Articles

WIN OR LOSE, THE RUSSIANS MAY GET KOREA

Even as parts of the cold, unfriendly country changed hands for the third time it was obvious that one thing wouldn’t change in Korea: Its people didn’t like Syngman Rhee’s police rule much better than they liked the Reds

BLAIR FRASER January 1 1951
Articles

WIN OR LOSE, THE RUSSIANS MAY GET KOREA

Even as parts of the cold, unfriendly country changed hands for the third time it was obvious that one thing wouldn’t change in Korea: Its people didn’t like Syngman Rhee’s police rule much better than they liked the Reds

BLAIR FRASER January 1 1951

WIN OR LOSE, THE RUSSIANS MAY GET KOREA

Even as parts of the cold, unfriendly country changed hands for the third time it was obvious that one thing wouldn’t change in Korea: Its people didn’t like Syngman Rhee’s police rule much better than they liked the Reds

BLAIR FRASER

BACK FROM THE BATTLEFRONT, SAYS - - -

BEHIND the Australian war correspondent’s camp north of Sinanju stood an empty Korean farmhouse. It was quite undamaged, but for some reason the owners had moved out.

The reporters preferred to sleep in tents because the house was full of fleas.

The main room of the little mud cottage was papered with old North Korean newspapers, and I didn’t have to read Korean to know who’d been in charge here. Every page was splashed with pictures—muddy photographs of Stalin and Molotov and the Red Chinese dictator, Mao Tse-tung; line drawings of Lenin and Karl Marx.

A small Korean boy saw me looking at this wallpaper. He ran over to a big picture of Stalin and made a great show of punching it in the nose.

That is the fashion in Korea now that the Americans have taken over. I wondered what the boy would have done a month or two before when the Communists were still in control.

Did the little fist in Stalin’s face indicate a real hatred, previously suppressed? Or was he merely doing for his own protection what he thought the new foreigners would like?

It’s probably too soon to know the answer; perhaps the boy himself doesn’t know. But, if the second interpretation turns out to be right, 5,000 Americans, several hundred Britons and Australians, and uncounted Koreans will have died to no purpose. The Russians may still win in Korea even if their ultimate military fate there is defeat.

The United Nations put a tremendous war machine into this battered peninsula. It was a magnificent effort. Countries like Canada, which took little or no part, have no right to complain that in military terms there were many reverses and in political terms the Americans were too busy fighting the war to give much thought to winning the peace.

Nevertheless, it’s true that even at the height of the U. N.’s military successes no peace machine, no fully effective civil government had appeared to take over in the army’s wake. Despite United Nations misgivings there seemed to be little to prevent the regime of Syngman Rhee from assuming charge of the whole nation.

Syngman Rhee’s government in South Korea was no great credit to democracy. Under a thin façade of liberty it set up a police state, run for the benefit of the privileged in an archaic society —a state in which arbitrary imprisonment and political assassination were used to keep the government in power. General MacArthur himself, talking to a visitor last May, made some acid remarks about Syngman Rhee’s habit of classifying every political opponent as a Communist and clapping him into jail.

The prospect of victory didn’t seem to have changed Rhee’s line of thought. He made a speech recently deploring criticism of his government and branding such criticism as “disloyalty.”

Just before I visited the 345 men in the advance party of Canada’s Special Force at Pusan, the seaport town on the southern tip of Korea, I stopped in Seoul where I was billeted with a British correspondent. He was pecking out a story on a portable typewriter. “I’m supposed to be doing some light feature pieces,” he said, “but the Koreans invited me out this afternoon to watch some executions. I don’t feel like writing light features now.”

It’s fair to say that even when the shooting was at its lowest ebb, Korea was still in a state of violence that made due of law

luxury. Even when Seoul was 300 miles behind the front lines, we were warned not to go out after dark alone or unarmed. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 guerrillas were still under arms in the hills, supported by heaven knows how many secret aides in the towns and villages.

Reprisal and repression, though, are doubleedged weapons, and it was disquieting to think of the pools of bitterness and vengeance that were being replenished in this country. Ample publicity has been given to atrocities by North Koreans. For military reasons, atrocities by South Koreans have been played down. Most people here seem to think the story’s about the same on both sides —except, of course, that no white men have been victims on this side of the line.

In this pot-and-kettle argument neither group emerges with much credit. In some other respects the Communist Government of North Korea actually seems to have done a better job than the so-called democracy in the south.

British Brigade Stalled by Cold

It did, for one thing, bring in land reform which freed the North Korean peasant from his landlord. In South Korea, land reform has been part of the platform of every political party; nobody could get elected without it. In practice, land reform was consistently sabotaged by the Syngman Rhee Government right up to the outbreak of war.

Responsible observers fear that if the UN wins the shooting war, the UN occupation is quickly withdrawn and the Korean voter is left with the free choice, he may yet vote for Communism as an alternative to Syngman Rhee. But if UN occupation is to be continued, who’s going to stay and do the job?

Nobody wants to. You had to visit Korea in winter to realize what a singularly unpleasant country it is.

North from Pyongyang, the former Communist capital, you drove through a dreary succession of

bare brown hills enclosing little flat valleysa land without landmarks. Each hill looked like every other hill, each town and village was uniformly drab and poverty-stricken. Dust lay along the rough narrow roads in opaque clouds; often you couldn’t see 30 feet ahead. Temperatures were low, winds high and cutting.

Campaigning here needs no enemy to make it daunting. I stayed with the British Commonwealth Brigade just south of Pakchon, and the whole front was quiet; the only shots I heard were fired by UN artillery a mile or two behind us. Nevertheless, it was no picnic.

The Chinese Communists didn’t know it, but they could have walked right through the British Commonwealth Brigade on the first morning I was there.

It was the first real cold snap of the North Korean winter. As the sun came up you could hear mechanics all along the line trying to get jeeps and trucks started. Only about one in five would go. We didn’t know it at the time, but the same thing had happened to weapons. Bren guns wouldn’t fire, tanks wouldn’t start. Only the artillery would function at all because it had been firing all night.

There was no thermometer in the open-ended tent where we slept on the ground, but we knew it was cold. When I washed in an upturned helmet that morning I wet my hair before shaving; five minutes lator I was combing flakes of ice out of it. The colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders set down his shaving brush while he applied his razor; when he picked it up again it was a solid stick.

I had four blankets, a sleeping bag, long underwear and a fur-lined parka. I wore it all to bed and I was cold. Men of the forward companies were posted on windswept hills ahead of us, still wearing tropical underwear they brought from Hong Kong and supplied with two blankets apiece.

They slept with no shelter but a tarpaulin, in shallow foxholes stuffed with straw.

“I’m not afraid of the North Koreans or the Chinese either,” a British officer said. “I am afraid of the weather.”

All over Korea, north and south alike, the people seemed chilly too. Maybe that is the liberators’ own fault, but it’s not one that can easily be corrected. It’s true that the G.I. refers to all Koreans as “gooks,” that he shows contempt for the native at every turn. But let’s not be smug about it. Canadian troops developed some of the same prejudice within a week of their arrival.

However unfair or unfortunate it may be, it’s a fact that the average white man dislikes the average Korean. This is not just a color line case. Americans get on well with the Japanese, but Koreans are different.

Want Authority But Can’t Use It

North of the Chongchon River we ran into a traffic jam one day about noon. An Australian tow truck had a breakdown; traffic from two directions clotted up. Into the middle of the mess leaped a Korean policeman. While Australian drivers sweated and cursed and finally got traffic moving again, the Korean stood with an expression of pure delight, blowing his whistle.

My companion was a British officer, a patient and amiable soul. “If that gook blows his whistle once more,” he said, “I’ll personally go over and break his neck.”

The incident was trivial but typical. Koreans are intensely proud and jealous of their new independence. They want authority. When they get it they don’t seem to know what to do with it. In any crisis they tend, metaphorically speaking, to stand there blowing their whistles. It is hard on the onlooker’s nerves.

This temperamental dislike is multiplied on both sides by circumstance. Koreans don’t like

having their bullock carts

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crowded off the road hy interminable military traffic, their people struck down (as many have been) by trucks emerging from a dust cloud, their villages flattened by strategic bombing.

Near the Argyll’s battalion command post I saw a pathetic little arch of triumph made of evergreens. “Welcome to United Nations Troops,” it said. Behind it was a large black patch and that was about all the little hamlet had been burned flat in the battle. Korean villages burn like paper. I heard of one case where a lighted cigarette, carelessly tossed into a thatch by an American soldier, destroyed a whole settlement as effectively as a fire-bomb raid. Small wonder that Koreans regard liberation as a doubtful blessing.

Americans, on their side, don’t fancy a country where you can’t tell friend from enemy. We drove up to the front one day when an American truck convoy was ambushed by an innocentlooking crowd of Korean peasants.

“Don’t go wandering around the country alone,” an American war correspondent warned me. “You can’t trust anybody hero. You may see an old woman washing clothes on a river bank. If you’re in a group and armed, she goes rigid, on washing. If you’re alone she may pull a Tommy gun from her pile of laundry anil shoot you.”

That’s why even chaplains bear arms in Korea.

In this armosphere men of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade were in action for 80 consecutive days between Sept. 5 and the end of November. They were supposed to leave for Hong Kong on Nov. 15 for a rest; U. S. Lieut.-General Walton Walker, commanding the 8th Army, said he couldn’t spare them so they stayed on. The men didn’t grumble but they were very tired.

In mid-November the 29th Brigade arrived to relieve them. They’d hardly got their gear unpacked near Seoul when they were ordered out to defend the city against a guerrilla force threatening to cut the main road north.

American troops were in the same situation, often with even longer stretches of action behind them. The First Cavalry Division was slated for a rest in Tokyo in early November; it had actually left the front and come down to Seoul en route to embarkation. Orders came to go back into the line.

These men want out. They want someone else to take it from here.

Down at Pusan I visited 345 Canadian soldiers who were badly browned off for different reasons. They were in a state of complete bewilderment as to why they were here, what they were supposed to do, what other Canadians were coming to Korea, and when.

They had been assembled as an advance party for Canada’s Special Force, a brigade of three infantry battalions with its own artillery support. Elements of 18 units were included in the advance group—medical, dental, ordnance, signals, army service corps and so on, as well as some officers and other ranks from the combat battalions. They sailed on October 21.

When their troopship docked at Yokohama, Major-General Hume, of the U. S. Army medical service, went aboard to greet the Canadians—“Glad to have you with us,” he said.

“Glad to be here, sir,” said the Canadian officer commanding, Major ïtoy. Bourgeois of the Royal 22nd, “but we’re afraid the show is all over.”

This was a couple of days before the

Chinese Communist intervention that renewed and prolonged the war.

They weren’t so well prepared for the next news. In strict secrecy officers were told that only one battalion, the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, would be coming to Korea; the rest of the brigade would continue training at Fort Lewis. Next day the Tokyo newspapers carried an official announcement from Ottawa broadcasting the secret to all ranks.

Canada’s advance party was badly confused. If only one infantry battalion was coming, they had nothing much to do. Preparations for an arrival on that scale would take only 48 hours, and they’d arrived more than a month ahead of time.

One Blunder After Another

Only a few of them were infantrymen, so officers and men alike were wondering what they were supposed to do when the Pats arrived. Join the infantry? Many haven’t got even the physical qualifications, let alone the training. Go home to Canada? That would be an ignominious finish, but they couldn’t think of any third alternative. Certainly a lone battalion would have no use for the establishment that the advance party represen ted.

When I visited them at Pusan, the men were playing softball in the schoolyard where they are billeted they did this two afternoons a week. The rest of the time they spent at infantry tactical training.

“That’s the only part of our training we’d pretty well completed,” an officer said glumly, “but there’s nothing else for us to do. It keeps the men busy.”

What about the officers? What were they doing to pass the time?

“We make plans,” was the reply. “We have plans for everything. Plans for one battalion, plans for a whole brigade. Plans for landing and training at Pusan, plans for going to the British Commonwealth Training centre at Taegu, plans for the British Commonwealth mustering point at Suwon.”

Where would the Canadians actually be going?

“That’s just it—we don’t know.”

This uncertainty was part of a general pattern of snafu that ran right through Canada’s Korean adventure.

Nothing apparently had gone right.

When they got to Shilo, Manitoba, for basic training, the men’s pay documents got lost somewhere behind them. Some went without pay for five weeks. “I never saw a unit closer to mutiny, and we didn’t blame them, either,” said one officer.

When they finally sailed they thought they were bound for tropical Okinawa and were dressed accordingly. Now it looked as if they might be headed for Suwon and points north. It was no place for a man in summer underwear and no gloves. The decision to send them to Korea instead of Okinawa had been made before the advance party sailed, but the information filtered through the usual channels too slowly to reach the embarking troops.

Actually this confusion about destination and size of force was not Canada’s fault. There has never been good liaison between the Canadians and General MacArthur’s headquarters.

Canada had military observers in Korea from the start, and Brigadier Frank Fleury went to Tokyo in August. That was when the Special Force was being recruited. All its operations and equipment were planned on the assumption that the job would be to hold the small perimeter around Pusan and Taegu in the warm south. General MacArthur’s brilliant landing at Inchon in mid-September broke the back of the North Korean forces and changed the whole course of the war. But the first any Canadian knew about the Inchon landing was when it appeared in the newspapers.

External Affairs Minister L. B. (Mike) Pearson protested to Washington and was told it had been a military secret. True—but the press reported it later as “the worst kept, secret in military history.” Apparently it was open gossip in half the bars of Tokyo days before it happened. But nobody thought to tell the Canadians.

In October, about the time the advance party sailed, it looked as if the Korean War was about over. In Washington, plans were being pushed for a unified European army with North American components and Canada was expected to make a contribution. Ottawa asked if the Special Brigade had better be held at home.

Washington thought that was a good

idea. General MacArthur, consulted in Tokyo, said he wanted to broaden the scope of his UN force as much as possible and would like to have some Canadians; but he was quite content with one battalion.

Then the Chinese Communists came in and the war picture altered sharply. Reinforcements were rushed up, battleweary troops sent back to the front. It looked like the start of World War III.

On the day the Chinese Reds joined the fight Canadian Brigadier Fleury was packing to leave for Ottawa. Nobody told him about the Chinese intervention; he heard of it by pure chance from a Canadian reporter. It’s not surprising that Canada appeared slow in adjusting to the various dramatic developments of the past six months.

Even as the Chinese Communists launched their big attack in late November, no final decision had been made about the disposition of Canada’s Special Force. It was announced that the Princess Pats would sail, and they did so; it had not been announced whether the rest of the brigade would follow them or not. If General MacArthur wanted them he had only to ask for them.

Whatever the Supreme Commander thought, I think the troops in Korea would be glad to see the Canadians— the more the merrier. War or no war, there will be rough and dirty work to do in Korea for some time.

Somebody will have to rebuild Korea, too. The Americans made a thorough job of “strategic bombing.”

They Ask: “Where’s Your Army?”

Canada offered to send a corps of specialists—engineers, medical personnel and so on last October, when everyone thought the war was over. It was not accepted. Canada’s contribution was to be troops or not hing, plus our share of the cash required to restore Korea.

If that job falls to Canadian troops, it will be a pretty dull and miserable job. There’s no comfort in this country. Even in undamaged Pusan the first thing Canadians had to do was put wiring into the school building where they were billeted and build toilets to replace the filthy Korean latrine. With every evening free, the boys ran out of things to do within a fortnight of their arrival.

They may not get much thanks for coming here, either. Late comers are not allowed to forget their tardiness in Korea.

Before I left Tokyo I heard a story that sounded pretty funny. A Turkish correspondent came out several weeks ahead of the Turkish contingent. He could speak no English and no Japanese, but he went around showing his passport and waving his hands—until some Good Samaritan loaded him on a plane for Korea.

Two weeks later he came hack, wrote out a long dispatch, but could find no telegraph operator in Japan to read Arabic script. He had a little German and he found an American reporter who had about the same amount. The Turk translated into German, the American into English, and they got the report on the wire to Istanbul.

The first sentence read: “In Korea everybody is asking ‘Where is the Turkish Army?’ ”

When 1 got to Korea myself the story didn’t seem so amusing. If the Turk found anyone who could talk to him at all, chances are that’s just what they did ask him. It’s the question they ask of people whose armies aren’t here. ★