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The Korean War: the Korean version

Paik Sun Yup: From Pusan to PanmunjomGeneral Paik Sun Yup: From Pusan to Panmunjom
Potomac Memories of War, 2007 (original English version pub 1992)

Your typical book on the Korean War centres on Generals MacArthur and Ridgeway, on the landing at Incheon and maybe (if it’s a British account) the battle at the Imjin. It’s a war fought by Americans, with support from other anti-communist UN troops. In this typical account, the ROK forces feature almost as a comedy army, crumpling at the first contact with the enemy.

After five years of budget cuts and of living the high life in Japan, exactly the same words could equally be used of the US Eighth Army in the initial days of the Korean War. But the ROK army on paper had even better justification for poor performance: it must be remembered that the army had started life simply as a police force. It had little or no training. It had limited equipment and no artillery. That’s why they they always bore the brunt of the communist assaults. With no artillery, they were a soft target.

As for fighting spirit, that was variable, as it was in the other armies. But in the first few days of the war, it could not be said that the ROK 1st Division, who were on the direct invasion route south to Seoul, simply turned and fled. In the face of the unstoppable North Korean T-34 tanks they developed a costly weapon: human suicide squads.

This book is by the colonel in charge of that ROK 1st Division, Paik Sun Yup. He ended the war as the ROK army’s Chief of Staff, Korea’s first four-star general. And to tear up further preconceptions, this book is highly readable. You would not know that the English version is a translation. Yes, it’s obvious that this is a work by a military man, because it’s a first-person account, but it’s nevertheless accessible to a generalist reader.

How could it not be: an account of the war from the Korean perspective, by one of the ROK’s senior soldiers? The author was born in North Korea (on 23 November 1920) around 20 miles outside of Pyongyang. He was in Pyongyang to hear the first public speech of the anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il-Sung on 14 October 1945 – and a pretty unimpressive debut it was. But knowing the North Korean capital, General Paik insisted that he should lead one of the thrusts north after the Incheon landings, which ended up taking the capital.

Paik describes his arrival in Pyongyang at the head of the ROK 1st Division as the greatest day in his life. It was certainly an achievement to have covered the distance in the time, beating the US 1st Cavalry Division to the objective by a whisker. And the US troops under his command were proud of their achievement. “Welcome, 1st Cav Division, from the 1st ROK Division. Paik.” was the cheeky notice put on one of the roads to Pyongyang by one of Paik’s US troops. Indeed, one of Paik’s strengths was in forging good working relationships with the US forces. A US artillery commander was later to reminisce: “the 10th fought its finest battles during the period we supported the ROK army’s 1st Division”.

In Gen Paik’s narrative, Incheon hardly features at all. Paik was not involved in the landing: instead, the ROK 1st Division was involved in some of the bitterest fighting in the Pusan Perimeter. For the troops in the south east of the peninsula, after Incheon “Now we finally get to kick some butt”. Clearly Incheon was a turning point. But the tide was already beginning to change. The Pusan Perimeter was stabilising; the North Korean attacks were running out of steam, and their T-34s “literally had run out of gas”.

Paik fought with distinction at the front, but was also called upon to clean up the Jiri mountains, home of thousands of North Korean partisans while the front line was much further north. Operation Rat Killer in the winter of 1951/52 – which is portrayed from the partisans’ perspective in the film Nambugun – was a highly effective exercise.

Paik’s account is packed with interesting anecdote both entertaining and gruesome, from Paik’s irresponsible midnight recon in no man’s land with US Admiral Burke – whose alarm watch went off, alerting the enemy; via his sense of fun in parking his posterior in Kim Il-sung’s chair in Pyongyang; to the fate of rank and file soldiers: when the allied forces advanced north from Pusan they discovered North Korean machine gunners who had been chained in place to prevent them from retreating.

For anyone wanting a balanced view of the Korean War, From Pusan to Panmunjom is an essential item on the reading list to complement the standard accounts by western authors.


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