From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 3
What Were Mao's Motivations for Intervention in the Korean War?
Chinese intervention in Korea in October 1950 continued a period of hideous violence and death in China's history. Between 1927 and 1949, around 21.5 to 27.5 million Chinese had died in the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the Chinese Civil War. Despite this terrible loss of life, exactly one year after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the establishment of an uneasy peace, Chinese troops were once again marching to war, now in Korea. This intervention would go on to claim between 180,000 and 400,000 Chinese lives (including that of Mao Zedong's own son), possibly even more and the whole while, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over China. This terrible bloodshed, so soon after China's struggle for survival against Japan and their internal fratricidal conflict raises a key question, why? This essay will outline why Mao Zedong took the decision to intervene in Korea in 1950.
This essay will mostly focus on the realist, conventional political reasoning that drove Mao's decisions, however, it would be unwise not to also examine the ideological motivations that further motivated Mao's decision to intervene.
To begin, Mao's ideological world view must be examined in order to understand why he viewed factors surrounding his decision to intervene in Korea the way he did.
At the base level CCP analysed domestic and international political affairs within the conceptual framework of "contradictions" and the continual posing and resolving of contradictions in all things. Through distinguishing and rating important contradictions, China could indentify its principal opponents, political forces that could be relied upon for support and the strengths and weaknesses of its opponents and how to defeat them. Mao emphasized 'principle contradictions', the most pressing problems facing China at present. While hesitant to openly declare a 'principle contradiction' pre-1965, China did place emphasis on Asia, Africa and Latin America. This is believed to have been motivated by the fact that these regions had greater conflicting political and economic forces than other more stable parts of the world, making them more fertile ground for revolutionary change. The fact that these regions possessed two-thirds of the world's population and valuable resources and markets led Mao to believed they would be an important 'frontline' against China's enemies.1
Mao dictated that the PRC's foreign policy should be based on Marxist internationalism, a ideology that demands support for the proletariat all over the world in their struggle against the bourgeoisie but on paper, rejects intervention and chauvinistic tactics by the state. This meant that China should support guerrilla liberation struggle but never 'export' revolution through direct military force. Mao believed that ultimately, in the distant future, through an irreversible historical trend, the international communist revolution would triumph.1
With regards to who Mao considered his enemies on the international stage, Mao adhered to Lenin's perspective of imperialism being "The highest stage of capitalism", making the capitalist 'imperialist' nations of the world his principle external enemies. Foremost amongst these nations in Mao's mind was the United States. Mao viewed the USA as an aggressive imperial power who, unlike many of their imperial counterparts, had emerged from the Second World War much stronger, rather than weaker. Mao regarded the USA's ultimate goals to be the repression of the proletariat, dominance over the 'intermediate zone' and the ultimate destruction of the communist bloc.1
It is also possible that Mao's world view may have been influenced by older Chinese philosophies. Confucian philosophy places heavy emphasis on the 'father figure' and solidarity and harmony amongst the people.4 Particularly notably with regards to Chinese attitudes towards fellow communist nations such as North Korea, Confucianism addresses 'Brotherhood' those of the same parents or teacher. It states that 'brothers' should adhere to certain roles depending on seniority, that brothers must help each other and that betrayal of brotherhood is a terrible crime.5
It has been noted that Chinese Confucian Marxists are not uncommon and that contradictions between Marxist materialism and Confucian idealism was not widely recognised. Four of Liu Shaoqi's five virtues were Confucian in nature and Mao adhered to Confucian tradition with regards to the function of education.6
Mao may have also been influenced by old Chinese attitudes towards Korea when China constituted the 'Middle Kingdom'. The traditional Chinese perceptive on relations with Korea was that theirs was a "teeth-to-lips" relationship. Without the Korean 'lips' to protect them, the Chinese 'teeth would be adversely affected.7
Having set the ideological context that Mao Zedong was working within, the reader should now better understand the motivations that fuelled the choices and calculations that Mao would make in the lead up to his intervention in Korea.
To truly understand Mao Zedong's motivations for intervening in Korea, an understanding of his ideology is not enough. There are many realist political considerations that must be explored to gain an in-depth understanding of why Mao made the specific choices that he did with regards to Korea.
The first issue that must be explored is Chinese commitments to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Relations between the PRC and DPRK can be regarded as a 'Special Comradeship' due to the historically close ties that have existed between Chinese and Korean communists. President Kim Il-sung (a one time member of the CCP) and other Korean communists fought alongside the Chinese communists in the 1930s and 40s against the Japanese and would later allow the PLA to use North Korea as a strategic base during the Chinese Civil War.8 It should also be noted that during the civil war period, political, economic and cultural exchanges took place along the Sino-Korean border alongside the military support, further solidifying the CCP-DPRK relationship.9
Post-civil war, China and North Korea further solidified relations. The DPRK was one of the first to establish diplomatic ties with the PRC and the PRC embarked on a programme of repatriation of great numbers of Koreans who had fought in the PLA, sending great numbers of hardened veterans with technical expertise, many of whom were allowed to keep their weapons, to join the new KPA.10 Indeed, this decision by Mao could be regarded as Mao issuing a green light to Kim Il-sung to begin his invasion of South Korea.11
It should also be noted that in a close consultation meeting with Kim Il (a member of the North Korean central committee) in 1949, Mao supported the DPRK in a number of ways. Firstly that he agreed in principle to the violent reunification of Korea by the DPRK, secondly he advised Kim on how to go about starting such a war, thirdly he promised to resupply KPA forces with Japanese ammo when needed and finally (and most significantly in the context of Chinese intervention in Korea) Mao agreed to military intervention in the event of a US-led Japanese intervention in Korea.12
Another area of alignment between Peking and Pyongyang pre-Chinese intervention was the refugee crisis that erupted with the turning of the tide of the war against North Korea. In August and September of 1950, massive US air power was increasingly prevalent, not only on the forward positions of the KPA, but also increasingly on the cities of North Korea in a brutal campaign of strategic bombing. This devastation of civilian areas led to a wave of Korean refugees crossing the Chinese border to escape the war. This concerned both the Chinese, who disliked the idea of having quasi-permanent North Korean consulates and enclaves along its border, and the North Koreans, who wished to end the uncontrolled outflow of refugees.13 In order to alleviate the issue, the PRC agreed to a DPRK request to set up a DPRK consular office in Andong, a gateway for the vast majority of North Korean refugees.14
While such measures proved to be ultimately of little use in alleviating the crisis, it demonstrated the close cooperation between the PRC and the DPRK.
It would be misleading to claim that PRC-DPRK relations were perfectly harmonious however. Mao felt that the war in Korea that Kim Il-sung craved would compromise his plans to liberate Taiwan. Kim Il-sung's intense Korean nationalism, combined with his desire to not appear too closely tied to the Chinese (in order to secure his own authority in Korea) made it impossible for Mao to fully trust Kim.15 Ultimately however, Mao felt he could not betray the 'Special Comradeship' or "China's duty of proletariat internationalism" by withdrawing support from Kim.
The second issue regarding Chinese intervention in Korea is its commitments and relations with the USSR at the time. Mao was not the only communist leader concerned with the outcome of the Korean War, Joseph Stalin of the USSR was also closely involved with the war. Since 1945, Stalin feared the creation of a new pro-American Japanese militarism that would make use of the Korean Peninsula to attack the Asian mainland. Stalin wished to avoid US domination of the peninsula, but not in such a way that the USSR was drawn into direct conflict with the US.16 In the run-up to the Korean War, Stalin consulted with Mao on the possible outcomes of Kim Il-sung's invasion,17 asked Kim Il-sung to seek Chinese support for the invasion (which was given)18 and signed the Sino-Soviet Alliance, another 'green light' to Kim to launch his invasion.19
When the war turned against the DPRK, Stalin turned to Mao, requesting that he send troops into Korea disguised as 'volunteers' in order to save the DPRK without direct Soviet intervention.20
Ultimately China did agree to intervene in Korea, in part due to direct pressure from Stalin on numerous CCP leaders21 and the assumption that the USSR would honour the Sino-Soviet Alliance by providing military assistance for the intervention.22 Ultimately, Stalin did provide limited military support in the form of planes, tanks and advisors for training the PLA, supply and service units, ammunition and eventually, Soviet air cover for Chinese bases and crossing points on the Yalu.23
Mao did not intervene in Korea fully intending for it to be an exercise in solidarity with the USSR however. Mao felt that he rescued the Eastern revolution in Korea in the face of Soviet hesitance and disconnection, it would give China heightened sense of moral superiority over its 'elder brother'.24
The third issue regarding Chinese intervention in Korea was the issue of Chinese territorial security. The disintegration of the DPRK and the advance of UN forces towards the Sino-Korean border presented a serious threat to China's territorial security. A reunified pro-American Korea could serve as launch pad for a future invasion of China that would directly strike China's industrial heartland in Manchuria.25 The disintegration of the DPRK would rob China of a key buffer zone. Concern for China's north-eastern border was highlighted by the creation of the 260,000 strong Northeast Border Defense Army in July 1950,26 before China had even decided to intervene in Korea.
It should also be noted that as of October 1950 China was not only concerned about its north-east border. The presence of the US Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait and the continued French presence in Indochina made Mao feel that the US was threatening China from multiple directions. Victory in Korea would mean that China would have to divide its forces less to defend its territory.27
The fourth issue regarding Chinese intervention in Korea were the specific political goals and opportunities Mao pursued by intervening in Korea as well as its political justifications for intervening. In the eyes of Mao Zedong, the Korean War was a crucial event with regards to China's political position in East Asia. In his 1949-1950 visit to Moscow, Mao had agreed with Stalin to divide the responsibility of expanding the communist revolution between them,28 leaving Mao responsible of communising East Asia. The responsibility to forcibly communize Korea was to be shared between China and the DPRK.29 The war in Korea represented for China a crucial test of their aspirations to export their own significant revolution in the spirit of Chinese ethnocentrism and universalism.30 The Korean War presented a serious challenge to the western-dominated international structure in the Asian-Pacific region and that the founding of the PRC in 1949, followed by a united Korea under the DPRK, could see a new order emerge in East Asia.31 A victory in Korea against the US and its allies would also promote the prestige and influence of the PRC on the international stage.32
US intervention in Korea may have also been fuelled by feelings of US provocation and encroachment. Reports of a US airstrikes inside Chinese territory between August and October outraged China.33 Continuing US support for Taiwan also angered Mao. Nationalist troops still boasted air and naval superiority thanks to their US-made ships and planes and the deployment of the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait at the outbreak of the Korean Crisis made the liberation of Taiwan (a long-standing aim of the PRC) impossible.34
An extremely important perspective on why China intervened in Korea is that of domestic politics. When the question was first raised as to whether Chinese troops should intervene in Korea, there was much domestic opposition in China, view such an action as immoral or dangerous.35 This raises the question, how did Mao create the conditions where he could confidently intervene in Korea? Mao's solution to these domestic reservation over Korea was to launch the "Great Movement to Resist America and Assist Korea". This campaign was designed to stir up hatred amongst ordinary Chinese towards the US and preparing them for an inevitable conflict against their 'weakening' and long time political and economic abuser. At the same time, the CCP promoted a nationwide campaign to suppress "reactionaries and reactionary activities" to silence any remaining dissenters.36 The conditions created by these campaigns, combined with Mao's wisdom and authority within the CCP leadership,37 allowed him to intervene in October 1950.
These domestic issues and solutions did not purely relate to the facilitation of PRC foreign policy however. October 1950 marked the first anniversary of the PRC, a country that remained divided and devastated by many years of war. Mao felt that a successful intervention in Korea would enhance the revolutionary zeal of the people and solidify the CCP's position as China's new leader. With this newfound authority and public enthusiasm created by pre-intervention campaigns and the intervention itself, Mao believed this would serve as a base for his ambitions for economic development and social engineering.38
Before concluding, there is another interesting question regarding Chinese intervention in Korea, the role of US nuclear weapons on Mao's thinking. Why would Mao send troops (even ones disguised as volunteers) to fight the US military, who had a monopoly on weapons capable of terrifying destruction? This can be explained by Mao's rather dismissive attitude towards nuclear weapons.
Mao was believer that wars are decided by a country's people, not weapons. Mao also dismissed the idea that such weapons could decide a war as a product of "bourgeois world outlook and methodology" and should be dismissed.39
To conclude, Mao's motivations for intervening the Korean War were wide ranging in nature. Mao intervened to support his allies in the communist bloc, to protect Chinese territorial security, advance domestic goals and pursue political goals in foreign policy. These realist motivations of intervention were backed up by Mao's ideological views based on Marxist-Leninism and traditional Chinese attitudes and done in the face of numerous risks, including nuclear annihilation.