Rethinking The Korean War

NORTH KOREAN STRONGMAN Kim Il Sung arrived in Beijing on May 13, 1950, on a top-secret mission he hoped would lead to war. He had just come from Moscow, where Joseph Stalin supported his plan to ""liberate'' South Korea in a lightning invasion. Stalin had set one condition: ""Comrade Mao Zedong must give the decision final approval.'' Mao was upset that his two communist neighbors had been plotting Korea's unification behind his back. But during the four-day negotiation, he gave Kim the go-ahead, adding a promise with fateful implications for all of East Asia. ""If the American army participates, China will send armies to support North Korea,'' Mao promised. ""If they cross the 38th parallel, we definitely will come in fighting.''

Could Mao have vetoed the Korean War? That is but one of the stunning assertions made by the official Chinese Communist Party magazine Hundred Year Tide in a three-part series that concluded last month. The journal abandons the party's 40-year-old claim that South Korea invaded the North. Instead, it largely confirms standard Western accounts of the war. It portrays Stalin as the Korean War's ultimate mastermind, Kim as a naive radical who boasted that he could conquer the South ""in two weeks,'' and Mao as the man who went along - against the advice of his top generals. Drawn from both Soviet and Chinese archives, the essays suggest that the war was not a ""glorious victory,'' as China has heretofore claimed, but a blunder that played into Stalin's hands and undermined China's real interests in East Asia.

History is never rewritten in China without a political purpose. In the early 1980s, economic reform reached a turning point when Deng Xiaoping denounced Mao's radical experiments in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Today, an assault on Mao's handling of the Korean War could foreshadow a similar shift on foreign policy. For if Mao's decision to enter the conflict was a mistake, then perhaps the ensuing decades of cold war were unnecessary, as well. Says a senior Chinese journalist: ""The Korean revisionism shows that there are people within the party who want to improve relations with the United States.''

The author of the Korean War series chose to publish the tracts under the pen name Qingshi, meaning ""clear history.'' The veil of anonymity, and the fact that none of Qingshi's assertions have reached the mainstream Chinese press, suggest that his views do not represent the party's official line, at least not yet. China's standard history of the conflict comes straight out of the cold war. One middle-school textbook published six months ago describes how ""American imperialists'' organized ""so-called United Nations forces'' to invade North Korea, then used the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent Taiwan's forced reunification with China. A People's Liberation Army booklet praises the Chinese ""volunteers'' who saved socialism in North Korea.

Qingshi's revised history begins in the 1940s with Stalin playing China against North Korea to serve his own interests. In 1949, Mao asked for 200 Russian-built warplanes and pilots to support an invasion of Taiwan, the island where China's defeated Nationalists had found refuge from Mao's army. Stalin was supportive but noncommittal. What Mao didn't know, says Qingshi, was that the Soviets had trained and supplied North Korea's military in preparation for an attack on South Korea. Indeed, Stalin urged Kim to seek Mao's approval only because he assumed, correctly, that Mao needed Soviet aid too much to say no. Stalin got his way.

The North Korean attack came five weeks later. America responded by rushing troops to South Korea and sending its fleet into the Taiwan Strait, thwarting Mao's planned invasion. Mao quickly grew dismayed by events in Korea, particularly after Kim's assault crumbled and U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at Inchon, above the 38th parallel. As MacArthur advanced deep into North Korea, Stalin urged Mao to intervene, promising air support and warning of a ""collapse of socialism in Korea'' unless China saved Kim. ""If war is inevitable,'' Stalin cabled to Mao, ""then let it be waged now.''

China's 350,000 ""volunteers'' began moving across the Yalu River on Oct. 14. They pushed south with inferior weapons and, despite Stalin's promise, no air support. Among the thousands who died in the assault: Mao's 28-year-old son, Anying. In the next two years, Mao repeatedly passed up opportunities for a cease-fire. The war became a bloody stalemate that China has called a great victory. The revisionists think otherwise. Stalin ""pushed the Korean War because in the end it served Soviet interests,'' which were to lock China and the United States in a costly land war, Qing- shi writes.

Many Chinese generals still think they won the war. And top party leaders warn that revising history leads down a slippery slope to political reform. A clash between moderates and hard-liners is expected at the 15th Party Congress, scheduled for September. The Congress is expected to debate key issues like Sino-U.S. relations, Taiwan and North Korea. That's bad news for Mao's memory, already shredded by Deng for radical excesses at home. Without the ""glorious'' victory in Korea, Mao won't have much of a legacy.