In the summer of 1950, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) came tantalizingly close to rolling up UN forces on the Korean Peninsula. Only a heroic defense around Pusan prevented a total victory for North Korea (the DPRK), thus allowing MacArthur’s war-changing invasion at Inchon. But what if North Korean forces had prevailed? What would Korea (and by extension the rest of Asia) look like today?
How Could North Korea Have Won?
North Korea could have won the war in one of three ways. First, if the United States had decided not to intervene, the KPA would have rolled up South Korean forces and taken Pusan, likely ending the war. Second, even after the deployment of U.S. and UN forces to South Korea, the situation remained touch-and-go. At several points in the Battle of Pusan Perimeter, North Korean forces threatened to penetrate UN lines and collapse the pocket. Had this happened, the United States would have faced the difficult choice of whether to continue the war and go ahead with the invasion at Inchon. Third, China’s intervention in the war in November of 1950 devastated advancing UN forces. Although the UN recovered, it was not inconceivable that the Chinese offensive might have forced a UN collapse, allowing the PLA to roll up the peninsula.
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In any of these situations, Pyongyang would have reigned over the entire Korean Peninsula. While the political details matter a bit (defeating U.S. forces at Pusan would have created enmity between the DPRK and the United States; decisive Chinese intervention would have made Pyongyang more dependent upon Beijing), we can treat them as effectively the same for the purposes of the later political and economic development of the DPRK.
What would a Korea unified under Pyongyang look like today? Probably not much like modern South Korea, but not necessarily very much like contemporary North Korea, either.
In some ways Korea was better positioned to enter the international economy under advantageous terms than either China or Vietnam. Japanese colonization of Korea had brought industrialization and infrastructure development. If Pyongyang had won the war quickly, the north would not have suffered the devastation of U.S. strategic bombing. Altogether, the DPRK would have been in a strong position to develop as an industrial power within the socialist bloc, finding markets in both the USSR and the PRC, and deriving industrial and technical assistance from the former.
The big question is whether a unified socialist Korea would have tried to join the global international economy in the late Cold War, as did China and Vietnam. The Kim dynasty was perhaps destined to be dictatorial in nature, but the regimes of Le Duan and Mao Zedong at times seemed equally impenetrable. Both of the latter moderated, however, granting economic freedom and a certain degree of political latitude that the people of the DPRK have not enjoyed.
The dictators of both China and Vietnam had a degree of freedom that the Kims did not; they had both won their civil wars, or at least come as near to victory as practically possible. This meant that the regime no longer faced the existential threat of another national government across a militarized border. Both Beijing and Hanoi could make long-range plans and take into consideration greater exposure to the global economy, as well as loosened control of domestic markets. In both China and Vietnam, this has resulted in tremendous economic growth—growth that the contemporary DPRK has never seen.
There is little doubt that the ROK represented an external existential threat to North Korea legitimacy, and that this contributed to the insular and autocratic nature of the regime. Perhaps Kim Il-sung would have been forward-thinking and flexible enough to adopt similar policies similar to those of China or Vietnam if he had won the war in 1950. But of course this would have required a level of imagination and ideological flexibility that Kim Il-sung never really displayed. It’s entirely possible that Kim Il-sung would never have opened North Korea to international trade and investment. Exposure to and trade with the global economy brings political risk, as Deng Xiaoping learned in China.
The International Impact
Politically, Korea could have turned this economy into strong military support for socialist causes around the world. In its current incarnation North Korea has been an important arms exporter, and if Kim Il-sung had united the country, it likely would have contributed even more on this front. With respect to relations with the Soviet bloc, the Kim dynasty would have ended the war indebted to both Moscow and Beijing, but more to the former than the latter. The close proximity of Korea to China likely would have worked to push Kim towards Moscow, although the ideological complexities of the Sino-Soviet split were difficult to manage for everyone. It doesn’t seem likely that Korean relations with China would have deteriorated to the same extent as the Sino-Vietnamese relationship.