When the subject is North Korea, it is hard for a military historian not to think of Thanksgiving 1950. It was around that date that Chinese forces, having stealthily entered the country and already engaged in their first attacks, hit American troops and hit them hard. Two months earlier U.S., South Korean, and other allied forces crossed the 38th parallel dividing the two Koreas, defeated North Korean forces, and advanced toward the Chinese border on the Yalu River. It was part of America’s response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. America saved the south but incautiously tried to conquer the north without reckoning on Chinese intervention. It was a blunder of the first order.
For centuries, China had considered its security zone to begin in Korea. Korea was historically one of many border states that paid tribute to China. Although China tended to leave Korea alone, they considered Korea to be China’s “little brother.” Aside from earlier interventions, China intervened dramatically in Korea in 1592 against Japanese invaders. Chinese land power, combined with Korean sea power, drove the invaders out after a long war.
An added factor in 1950 was the Communist revolution that took power in China only a year before. Driving the capitalist American barbarians out of Korea was a way to express revolutionary fervor as well as to advance a traditional security agenda. So the Chinese intervened.
Taken by surprise, the U.S. Eighth Army was sent reeling back across the 38th parallel. It was the longest retreat in U.S. military history and it was sometimes undignified and unedifying. By contrast, the U.S. Marines’ successful fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir to evacuation ships at the coast is one of the great tales of Marine Corps valor.
The U.S. and its allies regrouped in the South and held the Chinese to a stalemate. The war ended in an armistice in 1953. To this day, there is no peace treaty, a point driven home by North Korea’s rise as a military power. The North has conventional and chemical weapons aimed at Seoul and nuclear weapons probably capable of hitting the South and possibly Japan. North Korea’s flamboyant dictator, Kim Jong-Un, threatens to be able, within five years, successfully to test intercontinental missiles that could deliver a nuclear attack on American soil.
The American government is determined to stop that from happening. Building on longstanding diplomacy, the Trump administration is trying to work out a deal with China to pressure North Korea to stand down. But will the Chinese be willing to give up the North Korea that they once spent so much blood saving?
In February China banned coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year, thereby depriving the North of about one-third of its export revenue. Recently a prominent Chinese historian publicly called for China to switch its allegiance from North to South Korea, and the government has allowed his speech to remain online. A Chinese state-run newspaper has threatened to stop oil exports to North Korea if the North engages in another nuclear weapons test, as threatened. Encouraging signs, but others in China have pushed back and defended the North.
Will China emerge from under the shadow of 1950? Or will the U.S. have to stop North Korea without China, a course that might well lead to a new war? Even as you read these words the outline of the future, whether light or gloom, is slowly beginning to take shape.