CHEORWON, South Korea—It was 70 years ago, on June 25, 1950, that about 75,000 North Korean soldiers poured into the South all along the 38th parallel in a campaign that North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung had told his Chinese and Soviet benefactors would be over in weeks.
Two long years later South Korean and U.S. forces, having driven out the North Koreans, faced off against the Chinese right here at Cheorwon in the infamous “iron triangle.” The place names are etched in the minds of all who fought here or know the history: Bloody Ridge, Heartbreak Ridge, Sniper Ridge, Jane Russell Hill—named for the voluptuous film star, its contours belying the suffering on the slopes.
For the South Koreans, White Horse Hill, with all trees, bushes, greenery stripped bare by 270,000 artillery and air strikes in 10 days of pure hell battling the Chinese in October 1952, was the worst, and also the proudest landmark. They called it White Horse for good reason: after all the vegetation was gone, that’s what it looked like.
By the time the smoke had cleared and the sound of shot and shell had ceased to be a continuous roar the South Koreans, backed up by plenty of U.S. Army artillery and U.S. air strikes, had killed or captured 14,000 Chinese. The South’s 9th Division, battling China’s 38th Division, counted 3,400 dead. The 9th also had a new name and symbol on the patch worn by its soldiers to this day: the White Horse Division.
On Thursday, young South Korean soldiers revived memories of these battles while the grandson of the man who launched the carnage of 70 years ago signaled that, for now, there would be no new war.
In a misty morning on the slopes of White Horse Hill, on a stage before hundreds of old men who were actually here during the battles, actor-soldiers asked: “How far will it go?” “When’s this war going to end?” “You never know when you will die or when the enemy will appear.”
Those were imminent questions at the time, and they remain as latent ones to this day.
At solemn ceremonies, no one spoke of the latest twists and turns in the North-South drama in which North Korea, having talked real tough just a few days ago, now is saying we’re not attacking you after all.
Kim Jong Un, grandson of Kim Il Sung, reportedly presided over a meeting of the military commission of the Workers’ Party, presumably dictating the decision in which the commission “took stock of the prevailing situation and suspended the military action plans against the South.”
While prayers for peace were offered at places of worship throughout the country, novelist Jo Jeong-rae, whose books conjure the tragedies of the Korean people, lamented the way the fighting ended in July 1953, with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Since then, he said, standing before a massive stone cenotaph honoring those who died, “We two Koreas have had to be hostile to each other,” with no telling when “this era of hatred” would come to an end.
In Cheorwon, for which the South Koreans and their American allies fought so fiercely, reminders of North Korean cruelty make it hard to love thine enemy.
The remains of the Workers’ Party headquarters, where prisoners were tortured, dominate the approach. Bones, bullets and wire for binding prisoners were found in the basement during the war. Down the road loom the ruins of three concrete water towers into which retreating North Koreans dumped the bodies of about 300 South Koreans, some of them already dead, others buried alive.
At the ceremony here, the governor of surrounding Kangwon Province, Moon Soon-choi, poured out his grief for those who suffered during the war, but was hopeful for the future. The North Koreans had just sent some positive signals, although small ones. They had installed loudspeakers for blaring propaganda a few days earlier that might have disrupted this ceremony, but they had withdrawn them.
“I don’t think there will be any physical conflict,” Moon Soon-choi remarked at a monument honoring the dead. “It’s time to end the Korean War after 70 years.”
But who can trust Kim Jong Un after the nasty rhetoric poured on South Korea by his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, topped off by the explosion that shattered a beautiful liaison office building at which South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in had believed North and South Korean emissaries could sort out their differences in an atmosphere of love-thy-neighbor goodwill?
“North Korea just resorted to one of the plays in its well-used playbook, this one being to artificially ramp up tensions,” said David Straub, who spent years as a U.S. diplomat in Korea. The idea, he said, is “to put its adversaries on the defensive and to get concessions from them.”
“How many times have we seen them huff and puff,” said Bruce Bechtol, author of numerous books and articles on North Korea’s leadership, particularly its armed forces. “This appears to be the same plan used by daddy and grandpappy”—the late Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
Ideally, Kim Jong Un would like “another crack at a deal” with President Donald Trump, in Bechtol’s view, “but he knows it is unlikely until the U.S. elections in November.”
Evans Revere, also a former U.S. diplomat in Korea, believes Kim “may have taken a page from Donald Trump's playbook: take or threaten to take drastic action; unleash extreme rhetoric to unnerve one's adversary; step into the middle of the chaos you have created and portray yourself as the reasonable ‘dealmaker.’"
On this day of mourning the war, though, President Moon Jae-in did not appear quite as much of a pushover as the North Koreans would like him to be and the Americans worry about him becoming.
“Before speaking of unification, I hope that we can become friendly neighbors first,” he said at another event marking the 70th anniversary, this one at a military air base near Seoul.
His words, while not exactly pugnacious, were not all that conciliatory. “Our military has strength to ward off any threat,” he warned. “It has a thorough readiness posture and will never allow a handspan [inches] of our territory on land, sea and in the air to be violated again.”
Moon may temper his words depending on his audience and the occasion, but the fact that he was so outspoken Thursday may test Kim’s resolve not to foment unforeseen “provocations.” In the complex game of face-saving, Kim must appear always to set the agenda.
“North Korea signaled that its plan was dependent on Seoul’s response,” said Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation. “The regime declared that it would condition the ‘intensity for carrying out successive action measures [and] time for decisive actions on the response of South Korean authorities.” South Korea’s “reckless” actions, Klingner noted, would trigger “tougher retaliation plans.”
But then there’s another consideration.
“North Korea appears to be in trouble,” said Bruce Bennett at the Rand Corporation. “I am guessing that the economic sanctions finally are putting real pressure on North Korea, especially in the aftermath of North Korea’s extreme COVID-19 measures.” In fact, “not taking care of the elites in Pyongyang could be jeopardizing the regime”s survival”—particularly considering Kim “suffers from paranoia.”
One thing that analysts seriously doubt, however, is that Kim actually overruled his sister in deciding to go soft for a while.
“Yo Jong’s harsh statements just represented Jong Un’s frustration and anger,” said Choi Jin-wook, one-time head of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “North Korea's ups and downs—tension escalation and easing tension—are not new. However, the intervals are getting shorter and more dramatic.”
In fact, Choi believes big brother is “more unpredictable and more hot-tempered than his father,” Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
“Rather than Kim Yo Jong getting too far ahead on her skis, North Korea is likely positioning her as the ‘bad cop’ for any future negotiations,” said Klingner, while “nurturing the illusion of factions within the leadership as a way of successfully forcing additional concessions in diplomatic talks.”
Bennett agrees, more or less. “I do not see this as a rift between KJU and KYJ,” he said. “Kim Jong Un appears anxious to empower his sister over time, and this campaign allowed her to demonstrate a hardline approach that would be desired by the North Korean military.”
At White Horse Hill, 89-year-old veteran Hwan Jing-jo did not seem impressed by the shifting moods and rhetoric one way or another, whether in Pyongyang or Seoul. “I am very sorry for this situation,” he said. “Unification is not easy now. I hope we go our way.”
From on top of Soi Mountain, with a sweeping view of the entire area over which battles once raged, dilapidated cement buildings are a reminder that a small contingent of U.S. troops manned an observation post up there until eight years ago.
Now civilians can walk to the summit after a drive up a twisting road through a forest that’s sprung up unmolested after the war ended in a ceasefire. Visitors are warned, though, not to wander off the path into what’s known as “the forest protected by landmines.”