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Causes of the Korean War Essay

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Table of contents

  1. To what extent was Stalin Responsible for the Korean War?
  2. Stalin - The Enabler
  3. Korea - Competing Regimes

To what extent was Stalin Responsible for the Korean War?

In assessing the causes of the Korean War, it is of paramount importance to understand what Stalin and key players had to lose in Korea. The extent to which Stalin was responsible for the Korean War requires an understanding of the unique post-World War II (WWII) situation, which led to the expansion of Communism and Democracy. Since 1910 Korea was not unified under its own accord; the country had been annexed by the Japanese Empire, after ‘years of war, intimidation, and political machinations. By the end of WWII, the deteriorating Imperial Japanese Army could no longer withstand the all-encompassing power of the Red Army as they marched into Korea. Truman, fearing the Soviets would spread their ideological influence, hastily sent American troops to South Korea. He proposed they establish the 38th Parallel, to which Stalin unexpectedly acquiesced. By 1948 superpowers had vacated Korea, leaving Kim-Il-Sung in the northern Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Syngman Rhee democratically elected in the southern People's Republic of Korea (PRK).

There are significant factors that need to be considered in order to determine the extent to which Stalin was responsible for the Korean War. This essay has been divided into three sections, in an attempt to interrogate the extent to which this was the case. The first section will assess whether Stalin enabled Kim with the means to launch an offensive against the PRK and whether it was the outcome of unprovoked aggression from the Soviet Union, intent on extending its influence in Asia. Secondly, it will examine whether a Civil War between the North and South was inevitable. Finally, it will consider Stephen Ambrose's hypothesis, that the American input was a consequence of the NSC 68, domestic pressure, and Truman's personal agenda of containment. It will also explore what is perhaps the most convincing perspective, the argument that the sheer number of troops and arms provided by America transformed the conflict into a prolonged war.

Stalin - The Enabler

The citizens of Korea and their leaders were not content with the divide imposed upon them; both States desired to unify the country, but on their own terms. Christine Bragg argues that Stalin's acceptance of the 38th Parallel was the consequence of a combination of Stalin's fear of the American monopoly on Atomic Weapons, alongside the weakness of Soviet forces against the US army, and his hope that Truman would give him a share in the occupation of Japan. Therefore, Bragg contends that in accepting the Parallel, Stalin was setting himself up for a future conflict between the Koreans. The common conception amongst Historians is that neither side could unify without the backing of a superpower nation. Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov assert the view that Kim could not start the war without Stalin's approval, and with that, Soviet supplies, training, and planning. In a report to Vyshinsky, Shytok stated: 'Kim said that he himself cannot begin an attack, because he is a communist, a disciplined person and for him, the order of Comrade Stalin is the law.' This illustrates that Kim would not engage in any military operation against the PRK without Stalin. Consequently, from March to April 1949, Kim traveled and stayed in Moscow, in order to persuade Stalin to condone a war effort, claiming 'that the 'revolutionary situation' in South Korea was ripe.' David Williamson postulates that Stalin, at this point, was not entirely convinced that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would win the Chinese Civil War, hence an American-backed nationalist government would hinder Soviet efforts to unify a Communist Korea. Odd Arne Westad argues Stalin possessed some contempt for Korea and distrust that Mao would win; Kim returned home empty-handed.

On August 29th the Soviets achieved their first successful Atomic bomb test. Mike Sewell argues, that in the wake of the successful test, Stalin grew significantly more confident, believing America's loss of the monopoly would make them less likely to intervene. Moreover, there was a popular notion that America should desert South Korea and Syngman Rhee. Senator and Chairman of the Senate Relations Committee, Tom Connally, claimed Korea was not 'greatly important'; Connally's views were consistent with the Truman Administration, with Acheson in his speech to the Press Club, January 1950, intimating that the ‘defensive perimeter' did not extend to South Korea. Truman subsequently liquidated all positions in East Asia, leaving no American troops on the continent’s mainland, preferring the US bases that were on strategically placed islands. Stalin analyzed Acheson's speech and a top-secret National Security Council (NSC) study, which compelled him to inform Kim: 'according to information coming from inside (US) the prevailing mood is not to interfere.' Bragg suggests the fall of China to Communism further evidenced the lack of interest from the US in Asia. This view is backed by John L. Gaddis, Zubok, and Pleshakov, who also believed Stalin concluded that the US viewed Syngman Rhee as expendable. Max Hastings observes, that at no point in the 5 years that followed did the Russians show any desire to stake Moscow's power and prestige upon a direct contest with the Americans for the extension of Soviet influence south of the Parallel. Gaddis further argues, that the biggest difference for Stalin was his conviction that a 'second front' was now feasible in East Asia, which could be created by proxy war, minimizing the risk to the USSR. These interpretations reinforce the idea that Stalin was cautious to ensure that his intervention in Korea would serve as little consequence as possible, on a global front. Overall, Stalin's presumption that America would not intervene, alongside the view that there were greater Soviet plans for Eastern Asia, instilled confidence and the belief that ‘in light of the changed international situation’ there would be little to no damaging repercussions.

Building on Gaddis' interpretation of Stalin's conviction, Kathryn Weatherby and Christine Bragg both argue the DPRK was a satellite of the Soviet Union. As Korea bordered Russia, having the DPRK as a satellite state would prove to be a huge asset to Stalin. This perspective was shared by the CIA; ‘Soviet policy in Korea is directed towards the establishment of a friendly state which will never serve as a base of attack upon the USSR.' Moreover, a Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs officer, Leonid Vassin, claimed Kim-Il-Sung was ‘created from zero’ by the Soviet Union, as it was the Soviets who founded the North Korean Workers Party (NKWP) providing Kim with the vehicle to gain widespread recognition and popularity in Korea. Thus, Kim seemed incapable of acting on his own accord, requiring Stalin's approval to initiate an invasion of the Republic of Korea. This outlook is backed by David Williamson, who argues that Kim needed Stalin’s help in order to have a major invasion. In a conversation to Stalin, Kim says:

The Korean government understands that without further economic and cultural aid from the Soviet Union it will be difficult for the DPRK to restore and develop its national economy and culture. The assistance of the Soviet Union is required for the further development of the Korean economy and culture.

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This arguably provides compelling evidence, illustrating Williamson's argument to be credible. Odd Arne Westad considers Stalin's quick acceptance of the 38th Parallel to demonstrate his contempt for the Koreans. Gaddis further observes that shortly after Stalin gave Kim the 'green light' he encouraged Ho Chi Minh to intensify the Viet Minh offensive against the French in Indochina, arguing victories in both locations (Indochina and Korea) would maintain momentum from Mao's Victory in China the previous year. In summary, Gaddis states that Stalin 'had never abandoned his commitment to world revolutions,' further reiterating the interpretation that China's successful conversion to Communism provided Stalin with a huge confidence boost.

Martin McCauley argues, that in providing the North Koreans with a staggering volume of offensive weapons, Stalin condoned and actively promoted an invasion of the South. Without the aid, Stalin provided, Kim would not have had the military capacity to invade the PRK. After the Soviets vacated Korea in 1948, they left behind military hardware and continued to regularly provide Kim with arms. On 30th January 1950, Stalin invited Kim back to Moscow, and it was at this meeting Stalin confirmed his support for Kim. Stalin is recorded to have asked Kim, 'Are you short of arms? We shall give them to you.' This interaction evidences Stalin's eagerness to launch an offensive, and willingness to support Kim. After the meeting, Stalin called for the immediate fulfillment of all Kim's arms and ammunition requests and provided the DPRK with Soviet military planners, who believed they could advance fifteen to twenty kilometers a day and win the war within 3-4 weeks. By the time the DPRK invaded the PRK, they had twice the number of soldiers and artillery; seven times the amount of machine guns; six and a half times the number of armored vehicles, and six times the number of planes as the PRK. Mike Sewell asserts Stalin was so confident of success and of the weakness of the US reaction, that he did not order the return of his delegation to the UN. Regardless of whether it was his confidence or just the boycott that meant he did not attend the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on 25th June 1950, the act of not attending, and hence not vetoing, directly resulted in the engagement of UN forces in Korea, consequently initiating a war.

Through Stalin's use of proxy wars and satellite states, he intended to secure a ‘buffer zone,’ analogous to what he had orchestrated in Eastern Europe, using Korea as a mere piece in his Eastern Asian jigsaw. This is evidenced by Stalin simultaneously supporting the communist efforts of China and Indochina. Hence Stalin's primary concern was the geographical risk to the USSR, which possession of the DPRK was quashed. Moreover, Stalin's assertion that America would not intervene in the situation induced him to enable Kim Il-Sung to attempt to unify the country under Communist rule. The arms provided to Kim gave the DPRK the upper hand against Rhee, giving them the strength, support, and confidence to launch an invasion of the south.

Korea - Competing Regimes

Bruce Cummings asserts that the cause of the Korean War was not, as the US declared, an example of the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union, but a Korean Civil War. McCauley labels Kim Il Sung as the driving force behind the conflict. This view was shared by Molotov, who exclaimed that the invasion of PRK ‘was pressed on us (USSR) by the Koreans themselves.' Moreover, Khrushchev later stated his opinion that the 'North Koreans wanted to prod South Koreans with the point of a bayonet’; Molotov gave the account: 'Stalin said it was impossible to avoid the national question of a united Korea.' Mike Sewell argues that by the time China fell to communism Kim had become extremely impatient, promising Stalin that the ‘attack will be swift and the war shall be won in three days.' Kim evidently pressed Stalin until he conceded. Zubok and Pleshakov argue that all Stalin had done was merely approve of the North Korean aggression. Furthermore, Gaddis claims Korea was of little significance on a global front to Stalin, it would not make a huge difference to him whether it was a communist state or lost to the South Koreans. After Stalin's initial reluctance, he condoned Kim's apparent thirst for war, but warned, ‘if you get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger.' This consolidates Zubok and Pleshakov’s view that Kim’s constant pestering led to Stalin conceding, that all Stalin provided was his approval. However, this is perhaps not a convincing argument, this essay has already established the impact of the Soviet Union on the scale and nature of the conflict.

In parallel to the DPRK, Rhee's government was, in the words of the CIA, a discredited, unpopular regime.’ Sungjoo Han claims ‘civil liberties were in near-extinction.’ However, as an American-founded 'democratic' state, Acheson pressed the PRK to hold an election. Rhee only won 40 seats, with the other 120 going predominantly to leftist parties, all of whom, Ambrose claims, were calling for the reunification of Korea, even willing to compromise on North Korean terms. Rhee was losing support from within his government. Han observed, that two months after Rhee's inauguration, the Police seemed to be the only group demonstratively loyal to the Government. In a report on the status of Korea before the war, the CIA labeled Rhee and Kim Koo as 'demagogues bent on the autocratic rule - and described the PRK as a ‘full-blown police state.' This was a view that even the first secretary of the South Korean Embassy in Washington, Han Pyo Wook, conceded to. When faced with criticisms of Rhee, he exclaimed ’sure, he's dictatorial compared to Truman.' Hastings argues, that if Kim had played the waiting game, he could have had a far better chance of obtaining political control of the South, unifying the country under a communist regime. After the war, a former senior South Korean officer remarked, 'if Kim really wanted to get the South, by far his better course would have been to do nothing,' alluding to the fact that by 1950 Rhee's regime was in deep internal political trouble. This view was embodied by the CIA who stated 'it is probable that a Rhee Government if left to its own devices, would play directly into Soviet hands.' Rhee seemed to care little for the support of the South Korean peoples under a democracy to maintain his power; a few more years of discreet subversion might well have ensured its collapse from within.'

However, Han argues the Korean War provided Rhee with the perfect opportunity to consolidate his power. This view is supported by Hastings, who argues Kim gave Rhee what he could never have gained on his own: a just cause and a banner of moral legitimacy,' thus reiterating the idea that Rhee desired a war, in order to further his supremacy. Han further develops this argument by observing that South Korea, being under a state of mobilization, permitted the Rhee Administration to get away with many irresponsible acts in the name of ‘wartime necessity’ to further bolster his power. This is evident during the war when atrocities such as the National Defence Corps (NDC) Scandal were merely swept under the carpet: South Korean draftees were sent on a ’300-mile ‘death march' and approximately 300,000 men deserted or died along the way.' Gaddis argues that the Americans were skeptical, fearing that the unpredictable Rhee might 'march north' and drag the US into a war they did not want, hence contributing to the withdrawal of US troops from Korea. This highlighted the American concern that Rhee would attempt to initiate the conflict. Although Kim Il Sung initiated the conflict, McCauley argues Kim invaded the south before 'Rhee had girded his loins to invade the north.’

In isolation the view that Kim-Il-Sung's invasion of South Korea gave the PRK more power is convincing. Syngman Rhee's government was destined to fail. The theory that Rhee was an advocate for a civil war as the best way to preserve his rule, does not stretch too far from reality. Consequently, it could be argued that the responsibility rests on Rhee's shoulders; Kim was equally as much to blame, for convincing Stalin to aid the war effort and initiating the invasion of South Korea. However, this essay has already established Rhee alone had not had the military capacity to invade North Korea and any attempt he would make would be quashed almost immediately. The speed at which the DPRK invaded and captured Seoul demonstrates Rhee was on the military back foot. It was the backing from the US and UN that pushed the North Korean forces back to the Parallel and beyond. Likewise, without Soviet support in military planning, finance, and arms provisions, the DPRK would not have had the confidence to invade the south. The internal Korean factors were significant with regard to the outbreak of the Korean War, but individually they were both too weak to act convincingly on their feud. However, it could be argued the tensions in Korea were a direct consequence of the imposed 38th Parallel, orchestrated by Truman and Stalin.

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