Gen Paik Sun Yup Interview: Remembering the Forgotten War

Seoul, Friday 17 July 2009

Gen Paik“Freedom is not Free”, we are reminded by the inscription on the monument commemorating the Korean War. In the bustle of our daily lives, we can forget the sacrifices made by previous generations to secure our freedoms.

Freedom is not freeI have come to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul to meet General Paik Sun Yup, the now-retired general who led some of the ROK army’s bitterest fighting in the Korean War, and who ended the war as the army’s Chief of Staff and Korea’s first four-star general.

In his office on an upper floor of the memorial building General Paik is part of Korea’s living memory. He is used to receiving visitors, and he remembers tiny details about the war. He remembers the calibre of the British artillery – the most accurate in the war – and also that the gunners always used to down tools at 4pm for tea.

When the North Korean tanks crossed the border on 25 June 1950, then-Colonel Paik was on a senior officer training course. He had just been given the command of the ROK’s 1st Division, and his men were stationed on the direct route to Seoul from the North, on the Imjin river – where the British 29th Brigade were to face a similar overwhelming onslaught by the Chinese, ten months later.

The flags of the allied forces in the Korean War
The flags of the allied forces in the Korean War

Paik received a phone call from his chief of operations at 7am on the Sunday morning. “The North Koreans have invaded! They’re attacking all along the parallel” came the urgent message. Kaesong, just south of the 38th parallel and therefore part of South Korea at the time, was just about to be taken. By the time he reached his divisional headquarters at 9am, in a borrowed jeep, the fall of Kaesong was confirmed. Some of his men were on weekend leave, and before long Paik’s US military advisor was ordered to pull back to Seoul.

Part of the War Memorial monument
Part of the War Memorial monument

In the first three days of the war – Seoul fell on 28 June – Paik’s troops learned a lot, and throughout the course of the war, the ROK army continued to learn. Some divisions performed better than others, but by the end of the war the ROK army was better equipped, better trained and had tripled in size, to the extent that it was entrusted with the defense of two thirds of the front line.

Paik has a great deal of pride in the way the ROK armed forces developed, and continued to develop, where the army now contributes to international operations in places such as Iraq, and the navy is policing the coast of Somalia against pirates.

Catching them young inside the War Memorial hall
Catching them young inside the War Memorial hall

I ask him about people forgetting the war. “Two generations have grown up since the war: it’s not surprising. Many of the British have forgotten the two world wars, and Suez”. But the 60th anniversary commemorations are planned for next year. Three separate events are planned, to mark the start of the war itself; the Incheon landing; and the first recapture of Seoul.

And future generations? “Many young people come into our hall every day, and maybe learn a little”. I wondered what he meant by this, but on my way out I saw a children’s playground, with bouncy castles and the like, set up underneath some of the exhibits in the military museum.

“Have you seen my book?” he asks, as I am about to leave. His account of the war has just been re-published in Korea, in readiness for the anniversary next year. It’s my cue. I retrieve my paperback copy of the English translation from my bag. “Where did you get this?” He is genuinely surprised, and maybe secretly a little pleased, when I tell him that it is readily available in the UK. “I’m always signing copies of my book for American veterans who visit me” he smiles, as he duly autographs my own copy. General Paik is about to enter his 90th year (he was born on 23 November 1920) and looks set to be remembering – and signing – for some time to come.

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