By Andrei Lankov
On the morning of June 25, 1950, the Chinese leaders were told that communist North Korea, had launched a surprise attack against the capitalist South. They learned about this turn of events literally from the media specifically from reports from foreign wire services.
The absence of official notification was somewhat humiliating. Nonetheless, Chairman Mao and his government knew that an attack was imminent. In January 1950 Joseph Stalin had notified Chinese leaders that, after much deliberation, Moscow approved the North Korean idea of a blitzkrieg strategy to unify Korea under one communist government and deprive the United States of its last ally in continental East Asia. The idea belonged to Kim Il-sung, but it took several years to persuade Stalin, who was initially skeptical, that the operation would be swift and that Americans would not intervene. Nonetheless, when Stalin gave his reluctant approval in early 1950, he made two conditions: first, the plan should be approved by another communist great power, China; second, whatever transpired, the USSR would not commit ground troops to Korea.
From recent research by Chinese scholars (especially Shen Zhihua whose articles and publications I have referenced here) it is clear that Chinese were more skeptical about the entire plan than both the North Koreans and the Soviets.
In May 1950 Kim Il-sung secretly visited Beijing and briefed Mao about the invasion plan. Mao was unimpressed, but having received a cable from Stalin, he promised his support. Mao understood that if things really went south, it would be his soldiers who would go to Korea. He made an explicit promise of military support in the advent of U.S. intervention.
Indeed, the Chinese leaders never forgot about this danger ― even when the North Korean tanks rolled south toward Busan, seemingly unopposed. In early July Zhou Enlai, China's second-in-command, had a long talk with the Soviet ambassador, insisting that a large-scale U.S. intervention was imminent. He even mentioned that Americans would probably cross the 38th parallel ― something which did not appear likely in those days when Seoul was in the hands of the Northern armies and demoralized South Korean troops were fleeing in great disarray. Zhou Enlai stressed that were that to come about then Chinese soldiers, dressed in the North Korean uniform, would join the military operations. At that time, 120,000 Chinese soldiers were already assembled in the areas near the Korean border, ready to fight if things went awry.
Indeed, preparations for a likely intervention in Korea were proceeding even when the North seemed to be on the verge of victory. The Soviets approved such an approach. On July 5, Stalin cabled, Beijing:''We consider it correct, immediately to concentrate nine Chinese divisions on the Sino-Korean border for volunteer actions in North Korea in case the enemy crosses the 38th parallel. We will try to provide air cover for these units.''
However, the Northerners were winning ― and did not treat their allies nicely. A new Chinese military attache was met with great pomp, but soon discovered that he could not learn anything about the actual military situation. The briefings he received from a Korean dignitary consisted of reports from the North Korean Foreign News Service. Korean generals were not allowed to share any important information, and Chinese requests to allow staff officer visits were not granted. In short, the North Koreans tried to keep the Chinese distant, even though the latter were ready to act as a backup force if things went wrong. I cannot rule out that this strange position reflected some backstabbing between Moscow and Beijing, and Soviet attempts to keep the Chinese out of the loop (after all, Pyongyang was, first and foremost, a Moscow ally in those times). However, it is much more likely that such suspicions reflected intense nationalism and distrust of foreigners, characteristics that were already an important component of North Korean thinking.
With the wisdom of hindsight we knew that Chinese were correct in their persistent worries. When Mao met a North Korean representative, Yi Sang-jo, in August, the Chairman noted that the western coast of Korea was badly protected. He suggested that the coastal defenses in this vulnerable area be upgraded. From North Korean material, discovered by Professor Pak Myong-rim, it seems that the North Koreans indeed tried to fix the shortcoming, albeit without much enthusiasm. Frankly, the Northern generals had neither time nor resources to update coastal defenses to a sufficient level.
Perhaps, they still believed that this would not be necessary. Until the last moment optimism reigned supreme in the HQ of the North Korean army. On Sept. 4, the Chinese military attache was talking to Kim Il-sung, insisting that the war had reached a stalemate and that a large-scale U.S. military intervention was very likely. Both ideas were rejected. Kim Ilsung said:''We estimate that presently, a U.S. counterattack is not possible; they do not posses sufficient troop support, and therefore a landing in our rear ports would be difficult.''
The Chinese assumptions were correct. The Incheon landing changed the entire situation and only Beijing's willingness to carry out earlier plans and dispatch a large force to Korea saved Kim's regime from complete annihilation. But that is another story…