65 years after the armistice, veterans see vital role for China in ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons
On Friday’s anniversary, with much to reconcile for the Trump-Kim agreement to lead to a lasting peace, experts and former soldiers say Beijing holds some of the missing links
The battle wounds on South Korean veteran Park Myung-ho’s body give away his close encounters with the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army during the Korean war nearly 70 years ago.
The war was paused when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, but the real peace that Park and his comrades-in-arms have desired for decades is still far away today, with the two Koreas split and a long-standing nuclear threat from the North.
In a Korean war veteran association office in Seoul, Park showed the three bullet scars – on his upper left leg, right ankle and right shoulder – from shots fired by the Chinese Volunteer Army (PVA) when both sides were fighting in the bloody Battle of White Horse, on a hill controlled by the PVA in October 1952.
The South’s troopsｓtook about 10 days to defeat the PVA and take back the hill. More than 10,000 Chinese PVA troops were killed in the battle, while the South also lost 3,500 soldiers.
Park said his enmity against the PVA had faded, and his desire for a lasting peace increased as time went by.
“During the Korean war, our first enemy was China, but now China is an important partner of [South Korea],” he said, referring to Beijing’s previous role in the war and the armistice.
“Both Koreans and Chinese had millions of casualties in the Korean war, and I wish that we can get along well nowadays.”
The number of casualties in the war was enormous – about 600,000 Chinese soldiers either died or went missing, the South lost 1 million civilians and 217,000 troops, and 1 million North Korean personnel and civilians died.
The war began on June 25, 1950, and was the first major conflict of the cold war, pitting the communist North – supported by China and the Soviet Union – against the capitalist South, backed by the United States-led United Nations coalition.
“There was not justice or injustice, neither winner nor loser in the war,” said 89-year-old Zhang Zeshi, a physics student at Tsinghua University when he joined the PVA aged 21 in 1951.
He was captured by the Americans later that year and, as one of very few Chinese soldiers in the prisoner of war camp who could speak English, became the negotiator representing the PVA.
“The war did not only devastate the whole Korean peninsula region,” Zhang said. “It also strengthened the cold war mentality and separatism, and prolonged several totalitarian regimes.”
In total, 18 countries took part in the war, with China using the conflict “to resist US aggression and aid North Korea”. Nearly 3 million young people responded to Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s call to join the PVA.
Mao lost his eldest son Mao Anying, who had joined the army as a confidential secretary and Russian translator to PVA first commander Peng Dehuai in October 1950.
The 28-year-old Mao Anying was killed the next month by napalm in an air strike targeting the PVA’s command centre in Tongchang county in the North.
Guangzhou-based PVA veteran Li Jianwan’s late husband Li Dianyuan witnessed the air strike, after which Mao Anying’s burnt body was dug from the debris.
“My husband told me leaders of the PVA had initially failed to distinguish Mao Anying’s body, because two bodies were found in the aftermath,” said Li, now 84, who joined the PVA six months after Mao’s death.
“They eventually identified Mao from a Soviet-made steel watch on his left hand. The other body was that of Gao Ruixin, a staff officer.”
Despite the huge human cost and the absence of a clear victory, China’s contribution to the war remains a point of pride for many PVA veterans such as Li and Zhang.
“The world finally recognised China as a real power as the PVA dared to challenge the armed-to-the-teeth American troops, just a year after China had finished a prolonged civil war,” Li said.
Veterans in South Korea and China said they had seen new hope for lasting peace after June’s historic summit agreement between US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
Last year, before the summit and the meeting between Kim and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in in April, Zhang wrote an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The letter – which mainland media refused to publish but has been seen by the South China Morning Post – urged Beijing to work with the US and the two Koreas to try to turn the 1953 armistice – a cessation of hostilities – into a “Korean war peace treaty”.
“The North nuclear crisis has posed a great threat to China’s national security and social stability,” Zhang wrote.
“China should take the initiative to present its own crisis solution to the UN Security Council. It should be a pragmatic plan to completely eliminate the crisis, which also takes into account the interests of the four parties and is accepted by everyone.”
Cold war expert Shen Zhihua echoed Zhang’s proposal, but said he “is not too optimistic” about North Korean denuclearisation if all parties relied solely on Trump and Kim.
“The current situation showed both Trump and Kim had only focused on taking care of their short-term interests, and were reluctant to come up with specific measures on how to resolve their differences over denuclearisation,” said Shen, who has written several books on cold war history and the Korean war.
Washington and Seoul want “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”, or CVID, of the North’s nuclear programme – not just the closure of its missile launch centres and an end to nuclear testing.
It is understood that Pyongyang wants to see the removal of US strategic assets from South Korea or even the complete withdrawal of all US troops from the peninsula.
Shen said Trump might want to use the historic summit to win public support for him to be re-elected in 2020, while Kim was more likely seeking time and money to relieve the North’s domestic economic difficulties.
“The Korean war is actually an international regional war involving the US, China and the two Koreas, with the 1953 ceasefire agreement being signed [by representatives of North Korea, the US on behalf of the UN, and China] after the four parties reached consensus,” Shen said.
“From a legal and realistic point of view, the future peace agreement to end the war should include China and the South, otherwise it will lose its legitimacy.”
Like Shen, some military experts, including North Korean affairs researcher David Tsui, son of a People’s Liberation Army general, and Andrei Chang, the founder of the influential military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence, question Kim’s motives for his meetings with his American, Chinese and South Korean counterparts, because evidence since has shown that Pyongyang retains the basis of its nuclear operations.
UN sanctions covering areas from trade to travel remain in place.
“Trump-Kim will not bring real peace, because Pyongyang will not receive economic aid from Washington and South Korea,” Tsui said.
“But Beijing will give [economic support] to Kim, to strive for a stable peninsula, which would help China’s long-term development – it needs Kim’s cooperation by stopping nuclear and missile tests.”
Tsui stressed the impact of the nuclear threat from North Korea on China’s three northeastern provinces, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, traditional hubs of heavy industry whose fortunes have slumped.
“Beijing is trying to boost economic development in those three provinces,” Tsui said. “If Kim promises to stop all missile tests, China will give him everything he wants.”
According to Chang, Pyongyang had completed the first phase of flight tests for its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, and the remaining technical problems could be worked on in laboratories and computer simulation tests.
“That’s why Kim has used such a technological interval to start his ‘smile diplomacy’ with the South, China and the US,” he said.
“Even if Pyongyang really has shifted its focus from developing nuclear weapons to economic development as its future national policy, it does not mean Kim will completely give up his nuclear strategy.
“Three generations of his family have found nuclear weapons to be the most effective means to deal with the international community, going back to his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s era.”
Li, the war veteran, said China had a central role to play in reconciling the nuclear and economic agendas, based on its friendship with North Korea that was established by the war.
“Every time I revisited the North to mourn my five colleagues who died in the war, its people’s impoverished lives made me cry,” she said.
“So many Chinese died in the Korean war, but why do they still live such hard lives?
“Like many Westerners, I didn’t like Kim Jong-un, because his family’s nuclear project made the North’s people live in poverty – but now I’ve changed my view after Kim promised to give up nuclear weapons. I really hope the people in the North have a better life one day. I believe China will help them.”
Cui Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Tongji University in Shanghai, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about North Korea’s denuclearisation.
“I am cautious because Trump is more capricious than Kim,” Cui said. “China plays a key role in denuclearisation because it is one of the three parties that signed the armistice.
“I personally believe war will not happen again on the Korea peninsula because China would not allow the US to use force to solve the nuclear problem, but neither will it let Pyongyang develop nuclear weapons.
“The Trump-Kim summit is the biggest achievement of the past 65 years since the armistice. At least so far Trump agrees with Beijing to use peaceful means to solve the nuclear crisis.”