Korean War. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chong, Chae-ho. (2007). Between ally and partner: Korea-China relations and the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cumings, B. (1981, 1990). The origins of the Korean War (2 vols.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Halberstam, D. (2007) The coldest winter: America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion.

Hu, Wanli. (2005). Mao’s American Strategy and the Korean War (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2005).

Li Xiaobing & Millett, A. R. (2001). Mao’s generals remember Korea. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Peters, R., & Li Xiaobing. (2004). Voices from the Korean War: Personal stories of American, Korean, and Chinese soldiers. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Stueck, W. (1995). The Korean War: An international history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zhang Shu Guang. (1995). Mao’s military romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950–1953. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Source: Woods, Shelton. (2009). Korean War. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1249–1254. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

North Korean and Chinese Communist prisoners are assembled in one of the United Nations’ prisoner-of-war camps at Pusan in April 1951. PHOTO BY LARRY GAHN.

U.S. Air Force B-26 (Invader) light bombers release bombs in a strike over North Korea.

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