[Photo story] The Korean War: The first large-scale war between China and the US

China and the US fought their first major war against each other during the Korean War. China's ill-equipped volunteer troops suffered huge losses, sacrificing eight lives for every one lost on the US side. Nonetheless, China showed great determination and resilience during the war. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao delves deep into the images and facts of the Korean War, and reflects on how it has shaped modern international geopolitics.
In 1951, the volunteer army surrounded and attacked the US army's 1st and 7th infantry divisions. As it was barely one year since the CCP established the PRC, it did not yet have its own defence weapons industry. The troops were using mainly Soviet-made weapons, arms left behind by the Japanese, and US weapons seized from the KMT army. The volunteers in the photo are using Czech-made ZB-26 light machine guns, which were relatively rare among the volunteers due to the lack of matching bullets.
In 1951, the volunteer army surrounded and attacked the US army's 1st and 7th infantry divisions. As it was barely one year since the CCP established the PRC, it did not yet have its own defence weapons industry. The troops were using mainly Soviet-made weapons, arms left behind by the Japanese, and US weapons seized from the KMT army. The volunteers in the photo are using Czech-made ZB-26 light machine guns, which were relatively rare among the volunteers due to the lack of matching bullets.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

At the end of the 19th century, China was ravaged by imperialism. During the Boxer Rebellion, the US was part of the Eight-Nation Alliance and had sent troops into Beijing to fight against the Qing army and the Boxers. However, to the Chinese, the US remained one of the friendlier Western powers. In fact, there was considerable discord among the Chinese about the Boxers and Empress Cixi. The southeastern provinces even proposed the “Mutual Protection of Southeast China” agreement, clearly distancing themselves from Beijing, refusing to declare war on the Western powers and not particularly objecting when the US sent troops into Beijing.

During World War II, China and the US were allies that fought shoulder to shoulder against fascism. But five years after the war, the Communist revolution emerged victorious in China. Ideological and geopolitical conflicts between the two countries led to the first large-scale battle between China and the US.

In late 1950, barely a year after its establishment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following years of bloody revolution, the People’s Republic of China entered a major regional war in the Korean peninsula. Their fearsome opponent had just won a complete victory in World War II, and had the world’s best equipment and fighting capabilities: the US army.

Korean War turned the heat away from Taiwan

After winning the second World War, the US and Soviet Union entered an intense ideological and military face-off. Europe was split in two, while in Asia, the Korean peninsula was divided into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The CCP’s successful revolution expanded communist power.

In the spring of 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gathered 500,000 troops in the Second and Third Field Armies and rounded up boats and civilians in Fujian. They were preparing to cross the sea and attack the Nationalist government that had retreated to Taiwan.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung instructed the Korean People's Army (KPA) to cross the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea, and launch a strong southwards push. The attack was fierce; within three days, the KPA had captured the South Korean capital Seoul. The US government criticised the North Korean invasion through the UN Security Council, and prepared for military intervention. On 31 July, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers General Douglas MacArthur went on a three-day visit to Taiwan, and met with President of the Nationalist government Chiang Kai-shek to discuss strategic military cooperation to stop the growth of communism. At the same time, a carrier strike force of the United States Seventh Fleet entered the Taiwan Strait to stop the PLA from crossing the sea to attack Taiwan, signalling the US’s official intervention in the Taiwan Strait.

NK army
In 1950, the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel and attacked southwards. With Soviet weapons and military advisors, their military capabilities were far superior to the South Korean army, and their initial attacks were fierce and impossible to push back.
On 31 July 1950, Commander-in-Chief, Far East Command (FECOM), Douglas MacArthur flew from Tokyo to Taipei, and was received by President Chiang Kai-shek. In January that year, the US government had issued a statement that it would not intervene in the Taiwan Strait, but after the North Korean army invaded southwards, the US government immediately changed its policy and sent aircraft carriers to stop the PLA from attacking Taiwan.
General MacArthur and President Chiang discussing military cooperation, 1950. The US army intervening in the Taiwan Strait allowed the KMT government to recover from the threat of an attack by the PLA.
In 1950, General MacArthur and President Chiang discussed the international strategic situation, especially the threat of communism in the western Pacific. At the time, MacArthur was preparing a counterattack on the Korean peninsula, and President Chiang hoped the KMT would be able to send troops to participate, but was turned down.

By mid-August, the North Korean troops had reached the outskirts of Busan, in the south of South Korea. On 15 September, led by General MacArthur, a 16-nation United Nations Command (UNC) force with a majority of US troops landed at the port of Incheon. They attacked in both the southward and northward directions, and were successful in defeating the North Koreans.

In late September, the UNC crossed the 38th parallel and attacked the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The vanguard rapidly approached the China-Korea border, and the PRC government sent volunteer troops across the Yalu River, and immediately engaged in direct combat with the UNC. This was the first time China and the US met on the battlefield as enemies, after being close allies during World War II.

In September 1950, the US army crossed the 38th parallel and drove the North Korean army to the banks of the Yalu River. Commander-in-Chief of the UNC General Douglas MacArthur had assessed that North and South Korea could be unified, without counting on the participation of the CCP troops. The photo shows the US army using a Browning M2 .50 calibre heavy machine gun against the opposing volunteer army.
A soldier carrying an injured comrade as the US army pushes towards North Korea, September 1950.
In September 1950, UNC Commander-in-Chief MacArthur (centre, seated) led a landing at Incheon, splitting the North Korean army in two and cutting off their southward attack, leading to the latter’s defeat.

North Korea’s southward movement led to major geopolitical changes in Northeast Asia and Beijing quickly readjusted its defence strategy. Given the proximity of the Korean peninsula to Beijing, the war threatened the safety of the capital, and also posed a threat to the existence of New China. The government cancelled its plans to attack Taiwan and moved its troops to northeast China. At the same time, Mao Zedong and Stalin agreed that China would send soldiers to fight the US army, while the Soviet Union would provide weapons and military training.

In November 1950, the UNC overcame the North Korean army and found portraits of Soviet leader Stalin and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.
The Chinese volunteer army standing on the bank of the Yalu River, prepared to cross the river and join the Korean War in late 1950.

Weapons versus strength in numbers

Faced with the sudden attack of 200,000 volunteer soldiers, the UNC retreated. After three battles, the volunteer troops drove the UNC back past the 38th parallel, and even managed to capture Seoul on 4 January 1951, only for the UNC to recapture it on 15 March.

The US army using M1918 Browning Automatic Rifles, November 1950. During this time, the US army was in retreat.
dec 1950
In December 1950, the volunteer army launched a large-scale attack. The UNC was unable to resist, and retreated southward. The photo shows the volunteer army entering North Korean capital Pyongyang.
Volunteer troops capture retreating US soldiers, December 1950. Most American POWs were captured by the volunteer army in the first stages of the fighting.
Volunteer troops surrounding and attacking a US tank with RPG-43 anti-tank grenades, forcing the US soldiers to come out of the tank and surrender.
In December 1950, the volunteer army marched into Seoul and celebrated outside the Korean parliament building, only to be driven out again with a UNC counterattack in early January 1951. Seoul changed hands four times.

The US army had powerful guns and cannons, tanks, armoured vehicles, and superior air support, as well as seemingly unlimited ammunition and food. In contrast, the volunteers had far inferior weapons and equipment, with little mechanisation, low mobility, and insufficient ammunition and food. They were mainly politically driven, ready to keep fighting at the cost of lives and heavy losses.

In 1951, China saw a wave of propaganda promoting resistance against the US and assistance for North Korea, and encouraging people to support the volunteer army fighting on the Korean peninsula.
In 1951, the Chinese government went to farming villages to get civilians to join the army, with military propaganda and recruitment. This war became a crucial opportunity for the Chinese government to promote patriotism.
In 1951, the Chinese government launched donation drives all over the country, and purchased aircraft and cannons to support the volunteer army.
The volunteer army throwing grenades at the UNC, 1951. Due to the lack of heavy weapons, the volunteers mainly used light machine guns and grenades. The volunteers in the photo are using Soviet-made RPG-43 anti-tank grenades.

 The UNC quickly identified the volunteers’ weakness. The volunteers had weak logistical support — the soldiers could only carry one weeks’ worth of rations and attack by night. Casualties were heavy, but still they pushed the battle lines. And so, usually on the seventh day the volunteers were at the weakest with insufficient ammunition and low food supply. The soldiers were cold and hungry and exhausted, and had to stop fighting. This was when the UNC attacked. The volunteers had no energy to defend themselves, and could only beat a hasty retreat.

In 1951, the volunteer army quickly broke through the 38th parallel and continued attacking southward. But they lacked supplies and usually had to halt every seven days because they ran out of food and ammunition. The photo shows volunteer troops using a Japanese-made 90-mm mortar.
Volunteer artillery troops defending against UNC aircraft, 1951. The volunteers also stepped up rail transport of supplies.
In February 1951, the UNC regrouped after retreating southwards. The photo shows a North Korean corpse on the ground as US troops advance. The US army mainly carried M1 Garand semi-automatic rifles.
A US M4A3E8 tank on the Korean peninsula, March 1951. The US troops were regrouping and preparing to use their advantage in mechanisation to launch a counterattack.
In March 1951, the US army stood their ground after regrouping, and launched fresh attacks on the volunteer army. The photo shows US troops using Browning light machine guns, one to each squad.
In May 1951, after General Matthew Ridgway took over from MacArthur as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, the US army leveraged its advantage in weaponry and mechanisation to counterattack, capturing many volunteer soldiers. Ridgway was the key orchestrator of the turnaround for the Americans in the Korean War.

At this time, the UNC had a major change in leadership. General MacArthur planned the use of nuclear weapons against China, but US President Harry S. Truman objected as he felt that would set off a third world war. The disagreement dragged on, and was even made public. On 11 April 1951, MacArthur was finally relieved of command and returned to the US, as Lieutenant-General Matthew B. Ridgway took over as supreme commander.

At this point, the fourth and fifth battles occurred between China and the US, both of which wanted to control the scale and scope of the war. Generally, the fighting took place around the 38th parallel, until 27 July 1953, when delegations from both sides signed an armistice in Panmunjom in North Korea, near the border with South Korea, pausing the war of three years.

The volunteer army using an improvised Type 51, 57-mm gun against a US tank in an intense fight, 1951.
Volunteer troops firing an 82-mm Katyusha rocket launcher, 1951. This was a weapon that was mass-produced by the Soviet Union to be used against the German army during World War II.
US entertainment
In June 1951, the US entertainment industry organised a group to entertain the US troops at the front line. At this point, the US army had regrouped from its retreat in 1950 and won several victories, and was in a tug-of-war with the volunteer army.
An arts troupe from China entertaining volunteer troops at the front line, 1951.
An arts troupe from North Korea entertaining volunteer troops, 1951.
A Chinese language pamphlet produced by the UNC with help from KMT political staff from Taiwan. Although the KMT did not send troops to fight, it sent many translators and administrative staff to help with psychological warfare against the volunteer army. This pamphlet shows a captured volunteer soldier happily reading the newspapers, indicating good treatment by the UNC. This was to tell the volunteers that as long as they surrendered, they would not have to worry about being mistreated or hurt, but would be well-treated by the UNC, and so they did not have to be afraid but could surrender bravely.
The UNC was well-equipped; officers and soldiers alike were issued helmets. This pamphlet promotes UNC troops as the best-equipped in the world, where each soldier has a bulletproof helmet, and tells the volunteers: “Run for your life!”
Another unique point about the Korean War was that the villages and mountains were bitterly cold and snowy in the winter, and a lot of fighting was carried out in sub-zero temperatures. The volunteers were plagued with injuries and illnesses caused by the cold, especially because they were ill-equipped. This pamphlet shows their plight.
This Chinese language pamphlet by the UNC triggers homesickness in volunteer troops with the image of a wife at home, and attributes the war to the CCP.
A comic showing the quiet hometown life of volunteers and their current misery on the battlefield, a contrast meant to impact their morale.
This pamphlet was clearly produced when both sides were exchanging POWs. The volunteer army POWs had two choices: return to the mainland, or go to Taiwan. Neutral country India was in charge of the process. There were two lanes in the tents, one for those who chose to go back to mainland China, and the other for those who chose to go to Taiwan. The pamphlet shows a photo of the POW exchange, while the comic below shows volunteers refusing to go back to the mainland, with a caption in Korean.
The UNC distributed Chinese language pamphlets to the volunteer army to encourage them to surrender, through the use of real photos.
The UNC’s Chinese language pamphlets used comics to encourage the volunteer officers who surrendered to speak out, and teach them how to surrender.
This comic criticising Mao Zedong’s pro-Soviet policy shows Stalin having a Chinese “feast”, including the rights to Dalian, Lüshun (Port Arthur), and Xinjiang. At the time, Dalian and Port Arthur were still under Soviet control. After the war, Soviet troops entered northeast China, and the Soviet army retained Port Arthur and Dalian, only pulling out in 1955. The comic portrays Mao as a Soviet slave who has betrayed China’s sovereignty.
This pamphlet strongly criticises CCP leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Liu Shaoqi, claiming that they are grovelling to the Soviet Union. The text is in Chinese on the right and Korean on the left; the comic shows Stalin sitting arrogantly while Mao, Zhou, and Liu are three pets at his knee.
Along with the comic, the text criticises Mao’s pro-Soviet policy.

Volunteer army’s sheer grit

The war made a significant impact on military strategy and Asian geopolitics. Whether in terms of weapons and equipment or logistical support, the troops sent by the barely one-year-old People's Republic of China were at a disadvantage as compared to the UNC. They only managed to fight against the UNC through pure mental motivation and by paying a heavy price in casualties.

According to statistics, the volunteers numbered about 1.35 million, while the North Korean troops numbered about 450,000; with Soviet troops included, the total was about 1.86 million. For the UNC, there were about 326,000 US troops and 590,000 South Koreans, for a total of over 960,000 troops, including those from other countries. The volunteers suffered the highest casualties, with about 400,000 killed and 480,000 injured, and nearly 20,000 captured; the US army had about 50,000 killed, 100,000 injured, and 5,000 captured. As the two armies held a protracted back-and-forth battle on the long, narrow Korean peninsula, almost every inch of land was pounded by artillery, resulting in countless refugees fleeing from the carnage that turned the Korean peninsula into a barren wasteland. 

While the volunteer troops suffered the heaviest casualties in pulling the fight back to the 38th parallel, once China was organised and mobilised, it could hold its own against the world-class US army. Amid the fighting and training, it gained modern fighting capabilities, and subsequently built up a squadron of modern fighter jets. Even now, the West remains impressed by the strength it showed.

korean civilians
Korean civilians fleeing the war, 1951. The fighting resulted in huge loss of life and property.
A child who has lost its mother, 1951. The war led to enormous civilian casualties.
A North Korean farmer with a child on her back, tearfully describing to volunteer troops how her home was destroyed, 1951.

Gains and losses of the Korean War

With World War II, China shook off the bullying and humiliation it went through at the hands of the West during the Opium Wars, while the Korean War showed that China had rapidly closed the gap with the West in terms of military capabilities; it had established its place in Asia’s geopolitics, and shown its inestimable potential for the future. In particular, direct combat with the US army gave the PLA a good idea of their opponents’ advantages and how it lagged behind, which was a valuable reference for the PLA’s modernisation and its strategy if it was ever pitted against the US army again.

In terms of building national spirit, each time there is potential military tension between China and the US, including in recent years, the Chinese government brings up its glorious fight against the US in helping North Korea, and the brave efforts of its volunteer troops, as a key method of encouraging the entire country to stand up to US military pressure.

As for the consequences of the post-WWII global competition for power, the Korean peninsula was tragically split apart, while Japan became a logistics base for the US during the Korean War, producing military supplies for the US army, leading to the rebuilding of Japan's armaments industry. Japan was also an R&R location for US troops, which stimulated its tourism and entertainment industries. The Korean War indirectly accelerated the rebuilding of Japan's economy.

The follow-up to the Korean War also highlighted the continued fighting between both the mainland China and Taiwan armies. As for the 7,000 UNC prisoners of war (POWs) captured by the volunteers, they did not share the same tragic fate of the previous Western POWs who surrendered to Japan, who faced execution, mistreatment, hard labour, and hunger. On the contrary, the UNC POWs, mostly Americans, were given special care, because the Chinese government wanted them to see firsthand that the Chinese were not the terrible monsters as portrayed by the West.

American POWs showing photos from home, 1951. The volunteer troops treated UNC POWs well, paving the way for peaceful China-US relations.
UNC POWs at Sunday service; their religious needs were respected.
UNC POWs put together a band for entertainment during leisure hours.
Among the American POWs was C Company, 24th Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, which surrendered in November 1951. The 24th division and its sister 25th division were constituted from restructuring the pre-WWII Hawaiian Division, and have similar heraldry (both have a Hawaiian Taro Leaf and volcanoes on their regimental crests). These divisions were used extensively to fight the Japanese in WWII, especially in the Philippines and on Okinawa. The 24th Infantry Division (nicknamed the "Victory Division") were all black soldiers at the beginning of the Korean war, while the 25th began as an all-white unit — US military divisions were racially integrated during the course of the war as civil rights laws and army policies modernised to be more fair and equal. One POW from Tennessee declined to go back to the US and chose to go to China, and even married a Chinese woman and became a translator. He eventually did return to the US and became a legend among POWs. (Updated 5 January 2021 with additional information from Matthew Abbott, University of San Diego.)
US POWs in Korea holding up anti-war slogans, 1951. While the American POWs were well-treated, they also went through ideological education, which got them protesting against US policies.

The UNC POWs were quickly repatriated. But 21 Americans and one British declined, and chose to go to China. And as the POWs were not abused but were well-treated, the US troops did not resent the volunteer troops as they did the Japanese, which laid an important foundation for future rebuilding of peaceful US-China relations.

There was one final consequence of the Korean War. Over 20,000 Chinese POWs were given a choice of where to be repatriated, with neutral India presiding over their registration. About 14,000 POWs chose to go to Taiwan. In early 1954, they were given a warm welcome as they arrived in batches at Keelung port; they subsequently joined the Taiwan army.

UNC soldiers escorting volunteer army POWs heading off to board landing ship tanks bound for Taiwan, 1954. The KMT government called them anti-communist heroes (反共义士). Here, they are holding up the Republic of China flag, and portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.
In 1954, the streets of Taipei were lined with enthusiastic crowds to welcome the returning volunteer army POWs.
The “anti-communist heroes” of the Korean War enthusiastically waving ROC flags on reaching Taiwan, 23 January 1954. A total of about 20,000 volunteer soldiers were captured, and 14,000 chose to go to Taiwan.
“Anti-communist heroes” parade on the streets in trucks, 1954. Excited crowds also climb onto the trucks to celebrate with the heroes, who hold up portraits of Chiang Kai-shek and wave flags.
“Anti-communist heroes” celebrate returning to a free China, 1954. They are waving the ROC flag, while the crowd on the streets rush to shake the hands of these heroes.
Defecting volunteer troops going around Taipei in army trucks, holding flags stained with their own blood, 1954.
Chiang Ching-kuo, Director of the General Political Department under the Ministry of National Defense, receiving the ROC flag from former volunteer troops, 1954.
Former volunteer army POWs listening to a speech by Chiang Ching-kuo before deciding to join the KMT army, 1954.
“Heroes” gathered at the presidential palace at the end of the parade to declare their opposition to communism, 1954.
Volunteer troops who decided to return to China receiving a warm welcome from the people as they get off the train, 1953.
North Korean leader Kim Il-sung personally sending off the first batch of Chinese troops going home, 1952. China and North Korea have remained loyal longtime allies.
In 1953, a delegation of volunteer troops arrived in Beijing, welcomed by 200,000 people lining the streets. Through this war, the CCP government was able to spread patriotism and build up strong political credibility.

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