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View more articles by Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
All eyes in Asia will turn toward Tokyo this August on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War. Asians especially will be eager to hear what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chooses to say – and to avoid saying – with regard to his country’s Pacific War legacy. There is, however, a second case of conflicting historic narratives regarding modern Asian history which is drawing scant attention. Yet this other historic disparity has the potential to have a far greater impact on the future of Korea, both North and South.
Xi’s remarks clearly spelled out the wide discrepancy between Chinese and North Korean views on the origins of that war and those of the Americans and South Koreans
Xi Jinping, then Vice President of China, gave a 60th anniversary address in the fall of 2010 to a PLA military audience outlining Beijing’s narrative on the intervention of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War. Xi’s remarks clearly spelled out the wide discrepancy between Chinese and North Korean views on the origins of that war and those of the Americans and South Koreans. On October 25, 2010, China’s official news service Xinhua quoted Xi’s remarks, including the following assertion: “After the outbreak of the Korean civil war, the Truman Administration in the U.S. dispatched troops to carry out an armed intervention and started the Korean War.”
In this regard, Xi’s narrative is not at great variance with claims promoted by “progressive” activists in South Korea. These activists have long asserted that South Korean President Syngman Rhee, in likely collusion with his American ally, had carried out a series of border incidents which provoked North Korea into war. These South Korean “progressives” even went so far as to lead a campaign a decade ago to try to topple the statue of U S. General Douglas MacArthur. The statue overlooks the port city of Incheon where MacArthur implemented his famous landing which turned the tide of the war. The denunciation of MacArthur as a “war criminal” for his efforts in Korea required the personal intervention of late American Congressman Henry Hyde, who had served under MacArthur in the Philippines, in order to preserve the statue at its present site.
Xi’s favored narrative came into historic disrepute due to the actions of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, as a part of a continuance of the Gorbachev policy of glasnost (or openness), turned over to then South Korean President Kim Young-sam, during the latter’s June 1994 Moscow visit, 216 previously classified documents from the Soviet archives (Archive of the President, Russian Federation) regarding the Korean War.
Cold War and Korean studies scholar Kathyrn Weathersby prepared a translation and analysis of these documents for the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) at the Wilson Center in 1995 titled “New Russian Documents on the Korean War.” Weathersby quoted from Stalin’s telegram to the Soviet Ambassador in Pyongyang on January 30, 1950 informing Kim Il Sung that he would “assist” him in the matter of re-unifying Korea by military means.
“Document #1,” Weathersby wrote, “reveals that Kim Il Sung and Soviet Ambassador T. F. Shtykov interpreted Stalin’s message as approval to plan an offensive campaign against South Korea. The North Korean leader received Stalin’s telegram with ‘great satisfaction’ and informed Shtykov that he would begin preparations for a meeting with Stalin at which the details of the campaign would be worked out. ” (Kim Il Sung subsequently made a secret visit to Moscow in April 1950, just two months before the war broke out.)
GROWING CHINESE POWER
In the same 2010 speech Xi further asserted that, “The great Korean War was a just war that safeguarded peace and forestalled invasion. The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, motivated by a just cause, was victorious in this great anti-American Korean War … Our victory in the Korean War protected the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the infant People’s Republic of China. It deeply influenced and changed the political structure of Asia and the world after World War II.” Xi’s further assertion that the safeguarding of North Korea, a regime whose stated goal remains the annihilation of South Korea, contributes to world peace and human progress is completely at odds with the views of both the South Korean government and the overwhelming majority of the South Korean people.
In January 2011 Beijing was bold enough to bring its contrasting historic narrative of the Korean War right inside the White House itself. Entertainment at the state dinner for visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao included a performance by world-renowned Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang. Among the pieces Lang Lang chose to perform was the theme song from the Korean War-era Chinese movie Battle on Shanganling Mountain. The song, titled “My Motherland,” remains widely popular in China and is known and sung by Chinese school children. It contains these lyrics: “But if the wolves come, those who greet them have hunting guns.” The movie depicts a group of Chinese Volunteer Army soldiers in Korea, lacking food and water, holding out for several days against a superior U.S. force until re-enforcements arrive. The “wolves” referred to in the song are the U.S. soldiers. Thus the performance of this song in the official residence of the American president could be considered an insult to America’s Korean War veterans, including current Congressmen Conyers, Johnson and Rangel.
Hu Jintao reportedly grasped the significance of the song and enthusiastically applauded its performance. So did the Chinese press which carried the headline: “Lang Lang Played ‘My Motherland’ at White House, Flaunting National Power.” Lang Lang, who continues to perform regularly in the United States, most recently at the “A Capitol Fourth” concert held on the National Mall on July 4, 2015, naturally denied any intent to disparage America’s veterans. In response to the controversy, he released a statement that read “I selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody.” However, immediately after his White House performance, Lang Lang posted on his blog that he played this song in front of “foreign guests” in order “to tell them of our powerful China.” Hopefully White House protocol will carefully screen in advance any proposed entertainment to be included for the state dinner for Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, this fall.
Beijing even has its own version of the Korean War Veterans Memorial hidden away in the North Korean border city of Dandong, far away from the prying eyes of American tourists and U.S. Congressional delegations. The monument itself is located along the banks of the Yalu River, where affluent Chinese catch tourist vessels to gawk at their malnourished North Korean allies on the opposite river bank while they utter words of thanks for Deng Xiaoping and his economic reforms. (The river is also an escape route for some North Koreans fleeing the impoverished state whose preservation Xi Jinping so proudly hailed in his speech.) Visitors to Dandong can also see the “Broken Bridge” which spans halfway out across the Yalu River – the North Korean span of the bridge having been destroyed during the war by American B-17 and B-29 bombers without damaging the Chinese side.
Finally, there is a museum titled the “Commemorative Museum of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid North Korea.” It has exhibits on how South Korea, in collusion with the United States, started the war, how the U.S. made use of germ warfare, and how American POWs held by the Chinese and North Koreans were treated humanely according to the Geneva Convention – including photos of a “Santa Claus” handing out care packages to POWs from the Red Cross. (This contrasts sharply to the reports of POWs repatriated after the war concerning their brutal and inhumane treatment, as documented in U.S. Senate Report No. 848, 83rd Congress, Second Session – Korean War Atrocities.)
Xi Jinping, in his 2010 speech, repeated the dubious claim presented at the museum of the use of germ warfare by U.S forces when he said: “Thereafter, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army constructed an impregnable defense bastion and crushed the enemy’s multiple attacks and their germ warfare.”
… the assertion by Xi Jinping in his 2010 remarks that Harry Truman started the Korean War is directly contradicted by the Yeltsin documents
In conclusion, the assertion by Xi Jinping in his 2010 remarks that Harry Truman started the Korean War is directly contradicted by the Yeltsin documents. It is thus as controversial as the claim of non-coercion of Comfort Women made in the past by Japanese Prime Minister Abe. Yet, while Abe’s intemperate remarks have caused criticism throughout South Korean society, there is almost no public outcry over Xi’s condemnation of the American president. Yet Truman was one of the leaders of the UN coalition which laid the groundwork for a viable and independent South Korean state
South Korean media has also given scant attention to the dwindling number of South Korean prisoners-of-war, held in North Korea for decades as coal mine slave laborers in violation of Operations Big Switch and Little Switch. These were prisoner repatriation agreements which were negotiated as part of the 1953 armistice. The fact that Beijing has on occasion forcibly sent some of these elderly South Korean citizens back to North Korea to face further abuse has also been largely ignored.
The South Korean public recently flocked to see the blockbuster movie Ode to My Father (Gukje Sijang) with its stirring Korean War scenes of the Hungnam evacuation. This sealift of refugees in North Korea escaping invading Chinese forces was one of the largest such U. S. military operations in history. Perhaps, therefore, it is time to seek the same level of accountability with regards to the Korean War as that which has been demanded regarding the Second World War.