Communist leaders and their policies

The origin of the Korean War, its course and outcome, can all be traced to the policies of the leaders and the strategy of the generals...

Kim Il-sung (15 April 1912 8 July 1994)

Kim Il-sung was the Premier of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea and Supreme Commander of the North Korean People's Army during the Korean War. As a member of the Chinese communist-led North-East Anti Japanese Army, Kim Il-sung fought the Japanese in Manchuria from 1932 to 1941. Kim Il-sung's guerrilla record and the support of Soviet occupying authorities secured his political and military control of North Korea prior to the Korean War. The invasion of South Korea by North Korea was initiated by Kim Il-sung's Soviet backers but it was also Kim Il-sung's wish to unite his country. With the defeat of his invasion in 1950, the subsequent UN offensive into his country, and the arrival of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army, Kim's influence waned. Nevertheless, within North Korea his status as leader of both the government and the armed forces remained strong. In 1972, Kim became constitutional President of North Korea and he introduced a new ideology – self-reliance or Juche. Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il. Kim Il-sung retains the title 'Eternal President' and his birthday is celebrated as a public holiday.

Mao Zedong (26 December 1893 – 9 September 1976)

One of the most important figures of the twentieth century, Mao Zedong was pivotal to the Chinese involvement in the Korean War. Mao, a founding member of the Chinese Communist Party, became Chairman of the People's Republic of China after leading the party to victory in the Chinese revolution. In alliance with Josef Stalin and Kim Il-sung, Mao helped Kim prepare for war by sending to North Korea three Korean manned infantry divisions which had fought with the Chinese communists during the revolution. Mao ordered Chinese military intervention in the Korean War in October 1950 when United Nations troops invaded North Korea. He feared China's exposure to foreign invasion should North Korea be defeated and occupied. He saw intervention as a necessity to protect his revolution. China's civil war had just finished and Mao's enemy, the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek were holding the off shore island of Taiwan. Moreover, the UN had demonstrated its hostility to communist China by allowing China's seat in the UN to be retained by Chiang's nationalists. While the Chinese intervention failed to unify Korea under Kim Il-sung, it did force the UN to abandon its hope to unify the country under southern leadership and demonstrated China's power to the world. After the Korean War Mao helped fund the reconstruction of North Korea. In 1966, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, leading to widespread economic and political ruin. Mao's death in 1976 left an economically depressed China.

Marshal Peng Dehuai (24 October 1898 – 29 November 1974)

The commander of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army in Korea, Peng served as an army officer for 43 years. Peng lost his parents when he was nine and worked as a coal miner until at 16 he was accepted into the Hunan Military Academy. An officer with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists, he then changed sides, joining the Communist Party in 1927. An army commander during the communist's 'long march', Peng later commanded guerrilla forces behind Japanese lines. After the Japanese surrender Peng commanded 1st Chinese Army until the communists won the revolution in 1949. In 1950 Peng led the 310,000-strong People's Volunteer Army in its intervention in the Korean War. Praised for his spectacular first offensive against General Douglas MacArthur's United Nations forces, he lost prestige when later Chinese attacks proved to be less successful. Peng nevertheless retained command of Chinese forces in Korea until the end of the war. After the war Peng was Defence Minister until he was arrested during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. He was placed under house arrest, tortured and sometimes publicly beaten at rallies designed to humiliate him. Peng died in 1974.

Joseph Stalin (18 December 1878 – 5 March 1953)

Joseph Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili) was General Secretary of the Soviet Union's Communist Party from 1922 to 1953 and Soviet Premier from 1941 to 1953. He allied with the United States of America against Hitler's Germany in WWII. At the 1945 Yalta Conference Stalin readily agreed to temporarily split Korea into north and south along the 38th parallel, but soon he fell out with the United States and Britain over other aspects of the post-WWII political settlement. This began the Cold War.

Prior to the Soviets developing their own atomic weapons in 1949, Stalin was reluctant to risk a war with the United States by supporting a North Korean invasion of South Korea. He was further encouraged in that year by the communist Chinese victory in their civil war with the nationalists. He now had a powerful ally in the north Asia region. Stalin met Kim Il-sung in Moscow in late 1949 and agreed to provide technical and financial aid for the invasion. Covertly he also provided Soviet military personnel, 282 of whom were killed in the Korean War. After the tide of events turned with the United Nations landing at Inchon, Stalin distanced himself from the war though he opposed any peace settlement. His death in 1953 removed a major obstacle to ending the war.


Last updated: 12 February 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Communist leaders and their policies, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 10 August 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/korean-war-1950-1953/korean-war/cold-war-and-crisis-korea/communist-leaders-and-their-policies
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