With the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War falling on Thursday, Asia Times looks at the war’s legacies in three countries: China, South Korea and North Korea. We start the series with China
“Never again will the Chinese people be enslaved!” Mao Zedong proclaimed on October 1, 1949, as he announced the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, before hundreds of thousands.
The crowds that day were gathered outside the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing. One year later, China would be at war. More than one million Chinese troops who served in Korea between 1950 and 1953 were labeled “volunteers.”
They were there, ostensibly, to assist their North Korean comrades. But following the defeat of the North Korean People’s Army in September 1950, it would be the Chinese who did the bulk of the fighting against the US-led UN Command forces until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.
Korea marked the first time communist Chinese soldiers would fight outside their country’s borders. Many were recruited from the ethnic Korean minority in Manchuria, and their leadership was battle-hardened and skilled in warfare, having fought both Japanese invaders and the nationalist Chinese Kuomintang.
Mao deployed his eldest son Anying to fight in Korea – and he was one of the very first Chinese casualties, killed in action by an airstrike. That proved to his people that Mao himself was deeply invested, and granted China a high-profile martyr to look up to.
The war ended inconclusively with an armistice and a new line that divided the Korean peninsula between the communist-ruled north and the pro-Western south. But for a lightly armed force from a country that had a woeful military record in the decades preceding the 1950s, that was a kind of victory.
Mao’s peasant soldiers had battled their enemy to a standstill and preserved ally North Korea as a buffer state. It was the first time the US could not actually win a war outright and showed the world that the new communist China was a power to be reckoned with.
The repercussions of the fact that China had not been defeated could also be felt throughout the region.
On December 9, 1950, when the situation facing the UN forces looked especially grim, their commander, US General Douglas MacArthur, had submitted a list of targets for 26 tactical atomic bombs to halt the Chinese advance.
Less well known was a grand plan to open a second front in the south based on the presence of renegade Kuomintang, or KMT forces, who, following their defeat in the Chinese civil war, had retreated into northeastern Myanmar.
Old airfields in remote parts of Myanmar’s Shan State were reconstructed and supplies, as well as reinforcements, were flown in from Taiwan. This dramatic build-up was a joint venture between nationalist Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan – the arch-enemy of Mao’s Beijing government – and US security authorities to encircle and try to reconquer the Chinese mainland.
MacArthur made plans for a wider war clear in a statement issued from Tokyo on March 24, 1951. He called for “a decision by the UN to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the area of Korea” and advocated “… an expansion of our military operations to [China’s] coastal areas and interior bases.”
Chiang had offered to send three full divisions to Korea – the Republic of China on Taiwan was then a member of the UN and its Security Council – but MacArthur advised against that. It was better for Chiang to concentrate his efforts on MacArthur’s secret plan in the south.
There are no official records confirming what MacArthur advised Chiang to do during the Korean War. But Claire Chennault, a hardline, former US general and World War II veteran who had served as Chiang’s main adviser during the Chinese Civil War, later admitted publicly that a plan did exist to implement MacArthur’s idea of a broader war against China, using Myanmar as a springboard.
Testifying before the US Congress in 1958, he declared: “It was a double envelopment operation. With the UN forces in Korea and the Nationalist Chinese forces in southern areas, the Communists would have been caught in a giant pincers … this was a great opportunity – not to put the Nationalist Chinese into Korea, but to let them fight in the south.”
That operation could be seen as the CIA’s first secret war – and it was a complete failure. The Myanmar government raised the issue in the UN and the General Assembly passed several resolutions demanding the Kuomintang depart Myanmar.
The US and Taiwan agreed to repatriate them, and by May 1954, more than 6,000 Kuomintang troops had been airlifted out of airfields in northern Thailand. Even so, thousands remained. Myanmar then turned to Beijing.
KMT crushed in Southeast Asia
In 1961, a decade after the Korean War had started and shortly after the two countries had demarcated their common border, 20,000 regular Chinese troops crossed the frontier between Yunnan and northeastern Myanmar.
In an operation code-named “Mekong River,” they swept forward in “human waves” – the same tactic of mass frontal attack and simultaneous infiltration used in Korea – across the hills of what later became known as the Golden Triangle.
The back of the Kuomintang force was broken, and the defeated remnants retreated down to the Thai border. Their descendants still remain there to this day.
This was also a secret operation – Myanmar’s state records do not mention the participation of Chinese troops in the 1961 campaign, and Beijing has never acknowledged what would remain the bigger cross-border thrust in its modern history after the Korean War – until the 1962 war with India and the 1979 “punitive action” against Vietnam after its invasion of Cambodia.
When this writer trekked along the Sino-Myanmar border in 1987, older local people described vividly how heavily armed Chinese troops stormed into their villages, and how machine-gun fire reverberated across the hills as they attacked fixed Kuomintang positions.
What remained of the KMT in the Golden Triangle lost their ability to militarily challenge the People’s Republic of China. Instead, they turned into border bandits and opium smugglers – another bitter legacy of the Korean War.
In yet another downstream impact of these events, the lingering Kuomintang presence and the guns the Chinese nationalists shared with indigenous, ethnic rebel armies also helped fuel Myanmar’s civil wars.
But to return to China proper, Mao’s “Chinese People’s Volunteers” restored Chinese pride after centuries of humiliation. Moreover, during the reign of “The Great Helmsman,” China became the bulwark of revolutionary struggles all over the Third World.
Today’s, China doesn’t export revolution, but is a massive exporter of industrial goods. It is now the world’s second-largest economy as well as a military superpower with global reach.
The seeds of that latter achievement were sown by the peasant soldiers of the Korean War. China’s “People’s Volunteers” showed that with the right tactics and motivation, it was possible to fight the mechanized, high-tech legions of America and its allies to a halt.