Once enemies, South Korean and Chinese war veterans now desire one thing: peace on the peninsula
But some former combatants in the Korean conflict are wary of trusting in Pyongyang’s promises to Seoul at last month’s summit
More than six decades ago they were on opposite sides of the Korean war but these days Chinese veteran Zhang Zeshi and former South Korean infantryman Cho Chan-ho have one firm piece of common ground.
Zhang and Cho, both 89, hope for real and lasting peace between the two Koreas, one country divided into North and South along a demilitarised zone with the signing of an armistice agreement 65 years ago.
Zhang, who lives in Beijing, was 21 when he became one of 3 million troops China’s then leader Mao Zedong sent to support the North in its conflict with the South backed by US-led United Nations’ forces.
The casualties were enormous – about 600,000 Chinese soldiers either died or went missing, the South lost one million civilians and 217,000 troops, and one million North Korean personnel and civilians died.
Memories of those time remain fresh for veterans and many on all sides are sceptical about prospects for a true end to hostilities with the meeting late last month between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in.
At the summit in the truce village of Panmunjom, the two leaders said their meeting paved the way for the start of a new era, with both sides pledging to pursue a permanent peace and rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons.
In a gesture of good will, Kim and Moon agreed to “completely cease all hostile acts” along the demilitarised zone from May 1, including loudspeaker broadcasts and leaflet balloon launches.
In Seoul, Cho said he had been waiting for unification with his “northern brothers” for long time.
“I crossed over the 38th parallel [dividing North and South] five times during the war. If the day comes when we from the South can came go all the way to the Tumen and Yalu rivers [in the north], and our northern brothers can come to Busan and even Jeju Island, that would be a dream come true. I cannot hope for more,” he said.
Park Myung-ho, a South Korean veteran who fought in the bloody Battle of White Horse in October 1952, said the South had been duped by the North before.
“We’ve already had several summits in the past, first with [Kim’s grandfather] Kim Il-sung and also with [his father] Kim Jong-il. But each time, they fooled us,” Park said.
But he added that this time, the people of the two Koreas “are all hoping for a different result”.
“We all greatly desire unification. The South and North should stop distrusting and bickering with one another,” Park said.
“It’s outdated now to think North Korea can only be our enemy. We must move on from this idea and I hope the 70 million [of the two Koreas] come together as one.”
Seok Jong-chul, a former South Korean battalion commander who also fought at White Horse, was also wary.
Seok said the two leaders’ summit had bought new hope of permanent peace for the peninsula, but the previous experiences over the decades had taught him he “should be cautious” about the North.
“What the North wants is unification under communism. They’ll never change their mind. So in the end, I don’t think unification will be possible,” the 91-year-old veteran said.
In Beijing, Zhang said he previously saw Kim Jong-un as “simply a madman”, but he had changed his mind after the Winter Olympics.
“Unbelievably, [Kim Jong-un] used the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to break the entire South-North Korean impasse,” he said.
“The move not only led to a thaw in relations between the South and North, but is a big change in terms of the past 65 years.
“It’s a historic moment, not because of how powerful North Korea might be, but [the understanding of] the cruelty of the war.”
In Guangzhou, Li Jianwan, 84, a veteran of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, said she was impressed with Kim’s “friendly manner during the summit”.
“Kim Jong-un recognised that he had wasted 11 years on nuclear weapons development by pouring out all the country’s energy and resources into such a project, causing his people so much bitterness,” said Li, who was a telegraph operator during the war.
“I am so happy that he finally realised the problem and decided to correct it. It’s very good, and I have high expectations of him.
“China paid a huge cost to fight for the North in the war, that’s why Chinese PVA veterans have had great affection for the Korean people. But it’s regrettable that so many people in the North are still living in a state of extreme poverty.
“As a ... war veteran, I would like to tell Kim Jong-un: I really hope you can lead your people along a prosperous way from now on.”