CWIHP Launches Korea Initiative

Kathryn Weathersby, Coordinator

Jun 21, 2000




Cold War International History Project

Christian F. Ostermann, Director


New Initiative
"New Evidence on North Korea in the Cold War"
Kathryn Weathersby, Coordinator



At its workshop on "New Evidence on the Korean War from Russian, Chinese and European Archives" on 21 June 2000, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) launched a new initiative on "New Evidence on North Korea in the Cold War." The initiative will be the focus of major research efforts by the CWIHP over the next three years.

I. Background

Korea's role is central in the making and development of the Cold War. More than any other event, the Korean War (1950-1953) shaped the perceptions, alignments and parameters of the Cold War. The Western response to the North Korean attack, followed by China's entry into the war, militarized
what had until then been largely a political conflict.
At the same time, it set limits on superpower military confrontation that remained in place for the duration of the Cold War. Despite the central importance of events in Korea, however, until communist bloc archives began to open in the last few years, scholars and the general public still debated the most basic questions about the war in Korea-who started the war, whether the Soviet Union was involved, who made the important decisions on the communist side during the war, what finally brought the war to an end.

Thanks in large measure to the efforts of the network of scholars associated with the Cold War International History Project, a large body of documentation has been collected from Moscow and Beijing that has answered many of these basic questions. We now know when, how and by whom the decision was made to attack South Korea. We also know much about when and why the Chinese made the decision to enter the war and about the relative roles of Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang in conducting the war. We have good evidence suggesting that Stalin's death was the critical factor in bringing the war to an end. The new sources also illuminate the complex interactions among North Koreans, Chinese and Soviets and the interplay of their varying perceptions of the "capitalist" states. CWIHP has made much of this new evidence and analysis available to scholars, policymakers and the general public. In 1993, CWIHP's conference in Moscow highlighted the first documentary proof located in the Russian archives that Stalin had indeed approved North Korea's attack on the South, information which was subsequently published in CWIHP Bulletin No. 3. And in 1995 and 1996, subsequent issues of the CWIHP Bulletin featured the first ever publication of documents from the Russian Presidential Archives disclosing details of communications among Kim Il Sung, Stalin, and Mao Zedong concerning the origins of the war as well as China's decision to intervene in the conflict. Perhaps most strikingly, the CWIHP Bulletin's special issue (No. 6/7) on "The Cold War in Asia" (and a major international conference in Hong Kong on the same theme) in January 1996 attracted front-page headlines as well as scholarly interest with revelations of contradictions between Russian and Chinese documents on the Korean conflict (a controversy that prompted authorities in Beijing for the first time to allow access to top-level materials concerning the Korean conflict; see Bulletin No. 8/9). CWIHP publications on the Korean War have been cited by leading newspapers, television and radio programs throughout the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and newspapers and radio stations in Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. CWIHP publications on the Korean War have also been cited in the Congressional Quarterly in Washington and have been used as reference by several departments of the U.S. Government. At the same time, CWIHP has facilitated scholarly access to its materials by donating all East-bloc documents it obtains-including several thousand pages of Russian documents on the Korean War-to a database collection in Washington, D.C., open to all interested researchers. This collection, located at the National Security Archive (a non-governmental, non-partisan research institute and documents repository located at George Washington University), would also house documents obtained by the Korea initiative, and will also be accessible internationally via the CWIHP home page on the World Wide Web.

Most recently, CWIHP featured documents and commentaries by scholar Kathryn Weathersby and scientist Milton Leitenberg on the allegations of U.S. bacteriological warfare during the Korean War. These Russian materials call into question the long-standing, never officially revoked allegations that the United States used biological warfare during the conflict in Korea. CWIHP's publication of these documents along with its presentation and discussion of them with a large audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in November 1998, were featured in a front-page article in The Washington Times, by an AP dispatch, and in major articles in US News & World Report and USA Today as well as nearly a dozen newspapers and other websites.

As a result of the research facilitated by CWIHP since 1991, our understanding of the central role of Korea in the development of the Cold War has deepened and broadened. New questions have also emerged, along with new possibilities for studying them. Russian and Chinese archives continue to be important, but we have also discovered that Eastern European archives contain significant documentation on Korean issues. In addition to political records from Eastern Europe, we now have access to important sources from the military archives of several former DPRK allies-including East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. While most American diplomatic records pertaining to the Korean War have long been available, scholars are only now beginning to gain access to four decades of intelligence reports, estimates, and analyses of all aspects of the North Korean regime and the politico-military situation on the Korean peninsula during the Cold War. Naturally, it is the integration of new Eastern and Western documents and sources and their comparison with longstanding and influential previous accounts that will provide the most important and useful new historical results.

CWIHP's new Korea initiative will use these archival sources from the former communist bloc and the United States to illuminate key issues in the conflict on the Korean peninsula over the entire post-armistice period. A major focus will be on the external relations that have played a central role in shaping the actions of the DPRK. We will examine Pyongyang's changing relationships with
the Soviet Union and China, and also its important but less well-known relations with Eastern European countries. Since Kim Il Sung had especially friendly relations with East German leader Erich Honecker and the Romanian head of state Nicolai Ceaucescu and at times spoke more freely with them than with his Soviet or Chinese patrons, records from those two countries can reveal important information about North Korean attitudes on a broad range of foreign policy issues. What was the rationale behind Pyongyang's several rounds of talks with South Korean representatives since 1972? How did the North Korean leadership view the relationship between its "peace offensive" and its violent provocations against the South? What conditions in the international environment either facilitated or discouraged negotiations and/or violent confrontation between North and South? How have North Korean views of the United States and Japan changed since the late 1950's? What were the limits of outside influence on Kim Il Sung? The record of how Pyongyang explained and justified its actions to its communist allies, and how those allies sought to shape North Korean actions, provides an essential window into these and related questions.

A second major focus of the initiative will be on the military confrontation on the Korean peninsula. From our research on the Korean War, we know that Kim Il Sung and his Soviet backers believed in 1949 that South Korea would soon attack the North, with support from the United States. We also learned that in 1950 the North Korean leadership greatly overestimated the support it enjoyed among the population of the South and underestimated the likelihood of U.S. intervention to defend the ROK. Using American intelligence reports along with the military archives of the former Soviet bloc countries, we will examine North Korean perceptions of South Korean intentions and capabilities in the post-armistice period. How did Pyongyang view the conflicting signals regarding US commitment to South Korea? What were the main influences on DPRK military doctrine? In April 1975, as the Vietnamese communists were entering Saigon, Kim Il Sung delivered a speech in Beijing forecasting the collapse of the ROK and the worldwide victory of Marxism-Leninism. He then visited his East European allies, but did not go to the Soviet Union since Moscow had made it clear it would not support war against the South. What signals did he get in the East European capitals, and how did he describe there the prospects for war on the peninsula? How has North Korea altered its military doctrine since the introduction of American precision weapons in the early 1980's? What has been Pyongyang's view of the capabilities of the combined forces in the South?

This list of issues that can be fruitfully investigated through East Bloc archives is, of course, not exhaustive. As new sources are uncovered, new questions arise. Furthermore, changing events on the Korean peninsula may also prompt alterations in the research agenda. The proposed project will lay a foundation for the most effective use of Korean archives, if and when they become available.

II.Research Design

CWIHP' new Korea initiative addresses the lack of information concerning North Korea's role in the Cold War. This initiative will be guided by an advisory board consisting of Chen Jian (University of Virginia), Nicholas Eberstadt (American Enterprise Institute), Carter Eckart (Harvard University), Vojtech Mastny (CWIHP Senior Research Scholar), Don Oberdorfer (Resident Journalist, SAIS), Park Myung-Lim (Seoul) and will be managed on a day-to-day basis by CWIHP's Initiative Coordinator for Korea, Dr. Kathryn Weathersby, in consultation with the CWIHP Director, Christian F. Ostermann.

The Korea Initiative's first step (2000-2001) will be a detailed preliminary survey of Korea-related materials in former Communist archives, undertaken by CWIHP's Russian and Eastern European Partners in consultation with the Korea Initiative coordinator. As a second step, the Initiative Coordinator will select materials for xeroxing and translation, and oversee the translation. The materials will then be published, with explanatory notes by the Initiative Coordinator and other scholars in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, the CWIHP Working Paper Series and on the CWIHP Website. Hardcopies will be made publicly accessible through the CWIHP's archive (REEAD) at George Washington University.

CWIHP also plans organize an international conference in Washington or Seoul facilitating the presentation and exchange, discussion and evaluation of this and other new documentation from Western and former Soviet-bloc archives. The scholarly conference will assess the significance of the new findings and put them into the context of existing scholarship. In addition, the conference will, if possible, be used to undertake critical oral histories of key former policymakers/officials who played a role in North Korea's relations with the Communist bloc countries, in order to add to the documentary record made available through the project. Conference papers are slated to be published in a volume in the CWIHP Book Series (Stanford University Press/WWC Press).

CWIHP welcomes contribution to the Korea project. For further information, contact the Cold War International History Project at Cold War Project

Cold War International History Project
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004-3027
Tel: (202) 691-4110
Fax: (202) 691-4184
Email: Coldwar Project

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project