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From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General

Paik Sun Yup

From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General

Published in 1992

Paik Sun Yup (1920–) was only twenty-nine years old when the war broke out in Korea in 1950, but he was already a colonel and the commander of the First Division of the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea). On the scene from the first day of conflict, Paik would be one of the principal players in the war until its end three years later. A highly talented military leader, he had been trained as a soldier in Manchuria, a large territory in northern China, and had served in the Manchurian army in World War II (1939–45). During the Korean War, Paik became Korea's first four-star general.

Toward the end of the war, South Korean President Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) strongly opposed truce talks between North and South Korea, but he requested that Paik represent South Korea at Panmunjom, where the negotiations were being held. This was difficult for Paik, for he, too, opposed ending the war before Korea could be once again unified. He had been born and raised in Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, and his home was barred to him by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the line of division between North and South Korea. The excerpt of his memoirs below describes some of his thoughts when the war ended.

Things to remember while reading this excerpt from From Pusan to Panmunjom:

  • The North Koreans so strongly outmatched the South Koreans when they invaded on June 25, 1950, that on July 1, one week later, the South Korean (ROK) army could account for only about 40,000 of its 98,000 men. Some American estimates put this figure even lower. More than one-half of the ROK Army was disabled or killed in that first week.
  • The ROK army lacked training and experienced leadership and they were terribly short of weapons and ammunition. Knowing this, the Chinese, who were allied with the North Koreans against the ROK, would often find the spots where the ROK was defending a position and infiltrate (penetrate into the unit) there.

Excerpt from From Pusan to Panmunjom

At 10:00a. m.on July 27, 1953, the Armistice Agreement documents were signed and exchanged, and the cease-fire became effective twelve hours later, at 10:00p.m.The fighting was over at last.

An urgent call had woken me at home on the morning of June 25,1950. I really didn't have the heart for what followed. I dashed from my home to the 1st Division, then south to the Naktong River, then north to the Chongchon River, then back and forth in between—fighting bloodily all the time. The war managed to exchange the " 38th parallel " for the " DMZ " and drench mountains of Korean soil with oceans of blood; it had not done a hell of a lot more.

Once the armistice was a fait accompli, President Rhee accepted it almost casually.

The cease-fire caused a measure of anguish in the officers and men of the Korean army, because it perpetuated the division of our

nation. The lengthy armistice negotiations had given us enough time, however, to accept the reality that we could do nothing at all about it. Indeed, I saw General [Mark W.] Clark in Seoul right after the armistice was signed and he seemed more distressed over the cease-fire than I did. I couldn't understand it at the time; after all, Clark had helped his nation achieve a major national goal, ending the war in Korea. I learned the reason for his distress much later from his book, From the Danube to the Yalu. He had become, he said, the first American commander not to accept surrender from the enemy.

I had faced the bitterness of leaving my home behind and moving into South Korea, only to face the horror of another split in the nation. I felt like unification was more remote now than ever before. The return of peace to Korea, even the impermanent peace of an armistice, was most providential in one way, however. The killing stopped at last. So many of my subordinates had been killed that I literally could not count them. Nor could any mind hope to grasp the immensity of the suffering these deaths brought to so many fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and wives. The bombing and the barrages were still. Our people would die in the terrible explosions no more.

I had no regrets about our soldiers. They put their lives on the line with no hope of reward, and they fought the communists to the death. But I had a few regrets as a commander. I was on the battlefield virtually the entire war, first as a commander of a division, then a corps, and finally as chief of staff. And I believe we could have fought a little better.

We faced enormous deficiencies, to be sure. We were a fledgling force, dreadfully inferior in training. We lacked the equipment of a modern army, and our commanders were often incompetent. These inadequacies made it all but impossible for Korean units to be tough enough to maintain our defensive positions. But this situation had nothing to do with the quality of our soldiers. If there was a lack of will, then we must turn to our commanders to find it….

During the war, I thought we would be able to unify Korea by force of arms. That ardent desire, shared by sixty million Koreans to this day, was not to be, evaporating beneath the interminable talks at Panmunjom. We gained no victory, true enough, but we staved off a defeat that the infamy o f surprise attack had nearly made a sure thing, and we established the cold war policy of containment by bringing the enemy's predatory aggression up short.

My memory shall never expunge the scenes of Korean soldiers, soldiers sacrificing their lives to place explosives on enemy tanks in the first days of the war, soldiers who fought with grenade and bayonet and died in the rugged mountains within the Pusan Perimeter, soldiers who fought desperately to gain every possible inch of ground before the armistice brought the curtain down. These heroes will live always in my heart. (Paik, pp. 244–45, 253–54)

What happened next…

After the Korean War, with help from the United States, the Republic of Korea Army built a seven hundred thousand-man force and greatly modernized its equipment, training, and logistics system. General Paik Sun Yup served two tours of duty as chief of staff of the army, through the year 1959, when he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as a war advisor to South Korea's leader. He retired from that position just as the political climate in South Korea forced Syngman Rhee to resign and flee to Hawaii. Paik went on to successful careers in diplomacy, government, and business.

In the year 2001, the DMZ in Korea stood as it did in 1953.

Did you know…

  • In July 1951, Eighth Army commander General James A. Van Fleet (1892–1992) established the Field Training Command to retrain the ROK soldiers. "A training center was hastily constructed south of Sokcho," Paik recalled in his memoirs. "Training lasted nine weeks and consisted of basic individual, squad, platoon, and company training. The center started from scratch, assuming nobody knew anything. Every man in a division, with the exception of its commander, was required to undergo the training, and when the training was over, a unit had to pass a test before being assigned to the front." Paik continued: "By the end of 1952, all ten ROK Army divisions had completed the training. Units that completed the course lost 50 percent fewer men and equipment in combat than did units that had not had the training. Furthermore, divisions that completed the course and returned to the front revealed an élan [spirit] and confidence quite superior to what they had shown before going through the training."

Where to Learn More

Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.

Paik Sun Yup. From Pusan to Panmunjom: Wartime Memoirs of the Republic of Korea's First Four-Star General. Dulles, VA: Brassey's, 1999.

Toland, John. In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950–1953. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

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