Differences and Cooperation During the Korean War, 1950–1953

  • Zhihua ShenEmail author
Part of the China Connections book series (CC)


This chapter revolves around Sino-Soviet cooperation during the Korean War. The Sino-Soviet alliance demonstrated its political, military, diplomatic, and economic functions during the war. The dispatch of Chinese troops to Korea not only saved Pyongyang but also smoothed over Moscow’s erroneous decision to permit Kim Il-sung to attack South Korea. It defended the east gate of the socialist bloc. To a large extent, it had the effect of influencing and changing Stalin’s view of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Mao Zedong. The Soviet Union provided significant and comprehensive aid to China. Thus, the Sino-Soviet alliance safeguarded the success of the Korean War for the socialist bloc, and the war consolidated the political and economic foundation of the Sino-Soviet alliance.

The Korean War is one of the most noteworthy events in the history of post–World War II international relations. The conflict determined Cold War–era arrangements throughout Asia. Recently declassified Russian Defense Ministry archives demonstrate that Stalin wavered regarding the dispatch of the Soviet air force for fear of a direct confrontation with US/United Nations (UN) forces. It was 12 days after Chinese troops entered the war that Stalin finally allowed the Soviet air force to provide air cover. Nonetheless, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) thereafter provided comprehensive support to China. During the war, the political, military, diplomatic, and economic dimensions of the Sino-Soviet alliance became apparent. The dispatch of Chinese troops to Korea not only saved the Kim Il-sung regime but also smoothed over Moscow’s erroneous policy decisions. In addition, the dispatch of the Chinese troops defended the east gate of the socialist bloc . To a large extent, it also had the effect of influencing Stalin’s view of both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Mao Zedong. Thus, the Sino-Soviet alliance safeguarded the gains of the Korean War for the socialist bloc and the war consolidated the political and economic foundation of the Sino-Soviet alliance.

Mao’s Eagerness and Stalin’s Hesitation to Send Chinese Troops to Korea

The launch of the Korean War was originally the idea of Moscow and Pyongyang. Both Stalin and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung were confident that the United States would not enter the war and they would not need China’s help. But they were wrong. To their surprise, within days after the North Korean invasion, the United States immediately declared that it would intervene. The United States soon dispatched air, naval, and land forces to Korea, while simultaneously deploying the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent a CCP attack on Taiwan.1 In principle, Mao was not opposed to national unification by military means, and he understood that Kim was attempting to follow China’s example. However, Mao believed that Chinese unification (the CCP taking over Taiwan and Tibet) should have priority over unification of Korea. With the outbreak of the Korean War, the CCP had to abandon its campaign to conquer Taiwan and the offshore islands.

The US/UN entry into the war rapidly resulted in enormous losses to the North Korean military, with its air and naval forces the first to be affected. According to a report by the headquarters of the Soviet Army General Staff, by 3 July 1950—only a few days after the start of hostilities—36 North Korean aircraft and 5 naval vessels had been attacked and destroyed. At this point, Stalin already realized that the war was not going to proceed smoothly. He began to consider how to increase support to North Korea, while insuring that such support would not come directly from Moscow.

Before the war, Soviet assistance mainly focused on training North Korean troops, providing weapons, and drawing up battle plans. Stalin absolutely forbade Soviet forces from crossing the 38th parallel and directly participating in battle. If necessary, he believed that the Chinese Army would provide assistance. Of course, when and how such assistance would be provided would depend on the progress of the war.

Chinese leaders paid careful attention to the possibility of US intervention. On 2 July, Zhou Enlai called in the Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Roshchin, to request that he inform Moscow of the Chinese assessment of the Korean situation. Zhou pointed out that in order to prevent the United States from landing on the peninsula, the North Korean People’s Army should rapidly accelerate its drive toward the south, occupy the southern harbors, and station strong defense forces in places such as Inchon. He emphasized that if the Americans crossed the 38th parallel, the Chinese Army, in the guise of volunteers wearing uniforms of the North Korean People’s Army, would engage the American forces. To prepare for this eventuality, China would deploy three armies, totaling 120,000 men, to Northeast China. Zhou ended the meeting by inquiring whether the Soviet air force would provide cover for these armies.

All of this was said before any formal decision had been made. China did not formally establish its Northeast Border Defense Force until several days after this meeting, and its troop deployments were not completed before 5 August. Zhou obviously wanted to make Stalin aware that Chinese leaders were willing to assist North Korea . He also wanted Stalin to understand that China expected that the USSR would provide coordinated air cover for the Chinese ground forces.

Stalin responded immediately, wiring back on 5 July: “We think it is correct to concentrate nine Chinese divisions on the Sino-Korean border so that the volunteers can enter North Korea for battle when the enemy crosses the 38th parallel. We will try our best to provide air cover.” Eight days later, having received no further information from China, Stalin again asked Roshchin to convey the following message to either Zhou or Mao:

We are not clear about whether you have decided to deploy nine Chinese divisions along the Sino-Korean border. If you have already made such a decision, we will then prepare to send an air force division equipped with 124 jet fighters to provide cover to these troops. We plan to have our pilots train Chinese pilots for two to three months and then to pass on all the equipment to your pilots. We also plan to have the Shanghai Air Force Division do the same thing.

As these two documents indicate, in order to encourage the Chinese to make a decision and to prepare to dispatch troops to Korea as early as possible, Stalin promised that, in addition to assisting the Chinese in air force training and sending equipment, he would also provide air cover for Chinese troops that “entered North Korea for combat.”2

US air bombing created a tense situation in Pyongyang, despite the early success of the North Korean ground campaign. On 7 July, Kim met with Soviet ambassador to North Korea, Terentii Shtykov, and requested that Soviet military advisers be deployed to Seoul as soon as possible to participate in the military command of all army groups. If they were not deployed, he warned, the Korean People’s Army might face collapse. Kim also said that he was receiving numerous phone calls, all reporting the serious damage inflicted by the US air strikes, including the destruction of railway terminals and bridges. According to Shtykov’s observation, this was the first time since the beginning of the war that Kim appeared to be “emotionally upset and somewhat depressed.” Stalin then directed his attention to China. On 8 July he instructed Roshchin to request that Mao send representatives to contact the North Koreans.

In fact, China was already making active preparations. While Chinese troops were being deployed in the Northeast, Chinese leaders were also accelerating planning for battle in Korea. On 12–13 July, Zhou told Kim that China would not tolerate US intervention in Korea and the Chinese government was ready to provide, to the best of its ability, all assistance required by North Korea. Meanwhile, China requested that the North Koreans “provide 500 maps of Korea with scales of 1:100,000; 500 maps of Korea with scales of 1:200,000, and 500 maps of Korea with scales of 1:500,000 … and send samples of the North Korea People’s Army uniforms as quickly as possible.” Kim immediately informed the Soviet ambassador of these requests, asserting: “Now that countries such as the United States have already entered the war on the side of Syngman Rhee, democratic countries such as Czechoslovakia and China should use their armies to assist North Korea.” But Shtykov deliberately avoided dealing with this issue.

On 19 July, Kim informed the Soviet embassy of a meeting between his representative in Beijing and Mao, noting that Mao thought the United States would be involved in the war for a long time and would send in more forces. Mao ended by stating that if North Korea needed help, China “would send its own army to Korea. For this purpose, the Chinese side has already mustered four armies totaling 320,000 men.” Kim was keen to discover Moscow’s reaction. But even though Shtykov duly asked Moscow for its opinion, Stalin never replied. After raising this question several times, Kim seemed to understand Stalin’s thinking—Stalin’s reluctance to respond indicated that he had growing doubts about sanctioning such a course.

Shtykov continued to keep Moscow informed about the rapidly changing Korean situation. On 18 July he wrote that the steady advance of the Korean People’s Army had activated the southern guerrilla movement, concluding that North Korean leaders and citizens had regained confidence in victory. In August, the Soviet embassy in North Korea submitted another report that reached the same conclusion. It mentioned in passing, however, that the North Korean cadres and masses were now expressing their discontent with the USSR’s inability to mobilize its air force in time to prevent US bombing. Based on these optimistic estimates of the war situation, Stalin decided that, for the time being, China did not need to send in its troops. But Mao still seemed keen to do so. Chinese eagerness to dispatch its forces to Korea at a time when victory seemed likely aroused Stalin’s suspicions. He thought this would expand China’s status and influence in Korea, and in the long run such an outcome would not be to the USSR’s advantage.3

From 14 to 18 September, Stalin continuously received battlefield reports on the American landing at Inchon, which was fundamentally changing the war situation. On 30 September, Moscow received a report from Shtykov that Seoul was probably already lost, that the road for the main force of the Korean People’s Army to retreat north had been blocked, and that communications had been cut off. Kim was worried that the enemy would cross the 38th parallel and that the North Koreans would have no way of rebuilding its army for effective resistance. The Politburo of the Korean Workers’ Party discussed the situation and drafted a letter to Stalin asking for air support. It also drafted a letter to Mao, which hinted at asking for help. Lacking in confidence, the North Korean leadership did not know what to do. That same night, Kim sent a letter earnestly requesting that Stalin provide “direct military assistance,” and if that was not possible, then to “form an international volunteer army consisting of China and other people’s democratic countries.”

Facing this emergency situation, Stalin finally gave the green light for Chinese entry into the war. On 1 October, Stalin sent a telegram to Mao informing him that he should intervene with Chinese volunteers, adding that they should begin by organizing defense in the area north of the 38th parallel. Stalin also rather disingenuously stated: “I have not mentioned this to the Korean comrades and do not intend to do so. But I have no doubt that they will be very happy when they hear this.”

After Mao received the telegram, he hurriedly drafted a reply the next morning, tentatively agreeing to send troops.4 After vigorous advocacy by Mao and Peng Dehuai, who was then vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Military Commission of the Central People’s Government, on 5 October, an enlarged meeting of the CCP Politburo adopted a resolution to send troops to Korea. The Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) command was formally established and the army entered the final prewar preparatory stages.

Although the decision to send troops had already been made, Chinese leaders continued to hesitate. If they had sent troops before the Inchon landing, they could have helped defend the rear areas to ensure the victory of the main force of the Korean People’s Army on the front; if the troops had been sent just after the Inchon landing, the Chinese Army could have built a defense line along the 38th parallel to prevent the enemy from continuing to advance north. But now it was too late to do either. By early October, when the main force of the Korean People’s Army had practically been wiped out, the opportune moment for China’s entry was already lost.

The Chinese Army’s weakness was obvious. Roshchin explained to Stalin that Mao’s decision to temporarily withhold entry of Chinese troops into the Korean War in his 2 October telegram was based on the grounds that Chinese military equipment was poor and the Chinese Army had no chance to win a war against the Americans. On 7 October, Matveev (a pseudonym for M. V. Zakharov), Stalin’s personal representative in North Korea, reported that Interior Minister Pak Il-u had returned from Beijing on 5 October. During his stay in Beijing, Pak Il-u was received by Mao on two occasions as well as by CCP leaders, and they talked at length, sometimes for as long as ten hours. Mao stated that China would do its best to help Korea, but for the time being it would not dispatch troops. Mao’s reasons were straightforward: the dispatch of Chinese troops would drag the Soviets into the war, which ultimately would lead to a third world war. Although the Chinese Army was sizable, it did not have modern weapons, an air force, or a navy.

In direct talks with Soviet representatives, Mao was even blunter. On 6 October Mao told Roshchin that he was gratified by the expression employed by Stalin: that the Chinese and Soviets would together fight the Americans. But Mao emphasized that the Chinese Army’s technology and equipment were so outdated that it would have to “completely depend on Soviet assistance.” During this conversation, Mao “paid special attention to the air force issue,” pointing out that in order to send troops, China “must have an air force,” so as to protect the Chinese ground forces sent to Korea, to participate in the frontline fighting, and to defend major industrial centers in China. In the end, Mao stated that, in order to report on the situation and to exchange opinions, he would immediately send Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao, a high-ranking Chinese general, to the USSR. As these sources indicate, Stalin undoubtedly knew what Zhou’s purpose was even before he headed to the USSR.

On 8 October, Mao informed Kim and Stalin respectively that the CPVs would enter Korea on about 15 October. Everyone seemed relieved that China had decided to send in troops. Kim was beside himself with joy and even went so far as to arrange when, where, and how the Chinese Army would be deployed. But such planning was premature: Stalin was already reconsidering the issue of sending the Soviet air force.

Stalin’s Refusal to Provide Air Cover for the Chinese People’s Volunteers

On 11 October, Zhou Enlai and his retinue flew via Moscow to Stalin’s summer villa near the Black Sea, where they met with Soviet leaders that same afternoon. Zhou briefed the Soviets on the CCP Politburo’s deliberation on the Korean situation and the question of sending troops. He explained that China’s dispatch of troops faced major practical difficulties and he emphasized that the Soviets would have to provide weapons, equipment, and air support. Stalin pointed out that he could meet all Chinese needs for military equipment , such as plane, tanks, and artillery. However, the Soviet air force would not be ready for two to two-and-a-half months. After extended discussions, both sides agreed that since neither side was ready, they had to inform Kim to arrange a retreat as soon as possible. After the meeting, Stalin and Zhou sent Mao a joint telegram. Because the air force would not be in a position to provide air cover for the next two months and because it would require at least six months to equip and train the Chinese forces, it would be pointless to attempt to assist Korea. The telegram concluded by stating that Stalin and Zhou awaited Mao’s decision.5

After receiving the Stalin-Zhou telegram from the Black Sea, Mao deeply contemplated the issue. At 3:30 p.m. on 12 October, when he first read the telegram, his reaction had been: “I agree with your decision.” At 10:22 p.m., Mao sent another telegram to inform the Soviets that the Chinese Army had not yet entered Korea and orders had been given to “stop implementation of the plan to enter Korea.” Stalin then sent a telegram to Pyongyang to inform Kim the results of the Black Sea meeting and to ask him to organize a retreat.

In fact, Mao was not as resolute as he sounded in his telegram. His actual instruction to Peng Dehuai was “to temporarily suspend implementation of the 9 October order” and “to temporarily delay [the army’s] dispatch.” He also asked Peng Dehuai and Gao Gang to come to Beijing for consultations. After a Politburo meeting on 13 October, when his comrades fully endorsed the decision to intervene, Mao’s policy became clearer. He immediately called in Roshchin and announced that the CCP Central Committee (CC) had decided that “we should help the Koreans.” Mao also mentioned that China hoped to pay for the weapons provided by the Soviets by means of a loan.

In a telegram sent to Zhou at 10 p.m. on 13 October, Mao clearly explained the arrangements for China’s reconsideration of sending in the army. First, after entering Korea the Chinese Army would only engage in battle with the South Korean army and it would establish bases in order to raise the morale of the troops; Chinese troops would attack American troops only after the arrival of Soviet air volunteers and weapons; Zhou would try to arrange for the Chinese to lease the weapons provided by the Soviets; finally, Zhou would ask the Soviets to send in a volunteer air force within two to two-and-a-half months to support Chinese combat operations. At 3:00 a.m. on 14 October, Mao again sent a telegram to Zhou, reiterating his requests for Soviet assistance, specifically the entry of the Soviet air force.

By this time, Zhou had returned to Moscow and he sent a letter to Stalin conveying Mao’s arrangements, mentioning in particular the critical relationship between “the Soviet volunteer air force” and the Chinese volunteers. But Stalin remained suspicious of China’s motives. He stated that, even if the Soviet air force was to be sent, it could only operate north of the Yalu River and would not enter Korea to cooperate in military operations with the Chinese volunteers. This poured cold water on the Chinese plan. On 17 October, Mao sent urgent telegrams to Peng Dehuai and Gao Gang, asking them to come to Beijing for consultations and to postpone the date of sending troops. As a result of the meeting on 18 October, it was decided that Chinese troops would nevertheless still be sent into Korea on 19 October.

It was not until 25 October, after the first engagement between the CPVs and UN forces , that Stalin truly believed that the CCP was not a nationalist or “pro-American element.”6 On 29 October, M. V. Zakharov, chief Soviet military adviser in China, informed Zhou that Moscow had agreed that the Soviet air force “is in charge of air defense in Andong,” adding that it could fly across the Chinese-Korean border , while also agreeing to move the base from Shenyang to Andong within ten days. On 1 November, the Soviet air force entered the battle over the Yalu River.

Coordination and Unity in Military Strategy

From the CPV entry into Korea to the signing of the Korean ceasefire agreement Mao and Stalin held generally identical views on the conduct of the war and the shifting strategies. On major issues, it was easy for them to coordinate their views, even though their views were not always correct.

After its first two major campaigns since entering the Korean War, the CPV successfully recaptured Pyongyang and pushed the battle line back to the 38th parallel. At this time, there were different internal opinions about whether or not the CPV should continue its successful initiative to launch a third campaign and cross south of the 38th parallel. As chief frontline commander, Peng Dehuai maintained that the CPV was extremely tired, the number of those wounded was continuously increasing, and the troops were in need of rest and reorganization. He also knew that the CPV supply lines were not secured. Most of the troops had no winter clothing and they were running short of ammunition. In addition, medicine and food were in short supply. The situation would only be exacerbated with an advance to the south. Peng thus proposed to launch a third campaign in February and March of the following year (1951). After receiving Peng’s telegram, Acting Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Nie Rongzhen, concurred with Peng’s assessment. He thus suggested to Mao that the third campaign be postponed for two months.7

The CPV military victory would have secured a favorable position for Beijing to end the war through negotiations if People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders had so desired.8 But Mao insisted on immediately launching a third campaign and swiftly crossing to the south of the 38th parallel. Stalin and Mao had reached a tacit agreement regarding whether or not the CPV should cross over to the south of the 38th parallel. The Soviet government expressed an attitude of “striking while the iron is hot.” On 5 December 1950, the United Nations established a ceasefire group to deal with the Korean issue. On 11 January 1951, the UN General Assembly approved the principles drafted by the ceasefire group, calling for a ceasefire in all of Korea, to be supervised by a UN commission, with a promise that foreign troops would gradually withdraw. A supplementary report provided that, after the ceasefire took effect, the UN General Assembly would organize a conference (with participation by the USSR, the United States, the UK, and the PRC) to deal with Korea, Taiwan, PRC representation at the UN, and other East Asian problems.9

In retrospect, this resolution should have provided Beijing with a very favorable opportunity to end the war had it wished to do so. As instructed by Stalin,10 China instead reacted quickly by rebuffing the UN proposal of “ceasefire first, negotiations second.” Zhou Enlai claimed on 17 January 1951 that an initial ceasefire was simply designed “to give the U.S. troops breathing space.” Zhou’s counterproposal called for a seven-power conference, held in China, to include the PRC, the permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, Britain, the USSR, and France but specifically excluding the Republic of China on Taiwan), plus India and Egypt. The subject of the conference would include the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the removal of American protective power from Taiwan, and other Far Eastern issues. As a token of good faith, PRC membership in the United Nations would be restored on the first day of the conference.11

Under such circumstances, it was impossible for Mao to support Peng Dehuai’s request to temporarily suspend the attack. In a telegram to Peng, Mao contended that, if the Chinese Army did not complete the campaign, “it would arouse all kinds of conjectures in the capitalist countries, and all democratic countries would take exception to this position.” Although the third campaign achieved limited success, the CPV was obviously spent and weakened. UN forces withdrew in a planned and orderly fashion. Beyond occupying a few (peripheral) territories, the Sino-Korean army was not able to inflict any serious damage on the UN forces . After recapturing Seoul, the CPV was not able to recover from its predicament and could not continue its offensive. On 8 January, Mao recognized the situation and gave Peng Dehuai approval to rest and reorganize.

North Korea and the Soviet military advisers in China strongly opposed Peng’s order that the CPV suspend its offensive. Chief Soviet military adviser to China M. V. Zakharov said: “How in the world can an army that has scored a victory not pursue and attack the enemy and then not develop the fruits of its success? This would only give the enemy a respite and it would be committing a grave mistake by losing an opportunity to win a battle.” Even after Nie Rongzhen’s patient explanation, Zakharov insisted on his opinion. Newly appointed Soviet ambassador to North Korea, V. N. Razuvaev, advocated that the CPV should advance farther south. Kim Il-sung and Pak Hon-yong immediately met with Peng Dehuai and entered into a heated argument. Kim and Pak even lodged a formal complaint against Peng with Mao and Stalin . But Stalin said, “Truth is on Peng Dehuai’s side, and Peng is a contemporary strategist.” Thus, the conflict between Peng Dehuai and Kim Il-sung was resolved.

In the summer of 1951, the war reached a stalemate along the 38th parallel, and after coordination between Mao and Stalin, Soviet ambassador to the UN Jacob Malik proposed an immediate ceasefire. The failure of a major Communist offensive in late April (the fifth campaign) demonstrated once and for all the inability of the CPV to push the well-equipped US/UN army off the peninsula.12 Beijing evidently expected to settle the conflict, although not necessarily to reach a ceasefire. After the CPV secured a foothold around the 38th parallel, a peace agreement to restore the status quo seemed advisable to Beijing. As Nie Rongzhen asserted:

Most of our comrades present … felt that our forces should stop in the vicinity of the 38th Parallel, which meant a return to the status quo ante, would be easily acceptable to all quarters.13

Most of the military strategists in Beijing, Nie later recalled, supported this idea. Mao also concurred. A policy of “continuing to fight while negotiating peace [biantanbianda]” was thus agreed upon by the central leadership.14 During Kim Il-sung’s visit to Beijing on 3 June, Mao and Zhou persuaded him to accept “restoration of the 38th parallel [as a short-term objective] and a phased withdrawal of all foreign troops [from Korea] through negotiations and a political settlement of Korea’s future by peaceful means [as long-term goals].” North Korea was initially opposed to armistice negotiations, but its dependence on China eventually led Kim to agree to an armistice along the 38th parallel.15

Mao then requested that Stalin receive Kim Il-sung and Gao Gang . Stalin agreed and Kim and Gao were flown to Moscow in a Soviet jet. After a meeting with Stalin, Kim and Gao reported to Mao on 13 June 1951. Stalin also sent a telegram, stating: “We believe it is a good idea to reach a ceasefire now.” Mao wired back to Gao and Kim, hoping that the USSR would contact the United States regarding a ceasefire, to which Stalin agreed. On 23 June, Moscow made a surprise move. Soviet ambassador to the UN Jacob Malik delivered a speech on a UN radio broadcast stating that the Soviet people believed the Korean conflict could come to an end. ... “As a first step, discussions should begin among the parties to negotiate a ceasefire and an armistice that would provide for the mutual withdrawal of all forces from the 38th parallel.” Malik, however, said nothing regarding the withdrawal of foreign troops, Taiwan’s status, or China’s seat at the United Nations.16 In a further clarification of this statement, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, in a meeting with US Ambassador Alan Kirk on 25 June, confirmed that this was to be a strictly military armistice arranged only by the opposing military commanders, with no provisions regarding political or territorial matters. The broader issues involving the future of Korea could be discussed following the conclusion of an armistice.17 For Washington, Gromyko’s statement appeared to be more positive.

On 30 June, Matthew Ridgway, commander-in-chief of UN forces, issued a formal statement to the Communist commanders in the field proposing a ceasefire. On the same day, Mao sent a telegram to Stalin, stating, “Malik’s statement guarantees our initiative in the peace negotiations,” and he asked Stalin to personally lead the armistice negotiations. Stalin replied immediately, “It’s up to you to lead, Comrade Mao Zedong. The most we can offer is advice on various issues.”18 When Kim Il-sung asked Stalin for negotiation instructions, Stalin told him: “The Korean government must come to an agreement with the Chinese government on the issues raised in the telegram and they must work out the proposals together.”19 Declassified Russian sources reveal that Moscow and Beijing exchanged cables regarding all aspects of the negotiations, and all concrete moves and policy shifts during the talks were reported to and approved by Stalin.

By the second half of 1952, the negotiations at Panmunjom had reached a deadlock over the POW issue. Mao preferred to continue the war and he refused to offer any concessions. But North Korea appeared to be more malleable. Kim Il-sung originally expected to sign an armistice with the United States in May 1952, and in light of the situation, he hoped to arrange economic and political work during the second half of 1952. The POW issue unexpectedly halted the negotiations, “which greatly disappointed the Korean leaders. Kim Il-sung suggested that the Chinese comrades make concessions regarding repatriation of the POWs and make all-out efforts to sign an armistice treaty.” In a telegram to Kim Il-sung, Mao said that accepting the enemy’s proposals under pressure was equivalent to signing a peace treaty under duress. This would be detrimental to China and North Korea, both politically and militarily. Due to the war, US military forces had become bogged down in the East and they had incurred serious losses at the same time that the construction of socialism in the USSR had been greatly enhanced. These two factors were influencing the development of revolutionary movements throughout the world, thus postponing another world war. Mao pledged that the Chinese people were willing to make all possible efforts to help solve the difficulties faced by the people of North Korea. On the same day, Mao reported this situation to Stalin. On the third day, Stalin sent a telegram with his response: “Your position in the negotiations was completely correct.” Stalin personally persuaded Kim Il-sung and indicated his unwavering support for the Chinese position. In sum, from the entry of the Chinese troops into Korea until Stalin’s death, Soviet and Chinese leaders, especially Stalin and Mao, were united in their positions and they effectively coordinated their actions.

Initially, Stalin offered aid to the Chinese—air cover, weapons, and other military equipment. But after China’s entry into the war, especially after the initial engagement of the CPV with South Korean troops on 25 October, Stalin reversed his policy regarding air cover for the CPV. On 1 November, the Soviet air force, for the first time, threw itself into the battle over the Yalu River. On the same day, MiG-15 fighters of the Belov Air Division flew eight sorties from Shenyang Airport, eight sorties from Anshan Airport, and above Andong-Sinuiju they shot down two US F-82 planes, and anti-aircraft guns also shot down two planes. There were no losses on the Soviet side during this air battle.

During the Korean War, the Chinese Army was able to regroup on a large scale. The following Chinese units were completely re-equipped or reorganized along the lines of the Soviet Army: 56 out of 106 army divisions, 6 tank divisions and an independent tank regiment, 101 (37 centimeter) anti-aircraft gun battalions, 5 field gun divisions and 1 city garrison gun division, 4 searchlight regiments, 9 radar regiments and independent radar battalions, 28 engineer battalions, and 10 divisions of railway corps, signal corps, and anti-chemical warfare corps. By early 1954, China had 28 air force divisions, 5 independent flight regiments, and 3000 plus aircraft, which either had been gifts or had been purchased from the USSR. However, the Chinese navy was not very well developed due to limited funds and technical problems. It was only toward the end of the Korean War that the first Sino-Soviet naval agreement, the “Agreement on Providing Technical Assistance to China for Naval Supplies and Gunship Production” (the June 4th agreement), was signed on 4 June 1953. The military equipment provided by the Soviets was not up to date or advanced, and some of it consisted of US lend-lease surplus goods and materials left over from World War II. Nonetheless, to the Chinese these were advanced weapons, and even more importantly, the USSR was the only country offering China military assistance.20 Soviet military aid played a vital role in the ability of the CPVs to carry out successful campaigns during the Korean War.21

To assist China’s economic recovery and development, the USSR provided a large amount of scientific and technological material, primarily via the exchange of books and reference materials and the export of projects and equipment. One of the critical issues that China’s economic construction faced was a shortage of science and technology personnel. The dispatch of many Soviet experts and technical personnel to China was necessary for China’s recovery. After two Soviet-assisted projects were ratified, the number of Soviet experts arriving in China peaked in 1951 and 1953. According to the Chinese archives, from 1950 to 1953 a total of 1093 Soviet experts worked in China. These Soviet experts helped establish a foundation for modern industrial management. They trained and educated many Chinese in science and technology. The USSR also trained future Chinese experts by accepting Chinese students for study in the USSR and offering internship opportunities for technical cadres. These exchanges took place at a time when China did not have access to any Western technology or expertise, so their importance to Chinese modernization was great.22


Had Stalin not changed his mind in early 1950, Kim Il-sung would not have been able to launch the Korean War. Thus, we can conclude that the Korean War was started by Moscow. Stalin wanted Mao to pull out all the stops at the critical moment and he agreed to send the Soviet air force to provide assistance. Suspicious of Mao and the CCP’s true intentions, Stalin did not want China to have a hand in Korean affairs before the UN troops crossed the 38th parallel. He also hoped to ensure that the Chinese would not harm Soviet interests in the Far East or intensify the Soviet-US conflict. When the crisis finally erupted and the Chinese entered the war, Stalin reneged on his promise, thus placing China in an awkward situation.

But at this critical moment, Korea could only count on assistance from China. Kim, for his part, did not trust Mao and he was also worried about Stalin’s obvious suspicions of Beijing. However, without Moscow’s approval, Kim would never have agreed to allow Chinese troops to enter the conflict.

China hoped to dispatch troops to Korea at an earlier date, but this plan was not realized because of Stalin’s and Kim’s suspicions. For China to send troops, the Soviets would have had to provide weapons and air cover. But neither side fully trusted the other. As the Korean situation worsened, Mao worried that Stalin would go back on his word. At the Black Sea meeting, when Zhou Enlai suggested that China’s entry into the war would depend on Soviet air cover, Stalin’s suspicions grew.

If Mao had agreed to the decision made at the Black Sea meeting, then not only would all of Korea been occupied by US troops but China’s security would have been threatened and the Sino-Soviet alliance would have existed in name only. Taking into consideration the adverse circumstances that China confronted and also the position that China held in the socialist camp, with his back to the wall, Mao decided to risk everything and fight. His decision to enter the war brought China, the USSR, and North Korea together to fight a common enemy. Therefore, China’s dispatch of troops was a key step in changing the Sino-Soviet alliance from a superficial alliance to a real one. It was also the precondition for the USSR to send in its air force to assist Korea.

The entry of the Soviet air force into the conflict has always been tangled up with the issue of China’s entry into the Korean War. Careful examination of this enormously significant event demonstrates the complicated and subtle relations in the alliance among the Chinese, the Soviets, and the North Koreans. Before China dispatched its troops, Moscow had always been on guard against Beijing, whereas Kim had always been at Stalin’s side. But after China sent in its troops, this situation changed fundamentally. China became the main force in the alliance. In numerous subsequent disagreements between Beijing and Pyongyang , Moscow generally supported China—a situation that would last until to the end of the war. The USSR provided China with a large amount of economic aid, thus facilitating China’s reconstruction and economic development . This in turn formed the economic foundation for the Sino-Soviet alliance.

When Stalin died in March 1953, the Korean armistice talks were deadlocked. Resorting to military action in Korea was Stalin’s last major decision and it was crucial to the international situation. The decision to send Chinese troops to Korea was Mao’s first major policy decision after the founding of the PRC, and it had a fundamental impact on the fate of the People’s Republic. Sino-Soviet cooperation established a foundation for further growth of the Sino-Soviet alliance. But we should note that Soviet political and economic power, Stalin’s prestige in the International Communist Movement and in the CCP, and Stalin’s diplomatic skills forced Mao into a passive and subordinate position. For Mao, who contributed so much to the war and to opposing US imperialism, this was a humiliation that he could not long tolerate and it eventually revealed the problems in the Sino-Soviet alliance.

As comrades-in-arms during the Korean War, the Soviets and Chinese created a degree of confidence in each other. Stalin’s support for the Chinese during the war was the source of Nikita Khrushchev’s steadfast aid to China in the mid-1950s, bringing Sino-Soviet relations to a new stage.


  1. 1.

    On Soviet estimates of the prewar US position, see Shen, Mao, Stalin, and the Korean War, pp. 53–54.

  2. 2.

    Alexandre Y. Mansourov, “Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War, Sept.16–Oct.15, 1950: New Evidence from the Russian Archives,” CWIHP Bulletin, Issues 6–7 (Winter 1995/1996), p. 105.

  3. 3.

    For Stalin’s hesitation from July to September 1950 about Chinese troops becoming involved in the Korean War, see Shen and Xia, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Partnership, pp. 72–77.

  4. 4.

    Because the Russian version of Mao’s 2 October cable indicates that the Chinese leaders were not yet ready to send troops to Korea, Alexander Mansourov argues that Chinese leaders might have completely backed away from their original intention of sending troops to Korea by early October 1950. For debate on the authenticity of the Chinese version of Mao’s 2 October 1950 cable, see Mansourov, “Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War,” pp. 94–119; Shen Zhihua, “The Discrepancy between the Russian and Chinese Versions of Mao’s 2 October 1950 Message to Stalin on Chinese Entry into the Korean War: A Chinese Scholar’s Reply,” CWIHP Bulletin, Issues 8–9 (Winter 1996/97), pp. 237–42. This author concludes that “Mao did not change his goals but rather the tactics he would use to achieve them. Instead of replying directly and positively to Stalin’s request, Mao adopted a more indirect and ambiguous response so that he would be able to reconcile his own determination to enter the war with the disagreements still existing among other CCP leaders, while at the same time keeping the door for further communication (and bargaining) with Stalin open” (p. 241).

  5. 5.

    Mansourov, “Stalin, Mao, Kim, and China’s Decision to Enter the Korean War,” pp. 94–107.

  6. 6.

    “The Communist International and the Chinese Communist Party,” July 14 and 15, 1960, in Selected Works of Zhou Enlai (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989), vol. 2, p. 308.

  7. 7.

    Jung-chen Nieh, Inside the Red Star: The Memoirs of Marshal Nie Rongzhen (Beijing: New World Press, 1988), p. 640.

  8. 8.

    For a study of the Korean armistice negotiations, see Xia, Negotiating with the Enemy, pp. 43–75.

  9. 9.

    For the text of the proposal, see FRUS, 1951, vol. 7, p. 64; For the background of the proposal, see William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 152–54.

  10. 10.

    Ciphered Telegram, Roshchin to USSR Foreign Ministry, 13 January 1951, in CWIHP Bulletin, Issues 6–7 (Winter 1995/96), p. 54.

  11. 11.

    “Editorial Note, Chou Enlai to the Acting Secretary General of the UN,” 17 January 1951, FRUS, 1951, vol. 7, pp. 90–91; Rosemary Foot, A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), p. 30.

  12. 12.

    David Rees, Korea: The Limited War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), pp. 225–56.

  13. 13.

    Jung-chen Nieh, Inside the Red Star, p. 641.

  14. 14.


  15. 15.

    William Stueck, Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 139. In reality, Kim Il-sung had lost much of his power to command the North Korean troops after December 1950 when Chinese and North Korean forces signed an agreement to establish a joint Chinese–North Korean headquarters. This put the commanding power of all Communist forces in Korea into the hands of the Chinese commanders.

  16. 16.

    Editorial Note, “Malik’s Radio Address on Korean Ceasefire,” 23 June 1951, in FRUS, 1951, vol. 7, p. 547; Burton I. Kaufman, The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), p. 191; Stueck, The Korean War, p. 208. On the next day, Stalin wrote to Mao, “[Y]ou must always know from Malik’s speech that our promise about raising the question of an armistice has already been fulfilled by us. It is possible that the matter of an armistice will move forward.” See Ciphered Telegram, Filippov [Stalin] to Mao Zedong, 2 June 1951, CWIHP Bulletin, Issues 6–7 (Winter 1995/96), p. 62.

  17. 17.

    Acheson to the Embassy in the USSR, 25 June 1951, FRUS, 1951, vol. 7, pp. 553–54; Kirk to the Secretary of State, 26, 27 June 1951, ibid., vol. 7, pp. 555, 560–61; Stueck, The Korean War, p. 209; Foot, A Substitute for Victory, p. 37.

  18. 18.

    Ciphered Telegram, Mao Zedong to Filippov (Stalin); Filippov (Stalin) to Mao Zedong, 30 June 1951, CWIHP Bulletin, Issues 6–7 (Winter 1995/96), pp. 64–65.

  19. 19.

    Ciphered Telegram, Filippov (Stalin) to Razuvaev, with Message for Kim Il-sung, 1 July 1951, in ibid., p. 65.

  20. 20.

    Author’s interview with Wang Yazhi from June to September 2001. Wang Yazhi had been Zhou Enlai’s military secretary and in the 1950s he served on Peng Dehuai’s staff. He was later transferred to the National Science and Technology Commission for Defense.

  21. 21.

    For Soviet military aid to China during the Korean War, see Shen and Xia, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Partnership, pp. 85–88.

  22. 22.

    On Soviet economic aid to China during the Korean War, see ibid., pp. 88–91.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.East China Normal UniversityShanghaiChina

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