With the leaders of North and South Korea agreeing to work to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and, within the year, pursue talks with the United States to declare an official end to the Korean War, the country that created the problem in the first place is being curiously silent.
A malign and disruptive force
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The Korean peninsula is divided precisely because in 1945 Stalin made a grab for it. Two days after the United States Army Air Force dropped the first atomic bomb, on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, Russia declared war on Japan. Although Manchuria was Stalin’s principal objective, to occupy, or at least to plunder, Korea looked ripe for the picking too. The Japanese had annexed Korea in 1910, and in August 1945 there were large numbers of Japanese troops there as well as in China.
There were, however, no western allied troops near the Korean peninsula that month, when the Japanese surrendered. There were Russians in Vladivostock, though. And there were, of course, the Chinese. Except that there were two Chinas – that of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, the official ally of the United States and Britain, and that of Mao Tse-tung’s Communists.
The Communists were demanding that the Japanese surrender to them, while Chiang Kai-shek expected the Americans to insist they surrender only to him. Meanwhile, the US ambassador in China warned President Truman that if the Communists acquired surrendered Japanese ordnance, the country would dissolve into “fratricidal civil war”, and communist revolution.
The US State Department concluded “our forces should occupy quickly as much of the industrial areas of Korea and Manchuria as we can”. Consequently Truman ordered US forces to “occupy the Port of Dairen [formerly Port Arthur, in Manchurian China] and a port in Korea… if those ports have not at that time been taken over by Soviet forces.”
Stalin frustrated these objectives, principally by naval blockade of several Chinese ports, including Dairen, except below the 38th Parallel in Korea, the Americans beating him to it. And so the Japanese north of the 38th Parallel surrendered to the Soviets, while those to the south surrendered to the Americans, which is why the peninsula has been divided since 1945.
Russia’s “malign and disruptive force”, to use a phrase applied by the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to President Putin’s recent activity, has been at the root of the Korean problem ever since.
The opening of the Soviet archives revealed that this malign disruptiveness was behind the North’s invasion of the South in June 1950, rather than that of Chairman Mao. Although the invasion was very much Kim il-sung’s own initiative, by the logic of the Cold War, the unification of the peninsula under a communist government was clearly in the interests of Stalin’s Russia. Likewise, by the logic of Marxism, so it was to China, but Mao appears to have been more circumspect.
Soviet intelligence, through its penetration of government and intelligence agencies in Washington and London, had concluded that US atomic bomb stockpiles were not as great as feared, and that the continuing defence cuts in both countries meant that President Truman would not intervene in Korea.1 The archive also shows that China acquiesced only reluctantly after Kim il-sung told Mao that Stalin had approved the invasion.
Chinese involvement was initially much less than that of the Russians, until the US-led counter-offensive began to come close to the Yalu River, the border with China. At that point the Russians stepped up their material support and the Chinese sent in ground troops.
The war came to a negotiated halt in July 1953, with a “demilitarised zone” close to the 38th Parallel under United Nations supervision, with the headquarters of the UN mission at Panmunjom. The Korean peninsula has thereby been preserved, so to speak, in light-blue aspic ever since – underwritten by 30,000 US troops in the South, with another 40,000 in reserve in Japan.
The North’s next steps
Soon after the fighting ended, Kim Il-Sung began laying the foundations for the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme. After his death, his son, Kim Jong-Il, continued the programme, producing weapons-grade material through uranium enrichment.
With the death of Kim Jong-Il in 2011, and the succession of his son Kim Jong-un, the “weaponisation” programme was intensified, as well as the rhetoric; but to what end?
Sources suggest that Kim Jong-un is less interested in unification than regime survival. Clearly, the former isn’t possible without the latter, though the former might be the guarantee of the latter – though only at impossible cost if unification were attempted by force. Accordingly, Kim Jong-un made a key change in national policy: domestic economic development was to have equal priority with the armed forces. Otherwise popular materialism might undermine the regime as it did in the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. It is significant that in President Moon’s and Kim Jong-un’s joint “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula” the word “prosperity” is centre-stage.
And here, perhaps, has been the opportunity. A defensive rather than expansionist policy in Pyongyang means that both sides – the DPRK (plus China) and the US (plus the Republic of South Korea) – have more room to manoeuvre. And, China, arguably, has just as much, if not more, to fear from a nuclear-armed DPRK than the US.
But the problem to date has been China’s indifference to the problem. Five years ago, I spoke at length about Korea with a Cambridge-educated Chinese general. He deplored the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme and acknowledged that the only peaceful future lay in China’s taking a lead. “But we don’t want to own the problem,” he said.
My reply was that China had no choice, and had to start seeing the problem as an immediate one. Anyone standing within 20 yards of General Mark Milley, the US Army’s chief of staff, at a conference in London last year would have heard him making the same point with the insistent emphasis that five years down the line and the recent ICBM tests required.
It would appear that the message – conveyed not least in President Trump’s tweets – has at last sunk in in Beijing, for something “tectonic” evidently happened during Kim Jong-un’s visit with President Xi in March.
So where are the Russians now – who also have much to fear from a nuclear-armed DPRK – in this mess of their original making? It would appear that they are non-players. Perhaps President Putin has surrendered strategic influence in the Far East through his malign disruption in Syria and Ukraine (and, indeed, Salisbury).
Perhaps he has become strategically fixed.
This would be entirely consistent with an alternative reading of his “malign and disruptive force”: that he is not a master strategian, but an opportunist tactician.
And in that respect he has a great deal in common with Stalin in 1945.
Further Reading: Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao and the Korean War, Sergei Goncharov and John Lewis (Stanford University Press, 1993)