North Korea and China: A Difficult History, Part II

Last week, we examined the Minsaengdan Incident and the onset of the Korean War. This week, we will discuss the final phase of the Korean War, the ceasefire, the introduction of Juche and the impact of the Cultural Revolution.

The Korean War: The Latter Stages of the War and the Ceasefire

Among the issues that caused tensions between China and Korea was the management of the railroads during the war. Chinese troops encountered difficulties when using roads to supply their forces. The roads were not in good shape and their war materials were vulnerable to American air attacks. Given that most of the rolling stock and crews were Chinese, Chinese Volunteer Army (CVA) Commander Peng Dehuai wanted to gain control over the railroads to deliver war materials. However, Kim Il-sung didn’t want China to take over North Korea’s rail system for two reasons. First, the regime was trying to start reconstruction and didn’t want to divert rolling stock for war materials, and second, Kim was offended by the loss of sovereignty. Nevertheless, China and the U.S.S.R. coerced the North Koreans into giving up control of their railways to China for the duration of the war.

The final indignity the Kim government had to face was the ceasefire determination. Stalin and Mao wanted to keep the war going. Both wanted to keep the U.S. occupied with the fighting in Korea as this would reduce America’s ability to defend other parts of the world. In addition, Mao was receiving military aid from the Soviets and feared that the war’s end would end the flow of aid. On the other hand, Kim wanted a ceasefire. His country was being steadily bombed by the U.S. and North Korea couldn’t really begin reconstruction without an end to hostilities.

A second issue involved prisoners of war (POWs). Chinese troops didn’t aggressively capture POWs. Their military experience was mostly derived in the Chinese Civil War where they didn’t pursue POWs and they continued that behavior during the Korean War. On the other hand, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) tried to capture as many prisoners as they could with the idea that they would be used as forced labor for reconstruction.[1] Thus, the sides couldn’t agree on how to resolve the return of POWs; it wasn’t important for China, but it was critical for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

As discussions wore on, neither Stalin nor Mao was swayed by Kim’s pleas. At heart, both China and the Soviet Union were willing to continue the fight because it improved their broader geopolitical positions. In conversation, Stalin said, “Mao is right; this war is getting on America’s nerves. The North Koreans have lost nothing, except for casualties they suffered during the war.”[2] Zhou also said that “…one must be firm with America. The Chinese comrades must know that if America doesn’t lose this war, then China will never recapture Taiwan.”[3] Simply put, the Soviets and Chinese were more than willing to sacrifice North Korean lives for their own geopolitical goals.

The impasse wasn’t broken until Stalin died in March 1953. Soviet policy under Khrushchev changed to supporting the ceasefire. South Korean leader Syngman Ree tried to stall the end of the conflict by releasing POWs without U.N. authorization. Ree’s action led CVA Commander Peng to respond with another military campaign against Kim’s wishes.

The Korean War laid bare the differences between China and North Korea. As the above analysis shows, both the U.S.S.R. and China treated North Korean interests as secondary to the goals of international socialism, which were defined differently by both China and the U.S.S.R. China had little regard for the military competency of North Korea. In the early stages of the war, Kim’s military moved too quickly, leaving them exposed to a counterattack. Had it not been for Chinese intervention, North Korea would probably not exist today.