Now that tensions across the 38th parallel have once again become the focus of world attention, the time would seem to be ripe for another look at the beginnings of the Cold War in Asia and at the events that divided the Korean peninsula at the end of the Second World War and have kept it divided to this day.
This book is not an original, comprehensive account of the causes and conduct of the Korean War. Instead, it is an extremely detailed account of the emergence of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the late 1940s (with particular attention to the somewhat strained relationship between Stalin and Mao) which places the bits and pieces of strategic and tactical decision-making that eventually led to war in Korea in the context of the developing postwar world order, increasingly dominated by the two nuclear-armed superpowers.
The three Russian, Chinese and American authors have managed to arrange a staggering amount of material, much of it previously unavailable to scholars, into a nuanced, balanced and readable account of the development of the Sino-Soviet alliance and of how it was possible, given this background, for "reckless war-making of the worst kind" to lead to the Korean conflict, with Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung alike "operating on premises that were largely concealed and facts that were fabricated or at best half true".
If Korea itself sometimes seems to have only a small, walk-on part in this story, that is largely because the decision for war in Korea had its origins in Chinese and Soviet perceptions of their own security interests, which often had little to do with the issue of Korean reunification. The book is particularly strong in its analysis of the precise terms of the Sino-Soviet treaty of 1950 and how these limited Mao's room for manoeuvre in his efforts to complete the liberation of all China with the taking of Taiwan; it demonstrates well how Mao's final reluctant decision to back Kim's invasion of the south was taken in the interests not of the crumbling North Korean regime, but of China itself.
Of the three top Communist leaders involved, Kim comes out of this account the worst: although Stalin's legendary deviousness and Mao's tendency to petulance are also on display, Kim's over-confidence and obsession with secrecy are particularly striking. Such was the extent of the latter that his Communist supporters in the south were not warned that an invasion was imminent: one of the reasons why the uprising in the south, which Kim had assured Stalin would mean a decisive victory for his forces within days, never materialised, with the conflict instead degenerating into prolonged and bloody stalemate.
Clearly indispensable for students of Soviet and Chinese foreign policy, international relations and the Cold War, this book is also of value to those mainly interested in domestic developments in the early history of the People's Republic of China, who will appreciate its depiction of the interplay of Chinese foreign, security and domestic policy, nationalism, war-weariness, and the desire for great-power status. Many of the documents on which this account is based are translated in a useful appendix to the book, and occasional lapses in the quality of the writing do not detract from what seems likely to remain the classic work on the subject for some time to come.
Jackie Sheehan is a lecturer in international history, Keele University.
Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War
Author - Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis and Xue Litai
ISBN - 0 8047 2115 7
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 393