The Korean War began 70 years ago. In the United States, it is known as the “forgotten war”. Not so in China. In his new book Attack at Chosin, Professor Xiaobing Li, a prolific historian who teaches at the University of Central Oklahoma, and who once served in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), explores the Chinese Army’s second offensive against US, UN, and South Korean forces at the Chosin Reservoir during November-December 1950.
This is a view of the war and the battle from China’s perspective based largely on Chinese sources. Li had access to colleagues and materials at the PLA Academy of Military Science, the Military Archives of the PLA, Peking University, the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, and other academies and museums in China. He interviewed PLA officers and retired generals between 2010 and 2017. He made several trips to Taiwan for additional research purposes, including talking to former Chinese prisoners of war.
After Chinese Communist forces defeated the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and prior to the Korean War, Mao Zedong’s regime supported communist forces in other Asian countries, such as Laos, Vietnam, Burma, and North Korea. Li notes that as early as May 1949, China permitted “Chinese soldiers of Korean origin to return to North Korea”—in all more than 35,000 men by April 1950, two months before North Korea’s invasion. This means that Chinese troops participated in the war long before US forces neared the Yalu River in October-November 1950.
When the war began—with North Korea having both Chinese and Soviet support—Chinese political and military leaders were surprised at the American reaction and response. After all, President Truman’s Secretary of State had famously announced in January 1950 that Korea was outside the US defense perimeter in Asia. Truman ordered US forces to defend South Korea and sent the 7th Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. The latter move upset Mao’s plans to invade Taiwan:
At that moment, … [China’s] 9th Army Group [was] ready to launch a large-scale landing campaign against the Chinese Nationalist … troops on Taiwan.
Li writes that after the unforeseen US response to the North Korean crossing of the 38th Parallel, Mao called off the invasion of Taiwan. That same 9th Army Group (150,000 troops) crossed the Yalu River in November 1950 to attack US forces at Chosin.
Li calls this move a “strategic shift” by China “from invading Taiwan to intervening in Korea”, and was the outcome of “Chinese leaders’ debates and decisions in July-September 1950.” Li notes that in early August 1950—long before Inchon, and long before US forces crossed the 38th Parallel and neared the China-North Korean border—Mao shifted his strategy from a “border defense of China to a proactive defense in Korea by planning an intervention” to assist North Korean forces. “The Chinese defense line”, Li writes, “was more than 100 miles southeast of the Yalu in North Korea.” And again: “Mao had determined by mid-August to send troops to Korea.” (emphasis supplied).
Li’s research of Chinese sources, therefore, undermines the conventional wisdom of US historians that General Douglas MacArthur’s approach to the Chinese border provoked China’s attack across the Yalu. This is consistent with Arthur Herman’s conclusion in his recent biography of MacArthur that Mao was committed to entering the war in Korea the moment the first American troops set foot on the Korean peninsula.
China entered the war en masse in November 1950, and by the end of that month had committed nearly 500,000 troops to North Korea. US, UN, and South Korean forces retreated. MacArthur told Washington that he faced an “entirely new war”, and sought additional forces to return to the offensive. Washington balked.
Li views the attacks at Chosin and the war as a whole as a laboratory that shaped the subsequent development of China’s military.
The bulk of Li’s book focuses on the fighting between China’s 9th Army Group and the US X Corps, including a division of South Korean troops, the American 7th Army, and the 1st Marine Division situated near the Chosin Reservoir. China’s forces suffered from a shortage of transportation vehicles, the failure of their supply system that resulted in insufficient supplies (including winter clothing and food), and extreme cold ranging from 20-45 degrees below zero. In a series of battles at Yudam-ni, Hagaru-ri, and Koto-ri, Chinese and US forces slugged it out over difficult terrain in extreme cold. The defensive firepower of US forces, including artillery and air power, coupled with Chinese logistical problems, foiled repeated Chinese attempts to surround and destroy their enemy. Chinese “human wave” attacks repeatedly failed to achieve their objectives and resulted in mass Chinese casualties. China’s military leaders, like Peng Dehuai and Song Shilun, “found that the enemy was not a paper tiger, but a real tiger with strong firepower and combat effectiveness.” America’s X Corps escaped to Hungnam port where troops and supplies were sealifted to safety.
The book, however, is more than a detailed military history of the second offensive at Chosin, though it is that. Li views the attacks at Chosin and the war as a whole as a laboratory that shaped the subsequent development of China’s military. “The war,” writes Li, “contributed to the transformation of the Chinese military from a peasant rebellion force to a modern army with new technology, strategy, and tactics.”
Chosin was a Chinese battlefield victory, but it fell short of China’s military goals and proved very costly. The attack failed to annihilate the US X Corps, which retreated to fight another day, and cost the PLA more than 80,000 casualties to the Americans 10,000 plus casualties. China’s military and political leaders learned a hard lesson on the “role of technology and firepower” in modern warfare.
More than three million Chinese troops saw combat in Korea. After the war, China opened new military academies that studied how the PLA fought the war. With Soviet help, China reformed the PLA with
institutional changes, a centralized command system, technological improvement, advanced training and educational programs, reorganization of defense industries, establishment of a strategic missile force, and a nuclear weapons research and development program.
Li also believes that one of the legacies of the Korean War was China’s central role in East Asian geopolitics, which grew in significance with its role in supporting North Vietnam (including with military troops) against the US in the 1960s, its role in aligning with the US against the Soviet Union during the latter stages of the Cold War, and its current role as a peer competitor to the US.