Fifty years after the war's end, the author reflects on lessons learned—and continuing failures

July 21 2003


Fifty years after the war's end, the author reflects on lessons learned—and continuing failures

July 21 2003



Fifty years after the war's end, the author reflects on lessons learned—and continuing failures

It is the world’s last Cold War anachronism, a bloodied and forlorn border seized upon to end a conflict 50 years ago this month. It is also one of those sores that just will not heal. On one side, South Korea—free, demonstrative, prosperous. One of Asia’s legitimate economic tigers, its democracy so vigorous you can set your calendar by the onslaught of student demonstrations every year. On the other side of the 38th parallel, the starving North, the so-called Hermit Kingdom of 22 million led by a tiny paranoid despot, Dear Leader Kim Jong 11, who orders routine airraid warnings and recently put the world on nuclear alert.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For much of the past year, reunification was the watchword. North and South Korea were to follow Germany’s lead. And why not? If China and Russia, the Communist North’s long-suffering sponsors, can embrace capitalism, then why can’t a devastated satellite. But then U.S. President George W. Bush set Pyongyang in his rhetorical sights as a member of the Axis of Evil. And in response, Dear Leader Kim rattled the nuclear sabre. He test fired mid-range rockets into the Pacific and let it be known he was developing nuclear warheads. He even, this month, suggested he might nullify the 1953 ceasefire. All this as he sends large sporting groups to play in the democratic South. Happy anniversary.

Some of this, of course, is the raving of a

desperate man. But much can be seen as history’s rampage. For centuries the Korean peninsula was a proving ground for conquerors, from the Mongols to China japan and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as the estimable Pierre Berton details below. Today, China is once again seized with the Korean file. And the U.S. is set to pull back its 37,000 troops from the “demilitarized” border. A gesture of goodwill? Or just freeing the ground up for a pre-emptive air strike?

In some parts of the world, 50 years of peace passes with exquisite understanding. In others, the tinder is always dry.

BY THE TIME I entered the “Land of the Morning Calm” as a correspondent for this magazine in March 1951, the war—euphemistically known as a United Nations “police action”—had been raging up and down the battered Korean peninsula for some nine months. Alas, the mythology of the Cold War and the hubris of Gen. Douglas MacArthur ensured that it would drag on for more than another two years before the fighting stopped, half a century ago.

I remember rattling down the impossibly narrow road that followed the broad valley of the Han River en route to the ravaged South Korean capital of Seoul. It was spring— the flanks of the valley ablaze with azalea and rhododendron, the soft mists rising from the river below half screening the peaks of the conical hills as in a Chinese scroll. But the spectacle of Seoul shattered that illusion. It was, as I reported in Maclean’s, a “carcass of a city” without running water or electricity,

looted of food and fuel, its pre-war population of 1.5 million reduced to one-seventh that number. MacArthur’s blind and foolhardy ambition had goaded the Chinese into war, and they had picked the country clean, looting it of every grain of rice, every scrap of cloth, every stick of fuel, and every curtain, window blind, blanket and all the silver, brass and jewellery they could find.

Those Koreans still left in the capital were crowded into the old market at the city’s

east gate, trying to sell anything the Chinese had missed—from silver ornaments to expensive brocades—in order to buy food. There wasn’t a working vehicle left on the streets save for those owned by the UN command. To drive down the thoroughfares of that graveyard community was an eerie experience, made weirder by the presence of a Korean policeman at every intersection, waving on non-existent traffic.

The Chinese had punched holes in the

thick walls of Korean homes, seeking valuables hidden between the studs. I can still remember my teenage interpreter, whom we called Dickie, standing in the front room of his former home, surveying the damage. Except for a few sticks of furniture, nothing was left for Dickie to come home to. A normally cheerful youth, his face now remained a mask. “The Chinamans come here, sir,” he said. “All took.”

The war was going on all around us. I spent one night at UN headquarters in Seoul, listening to the rattle of submachine gun fire and the crump of grenades wielded by five-man guerrilla teams left behind by the retreating Chinese. Seoul was barred to all non-military personnel save for war correspondents—and for good reason. The UN had issued orders to shoot on sight anybody moving after nightfall.

One day, driving through the old Chang Gyeong Won Palace gardens, a public park and zoo, I came upon an odd spectacle. Every cage stood vacant; every animal had been eaten—with one exception. There, picking its way through the debris was a lone and starving ostrich, the most bedraggled creature I’ve ever beheld. At my suggestion, the UN command made the big bird its mascot.

This was only a small absurdity in a war fraught with anomalies. The original UN purpose, when 135,000 North Koreans first invaded the South on June 25,1950, had been to drive them back behind the 38th parallel. By the time I arrived in Seoul, that goal had long been forgotten. The purpose of the police action had changed overnight into an all-out war; first, to unite the two Koreas and later, in MacArthur’s

view at least, to wage a war against the Communists with the help of Chiang Kaishek’s Chinese Nationalists.

This madness was aggravated by the abysmal failure of Western intelligence. In spite of obvious clues, the North Korean invasion caught the United States by surprise just as the American response caught Canada by surprise. This country entered the war reluctantly, swallowing the fiction that it was really a UN effort, and not an American adventure.

When the North Koreans swept down the peninsula, the Republic of Korea’s army melted away. The United States, using the UN as a front, began to pressure Canada to rush troops to shore up the ragtag American force of cooks and bottle-washers who had been cobbled together to maintain a toehold on the tiny piece of real estate at the peninsula’s southern tip known as the Pusan Perimeter.

Ottawa was hesitant about getting involved in what looked like another foreign war and which even threatened to become a third world war. In 1941, we had sent untrained Canadians to their deaths in a fruitless attempt to shore up Hong Kong. Now, with American troops fleeing before the advancing North Koreans, the panic was on once again. In the end, Ottawa opted for a single brigade, 26 fighter pilots, 12 transport planes and six destroyers. We didn’t want another Hong Kong and made it clear that the brigade was destined for action in Korea— and only in Korea.

At first, we didn’t have enough fighting men to fulfill that pledge but, surprisingly, when the call went out for volunteers, Canadians responded with remarkable enthusi-

asm. All across the country, recruiting depots were jammed. Within two weeks, close to 10,000 men had joined the Canadian Army Special Force. Half were veterans of the Second World War. They joined for a variety of reasons: for adventure, to avoid the deadly dullness of post-war Canadian life, to escape from a loveless marriage, to join their comrades on a free trip to an exotic land. Patriotism was at the bottom of the list. There was little flag-waving. A few joined because this was a UN undertaking and the brand-new body was still unsullied.

In an earlier work, I have called the Korean adventure the “Yo-Yo War.” And so it was. The panic that resulted when the North Koreans put a stranglehold on the Pusan Perimeter by early August 1950 abated following MacArthur’s famous left hook a month later, landing an amphibious force at Inch’on, west of Seoul, catching the enemy by surprise and forcing him behind the demarcation line. The police action was, in effect, over—

or would have been except for the saint-like general’s hunger for total victory in Asia. Now the war aims were broadened: the embattled Korean peninsula must be united. Both sides agreed on that, but would a united Korea be a totalitarian Communist state, as the North desired? Or a Western-style democracy, as the Americans insisted?

On Oct. 9, 1950, the U.S. Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel and for all practical purposes, Canadian troops were no longer needed. All the U.S. required was a token force to show the flag and maintain the fiction that this was a UN operation. Canada responded by dividing its Special Force in two. One partially trained battalion from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry would be dispatched at once, in time to take part in MacArthur’s expected triumphal advance to the north. Another two battalions, under Brig.-Gen. John Rockingham, would be trained at Fort Lewis, an American military camp in Washington state. If needed, they could be sent across the Pacific to Korea; if not, across the Atlantic as our contribution to NATO.

Now, we could all breathe easier. Canada would have the advantage of taking part in the coming victory with little chance of any Canadian blood being spilled, a classic example of the old cliché about eating your cake and having it too. Having shilly-shallied about entering the war, Canada now began to pay the price for the chaotic last-minute recruiting. The halt, the lame, and the blind, quite literally, had to be weeded out. The Royal Canadian Regiment lost 500 men unfit for service by the time they left Fort Lewis. In Korea, the Princess Patricias had to send 150 back home. All in all, 2,230

men were discharged from the hastily recruited Special Force.

The Patricias, with whom I spent much of my time in Korea, finally shipped out of Seattle, Wash., on Nov. 25,1950, more than two months after the Inch’on landing. But even before the Canadians set sail, the entire complexion of the war had changed. MacArthur, who could do no wrong after the Inch’on turnaround, had determined to destroy, not contain the enemy. He had crossed into North Korea on Oct. 9 with his full force and pushed on toward the Yalu River at the very border of China. The police action had become a full-scale war.

That was madness. The Chinese had made it clear that the American plan to capture all of Korea and reunite the two peoples was unacceptable. But the myopic general ignored his own intelligence. “They won’t do it,” he kept saying of Chinese threats to retaliate. Even before the Patricias embarked, some 180,000 Chinese “volunteers” had secretly crossed the Yalu and were holed up on the North Korean side. On Oct. 25 they attacked—and the Big Bugout, as the GIs called it, began.

Driven halfway back to Seoul, the UN forces regrouped, and on Nov. 24 MacArthur launched his final offensive. But two days later, with the Canadian troops (not to mention the Canadian government) still at sea, the Chinese struck again. By the time the Patricias reached Korea in mid-December, U.S. Maj.-Gen. Walton Walker’s Eighth Army had been driven back across the border, retreating 240 km as the Yo-Yo War was reversed. In MacArthur’s words, it was “an entirely new war.” He should have known; he started it.

The Patricias now learned that instead of performing occupation duties, as Ottawa had believed, they were to be thrust into action. A U.S. officer was on hand to welcome them and to inform their commander, Lt.Col. “Big Jim” Stone, that he was expected to lead the Canadians to the front line in just three days to help stem the Eighth Army’s inglorious retreat.

The troops may have been hastily recruited, but their officers were hand-picked veterans of the recent global war. Stone had a directive from Ottawa in his pocket, ordering him to stay out of any engagement until his men were trained to his satisfaction. The last thing Canada needed was another Hong Kong. When the American lectured him that the Canadians had come to fight, not to train, Stone showed his mettle. He commandeered an airplane, flew off to Eighth Army headquarters, still in Seoul, produced his directive, and was

grudgingly allowed eight weeks to get his men in shape. He got the job done in six. Meanwhile, on Jan. 4, 1951, the Chinese recaptured Seoul.

What struck me during my first few days with the Canadian troops was the appalling lack of understanding among the rank and file, who, for the most part, had no real idea why they were in Korea. They were tough, resourceful and skilled; they had exchanged shots with the enemy, and discipline was not a problem. But the Why We Fight kind of lecture that had been part of basic infantry training in the Global War wasn’t part of the syllabus. How could it be in this topsy-turvy conflict?

Once the North Koreans and Chinese were again driven out of Seoul and back across the 38th parallel in early April 1951, the debate on war aims was re-opened. With the Chinese in the equation, MacArthur gave every evidence of starting a new world conflict. Again the war took on a different meaning, and little Korea, ignored by the West for years, was now seen as a domino in the big power contest.

Korea was a war of platoons and sections, not armies. My first dispatch from the front to Maclean’s centred around a section leader, Kerry Dunphy, the only man in No. 1 Section with a university education, who at the outset thought he knew what he was fighting for. The Korean experience turned him, as it did many others, into a cynic. For soldiers like Dunphy, there was far too much talk about the “liberty-loving Korean people.” As he put it to me: “What in hell have they got to gain from freedom as long as they’ve got their rice?”

It was the Korean peasantry who took the

real beating in this war of intrusion. If the Chinese milked the country dry, the aliens from the West did their best to destroy it. A million and a half refugees driven out of the war zone had turned Pusan into a sinkhole. The narrow roads had been rendered impassable, entire communities had been wiped out, and the fertile fields were ravaged by the tramp of army boots. I watched in dismay as troops on manoeuvres tore through the sinuous rice paddies, from which green shoots were already springing up.

Nobody gave a damn. In army parlance all Koreans were “gooks” who could be pushed around, sworn and shouted at if they got in the way. Indeed, the Chinese were looked on with more respect. They, too, had one thing in common with our own troops. They had no inkling whom they were fighting or why. I spent some time in a prisoner-of-war compound at Taegu, where I was able to interview Chinese prisoners through an interpreter. One told me that he had been shipped off by train from Manchuria and put into an infantry division, but had no idea he was in Korea until his superiors broke it to him. His story interlocked, in a weird fashion, with that of a private in Dunphy’s platoon who was under the impression that he was fighting Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.

With China in the war, Ottawa had abandoned the wistful hope that the rest of the Special Force—now renamed the 25th Infantry Brigade Group—would not be needed to join the Patricias in Korea. But military and political bureaucracies move at a leisurely pace, and the full brigade would not reach Pusan until the first week in May 1951.

On April 22, the Chinese had launched their spring offensive to capture Seoul once more and to destroy the Eighth Army, now under Lt.-Gen. Matthew Ridgway, which had been stubbornly fighting its way back north past the 38th parallel. Thus, the Canadians found themselves embroiled in one of their bloodier encounters of the war. This was the Battle of Kap’yong, fought at a cleft between two menacing promontories that marked one of the invasion routes into South Korea.

The taller and steeper of these hills—almost half a mile high—was guarded by the Canadians. Outnumbered by at least three to one, they clung stubbornly to their post, obeying Big Jim’s order to “be steady, kill, and don’t give way,” as wave after wave of

Chinese charged the eastern ridge. This was a Commonwealth effort, with the Patricias withstanding the brunt of the attack and saving Seoul from yet another “liberation.” As a result, they became the only Canadian soldiers in history to be awarded the Americans’ coveted Distinguished Unit Citation for bravery.

By then I had left Korea. When the remainder of the Canadian brigade finally arrived in May 1951, the war seemed to be winding down. On May 10, the Chinese tried to salvage their spring offensive with another abortive attack that cost them 17,000 fatalities and 36,000 wounded. Three weeks later, the newly arrived Canadians fought their first action when the Royal Canadian Regiment tried and failed to take a strategic hill at a cost of six lives and 25 wounded. On July 10,1951, the two opposing sides in this unwinnable war sat down to discuss terms for a cessation of hostilities.

The war was, in effect, over. Or was it? The generals and the politicians babbled on for two years and 17 days while the soldiers continued to die on the hills and in the rice paddies. The war of movement became a static war of constant night patrols across an invisible demarcation line, while men went to their deaths in brief, bloody skirmishes that solved nothing. The statistics are sobering. Far more Canadians were killed after the armistice talks began than in the

seven preceding months of the hot war.

It required 1,076 meetings before the shooting finally stopped on July 27,1953. Close to 200,000 South Korean troops were killed; the Americans counted 33,629 corpses, their allies 3,360, including 309 Canadians. On the other side, the Chinese and North Koreans lost an estimated 1.5 million fighting men. How many civilians died? Nobody bothered to list the victims. After all, they didn’t really count.

In truth, the war never really ended. The armistice has not been followed, to this day, by a peace treaty. The U.S. went on to other adventures, having learned nothing from Korea, and was thus doomed to suffer a similar tragedy in Vietnam. With the UN out of the picture this year in Iraq, our half-hearted response to the American attempts to make the Korean conflict a multinational affair, using the UN as a fig leaf, has considerable resonance today.

Korea should have taught us that wars are no longer winnable. Not much has changed since the Yo-Yo War began. The two Koreas still remain separated by an invisible boundary close to the 38th parallel—as they were when the first shots were fired. But there is one difference. Fifty years after the armistice, North Korea has managed to join the nuclear club and thumb its nose at the United States. The war may be forgotten, but the potential for another lingers on. ['ll