Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1517      7 September 2011

The Korean War: 1950 - 1953

The Coldest Winter, America and the Korean War

by David Halberstam

(Part 3) The tide turns, again

Chinese entry into the Korean peninsular was hidden from MacArthur for weeks, largely because he simply didn’t want to know. On October 26, 1950 and into early November advance units of the ROK and US armies had probed deep into North Korea, and some had actually seen (crossed?) and “pissed in” the Yalu River and engaged in small firefights with the enemy. Their supply lines were stretched gossamer thin. But Chinese troops were all about them. According to Halberstam, there was an eerie calm to match the growing cold of the terrain. The Chinese had been travelling at night, on foot, in the mountains and away from roads, making all effort to avoid detection and capture. They had taken great care to be invisible: when a reconnaissance plane flew overhead, all movement would cease.

When the Chinese first struck fully on November 25, the surprise was complete. ROK units in particular were targeted and sent reeling. At Unsan, Kunuri and the Chongchon River in the West, and at the Chosin Reservoir in the East, a pattern emerged. First, American positions would be overwhelmed with mortar and small arms fire, causing them to retreat, necessarily (and predictably) on roads suitable for trucks and heavy equipment. These would already be lined by fortified Chinese troops, ready for ambush. The result was chaos and utter panic. The US Army engaged in the longest rapid retreat of its history – back to the 38th Parallel and beyond, before UN command could restore some degree of order and dig in.

In retreat, UN forces exacted a terrible price. A vengeful “scorched earth” response devastated every field, village and town left behind. Pyongyang was reduced to rubble. US bombing became desperate, intense and indiscriminate, and infrastructure such as bridges and railways was pulverized: normal economic life could not return for years ...

MacArthur had lost all credibility, and was reduced to babbling incoherence about lack of government support. As a last resort, he demanded the authority to use nuclear strikes against China. Truman, rightly according to Halberstam, retained such power for the Presidency, and sacked MacArthur who still, even at this stage, hadn’t spent an overnight stay in Korea. He was replaced by General Matthew Ridgway, a soon-to-be-dubbed “saviour” of the situation.

The war bogs down 1951-53

Ridgway at least respected his enemy. The strategy was to dig in at critical positions such as Chipyongni and Wonju and then supply the defenders with overwhelming firepower. Crucial to such a strategy was domination of the air, which was still in flux at this point.

Jet fighters had replaced propeller-driven aircraft in the Korean War, and the MIG-15 supplied by the Russians could match the Americans’ F-86 Sabre: it had comparable speed, could climb faster and higher and was only slightly less manoeuvrable. The significant difference was in the number of bombers available to the USAF (supplied from nearby bases in Japan) which continued to ground out “strategic” and “interdictory” bombing missions daily. In 1950 the daily tonnage dropped by B-29 Superfortresses rose from 625 to 800 tonnes. University of Chicago academic Bruce Cummings estimated that more napalm and bomb tonnage was dropped on North Korea than in the whole Pacific campaign of the Second World War.

Thus the communist side focused on the interception of bombing and strafing raids over Korean territory whereas UN tactics were to destroy MIGs. The Chinese and North Koreans could ill-afford to lose trained pilots because they were rare to begin with and their training facilities were elementary. Combined Western and US industrial capacity simply meant that more of everything technological from aircraft carriers to pilots could be supplied more plentifully, more often. This was a telling fact, and it made a difference to the progress of the war: the MIGs, restricted to bases beyond the Yalu River, could not adequately operate where the ground fighting was taking place, so UN planes had dominance there.

For their part, the KPA (North Koreans) and PVA (Chinese) had people, and plenty of them. Attacks involving hundreds of thousands of infantry were not unusual. They were courageous, recklessly selfless, fit, disciplined and politically committed. They moved at night or under cloud to avoid aerial attack. They bivouacked in caves. They travelled lightly and rapidly, but food supplies were always an issue: everything edible in northern Korea had gone. Basic rice supplies had to be carried long distances overland from China, under constant bombardment, but the transport lines continued, unabated.

Urged on by Mao, the peasant general Peng Dehuai moved on to the “Fourth Phase”: an attack through the Central Corridor of Korea at Wonju and Chipyongni – the path to Pusan. The fighting was in freezing mountains and was intense and incredibly costly, but the communists did not break through. When UN forces counter-attacked, Peng and the communist forces fell back, roughly to the 38th Parallel, and dug in also – the “mobile war” was over.

Peace talks begin – 1951

A stalemate ensued similar to that of WW1. It was clear the US had now invested a huge amount to stop a unified communist Korea, and could feasibly use nuclear weaponry if faced with total defeat. Yet they had lost the stomach for another drive into North Korea: the determination of their Chinese and In Min Gun adversaries had clearly established that losses would be horrendous. Thus, after yet another costly battle in July 1951, armistice talks began at the ancient Korean capital of Kaesong, just below the 38th Parallel.

The next two years were basically dismissed by Halberstam because the military position did not change significantly. But this was the period of the most intense Cold War propaganda from both sides, and some murderous assaults and counter-assaults over steep mountainous terrain. They were the years of “MASH” (“Mobile Army Surgical Hospital”) – a development of the rapid use of helicopters and surgical camps to reduce casualty/death ratios – of charges of prisoner brainwashing, assassination attempts, germ warfare, of the death of Stalin and the defeat of Truman and his replacement with Eisenhower, who promised to “ … visit Korea”.

Yet, as Halberstam says “ … no one knew how to end it.” Instead of being the last issue to be resolved as it is in most conflicts, the release of POW’s (prisoners of war) became, at the insistence of US and South Korean negotiators, the primary one. There were countless breaches of cease-fire lines and bombings of areas such as Kaesong, supposedly a Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), to such an extent that the negotiation space was moved to the smaller village of Panmunjom.

Armistice – 1953

Many, including Halburstam, claim the settlement was achieved because of the death of Stalin in March, 1953. This implies that the Soviet Union had been the main obstacle to peace: a bald falsehood. In April, May, June and July, massive battles took place on the front lines, but especially at a position held by the Americans called Pork Chop Hill or Hill 225. On the first day of the US artillery barrage, 37,655 rounds were poured onto their Chinese adversaries. The next day 77,349 shells went over. This surpassed Verdun and most battles since for sheer rapidity and intensity. Nevertheless, on July 16 the Chinese took Pork Chop Hill and the armistice was concluded 16 days later.

The UN coalition was wearing thin and there was global impatience with the pettifogging American insistence about where the ceasefire line should be – in the end it was where the front-lines lay, with two kilometres’ separation on both sides, and a DMZ in the middle. On July 27, 1953, a “permanent truce” now continued the separation of North and South Korea.

Syngman Rhee, furious at the US/UN capitulation, threatened that South Korea would fight on, alone. It was pathetic posturing. After the Chinese left North Korea in 1958, US troops have remained at 27 bases in South Korea ever since the Armistice – with the onset of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghan wars many were redeployed, but there are still over 28,000 GI’s there to “coordinate” war games with their ROK (South Korean) “partners” near the border, every year.


So, David Halburstam has written an in-depth, descriptive history of the Korean War, with one hugely significant blind spot: the Koreans themselves. If this kind of history gains supremacy, most children would be forgiven for thinking the United States singularly fought this war against bestial communists in a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and Asian hordes. When ROK troops are mentioned, it is in the context of incompetence, fear and flight – “letting the Americans down”. After Inchon, the North Korean (KPA) army is not really mentioned in any military capacity at all – the enemy appeared to be all Chinese.

To gain some perspective, casualties ended up (very roughly) thus:

  • US = 37,000
  • ROK = Between 200,000 and 300,000
  • PVA = Between 150,000 and 200,000 (including Mao Zedong’s son)
  • KPA = Between 300,000 and 400,000
  • Plus some two million Korean civilians.

To conclude, Halburstam provided the usual “miracle story” of South Korean economic success as compared with the North Korean basket case – more stereotypical generality. It overlooks the basic reality that the DPRK’s population has always been half that of the South, that its industrial capacity was utterly shattered by the war, that it was made an international trade pariah (as was China till the 1980s) and became reliant on Soviet economic integration, which then collapsed in 1990.

Both South and North have suffered energy debt, but when the DPRK sought to resolve its energy needs by going nuclear (it has its own supplies of uranium), the US raised a hue and cry about “rogue states” and “nuclear threat”. When the DPRK agreed to suspend nuclear development the US reneged on agreements to supply alternative carbon fuels – time and again. Every year, the US and ROK carry out war games as adjacent to DPRK borders as possible – all to ensure the DPRK continues to spend 20 percent of its GDP on defence.

Thus, we witness ongoing brinkmanship on the Korean peninsular today. The presence of the USA in the Far East is the greatest obstacle to peace and mutual cooperation in the whole region. It has no business to be there other than to preserve the interests of its global empire, and it is basically not wanted: repeated Gallup Polls over recent years reveal that South Koreans simply want them out. One day it will happen.  

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