For Kim, war was not only about unifying Korea, however, it was also about maintaining his hold on power. On January 17, 1950 at the newly opened Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, he reportedly told his Russian advisors of his need to invade the South. According to Soviet ambassador Terenti Shtykov, Kim said: “Lately I do not sleep at night. If the matter of the liberation of the people of the southern portion of Korea and the unification of the country is drawn out, then I can lose the trust of the people of Korea.”
BBC: Kaesong talks: North and South Korea reach agreement (8th July 2013)
BBC: Viewpoint: What does Pyongyang want? (17th June 2013)
According to records provided by the Soviet Union, Kim began asking for Premier Joseph Stalin’s backing for an invasion of the South as early as March 1949. He was refused. Kim was persistent, however, and in January of 1950, Stalin began to vacillate.
The latter’s reasons for considering Kim’s request, were likely fourfold. First, the US withdrew its troops from South Korean soil in June 1949, leaving behind 500 men behind to act as military advisers. Second, with the Soviet development of its own atomic bomb in August 1949, they had a powerful bargaining chip against the US. Third, the civil war in China ended with a communist victory under Chairman Mao Zedong, changing the political landscape in Asia.
Perhaps the deciding factor for Stalin, however, occurred in January 1950. Addressing the National Press Club, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson described the country’s desire to mitigate its military involvement in the region. Acheson cited the creation of a defense perimeter which included Japan, the Philippines, and the Aleutians. Korea was not included. Stalin may have believed, therefore, that a war weary America would be willing to sacrifice the Korean peninsula.
Support for the plan also came from China. Since North Korea had sent in tens of thousands of its own people to aid the Chinese communists during their civil war, Mao gave his own go-ahead for a North Korean invasion of the South.
On December 24, 1949 the South Korean army was used against its own populace at the Mungyeong Massacre. Between 86 to 88 civilians were killed in the city of Mungyeong, located in the North Gyeongsangbuk Province of South Korea for allegedly being communist sympathizers. At the time, the government claimed that marauding communist guerillas from North Korea were responsible (though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Korea found otherwise in 2006). As a result, the saber rattling between the two nations escalated further.
Although Mao gave his approval, such was only in terms of political support, not in terms of resources and personnel. At the time of Kim’s visit, the Chinese premier was contemplating an invasion of Tibet and Taiwan. He was also in the process of demobilizing half of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
With the go-ahead from both Moscow and Beijing, Kim called for a pan-peninsular election on June 7, 1950 to finally settle the issue of the two Koreas. On June 11, three North Korean diplomats were sent to the South to negotiate a consultative conference by the two governments. These were to be held in the city of Haeju in North Korea from June 15 to 17, with the elections to be held from August 5 to 8. It was only a ruse.
Claiming that the South Koreans were launching cross border raids, the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) launched a counter attack. On June 25, 1950 they crossed the 38th Parallel. The Korean War had begun.
While it can be argued that the Korean War was as much the fault of the Korean peoples themselves, neither can it be denied that they were also the pawns of external interests. At the heart of the conflicts between the two nations was the desire for a singular, unified country, a desire that still exists today.
With the fall of Japan in 1945, the Korean people would likely have devolved into conflict anyway, due to their own internal divisions. Such conflict, however, was greatly exacerbated by the entry of foreign superpowers, each demanding that others subscribe to their respective political ideologies.
The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union is no more, and China’s brand of communism is looking more and more like the unfettered capitalism the US has long promoted. Despite this, Korea is still divided because of a conflict that no longer has relevance or meaning to the nations responsible for its division.