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Reasons for China Supporting North Korea During the Korean War (1950–53)


In October 1950 after the Korean war had broken out, China decided to send its armies under the title, “Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPV)” across Yalu River to help North Korea fight against its enemy South Korea and the United Nations forces (Rawnsley, 2009). The armies traversed the Yalu River and offensively engaged in the Korean War. One key question arises immediately as a result of China’s judgment to take part in the Korean War, why did China decide to take part in the Korean war which did not take part in its region?.

The issue is more puzzling when it is considered that the economy of China at the time was in a devastating condition, it was shattered with inflation rates on the high. The fiscal budget was tight and there were not enough material resources. Furthermore, the authority of the regime and its internal security was under immense threat from several acts of sabotage that had been taken by the still existing agents of Kuomintang ( KMT) (Rawnsley, 2009). In comparison, the enemy that China faced including South Korea and the United Nations forces were far superior in terms of military power and logistics. Also, back in China, the communist party was in preparation for the Taiwan battles meant to unify the whole of China. Engaging in the Korean War, therefore, did not make much sense to many people because the conditions for the war were very much not in China’s favor for an intervention. It has been argued by several scholars that the primary reasons for Chinese troops engaging in the Korean war were security concerns over the United States invading the Chinese territory and the influence of leaders like Zedong (Zhihua, 2012). Based on relevant literature and various theories, this paper argues that the primary factors that led China to take part in the Korean war in support of North Korea include security concerns, their need to consolidate the regime of the Chinese Communist Party and domestic control and because of various ideologies from influential leaders. This paper will use relevant literature and theories to argue this point.

Chinese Intervention in the Korean war

Evidence shows that China was not prepared for the Korean war invasion in their support of North Korea. For instance, before the conflict broke out, the Chinese Communist Party began a huge campaign to demobilize the existing People’s Liberation Army. Because of this, the bordering region near the Yalu River was only stationed with a single army and was only meant for harvest output (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990). The economic conditions of the country were also not favorable. It is indicated that economic production had gone down by about 40 percent described in relation to the pre-civil wars era. Also, crucial industrial productions had reduced by more than 50%. The economic conditions had led to the military expenditure being cut. Estimates indicate that in 1950, less than 10% of the total budget was allocated to the Northeast region military. The nation was also facing very high inflation rates and the few still existing anti-communist forces which aimed at establishing their power and Kuomintang agents caused more problems. These made the conditions for the invention more unfavorable. In its initial stages, China took a passive response to the war. However, it is argued that three subsequent events had a transformative effect on China making them change their attitudes towards the war.

The first of these events took place on the 27th of June 1950. The Seventh Fleet of the United States was sent to the Taiwan strait in an effort by the United States to neutralize the war situation. On that same day, the United States serving president of the time, President Truman announced that the United States will provide air and naval support to South Korea (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990). These events led the Chinese government to reassess the intentions of the United States towards it. They deployed a single army at the Northern border in response to these developments. However, the controversy on whether to take its armies across the border still raged on. The second event took place on the 15th of September with the United Nations troops crossing the 38th parallel. This is said to have endangered and raised security concerns in China. The development, according to the Chinese government, directly threatened the Chinese mainland. In response, China immediately mobilized troops and the available resources to prepare for possible escalation of the situation. The Chinese government issues a warning that they were ready to intervene in the war in case of United States troops entered North Korea. The third event saw took place on the 25th of September and saw the United States troops across the 38th parallel. This led to the Chinese making the decision to intercede and saw the first entry of Chinese armies into North Korea.

Jervis (1978) argues that the security dilemma is driven by the fear of being exploited. He claims that the easier it is for a state to be destroyed, the bigger the reason for it to join a larger and more secure unit or otherwise be more particularly suspicious of others’ activity. If the conditions allow it, the state has reasons to attack at the slightest provocation rather than wait for it to be attacked. Based on this theory, it can be argued that China felt provoked by the United States’ decision to enter North Korea, they were concerned hence had to react immediately. It looks more likely that the reason behind China’s decision to take part in the war was driven by the threat posed by the United States to the security of mainland China. Nonetheless, this does not answer all the questions. The weakened economy at the time and weak military could hardly support the intervention. There are many reasons why China should have stayed out of the war, it seemed a cheaper and more secure option than sending its troops to North Korea. Because China chose the other alternative suggests that there were other considerations besides its sovereignty security.

Security Concerns

The Soviet Union also had a huge role in the strategic considerations of the United States. Stalin, Soviet Union premier at the time came to be warier in confrontations with the United States and declined to send military forces to Korea. He rather encouraged China to send its troops to defend North Korea and guaranteed that they were going to support China with military material and air cover (Yufan and Zhihai, 1990). They promised China that the Soviet Union will defend Chinese borders. This was considered to be an important factor when deciding to intervene in the war. The intervention was only made after the Soviet Union’s support was assured. All actions were halted once China found out that the Soviet Union was not going to provide air support at the initial stage. Nonetheless, China still went ahead in the absence of air support from the Soviets. There are various vulnerable aspects that China felt the need to protect hence it felt compelled to intervene.

China was not just concerned about the physical threat that the United States posed in their moving towards the Chinese border but also because of the constraints that would have befallen its domestic development. In a telegram sent by Mao, the President of China at the time to Zhou, explaining why it was necessary to intervene in the war, Mao expressed the notion that if the United States continued to the border, then the defence forces on the north-eastern border would be absorbed (Zhihua, 2012. Zhou later also conveyed his fears that China did not have sufficient armies to guard the border if the Americans took control of North Korea. These concerns illustrate that Chinese leaders were deeply worried that once the United Nation forces stationed themselves at the border region, they would be compelled to put their focus on its armed forces and available reserves on the North-eastern border. This was going to be both costly and risky. Again this illustrates that the reason for the Chinese Intervention in the war was primarily driven by security concerns and the threat that the United States posed on the security of mainland China.

One of the five assumptions on anarchy and struggle for power by Mearsheimer (2014) has it that states can never be sure over the intentions of other states. He says that, specifically, not a single state can be certain that another state will utilize its military power to attack. It does not imply that every single state has a bad intention. However, it is impossible to be certain that a state is reliably benign because it is hard to divine intentions with complete certainty. Based on this, it can be seen that China was not sure of the United States’ intention and assumed that they will attack mainland China if given the opportunity. The leaders thought they were acting in the country’s best interest by attacking first.

Domestic situation

Certain domestic situations also escalated China’s judgment to intercede in the war. The leaders especially Mao was very much concerned about the possible consequences of the United States victory over North Korea, especially on domestic and anti-communist forces. Mao in his telegram to Zhou expressed the concern that if the United States was allowed to proceed to the border, it will lead to escalation of the high arrogance of reactionaries back at home (Zhihua, 2012. This he explained would be of great disadvantage to China, Korea, and the Far East. By sending its army to combat the United Nations forces, China was trying to prevent the arrival of the U.S. at the border. This they hoped would help tackle the arrogance of the United States and that of reactionary forces back at home. The intervention of the Korean war served as an important move in preventing the enemy in China from threatening China’s domestic unity and security.

Also, the Chinese Communist Party intended on earning wider support among the public through successfully overseeing the catastrophe in Korea. The Chinese Communist Party regime had been established just about a year ago and hence wanted to gain popularity among the people of China. There was no better way of doing this than managing the Korean crisis efficiently. The Chinese Communist Party also acknowledged that the Korean conflict was a chance for them to marshal the masses and inspire comradeship.

Ideological factors of individual leaders

Mao played a key role in the decision-making process following the intervention of China in the Korean war. Ideas of conflict had a significant role in the ideological element of the country’s foreign policy. It is argued that the Marxism-Leninism ideology held by the Chinese Communist Party led the country to surmise that conflict between capitalism and communism was unavoidable and it was omnipresent. Such assumptions influenced the decision of the leaders to engage in the war especially Mao. The Chinese Communist Party leaders acknowledged that they had an obligation to help their Communist ally, North Korea in combatting the incursion. In a telegram to Stalin, Mao expressed the idea that there was an international duty to help the Korean revolution and in doing so boosting revolutionary morale among East Asia’s Communist movements (Zhihua, 2012. The influence played by these ideologies of individual leaders is significant because it stresses the inevitability of the confrontation between capitalism and communism and the necessity to aid the Communist revolution.


The primary aim of this paper was to argue the major driving pressures behind China’s judgment to intervene in the Korean war in 1950. It argues that the three primary reasons concern the security of mainland China, domestic reasons, and the ideologies held by Chinese Communist Party leaders. While the paper indicates that security concerns were the main driving pressures behind China’s judgment to intervene in the war, other reasons played a key role. China’s intervention was highly risky and China’s decision to pick that alternative points to other several reasons that led to this decision. The paper argues that the domestic consideration by the Chinese Communist Party leaders to safeguard and consolidate the party’s regime and authority played a role in the decision. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party also believed that the conflict between capitalism and communism was inevitable and that it made sense for them to protect their Communist ally in North Korea.


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