Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 11, November 2020
By William R. Hawkins
On October 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at a major gathering in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1950. He claimed the purpose of military intervention was to help North Korea resist U.S. aggression. The speech is representative of the kind of propaganda Beijing creates to send messages to audiences both at home and abroad at a time of rising tensions across the Indo-Pacific.
Xi’s speech is not the only event staged to celebrate China’s role in the Korean War. Wang Huning, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, delivered a speech at the opening ceremony of a new exhibit dedicated to the war on October 19. According to state media, Wang’s history ran as follows. On October 19, 1950, as requested by the DPRK, CPV forces crossed the Yalu River to aid the DPRK’s fight in the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” (Beijing’s official name for the conflict). The war lasted until a truce was signed in 1953. A total of 2.9 million CPV soldiers entered the battlefield, and 197,653 died. New films and books are also being released pushing the theme that China was acting to defend Korea from an American invasion, motivated only by a desire to regain peace and stability.
No mention is made of the fact that North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950 with the intent of uniting the peninsula under the Communist regime in Pyongyang; an act of conquest that Beijing had approved (as had the Soviet Union). The Korean People’s Army (KPA) attack was spearheaded by a brigade of T-34 tanks supplied by Joseph Stalin. Mao Zedong offered to mass the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in support, but Kim Il-sung assured him that such preparation was unnecessary because the KPA would overrun South Korea in a matter of weeks. Mao did not have great faith in the KPA and was jealous of Soviet influence in Pyongyang so started moving troops towards the Yalu anyway.
The scale of the U.S. response under the auspices of the United Nations caught Beijing by surprise, as did the amphibious landing at Inchon (September 15) and the collapse of the KPA after the liberation of Seoul on September 26 (three months after its capture by the KPA). Secretary of State Dean Acheson had infamously stated at the National Press Club in January that the U.S. had no strategic interest in Korea. On October 2, Mao informed Stalin that China would intervene with the objective of driving U.S./UN forces off the Korean peninsula to fulfill Kim’s original aim of conquest. Mao believed the U.S. would retaliate with a naval blockade and bombing raids. But if UN coalition forces could be driven off the peninsula, the war would end and China would rebuild. Stalin offered two air divisions in support plus jet fighters to reequip the Chinese. It was to resume the offensive that started the war, not merely defend the DPRK from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s drive towards the Yalu. PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai cabled Kim Il Sung November 8 that the CPV and KPA must work together in the “long term struggle” and “Oppose looking at things in a gloomy manner” because “The enemy is afraid of a long-lasting military operation in Korea, and has not prepared for a protracted war. So they are passive and apt to panic.” The Communist leaders always referred to Korea as a single entity. That their aim had not changed was proven when after driving coalition forces out of North Korea, the PLA/CPV crossed the 38th Parallel heading south and recaptured Seoul on January 4, 1951. The South Korean capital would not be liberated again until March, ending the “mobile” phase of the war. President Harry Truman abandoned plans to unify the peninsula and removed General MacArthur from command in April 1951 over this policy decision. Fighting continued but the rough ante-bellum dividing line between the two Korean states held as armistice talks dragged on until July 27, 1953.
Beijing claims the CPV won the war, but this is as phony as the claim that the Chinese troops were “volunteers” rather than regular units of the PLA. Mao and Kim did not fulfill their goal of conquering the peninsula, and barely kept Kim from paying the full price for starting the war by losing control of the north. Never-the-less, President Xi declared “The great victory of the war is a declaration that the Chinese people have stood firm in the East, and an important milestone in the Chinese nation’s march toward the great rejuvenation.” As Xi continues to lead this rejuvenation, the Korean War takes its place in his narrative for China’s future. He makes the war more about China than Korea, more about the present than the past. “The war smashed [the] aggressors’ plot to nip New China in the bud and fully demonstrated the iron-clad will of the Chinese people to defy hegemony”, he declared.
Hegemony is used regularly to describe and denounce current U.S. policy. As Xi declared, “Over the past 70 years, the country has never forgotten its older generation of revolutionaries who attained immortal feats in upholding international justice and defending world peace and the newly established People’s Republic of China.” This same sentiment animates Beijing’s policies going forward as Xi told his audience, “the Chinese people are now united and are not to be trifled with. If they are provoked, nothing good will come of it,” quoting a statement by Mao and stressing that the spirit of the war must be carried forward from generation to generation.
President Xi said, “China will never tolerate any damage to the nation’s sovereignty, security or development interests or allow anybody or any force to invade or separate the country’s sacred territory. In case of such serious situations, Chinese people surely will respond with a head-on blow!” In a speech devoted to the Korean War, this comes close to claiming Korea as part of China. Given how Xi has justified claims to the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet to ancient patterns of imperial control to be resurrected today, this is not out of character. China has fought over Korea many times in its long history. Those who still hope Beijing can be persuaded to pressure Pyongyang to disarm or reform in ways that might weaken its role as a bulwark of China should take note of how Xi expressed the relationship, “Chinese and DPRK people and armies went through thick and thin, forging great friendship with blood in the war.”
Global Times, an outlet of the CCP, declared in a headline October 20, “China, N. Korea stand together for self-protection against U.S. Hegemony like 70 years ago.” Noting that “Pyongyang-Washington talks face a deadlock”, the article quotes Zheng Jiyong, Director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, “This makes 2020 and 1950 similar, when the US sent its aircraft carrier fleets to the Taiwan Straits to intervene in China’s civil war, when it decided to get involved in the Korean civil war at the same time. China and the DPRK do have reasons to inherit their traditional friendship and expand cooperation to more fields, including economy, social governance, fighting the COVID-19, and national defense.”
American aircraft carriers have recently sailed through the Taiwan Strait as an extension of Washington’s ongoing policy of freedom of navigation operations through the South China Sea in the face of China’s militarized island building and claims of sovereignty. Taiwan and South Korea have often been connected in regional security strategy by both major powers. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower executed identical Mutual Defense Treaties with the Republic of Korea and the Republic of China. Beijing blames U.S. interference for preventing the communists from winning both civil wars, as some day they must in the name of justice. President Xi’s increasingly strident statements and military demonstrations towards Taiwan indicate an ardent desire to finally conclude the Chinese civil war. If an invasion of Taiwan triggers a regional war involving attacks on American bases in Japan and South Korea to isolate the battle zone, there is certainly a risk that the DPRK would coordinate an attack across the DMZ to overwhelm U.S. forces that would be stretched thin to cover multiple fronts.
There are no prominent celebrations in the United States marking the Korean War. In the American memory, there was no glory, only frustration in the “limited war” even though the core aim of preserving South Korean independence was achieved. The topic was not even explicitly mentioned by either President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden in their intense election campaigns. The closest either candidate got to the topic was in their second debate, Trump mentioned he had good relations with Kim Jong-un, while Biden compared Kim to Hitler and called him a “thug.” In 2019, after Biden called Kim a “dictator” the DPRK state media called Biden a “rabid dog” who should be “beaten to death.’ While both contenders for the White House wanted to denuclearize the DPRK, neither talked about resuming the Korean War. And it has been speculated that a President Biden would quietly accept North Korea as a nuclear power rather than risk a confrontation.
President Trump has taken a hard line with China, having recognized a new era of Great Power competition. He has bolstered the pivot of forces to the Indo-Pacific started by President Barack Obama, taken measures to de-couple the U.S. from Chinese supply chains in the name of national security, and approved large arms sales to Taiwan. Biden has pledged to follow Trump’s lead and deepen ties with Taiwan if elected. However, he has criticized Trump’s “trade war” with Beijing and promised during his campaign to remove tariffs on Chinese goods. He has since walked back that policy change.
Neither candidate voiced anything along the lines of President Xi’s claims that the Korean War had “shattered the myth of invincibility of the U.S. army”, a theme being used today in state media declaring the military superiority of China in Asia. And that “It is necessary to speak to invaders in the language they know: that is, a war must be fought to deter invasion, and violence must be met by violence. A victory is needed to win peace and respect.” Such language is meant to whip up popular support for a confrontational approach in regional policy that could lead again to war. The intensity of discourse and public expression emanating from Beijing needs to be understood on Main Street as well as in Washington as a danger sign on the rough road ahead.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.