A Korean War expert provided a Pentagon audience with some Chinese, Russian and North Korean perspectives on that conflict during a Dec. 3 presentation in Washington, D.C.
Using information from Chinese and Russian sources that became available in the past few decades, noted historian Allan R. Millett delivered a lecture entitled, “Korea, November 1950.” That was the month in which U.S. forces in Korea first encountered troops from the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in combat while trying to counter North Korean aggression. The scholar spoke as part of the History Speaker Series, sponsored by the Historical Office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Millett is a professor of history at the University of New Orleans and also serves as director of the university’s Eisenhower Center for American Studies. He specializes in the history of American military policy, military institutions, and 20th century wars and is the author of three books on the Korean War and four on other military topics. His most recent book, “The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North,” was published in 2010.
Due to information made available to Western scholars since the 1980s, “we now have a much clearer view of the Russian and Chinese relationship and its influence on the course of the war,” Millett told AFPS in an interview after his presentation.
The historian noted that traditional American accounts of the war only provided part of the picture.
“The basic problem with Korean War history, as it’s understood in the United States, is that it’s full of Americans, but you don’t find much about the Koreans on either side, and you don’t find out much about the Chinese or the Russians,” he said. “But that’s not excusable today, because we know a great deal more from their own sources as to what they were doing and why they were doing it.”
Millett said the Chinese initially intervened in Korea to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime. After their initial successes, Mao Zedong, leader of communist China, decided they had the capability of driving U.S. and United Nations forces off the Korean Peninsula and unifying Korea as a communist state.
“Well, that didn’t work,” Millett said. “By June of 1951, the Chinese had decided to wage a war of attrition to prolong the war until such time as they believed the North Koreans could defend themselves without much Chinese support.”
In order to do that, Millett said, two major projects had to be accomplished. One was to see that the North Korean army was reformed, improved and adequately supplied with weapons. The second was to create a system of positional defenses, such as tunnels, bunkers and caves, so that North Koreans could survive any kind of air attack, including nuclear weapons, if necessary.
“The Chinese are very proud of the fact that they were able to create defense systems in North Korea which still exist, along both coasts and along the DMZ, which could frustrate any kind of major attack, certainly by the South Koreans,” Millett said. “The Chinese were pretty certain that the United States was not going to wage a major war of conquest after 1951.”
Millett said an armistice was acceptable to the Chinese in 1953 because by that time their plan to restructure North Korean defenses was largely accomplished.
“We get hung up on the process of negotiations of Panmunjom – truce talks, exchange of prisoners and other things, which had some meaning, to be sure – but, fundamentally, both sides were willing to settle for a tie,” Millett said. “There are a lot of people who feel that the agreement of 1953 was like the agreement that existed in 1950, and that’s simply not true.
“[South Korea now occupies] large hunks of what was then North Korea,” Millett continued. “That enabled us to defend the immediate approaches to Seoul and the Han River Valley; while at the same time [the Republic of Korea forces] could ensure that the North Koreans couldn’t invade again without a great degree of difficulty.”
The Chinese had “lots of incentives” by 1953 to get out of the Korean theater because they were at that time interested in invading Formosa, supporting the Viet-Minh in Indochina and pacifying Mongolia and Tibet, he said.
“They had a pretty large security agenda to serve, and from the Chinese point of view what they were attempting to do was to preserve the Chinese revolution of the People’s Republic of China by being more self-sufficient militarily,” Millett said. “They didn’t want to be dependent upon the Russians, at the same time they wanted to milk the Russians for as much assistance as they could get.”
The historian said the Chinese were fairly satisfied that when the armistice was signed in 1953, they and the North Koreans were militarily in much better shape to resist any sort of aggression they might face from the United States and the South Koreans.
“They may have been paranoid, but from the Chinese point of view, what they believed was happening was that the United States and the [United Nations] had become sort of front men for Japan,” Millett said. The Chinese thought Japan wanted to create a “kind of bourgeois, right-wing alliance” by using the United States, South Korea, the Philippines, Formosa and French Indochina to not just contain the Chinese communist revolution, but to eliminate it altogether, he said.
“I think they were wrong,” Millett said. “I don’t think that was the intent, but one could understand why they might have thought that.”
The Chinese are still deeply distrustful of the Japanese and of U.S. relations with Japan, said Millett, noting that echoes of the Korean War continue to reverberate in the region.
“We still have lots of alliance partners out there, and sometimes I don’t think we work nearly hard enough to understand their problems and perspectives,” he said. “Korea, obviously, has not gone away. And there are lots of residual tensions and assumptions that are going to continue to influence our relations with China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan. The war is not forgotten out there. It’s still a very big deal.”
Over time, the U.S. shifted its focus away from Korea to Vietnam, then to NATO, Millett said, and eventually to the wars in the Middle East.
“And we haven’t really worked probably as intelligently as we might have in figuring out how to deal with the security issues of Asia, particularly north Asia,” he said.
As U.S. defense strategy shifts to the Pacific region, Millett noted that understanding the history of the region is very important, and understanding the perspectives of different nations is critical.
“Unless you know the history of the American military presence in the region, it’s difficult to understand the attitudes of the various people we have to deal with,” he said. “The Chinese are very suspicious of any kind of relationship that the U.S. may have with Japan. That tension is still there, and it’s not going to go away.”