South Korean troops re-enact the defense of the Naktong River/the Pusan Perimeter, Paik Sun-yup's most famous battle. Photo: AFP

Retired General Paik Sun-yup, South Korea’s most revered commander of the cataclysmic 1950-53 Korean War, died late Friday, aged 99.

Paik, a combat maestro, battled insurgents in Manchuria, North Korean and Chinese main force troops during the Korean War and communist partisans in South Korea before becoming his country’s first four-star general. He garnered special respect among Korean War-era American officers, many of whom were less than complimentary about other Korean soldiers.

But the native of northern Korea who fought for South Korea became controversial in his latter years, for he had served two flags – those of the Republic of Korea and Imperial Japan.

Given the duality of his legacy, controversy hangs over his funeral.

A weary General Paik Sun-yup poses for a photo during a break in Korean War operations. Photo; Wikiwand

Early days

Born in November 1920, Paik grew up in Pyongyang – subsequently, the capital of North Korea. Paik decided – like other Koreans who had ambition and talent but no money, such as future South Korean president and Paik’s associate, Park Chung-hee – on a military career. With Korea under Japanese colonial rule, he entered the Mukden Military Academy and joined the Manchukuo Imperial Army, the mailed fist of Tokyo’s puppet state, Manchukuo.

That force, which comprised Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Mongolians and White Russians, combatted insurgencies across Manchuria, a battlescape that, like Yugoslavia, favored guerilla warfare. In this brutal cockpit, Paik cut his military teeth.

After 1945 and the fall of Imperial Japan, Paik, like others who had served under the Rising Sun, fled the communist north. In South Korea, he and other veterans of Japanese forces provided the cadre for the nascent South Korean Army.  

Today, much conventional wisdom has it that Hitler’s Wehrmacht was technically innovative while Hirohito’s Imperial Japanese Army, or IJA, was unsophisticated. This simplistic analysis overlooks the morale elements of warfare: The ferocious offensive spirit and historically unprecedented defensive courage that the IJA instilled in its soldiers.   

That heritage rubbed off. A US intelligence officer considered senior South Koreans, “the toughest and most ruthless officers I have ever met.”  According to historian Allan Millet’s The War for Korea, the same officer said of Paik: “I have never met a more capable general officer in any army.”

Battle master

When Kim Il Sung invaded South Korea in June 1950, Paik’s hour came. While other Republic of Korea units disintegrated, Paik’s 1st ROK Division became a bulwark.

In an expedient that became legendary, a handful of Paik’s men, faced with charging T-34 tanks and lacking anti-tank weapons, strapped explosives to themselves and dived under their hulls.

Seoul fell three days into the war, but Paik maintained cohesion as he led his division south in a fighting retreat “through sheer force of personality,” to the last toehold of blue territory in their country’s southeast. There, in the “Pusan Perimeter,” Paik famously ordered his own troops to shoot him if he retreated.

Reinforced by US, and later, British, troops, South Korean lines held. By the time US-led UN Command forces counterattacked in September, 1st ROK was chosen to join US and British units in the thrust across the Naktong River.

1st ROK was in the vanguard of the headlong charge into North Korea that autumn, as Paik raced American units to recapture Pyongyang. As a child, Paik had swum in the Daedong River, so knew exactly where to cross. He exulted at the liberation of his hometown.

However, as the UNC penetrated further north, Paik – a Chinese speaker – was deeply disturbed after interrogating a captured enemy. It was clear Beijing had entered the war, but US Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur’s Tokyo headquarters were in denial.  

1st ROK found itself embattled as, in the 20th century’s biggest ambush, China’s “human wave” engulfed a shattered UNC, driving it south in a disastrous “scorched-earth” winter retreat.

But the Chinese, too, over-reached. As the battlelines steadied, Paik commanded a corps holding the eastern Korean front, then was reassigned to practice his Manchukuo skills – crushing a behind-the-lines insurgency in the traditionally restive southwest. “Operation Rat Killer” was a success, securing the UNC rear. 

Paik took part in armistice talks, and became South Korea’s first four-star general. Combat ended in July 1953.

South Korean and US troops advance on Pyongyang in 1950. Photo: AFP

Post-war warrior

Paik chaired the joint chiefs before retiring from the military in 1960. Though South Korea would be ruled by military juntas from 1961-1987, Paik – probably wisely – steered clear of politics. After several roles – transport minister and three ambassadorial postings – he “faded away” as old soldiers do.

But as a piece of living history, he unfailingly met those who sought him out. No Korean War event in Seoul was complete without him and his memoir From Pusan to Panmunjom became required Korean War reading. The leading Korean account of the war in English, it also generated a comic book version in Korean.

Be-suited and be-spectacled, Paik held court from his office at Seoul’s vast National War Memorial – a combination memorial and museum sited across from the Ministry of National Defense and adjacent to the US 8th Army’s headquarters.

There, he entertained US troops who treated him like a rock star. In an iconic appearance on the US Armed Forces TV network, he urged the strengthening of the alliance, urging kaji kapshida! – “Forward together!”

The old war horse had excellent genes. Steve Tharp, then a US officer on the DMZ, was astonished when Paik aced a forced march in the Korean summer heat. The old war horse was in his late 70s.

This writer first met and interviewed Paik in 2005. His recall of long-ago events was perfect and he looked at least 20 years younger than his age.

As a guest of honor at a Korean War dinner hosted in the Blue House in 2010 by then-President Lee Myung-bak, Paik was seated next to UK Viscount John Slim. Paik remembered with perfect clarity how his division and Slim’s brigade had crossed paths during the 1950 advance into North Korea.

But Paik’s retirement would not be storm-free.

Hero or traitor?

After South Korea democratized in 1987, many ills brushed under the carpet in the years of authoritarian rule slowly surfaced. These included far fuller accounting of the Japanese colonial period than had been the case when Seoul was reliant upon Tokyo for consulting and investment, and massacres undertaken by South Korean forces in the 1940s and ’50s.

As South Koreans researched a list of high-profile chinilpa – traitors – Paik fell under a harsh spotlight.

One of the leftist guerillas in Manchukuo had been Kim Il Sung – subsequently, the first leader of North Korea. Reviled and painted in the blackest hues in South Korean propaganda, Kim underwent an unofficial rehabilitation in the 1980s.

During that decade, millions of South Koreans protested against President Chun Do-hwan – an ex-general who had seized power via a coup. Given US support for Chun, the students looked beyond America for political inspiration. Some found it in Pyongyang.

Many were astonished to learn that Kim had actually fought Imperial Japan. This led to a reappraisal of historiography. Given that Paik and other South Korean Army cadres had battled communist Korean guerillas in Manchukuo, many young Koreans took a radically different view of Paik than their forebears.

Moreover, Paik had served in Manchukuo’s Kando Special Force – a Korean-manned counter-insurgency unit respected by the Japanese for its efficiency and feared by locals for its brutality.

Paik never denied his activities in the 1940s.

This writer was taken aback by his candidness when Paik told me in an interview in the early 200os that he was working on his memoirs of the Kando Special Force. Given the simmering political climate, it seemed obvious that any such memoir would be damning in Korea.

A Japanese embassy official also confided to this writer that Paik, along with other Korean IJA veterans, was a regular guest of honor at the embassy’s annual party to celebrate the emperor’s birthday. That information was certainly not common knowledge among the excitable Korean public.

Paik bore no apparent ill will toward China. On a visit to the Chinese Korean War museum at Dandong, across the Yalu from North Korea, Paik pointed himself out in photographs to museum officials. In return, he received images for the National War Memorial in Seoul.

A South Korean actor dressed as a Korean War-era soldier prepares to release a dove during 2020’s Korean War 70th anniversary commemorations. Photo; AFP

Troubled funeral

Paik’s mixed legacy is reflected in his funeral arrangements.

On Wednesday he will be interred in the National Cemetery in Daejeon, in central South Korea – not the more prestigious National Cemetery in Seoul. Before Paik passed, officials had said there were no plots remaining in the latter location for generals.

Some members of the ruling Democratic Party have even submitted a bill – which has not passed the house – to disinter Japanese collaborators from national cemeteries.

And an alliance of groups honoring independence fighters is puce-faced. “Is it the right country to bury a pro-Japanese collaborator, who suppressed independence fighters, at a national cemetery because of his service during the Korean War?” the group asked in a statement carried by the local press.

The conservative United Future Party was infuriated for different reasons.

Given that Paik had “…protected South Korea when it was on the edge of a cliff,” the party’s spokeswoman, said on Sunday, “It is a dishonor…that we are not letting him lie with his 120,000 comrades of the Korean War at the Seoul National Cemetery.”

Still, some high-profile persons paid respect to the old warrior.

President Moon Jae-in sent flowers in condolence, and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said Paik “..laid the groundwork for the staunch Korea-US alliance and the construction of a strong military.”

The US Forces Korea commander, General Robert Abrams, said in a statement, “General Paik is a hero and national treasure who will be truly missed.”

Judgment of history

Retired South Korean General Chun In-bum addressed the controversy directly. “The scale of what Paik did in the Korean War outweighs any mistakes he made – if there were any – in his younger days in the Manchukuo military,” Chun told Asia Times.

Tharp, now a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, drew an analogy: “George Washington fought with the British in the French and Indian War – but then fought against the British in the American Revolution,” he said.

Moreover, Paik and his ilk brought essential skills to the South, given that the vast majority of Koreans who battled Imperial Japan were leftists.

“The North had all those guys who had fought in the Chinese communists and the Red Army,” Tharp said. “But in the South, there was virtually no experience – except for those who fought in the Manchukuo and Japanese armies.”

Regarding the long shadow of that legacy, Chun was thoughtful.

“Most of us who served never really thought that our initial founders were Japanese officers: Our mission was to defend the country and we took great pride in that,” he said. “This phenomenon is quite recent and is being released by revisionist historians. I see and respect their point, but it does not really help the military.”