A Chinese solider in action during the Korean War. Photo: The National War Memorial of Korea

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 earth.

What happened next shook the world. 

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.

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 US.

Seventy years after Communist China launched its first overseas military intervention, great-game rivalry with its premier Korean War foe, the United States, 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 Chindia 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.  

Against this backdrop, reassertions of the Sino-Korean “blood-forged alliance” are appropriate.

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, hammered by Covid-19 border closures, and Xi is expected to renew their bilateral defense treaty that is set to expire in 2021.

Troops storm forward as a bugler sounds the assault. Chinese troops lacked radios, so made do with old, but effective signal technology. Photo: National War Memorial of Korea

‘Human Bullets’ at ‘Hell’s Gates ’

The saga of China in the Korean War is an epic one.

In October, having successfully defended South Korea following the North Korean invasion of June 1950, US-led UNC troops advanced into North Korea.

The first and only free world invasion of a communist state would be an advance into catastrophe. Mao, having only defeated US-supported Nationalist forces the year prior, feared that China was the real target. Stating that North Korea and China were “as close as lips and teeth … if the lips are gone, the teeth are cold,” he ordered his forces to deploy – against his general’s advice. 

It was a huge gamble, for 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 mown 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.

CPVA troops storm through the ambush of the US 2nd Infantry Division in ‘The Gauntlet’ at Kunu-ri Pass – the worst battlefield defeat suffered by the US Army since 1945. Photo: Courtesy Paik Sun-yeop/National War Memorial of Korea

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 CPVA offensive in winter 1950 thrust UN troops into a terrible retreat from North Korea. Here, Australian troops in the UN rearguard pull out through a landscape of devastation. Photo: State Library of Victoria

Rehabilitating a forgotten war

Since then US President Richard Nixon and Mao reset bilateral relations in 1972, there was no capital to be gained in rehashing a war against the US. More recently, North Korea’s nuclear provocations have irked Beijing.

As a result, the Korean War, while not actively suppressed, lost visibility in China.  

“The role of China in the war is certainly in the strategic commentary, but it is not at the forefront of the younger generation’s minds or memories,” said Alex Neill, an independent strategic consultant in Singapore who specializes in Chinese security issues.

But now that China-US confrontation has escalated under the Xi administration, the war has been dragged out of the closet on its 70th anniversary.

On Friday, XI delivered a 42-minute speech on the war at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. His comments were aimed at a clear target. The Korean War “shatters the legend that the US Army is invincible,” Xi said.

“The Korean War shows that the Chinese people must not be provoked. If you make trouble, be prepared to bear the consequences.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on October 23, 2020. Photo: AFP

That echoed comments Xi had made on Wednesday during a high profile visit to a new Korean War exhibition at Beijing’s Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, where he claimed victory in a war most historians consider a stalemate. “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,” Xi said.

Further ceremonials and speechifying are expected on Sunday, China’s official commemoration day.

The rehabilitation of the conflict is also visible in media and popular culture.

“For historical reasons, Korean War films and TV series have been absent from Chinese screens for a period of time,” is how newspaper Global Times delicately put it in a piece on a rash of new Chinese-made Korean War films now appearing.

Jingang Chuan (“Sacrifice”) is one such: Made by three of China’s leading directors, it covers an anti-aircraft unit battling to keep a bridge open under US air attack. That may well reflect the broken bridge across the Yalu River in the Chinese city of Dandong, which stands to this day as a famous and poignant war memorial.

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 US, a Friday program on state-run broadcaster CGTN dubbed the conflict “The Unforgotten War.”

And a 2,000-page English-language version of the official Chinese history of the war has been published this month in Beijing.

The Korean War was “practically forgotten” in China said Lee Seong-hyon, a China specialist at Seoul think tank the Sejong Institue.  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.”

He may also be preparing for an upgraded confrontation with the US after the November 3 US election, Lee speculated.

“It is sending a signal to the US but the bigger audience is domestic,” Lee told Asia Times. “When they have a big event or crisis, they first mobilize the people to prepare a mindset in preparation for internal turmoil or a bigger outside challenge.”

Blood-forged allies?

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.

Lee of Seoul’s Sejong Institute reckons a Kim-Xi summit is in the offing.

“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.”

If, as Lee anticipates, that summit transpires early in 2021, it will provide the two leaders the opportunity to renew their mutual defense treaty. Signed in 1961, the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty it needs to be renewed every 20 years, with the latest renewal set for next year.

Given tensions with the US, Xi and Kim may very well sign it with a flourish.

“Renewing the treaty is almost automatic, but to send a signal of solidarity, Xi and Kim can hype it up to send a signal to Washington,” said Lee. “Xi is using North Korea as a geopolitical pawn and the timing is very useful when China and the US are in fierce competition.”

Perhaps surprisingly, military professionals in China’s main strategic rival have considerable respect for the long-ago battlefield feats of the CPVA.

“They were told to go fight for their country,” said Steve Tharp, a retired US military lieutenant colonel resident in South Korea. “I am not saying the Chinese were right, but a soldier is a soldier, and the soldier does what his country says and is willing to pay the ultimate price to defend his country.”

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 – as Tharp witnessed in 1994.

Tharp, then a serving officer engaged in multinational negotiations in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, recalls North Korea’s unilateral withdrawal from the Military Armistice Commission, or MAC, a post-war mechanism designed to oversee the terms of the Korean War armistice. 

North Korea’s action forced Czech, Polish and Chinese troops, who manned the MAC on the North Korea side of Panmunjom, to depart.

The Chinese officers – who wore CPVA, not Peoples Liberation Army insignia – were both “surprised” and “really pissed” about their eviction, Tharp recalled.

Subsequently, two Chinese officers who had served in the MAC in Panmunjom were assigned to Seoul as military attaches in what Tharp is convinced was a signal to Pyongyang of Beijing’s displeasure.

A grim tableau outside China’s museum of The War to Resist American Aggression and Aid Korea in Dandong. One soldier hurls a rock, others fight with bayoneted rifles and a comrade slumps, dead, over his machine gun. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon