The statue of a Gloucester soldier at the war memorial at Hill 235 in Paju, South Korea, Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

The town of Gloucester, in southwest England, received a surprise gift from Paju in South Korea last week: 1,000 sets of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Given that South Korea has effectively managed the novel coronavirus pandemic at a cost of only 263 lives, while the United Kingdom is struggling with a death count of 35,422, British officials were emotive in their responses.

“I am struggling to find the words that sufficiently express my gratitude,” Gloucester Mayor Colin Organ wrote in a letter to his Paju counterpart, Mayor Choi Jong-whan. 

“I am deeply touched by the spirit and generosity of our friends in Paju,” added British Ambassador to Seoul Simon Smith.

“This is such an unexpected and generous gift across time and place,” said Edward Gillespie, Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, the country which surrounds Gloucester. “Friends in need will never forget this. Massively appreciated.”

“Paju has been through challenging times coping with Covid-19. However, we are coming close to a stabilized situation,” Paju Mayor Choi Jong-whan said in a video  message sent to Gloucester. “As a token of our commitment to sharing the pains of the novel virus, to the citizens of Gloucester, I am sending you protective clothing filled with the sincerity of the people of Paju.”

Gloucester, a medieval market town in southwest England, is separated from Paju, a city between Seoul and the DMZ, by more than 8,000 miles. However, the gift of PPE is the latest landmark in a relationship forged between Gloucester and Paju that dates back to the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Surprise attack

In April 1951, the sector just south of Paju’s Imjin River was held by a battalion of soldiers from Gloucestershire. There was an operational lull in a ferocious war that had broken out in June 1950 and sucked in forces from the free world and China, fighting, respectively, on the sides of South and North Korea.

But with the winter over, the campaigning season had returned. After dark on April 22, Chinese forces unleashed a surprise attack, a massive offensive across a 30-mile front.

South of the Imjin, intense midnight combat, fought at traumatically close range, surged across the rugged hills and ridges. Cut off from the rest of the United Nations force, the Gloucester men, outnumbered 9-1, were gradually cut down as they battled to hold the Chinese “human wave.”

As the sun sank on April 24, the decimated battalion was surrounded but still defiant as it dug in for a back-to-back defense of the summit of Hill 235. It would be their last stand. After fighting to the last round, the Gloucester soldiers were overwhelmed.

Subsequently dubbed “The Battle of the Imjin River” after the key geographical landmark nearby, intelligence analyses would show that the Gloucester men had held the key breakthrough point against what would prove to be the largest Chinese offensive of the war.

With the Chinese Peoples Volunteers Army being largely reliant upon porter logistics, they could only sustain an offensive for one week, at most. That made the stand made by the British soldiers at the shock, outset of the Chinese offensive, of strategic significance.

The overall battle remains the bloodiest action fought by British troops since World War II.

A small British Korean War memorial has been carved into the base of Hill 235 since the 1950s. However, a brand new memorial – built at a cost of almost US$1 million, all collected in donations from Paju citizens – was put in place in 2014.

Since then, a suspended footbridge for hikers that crosses a dramatic valley in the rear of the old British positions has been named “The Heroes of Gloucester” bridge.

Meanwhile in Gloucester, a NATO base outside the city is named “Imjin Barracks” and a lane in the town has been dubbed “Paju Walk.” A Celtic cross, hand-carved of North Korean granite by the Gloucester battalion commander while in a POW camp, hangs in Gloucester Cathedral.

Addressing the handful of surviving veterans of the epic action, Choi said in his video message – filmed at the memorial: “You contributed much to the Republic of Korea when you participated in the war as young soldiers … now, with the passage of time, you have become legendary soldiers.”

A South Korean Honor Guard at the British War memorial at Hill 235 in Paju, South Korea. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Looking ahead

With this year marking the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, Gloucester VIPs and serving British Army units had been scheduled to join Seoul and Paju dignitaries at the memorial this year.

However, Covid-19 put paid to these plans. Instead, the revisit has been put back to April 2021 – the 70th anniversary of the battle.

“We hope that we will roll the whole 2020 visit forward a year, to be there on the 70th anniversary of the battle itself,” Chris Ryland, chairman of the Soldiers of Gloucester Museum, told Asia Times. “It will be the whole combination of military and civilians, and we are hoping to do a live TV link of the ceremony back to the UK.”

Paju and Gloucester hope to extend their ties to areas such as school exchanges and sports. Meanwhile, the Paju PPE, which arrived in Gloucester last week, is being put to specific use, Ryland – who said he was “bowled over” by Paju’s gift – explained.

“We are making sure if goes to care workers in care homes for the elderly who are from the generation of the soldiers that fought in the Korean War,” he said. “It connects to their needs.”

The Korean War cross in Gloucester Cathedral. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Mask diplomacy

While the Paju-Gloucester interaction was a city-city affair, at the national level, South Korea is extending mask diplomacy to its oldest friends around the world: Korean War veterans who are now in their 80s and 90s, making them highly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Seoul announced last week that it would be sending gifts to Korean War veterans still alive in the 22 “sending states” that made up the UN Command which helped defend South Korea in the 1950-1953 war.

The UN Command was led by the United States, which deployed the largest contingent of troops in the war, followed by the UK. South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs estimates that there are 400,000 UN Command veterans still alive around the world, in nations as distant as Columbia and Belgium, Australia and Turkey, Ethiopia and Thailand.

The first shipment of masks was dispatched to the US on May 8 by South Korean Air Force transport plane. About 500,000 masks are going to the US and 40,000 to the UK. Distribution is being overseen by the Korean diplomatic missions in the countries.

In total, one million masks will be supplied worldwide, “to express our gratitude to Korean War veterans,” said Kim Eun-gi, the Chairman of Seoul’s Korean War 70th Commemoration Committee, in televised remarks.