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The Korean War and China’s Strategic Decisions

Shen Zhihua 沈志華

Notes from Shen Zhihua’s presentation, delivered at the Yonsei Institute of Sinology (Seoul), Jun 19, 2019

Two leaders greeting

Periodization of the Korean war (in terms of shifts in China’s strategic aims):


  1. Engaging in military action to pursue a settlement - October 1950 to December 1950

  2. Fighting without negotiation: Pushing the American military back to the Pacific Ocean - January 1951 to May 1951.

  • Chinese and North Korean forces crossed the 38th Parallel with relative ease and occupied Hanseong (now Seoul). The United Nations proposed an amended resolution calling for a ceasefire that observed China’s conditions, however, this was rejected by China.
  1. A ceasefire and suing for peace: China resumed confining its efforts to military action - June 1951 to February 1952
  • China requested negotiations for an armistice and convinced Kim Il-Sung and Stalin to support the measure. During the negotiations undertaken in Kaesŏng and Panmunjom, China made many concessions, hoping to bring about a swift cessation of hostilities.
  1. Negotiating and fighting concurrently: Prolong America’s presence in North East Asia - March 1952 to February 1953
  • China refused to make any more concessions in relation to the handling of POWs and resolved to engage in military action, negotiate and construct [military infrastructure] concurrently, prolonging the war. This was contrary to the position of Kim Il-Sung but was supported by Stalin [who felt that tying up America in East Asia will improve the Soviet Union’s position in Europe].
  1. Fighting to expedite a settlement: Grasp the opportunity to increase China’s strategic gains - March 1953 to July 1953.
  • China accepted the Soviet Unions decision to bring the war to a swift conclusion and reluctantly agreed to adopt America’s proposal to resolve the issue of [releasing] POW’s. However, China also grasped the opportunity to increase its strategic gains, and engaged in military actions for the purpose of expediting a settlement.


A key standard for adjudging whether a strategic decision was correct is whether the results of this strategic decision achieved the aims initially set forth by those who made it. The rationality of the strategic decision is determined by whether or not it’s aims are in accord with key objective conditions.

Shen Zhihua’s appraisal of China’s strategic decisions: China’s decision to enter the war was rational in view of its economic, alliance and security needs. However, decisions which resulted in prolonging the conflict were often based on an incorrect appraisal of objective conditions (in particular, America’s reserve capacity and resolve). The effect of these decisions, in addition to China’s leaders’ lack of skill in / under-appreciation of the power of negotiation and the rules of international diplomacy, brought about results that were ultimately detrimental to China’s long term strategic interests.

Relevant Sources

Shen Zhihua, Yafeng Xia, A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung, and Sino-North Korean Relations, 1949-1976. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.