Chinese Anxieties and Korean War Commemorations

By | December 28, 2013 | No Comments

UN forces crossing the 38th parallel, 1950 | Image: US Army Korea historical image archive

UN forces crossing the 38th parallel, 1950 | Image: US Army Korea Historical Image Archive

As we consider changes and continuities in Chinese-North Korean relations that have manifested in an eventful 2013, a look back at the Korean War commemorations this past July is more than appropriate. The war, after all, was unquestionably the farthest-reaching interaction between the two ruling parties and countries in the modern era, if not necessarily the oldest.  The war had huge human consequences, sweeping Kim Jong-il and his sister Kim Kyong-hui into Northeast China, where they found refuge from American bombing and became acquainted with their absent guerrilla father figure’s revolutionary exploits in Jilin.  Naturally there were consequences on the Chinese side as well, not least of which was the now-celebrated death of Mao Zedong’s son on the battlefield of the Korean peninsula.

Taking our cues from Heonik Kwon’s summer assessment of China-North Korean relations on the 60th anniversary of the Korean Armistice,  Sino-NK continues to probe at the position of the Korean War within Chinese discourse on Korea generally, and, more specifically, how that debate was rendered during and impacted by Li Yuanchao’s trip to Pyongyang in late July 2013.

At a time when Mao is the burning red epicenter of the Chinese Communist Party’s meta-narrative, a challenge of the justice of Mao’s having thrown his considerable weight and prestige in 1950 (and forever after) behind Chinese intervention is not to be regarded as inconsequential.  If Choe Ryong-hae or his North Korean team of speech writers was content to plagiarize Kim Il-song and leave but a few throwaway lines about Chinese aid in his 26 July speech, China took the opposite approach, focusing on the PRC-interested actions of the Chinese leadership and not so subtly pointing out the North Korean culpability for igniting the war in the first place.

For her part, Park Geun-hye scored a few public relations victories with China, not least by putting the return of the remains of Chinese People’s Volunteers from South Korean soil on front pages across China. With such steps, President Park is more than figuratively taking the skeletons out of the closet of the historical relationship and moving toward firmer ground. The ongoing reworking of ROK-PRC history has been actively engaged in by both sides, and ought to give the North Korean cadre yet more reason to be troubled.

In the meantime, even PLA generals in China are seeing North Korea increasingly as a threat, and one significant editorial published on the day of the Korean War armistice anniversary indicates the limits of friendship, at the very least. The following editorial indicates the strength of China’s critiques of North Korea, coming on a day when the two would ostensibly be standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

 “Sixty Years After the Armistice, Chinese Public Opinion Must Be More Bold and Heroic than America” [社评:停60年,中国舆论应比美国豪迈], Huanqiu Shibao, July 27, 2013.

Sixty years ago today, commanders from China, North Korea and the US signed and implemented an armistice to cease the three years of hostilities of the Korean War. In the sixty years that have passed since then, although the peninsula has gone through the Cold War and periodic minor outbreaks of frictions and hostilities [时有小的摩擦冲突], it has remained peaceful in general.

Today, North Korea, South Korea, and the US will all have large commemorative activities. Looking at this particular battlefield, Americans will have dejection [沮丧] in their bones, but officially, their old soldiers will have “no regrets [无怨无悔].”  China has sent a high-level delegation to North Korea to participate in commemorations, and no one has heard of official commemorative activities occurring inside of China on July 27. China’s normal important day of commemoration [of the war] is on October 25, the day to remember Chinese People’s Volunteers’ entry into the war.

In the past two days, not a small number of articles have been published in China allowing for public opinion [舆论] to look back on the war. But what a pity [只可惜] that some of them look back without self-confidence, saying that the great spirit of the CPV lacked the courage to push the US back to the 38th parallel. Articles expressing “opposing views” [to China’s interventions] have also been quite numerous.

One of them asks what might have happened if China had not entered the war, stating that Taiwan and the mainland could already have been reunited, China and the US would not have come into confrontation, and that China’s reform and opening-up could have happened 20 years earlier, etc. etc.

These hypotheses sound like they make some sense, but they disrespect the millions of Chinese soldiers who sacrificed their blood and lives on the Korean Peninsula.

Reviewing history, we find many flawed decisions [一些瑕疵和粗糙]. But we cannot pick holes in choices made in the past based on our current international situation. History has countless examples of the supremacy of chance, in which it is composed of a series of accidents. If we say that the Korean War carries with it a chance element, then even if the outbreak of the Korean War was an accident, China’s decision to help North Korea defend itself in the war to resist America and aid Korea was the obvious choice at that time.

The war restructured the strategic power structure of East Asia. The six decades of peace on the peninsula was not just the result of the piece of paper of the armistice, it is because of all sides kept painful bone-deep memories of the war which resulted in a basic sense of the uselessness of war.

In the war, the Chinese People’s Volunteers displayed a powerful will, impressing [至今鲜明] the world – and especially the US. With scant supplies of food and clothing, could the Chinese People’s Volunteers, largely outgunned by the world’s best-equipped army, rely on backward weapons against the unchallenged world-supreme American Army?   This question of willpower over arms, has left an eternal spiritual mark, given the Chinese race self-confidence and a historical progress from the point of view of Chinese person; and the dance of power against difficult circumstances. This part of history has largely enhanced China’s confidence, especially after the nation was repeatedly trampled upon by foreign forces during the previous century.

No matter what happened in the Korean War, we still today will deal with all the parties and the legacies on the peninsula which have become embedded in history and involved in the turning of China’s fate.  As a figure of speech would say, history has dealt us a hand, and we must play it well, not walk away while complaining that it is insufficient.

In the 21st century, a Chinese person can say that that the Korean War is already a like a very distant dream. Those years of suffering are very different from the paradise-like living for Chinese people today. The Korean War and the current situation on the peninsula have been inherited from history and have been integrated into China’s development. It is useless to second-guess what could have happened if China had not joined the war.

For China, that war has faded away. For the North Koreans however, it rages on. On the 38th parallel, in Korea, the war is not distant history, even as time advances.  Compared with 60 years ago, the international situation confronting Pyongyang and people’s lives have not improved [朝鲜人民的生活都没有明显改善], and have in some ways gotten worse. The fuse of the crisis on the peninsula has not been removed [半岛危机的引信始终未被拆除].

North Korea itself [should] take some responsibility for this, but North Korea is a small country, and to say that it is the leading responsible party for the maintenance of Cold War in Northeast Asia is patently ridiculous. North Korea is more like a land that time has passed by.

Stepping out of the difficult shadows cast by the Korean War, is the difficult hope unfulfilled by all. Has the United States changed its attitude completely orienting itself toward peace since the armistice?  Apparently not, but of course its nose [beak/snout] says “yes.” Still less has Japan appeared to will itself to bring peace to the Cold War on the peninsula. South Korea is still “of two minds [三心二意]” toward peace, considering that how to “unify [Korea]” is the most important thing, and the path forward is foggy and unclear [模糊不清]. Most understandable is North Korea’s sense of crisis toward the armistice, but its methods are a bit radical [方法有些激进].

The Korean Peninsula is a living fossil of the Cold War [冷战的活化石]. On Armistice Day, we are obliged to endeavor to make the Cold War history instead of the present reality.

Source:Sixty Years After the Armistice, Chinese Public Opinion Must Be More Bold and Heroic than America” [社评:停战60年,中国舆论应比美国豪迈], Huanqiu Shibao, July 27, 2013. Translation by Adam Cathcart. See also the original English truncated version, “Second-guessing Korean War no help,” Global Times, July 27, 2013.

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