In October 1950, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, or CPVA, and the US-led United Nations Command, or UNC, clashed in the freezing high country of North Korea.
By the end of the year, the Chinese peasant soldiers had routed their enemies, saved their ally from national extinction and overturned a century of military defeats at the hand of foreign powers.
A historical corner had turned. China, the sleeping dragon, had not just awoken – it had dug is claws deeply into the path to superpower status.
Under-armed, under-equipped and shouldering a dismal heritage of military humiliation, they advanced, by the hundreds of thousands, into a desolate, forbidding battlespace to challenge the most powerful military force on planet Earth.
This week, China is celebrating, with massive fanfare, the 70th anniversary of its intervention in what it calls “The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.”
The timing for rehabilitating a war that was as forgotten in China as it was in the West is perfect. Xi Jinping, the most globally assertive Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, has multiple motivations to drum up patriotism and remind his citizens that China can successfully confront the USA.
Seventy years after Communist China launched its first overseas military intervention, great-game rivalry with its premier Korean War foe, the USA, is heating up regionally and globally.
In South Korea, US forces in 2017 installed a missile defense system armed with powerful radars, and in 2018 completed a realignment from the DMZ to the peninsula’s Yellow Sea coast. These developments offer US troops in Korea eyes onto Northeast China.
Regionally, military tensions with the US are bubbling in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait as Washington seeks to upgrade its “Quad” military grouping.
Diplomatic tensions are flaring over India and Hong Kong, while on the global economic chessboard, Washington is escalating a trade and tech war against both Beijing and its flagship companies. The latter conflict threatens to bisect the global economy as the US rallies its allies to its cause.
Experts anticipate a summit between Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un soon after the US elects its next president. Kim is expected to request an economic package to bail out his nation and Xi is expected to renew their bilateral defense treaty that is set to expire in 2021.
China’s military experience over the previous 100 years had been dire. In the Opium Wars, the First Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion, China had been humiliated by foreign forces. And in World War II, Beijing had been a distant fourth power behind the “Big Three” of the UK, USA and USSR.
The CPVA – actually regular troops of the People’s Liberation Army; the nomenclature was a deniable camouflage – knew the perils they faced. They called the Yalu River crossing points into North Korea “The Gates of Hell” and cynically dubbed themselves “Human Bullets.”
But they would deploy a brilliant tactic that would use their advantages, including camouflage, cross-country movement and manpower, against the UNC advantages – firepower and vehicular mobility. It was called “human wave.”
Under cover of darkness, which invalidated UNC armor and air power, Chinese troops would mass before an enemy position.
Signaled by bugles and gongs – strange, terrifying sounds themselves – CPVA troops would storm forward in closely packed ranks, volleying hand grenades and seeking to overrun automatic weapons.
While the frontal assault went in, other Chinese units would infiltrate into the position’s rear, preventing the embattled UNC unit from evacuating wounded or bringing up supplies.
If the UNC unit withdrew, usually in vehicles, it would run into CPVA roadblocks and be mowed down in ambushes from high ground. If it did not withdraw, it would be surrounded and annihilated.
The “human wave” tactic was borrowed was from ancient strategist Sun Tzu, who advised commanders to “attack like water,” flowing over or around enemy positions.
Using it, the CPVA inflicted the worst defeats suffered by both the US and British armies since World War II: The destruction of two US regiments at Kunu-ri in 1950, and the annihilation of a British battalion on the Imjin River in 1951.
Having cleared North Korea in December 1950, the CPVA stormed South, seizing Seoul on January 4, 1951. But they were over-extended. UNC forces regrouped and counter-attacked, pushing the CPVA back north.
By year-end the war would settle into positional warfare over the scorched, cratered hills along what is, roughly, today’s DMZ. A ceasefire was signed in July 1953.
More than 197,000 Chinese were killed, but the war was, nevertheless, a landmark achievement for Mao’s China.
The CPVA were unable to shove the US off the peninsula or overrun South Korea, but had humiliated US forces in the early months of the war. Moreover, they had succored North Korea – which remains, to this day, a strategic buffer on China’s northeast flank and a treaty ally.
Conversely, the US had, for the first time, failed to prevail in a war. Korea would set a dire model for America’s next “limited war”: Vietnam.
The Korean War shows that the Chinese people must not be provoked. If you make trouble, be prepared to bear the consequences.
The victory in the war to resist US aggression and aid Korea was a victory of justice, a victory of peace and a victory of the people.
The rehabilitation of the conflict is also visible in media and popular culture.
According to Global Times, more upcoming films cover the murderous fighting around North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir in 1950, when Chinese troops forced elite US Marines into retreat, but at tremendous cost in casualties, and at “Triangle Hill,” a month-long struggle that ended with Chinese troops holding their positions in 1952.
In what may have been a conscious reversal of a common phrase used to describe the conflict in the USA, state-run broadcaster CGTN dubbed the conflict “The Unforgotten War.”
The Korean War was “practically forgotten” in China said Lee Seong-hyon, a China specialist at Seoul think tank the Sejong Institute.
But now, Xi is “using the very traditional theme of friendship with North Korea and socialist league rivalry with the US to drum up patriotism.” It is not only in China where light is being shone upon the CPVA’s 1950-1953 feats.
On Thursday, Kim Jong Un laid wreaths at the Chinese Martyrs’ Cemetery in Hoechang County, North Korea. His grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, unleashed the war by attempting to reunify a peninsula divided by great power fiat via a June 1950 invasion of South Korea.
His army’s defeat, and the UNC counter-invasion of North Korea, prompted Beijing’s intervention.
In an act widely covered by Chinese media, the younger Kim kneeled at the grave of Mao Anying – Mao Zedong’s son, a staff officer who was killed in the first days of the war by a US air strike.
By honoring the fallen, Kim is asking for something,” he said. “He needs a big economic package so where should he return to? Obviously China. Given tensions with the US, Xi and Kim may very well sign it with a flourish.
Nuclear-armed North Korean evinces plentiful bluster and is perfectly willing to raise a finger to Japan, South Korea and the US making it a useful Chinese ally. However, it can occasionally be a vexing friend for China.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.