Chinese People's Volunteers in the Korean War: Lessons Learned

June 6, 2011
(October 2003)

John J. Tkacik, Jr.
It is a paradox that the Korean War — the People’s Liberation
Army’s (PLA) first real taste of “positional warfare” — is held out
by the PLA’s historians and tactical instructors as proof of Mao
Zedong’s theories on “mobile warfare.” While it is true that Chinese
“mobile war” tactics and operations yielded tremendous successes
in the early months of the Korean War against an enemy with
superior firepower, total air supremacy, and an advanced armor,
mechanized transport, and supply infrastructure, victories were
purchased at terrifying costs. United Nations (U.N.) forces were
vastly outnumbered and their technical advantages served as “force
multipliers” that prevented them from being completely annihilated
by human waves of marauding Chinese interlopers. But Chinese
troopers died by the tens of thousands--killed by their two greatest
enemies of the war, the overwhelming mass of enemy weaponry
and lack of adequate logistical preparation and supply.
The Chinese People’s Volunteers’ (CPV) wins came with tactical
surprise and good mobility off-road and away from heavily patrolled
highways, but after 7 months of vicious combat in five separate
campaigns, the battlefront finally stabilized at roughly the mid-line
of the Korean Peninsula on the 38th Parallel. From then on, the CPV
and their North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) comrades found
themselves locked in “positional” battle. Their bitterest lessons
from the Korean War came in the trenches and deep tunnels of the
front line and under the incessant storm of American bombing,
strafing, and cannonade which deprived them of adequate food,
ammunition, sleep, sanity, and — in the case of “several hundred
thousand troops” — their lives.1 Nonetheless, in the end the Chinese
wrestled American-led U.N. forces with superior weaponry and
total command of air and sea to an utter deadlock.
The lesson? It is simplistic to say the PLA took away from the
Korean Conflict the lesson “never fight positional war.” Indeed, after
the summer of 1951, Beijing’s political aims could also be achieved
by simply avoiding defeat on the battlefield. It seems likely that
after the initial failure to destroy the U.N.-South Korean forces in the
first surprise campaigns, the Chinese resigned themselves to a war
of attrition because any effort to expand the bounds of that particular
war could result in the war spreading to China’s homeland. By the
end of the war, Chinese commanders had basically learned to cope
with their Sisyphean existence. Sheer endurance, it seems, was a
valuable lesson in how to succeed against a superior enemy.
The PLA also learned some broader strategic lessons from the
Conflict that will not be addressed in this chapter. They learned, for
instance, never to take for granted their military allies — especially
the Soviet Union — whose ulterior war aims were opaque to them.
Moscow’s political behavior rarely made sense, and Comrade Josef
Stalin’s promises of military support were rarely translated into
prompt action.2
How might the PLA practice the lessons of the Korean War in
future campaigns — particularly in a Taiwan scenario? Consider
that the two key lessons are, first, that complete and utter tactical
surprise are essential to early victories; and second, that without
adequate logistical preparations or the means to defend supply
lines, patient endurance of years of punishment in a limited war
may be necessary to avoid defeat against a technologically superior
foe. One final thought might be that that a well-timed coup or some
other “regime change” in a key enemy government can bring about
an ultimate political victory when a military one is denied on the
The Korean War really was the exception that proved Mao
Zedong’s rule — mobile warfare is preferable to positional battle.
In Korea, Chinese forces were effective at both mobile fighting so
long as they had surprise and initiative on their side and positional
battle after being beaten to a standstill. Mao’s generals were acutely
aware of Mao’s own teachings “on protracted war.” Mao’s “Selected
Military Writings” were standard issue in the PLA.3 Mao had little
use for positional warfare and preferred to concentrate forces
against enemy armies rather than stand and hold territory. As such,
Mao had inculcated in his generals an appreciation for “deliberately
creating misconceptions for the enemy and then springing surprise
attacks on him.”4
As the commander of the “Chinese People’s Volunteers” (CPV)
Marshal Peng Dehuai5 prepared to move his armies into North
Korea, Chairman Mao telegraphed him instructions. First, Mao
cautioned, the battle will turn on whether or not Chinese troops
can use “total surprise” to swiftly destroy “two, three, or even four
puppet divisions.” If the initial attacks fail to throw the enemy into
a “passive position,” then the enemy will quickly regroup and gain
the upper hand. Second, enemy air power has the potential to inflict
massive losses on Chinese troops and paralyze unit movements.
Mao asked if Peng’s troops had practiced night movements
sufficiently to carry out operations under the threat of massive U.S.
air power. Finally, Mao asked if the Americans could increase their
troop presence by five-to-ten divisions, “or if, before the Americans
were able to bring up reserves, the Chinese troops could destroy
another few U.S. or South Korean divisions in a mobile campaign
against their isolated positions.”6
Whether Chairman Mao indeed sent such prescient instructions
is debatable. Certainly it has become the stuff of legend, and many
Chinese memoirs of the Korean War are filled with page after page
of Mao’s cables, instructions, and general musings among officers
of “what would Mao do?”7 Even General Hong Xuezhi who
commanded the CPV logistical effort, recalls that in the very first
days of the Chinese entry, Marshal Peng received a cable from Mao
advising that at present there are two key objectives to the campaign, first to isolate the Puppet [i.e., Republic of Korea or “ROK”] Seventh
Division at [Guchang Chu], to not let them escape, and this
will force the Puppet 1st, 6th, and 8th Divisions to bring up
reinforcements — there you can fight them! Second, the full
force of three armies should be moved to [Qikai]8 to complete the
launch the campaign, and this will give us maximum momentum
at the time of attack and guarantee annihilation of the enemy.9
While it is hard to believe that Marshal Peng appreciated this kind 
of micromanagement from Zhongnanhai, he kept his grumbling to
himself. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Chinese PLA cherishes to
this day these brilliant insights of Mao Zedong as the apotheosis of
“Lessons Learned” in the Korean War.
In any event, it is doubtful that Marshal Peng, General Hong,
or anyone else needed the gifted eye of Mao to see that the key to a
victory in Korea was avoiding American airpower to fullest extent.
In fact, General Hong’s memoirs open by recounting a crisp
autumn evening in the Chinese border city of Andong on October 7,
1950. He and General Deng Hua had just finished dinner — it was
the day they learned that U.S. forces had crossed the 38th Parallel.
Suddenly, Hong recalled, there came a “whump-whump-whump”
sound from the south, getting louder, and presently there appeared
a large black spot in the southern sky. General Deng shouted
“aircraft, American aircraft!” It was a flight of dozens of huge B-
29 bombers accompanied by smaller P-51 Mustang fighters tightly
arranged in layers.
Within moments, the phantom bombing fleet droned over the
North Korean city of Sinuiju just opposite Andong on the Korean
side of the Yalu River. “With my own eyes,” said General Hong,
“I saw Sinuiju become a vast sea of fire in the space of just a few
minutes. The fires soon turned into a “towering pillar of thick,
smoky cloud and soon the entire city was shrouded in the pall.”
The next morning, Sinuiju was a plain of rubble. The emotion of his
prose reflects how profoundly the incident colored his assessment of
America’s air supremacy in Korea.
At the time, General Hong noted that the U.S. bombers failed
to hit the bridges crossing the Yalu from North Korea, and it was
only years later that he understood the U.S. Government had issued
orders that the bridges were not to be touched because “it would
mean war with China, and a war without limits.”10 Nonetheless, the
Chinese high command understood throughout the war that their
supply lines and their own aircraft would have sanctuary north of
the Yalu — but no mercy south of it. Unfortunately, Beijing didn’t.
On the afternoon of October 17, 1950, even as Chinese troops had
already crossed into Korea, General Hong and General Deng Hua
phoned Marshal Peng (then in Shenyang) to report
we concluded the river-crossing deployment conference
yesterday, and after quite a bit of discussion the comrades feel that
the air-defense artillery is insufficient and we have no air cover,
the enemy can concentrate major air strikes, artillery barrages
and tank forces without any fear that we can counterattack in
strength. Moreover, the Korean mountains, lowlands and paddy
fields are frozen solid and impossible to dig in for shelter. If the
enemy launches a massive attack, our positions would be very
difficult to support.11
Then General Hong advised that was “everyone’s recommendation”
that because the forces had not been sufficiently
indoctrinated, “it would be suitable to wait out the winter and move
next spring.”12 Unfortunately, Marshal Peng had just received orders
from Mao Zedong to return to Beijing to consult with Premier Zhou
Enlai. Zhou had just returned from Moscow, and the date was set.
Marshal Peng showed General Hong’s telegram to Mao, but the die
had been cast. The CPV would continue deployments into Korea in
force. Peng relayed the order back to CPV headquarters in Andong
— under Mao’s name.13
Surely, no one in PLA headquarters was under any illusion that
the CPV mission would be a straightforward task. Secrecy and
deception were essential to frustrating American air power. In
hindsight, there can be little gainsaying the conventional Chinese
wisdom that American “arrogance” — or at least complaisance
— was the source of the surprise.
In the first month of the CPV entry into Korean War — from
October 16 to mid November — the U.N. command had little idea of
the scale of the Chinese intervention. From August to early October,
in utter silence and tremendous discipline, endless trainloads of
240,000 CPV personnel in nine armies comprising thirty infantry
divisions and four artillery divisions from Southern and Central
China had converged on the Chinese side of the Yalu River.14 There
they joined more than 160,000 Chinese troops already in Manchuria.
After months of careful observation of American reconnaissance
aircraft hovering over northern Korea, Chinese commanders timed
the infiltration of their divisions to avoid aerial observation. Under
cover of night 18 Chinese CPV divisions, about 200,000 men,15 slipped
across the Yalu “all at once” and proceeded by secondary roads
and trails to wooded staging areas to await their initial offensive.16
Surprisingly, Chinese sources do not describe the CPV tactics for
infiltrating into northern Korea. American historians credit Chinese
fighter aircraft with keeping U.S. RB-29 aircraft away from the Yalu
River and “excellent camouflage discipline” for concealing the CPVs
once they penetrated the Korean mountains.17
What was left of Kim Il-sung’s NKPA probably had ample
intelligence on the disposition of the increasingly diffused
American and South Korean forces. But how intelligence sources
communicated with operations staffs at headquarters is a mystery.
When Marshal Peng Dehuai had his first conference inside Korea
with North Korean President Kim Il-sung on October 22, 1950,
General Hong Xuezhi was dismayed to learn from a female cadre in
Kim’s entourage that “we here don’t have a telephone, nor a radio
set, nor a car, so we can only send people on foot with messages.”18
Chinese reticence to analyze the success of their deception may also
signal that they did not, in fact, get intelligence from Korean sources,
but rather through separate channels. The lack of discussion in
Chinese sources may, therefore, be a continued effort to protect halfcentury-old intelligence sources and methods.
Both Chinese and American historians agree on what happened
next. Over the coming weeks, small American and ROK units, some
as small as battalion strength, found themselves isolated along a thin
front line, or simply clumped in forward area outposts, surrounded
by superior numbers of Chinese troops — and though they did not
know it at the time, the Chinese were often at division strength or more
of 10,000 combat fighters. Following Mao’s dicta on mobile warfare
and surprise attack, the Chinese would deploy their formations in
strength around unsuspecting U.N. positions and on high ground
along escape routes hoping to “lure reinforcements into pockets.”19
Battle maps drawn by both Chinese and American historians agree
— these battles often involved at least one, sometimes two and three
Chinese armies ranged against battalions or regiments of American,
ROK, or U.N. forces.
But even for Marshal Peng, the First Campaign was a “battle
of chance encounters.”20 On October 21, a division of the Chinese
40th Army (some 30,000 men) ran into ROK soldiers near Bukjin
and wiped out the unit. On October 29, 1950, the CPV 39th Army
tightened the noose on the ROK First Infantry Division at Unsan from
the northeast, the northwest and the southwest, while the CPV 66th
Army, again over 30,000 men, moved toward Kusong and prepared
to interdict elements of the U.S. 24th division, which it anticipated
would advance to relieve its Korean allies. General Hong describes
several other encounters with ROK forces between October 25 and
November 1, including some that were hampered by the backrush of
retreating NKPA troops and North Korean civilians trying to avoid
the shooting. The 112th Division of the 38th Army was struck by a
sudden attack near [Miaoxiang Shan] hill and were slowed in getting
to their rendezvous point.21
Marshal Peng’s writings say the “First Campaign ended in
victory” on October 25, 1950, but noted that “because of their high
level of mechanization, the U.S. British and Puppet troops were able
to withdraw speedily” to the Chongchon River where they dug in.
Peng explained “it would have been unfavorable for our Volunteers
to engage the enemy in positional warfare with the equipment they
had at the time. They might have suffered defeat.”22
Even as late as November 6, it was still quite apparent that the
Americans had no idea of the magnitude of Chinese strength against
them. U.N. Commander General Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence
identified elements of five Chinese divisions, the largest element
being a regiment.23 When mauled by a full Chinese army, neither
the Americans nor their ROK allies knew what hit them. U.S. Eighth
Army commander General Walton Walker attributed the collapse
of the ROK divisions, not to overwhelming enemy numbers and
firepower, but to “psychological fear of Chinese intervention, and
previous complacency and overconfidence in all ROK ranks.”24
Of course, the Chinese were keeping out of sight on purpose.
“Although the enemy had regrouped, they were still dispersed and
unclear about our armies’ situation,” General Hong notes with pride.
The Chinese, on the other hand, were quite clear about the locations
and strengths of all the U.N. units: “north of the Chongchon River,
the enemy only had a bit more than 50,000 combat personnel, while
we could concentrate 10 to 12 divisions, 120,000-150,000 men, two or
three times the size of the enemy.”25
Given his vast numerical superiority, plus the fact that the ROK
troops were completely clueless about the Chinese dispositions,
Marshal Peng proposed to swiftly outflank the ROK 8th, 7th, and 1st
infantry divisions, come in behind them, annihilate them, and then
move on to strike the American and British forces further west.
Peng then cleared the plan with Mao in Beijing, who approved it,
and wrote back helpfully
for this battle, you want the full force of the 38th Army and one
division of the 42nd Army to guarantee cutting off the enemy
retreat line from the Chongchon River, the other armies and
divisions should boldly interdict escape routes from the enemy
flanks and rear, and then carry out a piecemeal destruction of
their forces, thus will victory be achieved.26
It was, no doubt, a comfort to Marshal Peng to have Mao’s
personal attention and expert guidance. In any event, there is
always the unexpected. Peng’s 39th Army was ready to hit the
ROK 1st Infantry Division at Unsan at 1930 hours the evening of
November 1. But at 1350 that afternoon, CPV spotters saw signs
the ROK division was withdrawing from its position. (In fact, the
ROK division was changing places with the 8th Regimental Combat
Team (RCT) of the U.S. 1st Cavalry division, which took up the ROK
positions in Unsan.)
Unaware that the well-equipped American armor-supported
regimental combat team had changed places with the ROK, the
Chinese enveloped the position with eight infantry regiments, two
regiments, and an independent battalion of artillery, and at 1700
hrs launched the attack. The battle raged until the early hours of
November 2, by which time “a large portion of the American and
Puppet troops were annihilated and over 70 U.S. tanks and trucks
The 3rd Battalion of the 8th RCT was retreating along the road
south from Unsan when it was surrounded and badly treated. Only
with fierce and persistent air and armor support were the Americans
able to survive until November 3, but attempts to break out of the
encirclement were fruitless. By evening November 3, the CPV 39th
Army finally overran the American positions.27
The action was the first time in the war that Chinese forces had
inflicted such punishment on the well-armed U.N. forces, and General
Hong believed it to be one of the most significant actions of the war.
Nonetheless, Chairman Mao, ever looking over the shoulders of his
commanders, cabled the front at 1900 hrs on November 2:
pay attention how you use the 38th Army to control ground
in the Anju, [Junyu li] and [Qiuchang] sectors, construct strong
fortifications, focus on [Junyu Li] as the strong point, focus on
cutting the enemy’s north-south lines at [Qingzhou], destroy
the American 2nd Division moving north (from Pyongyang)
to relieve the remnants of the ROK 6th, 7th and 8th Divisions,
then it is highly likely that you can extend lines southward to
Pyongyang. If this is successful, it will be a strategic victory
The purpose of this chapter is not to recount verbatim the
Chinese version of each of these battles, but simply to underscore
that the Chinese were most in their element in mobile fighting.
Marshal Peng convened his first headquarters staff meeting of the
war on November 13 to review the lessons of the first campaign. In
general, Peng may have been pleased with progress, but his face did
not reflect it. General Liang Xingchu’s 38th Army had been unable
to keep pace, fought poorly, let the enemy slip away, and Marshal
Peng berated him in front of his colleagues.29
While the old Marshal may have been crotchety, he rarely turned
on his subordinates. But winter was locking in, and Peng no doubt
was feeling the pressure of lost initiative, regrouping U.N. forces,
increasingly powerful U.S. air strikes, freezing temperatures, and
ill-clothed and fed CPV. Along the western sector, the CPV 4th
Group Army failed to make headway “primarily because the enemy
artillery was highly concentrated, it was impossible to divide forces
and simultaneously confront the enemy.”30
But the CPV also appreciated the U.N. forces’ ability to organize
a coordinated retreat supported by overwhelming air and artillery
cover. In both the east and west sectors of the battlefront, the story
was the same. “Because the enemy forces were entirely motorized,
the attackers had no way to keep up, and had to satisfy themselves
by wiping out a small number of covering forces.”31
Moreover, as the element of surprise wore off, the U.N. forces
quickly comprehended the CPV tactic: “to launch large-scale night
time point attacks and penetrate to the rear of the enemy positions to
control the entire battle area.”32
 But Marshal Peng knew his surprise offensive had not run
out of steam purely because of “a hundred aircraft above and a
hundred tanks ahead,” but because his own units were running out
of ammunition. In two separate fights, the 3rd Brigade of the 337th
division at [Longyuan Li] and the 3rd brigade of the 335 division at
[Songgu Feng], “used up their ammo, and used rocks, fists and teeth
in their fight to the death with the enemy.”33 By December 27, food
and supplies shipped from China could only supply one-quarter of
the minimum requirements of six CPV armies (the 38th, 39th, 40th,
42nd, 50th, and 66th), and the Chinese had to rely on requisitions
of 30,000 tons of grain from Korean peasants to keep the armies
Marshal Peng, therefore, was acutely sensitive to the slapdash
nature of the PLA’s logistical network. In PLA doctrine up to the
Korean War, logistics was mostly a matter of relying upon the
goodwill of the local population for food and relying upon the
cowardice of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) troops for captured
weapons and ammunition. It is interesting to note General Hong’s
recollection that the first time his CPV happened across a retreating
column of NKPA, the Koreans were puzzled. The Chinese CPV
were wearing Korean-style uniforms, but were carrying American
weapons. “You’re Chinese, aren’t you?” a Korean officer asked. The
NKPA soldiers were all carrying Soviet arms.35
Marshal Nie Rongzhen36 who oversaw PLA logistics at the
Central Military Commission headquarters in Beijing describes how
the PLA prepositioned stockpiles at the Korean border in the months
before China entered the war.37
. . . For example, during the Second Campaign, we had originally
planned that two armies plus two divisions could handle
campaign responsibilities in the western sector of the advance.
But because we couldn’t transport the required amounts of
rations up to the front, we were forced to cancel the two extra
divisions and this had an impact on our failure to achieve greater
results from the operation. In the East sector, the troops which
entered Korea had not made sufficient preparations and faced
even greater difficulties. Not only did these troops not have
enough to eat, their winter uniforms were too thin and could not
protect their bodies from the cold. As a result, there occurred a
large number of non-combat casualties. If we hadn’t had these
logistical problems as well as certain other problems, the soldiers
would have wiped out the U.S. First Marine Division at Chongjin
Reservoir. In fact, the Americans announced the loss of that
division on their radio broadcasts, but they subsequently were
able to evacuate them by sea.38
Marshal Nie’s prose fails to convey the full horror of that
campaign, however. According to prisoner of war debriefs by
U.S. Army intelligence, in the 2 weeks between November 27
and December 12, General Song Shilun’s 9th Group Army lost an
estimated 45,000 soldiers and coolies to “death by freezing.”39
General Song’s 9th Group Army was a case in point. Surprise
is best when it is preceded by adequate planning. The 9th Group
Army suffered from “inexperience” and “lacked both doctrinal and
material preparations.” The Army only received orders from the
Central Military Commission (CMC) to deploy to Korea when it
was entrained for Manchuria from Central China, and was given its
winter uniforms as it changed trains in Shenyang--but “a portion”
of the troops failed to be given their winter kit and went into Korea
without adequate clothing. They were left to make do by wrapping
cotton scarves around their heads and covering themselves with
“carpets” they had managed to pick up on the way. The 9th Group
Army’s artillery units remained in Manchuria to be reoutfitted with
Soviet cannon, and the Group Army’s divisions entered Korea with
only ten “old American 75mm mountain guns.” According to a
non-PLA history, “these troops braced temperatures of 30-below, as
they snuck their way through the high mountains, dense forests, and
narrow paths of eastern Korea.”40 Needless to say, that history failed
to recount the fate of the ill-clad CPV soldiers.
As the battle lines moved southward, the CPV supply lines
stretched out and the logistical problems multiplied.41 By the
time of the Fourth Campaign in early 1951, food and ammunition
stocks dwindled, and attacking CPV infantry could never get
adequate artillery cover. It was quite common for CPVs to run out
of ammunition completely, Marshal Nie recalled. Often, the CPV
offensives finished up with bayonets, adrenalin, and a din of trumpets
and screams. During the Fifth Campaign (April 22 to June 10), “our
troops were able to break through enemy lines in the [Xianli] Sector,
but because they didn‘t have food or bullets, they stopped the attack
for three days and lost the initiative.” Nie explained:
Our troops also surrounded brigade and battalion-sized
formations of enemy forces, but because we lacked the firepower,
we were unable to complete their destruction. Other units,
because they were insufficiently supplied, were obliged to retreat,
and this seriously affected their combat morale. In sum, during
the actual operational battle stages of the Korean War, there were
a fair number of examples of the CPV’s having to cease an attack
in the midst of battle or of incurring heavy casualties because of
insufficient rations and ammunition.
General Hong Xuezhi recalls that on April 8, 1951, a massive
American napalm bombing run set 84 rail cars afire, destroying
1,500 tons of grain, 408,000 uniforms, and 190,000 pairs of boots.
General Hong reports that as much as 40 percent of all supplies were
destroyed by U.N. aircraft while being transported to the front line
by truck and rail. “The U.S. airmen were experienced World War
II veterans,” Hong explains, “with over 1,000 hours of flight time
each.” During the day, “they’d prowl the mountains and ravines, at
night they search for lights.” One day, said Hong, “I saw with my
own eyes a P-51 Mustang fly underneath an electric high-voltage
cable.”43 These fliers, Hong complained, destroyed over 3,000
Chinese trucks in the first 7 months of the war, “over 400 trucks a
month.”44 To hide from the American fliers, Hong said, trains and
truck convoys would drive deep into train and road tunnels, but the
Americans “steering with one hand, aiming with the other,” would
loose missiles into the tunnel mouth, and “the bombs would streak
70 meters inside the tunnel” destroying all inside.45 Marshal Nie was
more pointed. Loss of over 70 percent of a transport column or train
set was not a rare event, and air strikes often destroyed 80 percent of
the materiel at staging depots.46
That Marshal Nie had a high regard for U.S. air power was
apparent in his description of its effects. Because of enemy air
strikes, Korean rail lines and highways were in a chronic state of
impassability. Equipment in need of repair on the front could not
be returned to the rear areas for service, and after transport trucks
reached the front lines, it was equally difficult for them to get back
in a timely manner to the rear areas for reloads. By the autumn of
1951, the number of rail cars needed to supply the Korean War was
fully 20 percent of the entire domestic rolling stock in China. For
example, from late September to mid-October 1951, Chinese troops
needed about 12,000 railcars of food, cooking oil, ammunition, and
other supplies, but they were only able to get about 6,000 rail cars
The effects of this constriction of supplies on Chinese foot soldiers
was profound.
For instance, the rations problem was like this. Because of enemy
bomb and rocket strikes, we couldn’t get enough food up to the
front, and when we could get it up there, the troops didn’t dare
cook it because the campfire smoke would draw enemy strafing
runs. There was just no way. In the heat of battle, for instance,
quite a few soldiers could only rely on the ‘handful of fried
noodles, and a handful of snow’ to keep body and soul together.
One ought to say that fried noodles had their use during the
active combat part of the war. However, when fried noodles were
mixed with snow-water, they readily caused diarrhea.48
One visitor from Beijing who went to the front lines during the
beginning of the Truce Talks recalled that the CPV troopers
referred to the U.S. Aviators as the “iron and steel magnates”
because they profligately dumped their iron and steel on the
Korean market.49
However, July 20, 1951, brought an enemy even more devastating
than the American aircraft. A flood which raised river levels three
to four meters, sometimes as high as 11 meters above normal, with
flows four, six, and even seven meters per second, hit the frontlines
hard. It washed out campgrounds, supply depots, ruined hand guns
and rifles, flooded medic tents, and even destroyed heavy weapons.
In the rear areas, electric power lines collapsed, hundreds of miles of
roadbeds eroded, 205 highway bridges were washed away, and all
transportation was halted for over 20 days. In fact, bridges that were
rebuilt were flooded away again in short order as torrents continued
to stream off mountain sides. An anti-aircraft battalion at Samtong
was decimated when a high-voltage line crashed into the flooded
artillery revetments. The personnel had no experience in dealing
with power lines, and 167 men were killed by electrocution. The
cannons and tractors were washed away as well.50
U.S. Air Force and Navy bombers and fighters took advantage
of the disaster to plaster the CPVs in their chaos. Their bombing,
napalming, and strafing continued mercilessly in a 6-month
air campaign that both the Americans and the Chinese termed
“Operation STRANGLE.”51 At this point, resupply to the front line
became desperate. Road and rail repairs were solely the work of
the rear-echelon logistics department, which had assigned “a few
regiments of construction troops” to the job. CPV logistics chief
General Hong approached CPV deputy commander General Chen
Geng to put every available CPV trooper not already at the front line
to work rebuilding road and rail lines.
He also wanted North Korean civilians dragooned into labor
corvees. Whether it took General Hong 6 weeks to get his act
together or whether the proposal was just slow working its way
up to Marshal Peng and Korean leader Kim Il-sung is not known.
But on September 8, 1951, the order for all hands — and Korean
peasants, too — to join the road gangs was finally issued from
CPV headquarters. Second line troops from eleven armies, nine
construction brigades and three engineering brigades, over 100,000
workers in total, managed to repair their rear area transport lines in
25 days — presumably by October 3. There was one big problem,
however, with the trains. The inexpertly repaired bridges couldn’t
bear the weight of the locomotive engines, so locomotives simply
pushed long strings of lighter train cars across the rickety bridges,
where engines on the other side would hitch up and pull them
down the track to the next bridge.52 Still, in the strategic Sinanju-
[Xipu]-[Jiechuan] “rail triangle” trains could run only 7 days a month
from September to December 1951. With the rail lines all but out of
commission, the CPVs resorted to trucks, donkey-carts, and human
backs to get supplies from the Yalu River down back roads and
footpaths through mountains and forests to the front lines.53
But for nearly 3 months the entire mass of the CPV forces were
on half-and third-rations. Marshal Peng demanded that General
Hong find at least a 5-day supply for the troops on the east flank of
the front line. Hong was reduced to salvaging 300,000 waterlogged
ration units by raking them into the sun, drying them out and rebagging
them. Hong had to report twice daily to the Marshal on
the food situation: how much was en route from China, how much
didn’t make it, and how much actually got to the frontline fighters.
On September 18, 1951, Marshal Peng asked Kim Il-sung for
permission to “raise funds” for Korean food, using a term (choucuo)
which makes it sound like the CPVs would hold yard-sales to finance
their purchases, but was probably closer to outright uncompensated
requisitioning of grain from North Korean peasants. Kim replied
that life was just as rough for Koreans as for the CPVs, but promised
to help. By November, Kim had begun food and grain disbursals
to the CPV, which totalled at least 58,000 tons by the end of the
war. Evidently Kim was also worried about the inflationary impact
of simply confiscating grain from the peasants and paying with
increasingly worthless North Korean paper money. Kim demanded
the CPVs set up commercial canteens in which Korean peasants
might be able to buy commodities with their stacks of North Korean
currency notes. In the end, the CPV logistics department had set
up civilian supply centers in Pyongyang, [Shali Yuan], [Yangde],
[Chengchuan], [Qiuchang], Anju, [Dingzhou], [Xuzhou],[ Dezhou] and
But with most of the countryside pockmarked with bomb
craters, farming was useless. Korean peasants near the front lines
were without food and had to be evacuated to the rear or starve.
On October 22, Kim Il-sung reached an agreement with the CPV
to transport Korean farming families and their goods from the
battlefronts back to the rear in the empty resupply trucks returning
to China.55
The Korean peasants, it seems, were also well sensitized to the
American air attacks. In late October, as General Hong Xuezhi
returned to the front lines from business in Pyongyang, his jeep
was waved off the road by a young Korean boy with a knife. The
boy kept pointing his dagger to the sky and beckoned the General’s
old American Jeep to follow him along the streambed into a wood.
Within minutes, a flight of 20 P-51 Mustangs zoomed overhead,
and soon disappeared following the highway into the distance. As
the road of aircraft engines silenced, the general’s driver whistled,
“you’ve got some real good luck, boss.”56
All along the battle lines and well into the rear areas, the
countryside was a moonscape, especially so along roadbeds. U.N.
aircraft dropped 500-1,000 kilogram bombs that left craters eight
meters deep and rubble middens ten meters high for miles on end.
In heavy rain, these would fill with water, making them look like
shallow potholes — deadly at night. At this point, Chinese lorrydrivers
only drove at night, but all too often their heavily laden
trucks barreling along in the dark without lights would drive into
a bomb crater, wrecking the vehicle, injuring personnel and, if the
crater was filled with water, soaking the cargo. General Hong
Xuezhi complained that “even with a hundred men it took forever to
fill in a crater,” and even before it was refilled, it would be replaced
quickly with yet another crater nearby.57
Because the Americans controlled the air, there was “basically
no movement in daytime.” Another Chinese general, Wu Xiuquan,
described what it was like in November 1951 to drive in the darkness
with headlights off, feeling the way at a snail’s pace under the
enemy’s night patrols overhead.
. . . suddenly a rifle shot. It was an air raid warning shot. Several
vehicles raced across to a fortified area; others scattered to hiding
places. All one could hear was the enemy aircraft flying across
overhead. The air was filled with parachute-flares dropped by
the planes. Hills, forests, rivers and roads hidden in the darkness
just moments earlier were in a burst illuminated in bright light.
The light of drifting flares then flickered uncertainly, and as
one died out another flashed into brilliance . . . The enemy had
discovered some target or another and a squadron of night patrol
planes was circling the area not far from us, dropping bombs and
firing repeated bursts. The scorched earth was already a mass of
smoke and flame
Days later, General Wu moved nearer to the front.
There were considerable numbers of vehicles coming and going.
What’s more, their drivers went at speeds that terrified us. One
night, we had a rare adventure. As we drove ahead nervously
without lights, a huge dark shape suddenly appeared in front of
us, gradually getting bigger and bigger. As our eyes focused, we
realized it was a big truck! Right before our vehicles collided, our
driver veered sharply to the right. We felt only a smooth rumble
of our jeep as it soared up rapidly lightening its load — then
expelling all of us with a slamming jolt before we knew what had
happened. Had we collided on rocks or against tree trunks we
would have been smashed to bits, or at least have been very badly
injured. As it was, we crashed into a puddle. Feeling chilly, we
found our woolen overcoats soaked through.59
General Wu and his men righted their overturned American Jeep,
and the driver found that it started-up without a problem. Several
miles down the road, they managed to find a CPV camp where they
dried out their clothes. But the incident clearly left its mark on the
general. Almost all the towns and cities Wu had driven through in
North Korea had been leveled by “indiscriminate bombing,” and
only rarely did he ever even see a countryside building intact. Wu
was to be the Chinese negotiator at the 1951 peace talks in Kaesong
— which was the only place on the front line relatively untouched.
To identify it as the site for negotiations, the area was surrounded by
large barrage balloons, and at night searchlights swept the sky.
Throughout 1951, General Hong was constantly tormented
by the CPV’s feeble resupply infrastructure and its vulnerability
to U.N. air power. So much so that he claims to have personally
warned Premier Zhou Enlai that “our soldiers now have three
worries: first that they have no food to eat; second that they have no
bullets to shoot; and third, nobody to take care of them after they are
wounded.”60 Indeed, the Chinese commanders had to adopt severe
measures to increase the efficiency of their supply lines. As the Fifth
Campaign battle lines stabilized along the 38th Parallel, logistics and
supply continued to be Hong’s biggest headache. So much so that
Chairman Mao himself ordered 300,000 troops be withdrawn from
the battle areas and returned to Manchuria. This, said Marshal Nie,
made clear improvements in the CPV’s logistical situation.61
No doubt there was considerable bickering among the CPV
troopers to see who would be rotated back to sunny Manchuria for
rest and recuperation. Those who remained at the front line would
surely be pounded relentlessly day and night by air and cannon,
so much so that they dug deep underground to shelter themselves.
General Yang Dezhi, 19th Group Army commander, says a random
sample of one square foot of earth he dug at the Chinese front lines
contained 287 bomb and cannon fragments of different sizes. His
Group Army’s positions, he said, had been hit by an estimated
7,784,000 shells, and he marveled that the Chinese would need
at least 51,000 trucks or 4,400 rail cars just to transport such an
The devastating onslaught, of course, had the effect of driving
the CPVs deep into their trenches and tunnels — mostly the latter.
The CPVs adopted a practice of digging “J” shaped “cat ear caves”
well into hillsides as protection against bombardment. General
Yang proposed “under the principle of protracted warfare” the
integration of defense breastworks, trenches, and tunnels from
“mountaintops, slopes and bases, coordinate those on plain and hill
areas, and construct open shelters and tunnel embrasures.” He also
designed a “fish-scale” pattern of “cat-ear” tunnels and trenches
in triangle patterns to deny the enemy the ability to outflank the
Chinese positions.63 Within these patterns two “cat-ear” caves
together formed a “U” shaped tunnel with two exits — in which the
CPVs could withstand heavy artillery shelling, and when the enemy
overran their positions, the CPVs could “burst out and kill them.”64
At least that was the theory. At any rate, the cave-dwelling proved
one way to equalize the survivability of the CPVs with the U.N. and
ROK forces which didn’t get quite the same type of pummeling from
Chinese guns.65
With the Chinese literally dug in to stay, there was little
substantial movement at the front lines for the balance of the war.
Each Chinese soldier “had a rifle in one hand and a shovel in the
other,” says General Hong. There was so much steel on the ground
that the 12th Army alone set up 40 blacksmith forges and made tools
from the scrap, 16,000 new tools, and repaired 75,000 other tools
to boot. After a time, the CPVs settled in, expanded their tunnels,
dug more exits, raised headroom, excavated bigger galleries. The
Americans, for their part, developed heavier bombs and used
deeper, more penetrating artillery shells.
This was positional warfare in its purest form. In May 1952, the
CPV Command ordered a “third defensive belt” of trench and tunnel
fortifications be dug from [Zhonghe] to [Shali Yuan], [Yichuan] and on
to [Huiyang], in which an additional CPV armies could be deployed.
By the end of August 1952, the CPVs had dug almost 200 kilometers
of tunnels and an additional 650 km of defensive trenches and dry
transportation canals big enough for motorized vehicles.
By this time, tunnel and trench fortifications were the backbone
of China’s strategy to endure the Korean Conflict, and indeed they
had “marked a new phase in the war.”66 They protected the men
against the onslaught of bombs and artillery and occasionally served
as a springboard for the CPV’s frequent but short-lived offensives.
Although the CPV counterattacks from tunnel fortifications were
often effective, by mid-1952 U.N. Command forces had developed
countermeasures. Once a tunneled acre of real estate was taken by
UNC troops, UNC soldiers would immediately seal tunnel entrances.
After a period of time the tunnels were opened and any surviving
CPV soldiers would readily give up. According to prisoner of war
interrogations, Chinese officers in the tunnels shot soldiers who
tried to dig out and surrender.67
As Americans routinely used napalm and machine-gun strafing
against the CPV supply depots small and large, by the first half of
1952 virtually all CPV warehousing was underground, either in
thick rammed-earth revetments or, more desirable, in rock-face
tunnels. In open country, the covered revetments could withstand
napalm but flooded easily in rain, and it took the Chinese engineers
some time to design standardized drainage systems for them. In
mountainous areas, abandoned mines were ideal supply depots.
One refurbished mine near Namtang-Ri held 600 truckloads of
ammunition. On May 8, 1951, it was struck in a raid by 368 sorties
of U.N. aircraft, but suffered no losses. On August 4, 1952, almost
2 years after China decided to enter the war, Mao Zedong reported
joyfully to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress that
food problems, in fact problems with our entire military supply,
were unsolvable for a very long time. Then, we didn’t know to dig
tunnels, to store our food in tunnels, but now we know. Now every
division has three months provisions, the all have storehouses . .
This is not to say that the tunnels were ideal living. Under a
steady rain of U.N. bombs and artillery shells, CPV troopers spent
weeks on end deep inside their bunkers, “with the biggest problem
being not seeing daylight for days and days.” Again, the biggest
CPV victories seemed to be in little things, like how to cope with
the darkness of the caves. Infantrymen fashioned oil lamps out of
anything they could lay their hands on; old crockery, tea caddies, tin
cans, shell casings. Fix a cotton wick, fill it with some kind of oil, and
fiat lux. In a 60 meter length of tunnel, there would be at least eight
lamps, 30 lamps would light an entire subterranean channel. For
an entire battalion in 16 trench-tunnels, however, keeping the fires
lit continuously would use 200 kg of cooking oil a month. An army
would burn 50 tons of valuable vegetable oils each month.
Of course, that meant there wasn’t enough oil for cooking, let
alone lighting. But the real problem with the lamps was the fact that
there was still too little light and too much smoke. General Hong
spends a page of his memoirs describing the ingenious hand crafted
lamps his men fashioned. Still, he had to admit life in the tunnels
was “difficult.”
One of the biggest trials of the tunnels was the lack of water
during dry summers and autumns. All water had to be brought in
from outside, and at the 38th Parallel most springs were far from
the tunnels and close to enemy lines where artillery bombardment
was heavy. Water was not only necessary to survive but, more
importantly, without it men in the caves began to develop mouth
and throat lesions and chronic nosebleeds. Resolving water supply
problems became a top priority for General Hong’s logistical troops
and by the war’s end, most tunnels had concrete wells and water
troughs. In the winter of 1951-52, troops feverishly sliced large
ice blocks from rivers and lakes and stored them in underground
icehouses. This alleviated the problem somewhat and was repeated
the following winter.
Tunnel fighting confounded another bit of conventional
wisdom that the CPVs cherished from their early “mobile war”
campaigns: that “the sunshine belongs to the American Devils, and
the moonlight belongs to the CPVs.” Because the CPV had no air
cover, all operations were at night. Daytime was spent in cavernous
darkness. But without sunlight, the Chinese troopers developed
serious vitamin deficiencies.68 With a diet almost exclusively of
“fried noodles” and not getting out in the day time, lack of biotin
caused chronic night-blindness for CPV troopers, making them
useless for any offensive maneuvers in the dark.
Needless to say, this caused serious alarm among CPV logistics
planners, who made frantic orders for massive shipments of
peanuts, yellow beans, egg powder, and liver. But “because the
shipments were small in quantity, the troops vast in numbers,
these shipments were a drop in the bucket, and the problem was
not solved easily.” Then, mirable dictu, Korean peasants revealed
an herbal medicine treatment for night-blindness in the form of a
complicated distillation of “pine needle tea.” The decoction was
extremely bitter without sugar, but sure enough, after a week of
drinking the stuff, night-sight returned. Of course, this also meant
one had to find the proper evergreens on the denuded slopes of the
Korean landscape. Nonetheless, the logistical department gathered
as much as possible from the rear areas and shipped all they could
to the fighters at the front.
The helpful Korean country folk also noted that tadpole embryos
just sprouting limbs were also a rich source of dietary vitamins.
Just scoop a handful of the little black wrigglers out of a waterfilled
crater, “pop them into a tea pot with some water — best with
some sugar, but okay without — and gulp, gulp them down alive,
three times a day, and in two days you begin to see results.” There
were rivers and streams, not to mention bomb craters, all across
the countryside which provided a constant and abundant source of
tadpoles in the summer. “We got every unit mobilized to play with
this clever beverage.” Says General Hong, “once again, the night
returned to us.”
This chapter is not meant to be a recitation of all the tactical,
operational and strategic lessons the PLA learned from the Korean
War — only the important ones. First, operational surprise is
essential if the PLA is to make use of its massive numerical superiority
against an enemy massively superior in advanced weaponry.
Second, when the surprise wears off, the PLA must be prepared to
suffer horrendous pain for extended periods in a “protracted” war
— unless, of course, one side or the other abandons constraints of
limited war and escalates to total war.
The surprise achieved as China entered the Korean War may
have been serendipitous. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had, after all,
told the Indian Ambassador in Beijing, K. M. Panikkar, twice, once in
August and again on October 1, 1950, that China would enter Korea
if U.S. troops crossed the 38th Parallel. Surely Zhou’s warning
should have alerted U.N. Command forces that China was prepared
to enter the war — hardly a recipe for surprise.69 Moreover, the
question of China’s possible entry into the Korean War was a regular
feature of political debate in Washington, as well as in most capitals
allied in the United Nations Command. To be sure, Beijing did not
go out of its way to announce troop movements to Manchuria, and
the infiltration of several hundred thousand CPVs into Korea was
done in the utmost secrecy.
The lesson for future PLA strategists, therefore, must be to strike
decisively and hard without operational warning. With this lesson
in mind, a 21st century attack on Taiwan, for example, will be in
a context of an extended period of political warnings — such as
Zhou’s to Panikkar — which establish the casus belli over time but
do not alert the enemy to observe any mobilization along China’s
East Coast.
Moreover, every effort should be taken to prevent the enemy
from knowing he’s been hit decisively — possibly for several days
after the attack has begun — as in the Korean War. Again, a future
operation against Taiwan would involve military strikes masked
One wins no prizes for pointing out the PLA’s reverence for the
power of tactical surprise. It is amply documented and is a central
feature of the Pentagon’s 2002 Report on the Military Power of the
People’s Republic of China.70 But do the lessons of the Korean War
help understand how the PLA would operationalize the “role of
surprise and preemption in local conflicts”? The Pentagon Report
PLA operational theory reflects the transition undertaken during
the 1990s to shift from predominately annihilative to coercive
war-fighting strategies. Shock and surprise are considered by
PLA strategists as crucial to successful coercion. Accordingly,
PLA operational theory emphasizes achieving surprise and
accruing “shock power” during the opening phase of a campaign.
The pre-eminent role that surprise and pre-emption have in
potential conflicts is best illustrated in the fundamental principles
of “Actively Taking the Initiative” and “Catching the Enemy
Unprepared” in PLA operational doctrine.
• “Actively Taking the Initiative” stresses the necessity of attack at
the optimal point and time to catch the enemy unprepared.
• “Catching the Enemy Unprepared” emphasizes the role of
concealment of intentions and capabilities through camouflage,
deception, feints, and the use of stratagem to allow a relatively
small amount of force to dominate the enemy through
In a Taiwan invasion scenario, how would the PLA mask such an
attack for such an extended period in an age of satellite reconnaissance,
internet communications and a very densely populated battle area?
Over the past 4 years, there have been several incidents highlighting
Taiwan’s infrastructure vulnerabilities that offer clues.
Identifying Taiwan’s Achilles Heels.
The first one occurred suspiciously in July 1999, 3 weeks after
Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui articulated a “special state-to-state
relationship” with China which Beijing saw as setting Taiwan on a
road to independence. At 11:31:18 pm — exactly — on Thursday
night, July 29, 1999, a 34.5 kilovolt cable tower at Tso-chen township
near Tainan collapsed in a landslide, breaking circuits at all North
Taiwan power transformers and sinking nine million households
into Taiwan’s biggest blackout in 50 years.72 Although Kaohsiung,
Pingtung, Taitung, and Hualien were spared, 34 trains on the northsouth
rail line, businesses, hospitals, television and radio stations,
in fact, everything hooked into Taiwan Power Company’s North
Taiwan grid, came to a halt. With tensions across the Taiwan Strait
already strained, rumors spread that the Chinese had caused the
blackout in preparation for an invasion.
A more spectacular incident several weeks later was not so
suspicious — it was seen on seismographs across the globe and
was immediately identified as a natural phenomenon. At 1:47
am Tuesday morning, September 21, 1999, a massive earthquake
blasted whole city blocks off their foundations throughout central
Taiwan, killing thousands and destroying transportation, power,
and sanitation infrastructures. It wasn’t until 32 hours later at
8:00 am Wednesday morning, September 22, that power was
restored to three-quarters of the 6,497,800 households blacked-out
during the quake. Taiwan’s six nuclear power units, which shut off
automatically during the quake, were not back on-line until 7:00 pm
Friday evening, September 24. Power lines and broken ultra-high
voltage transformers destroyed by the quake in isolated locations
were more difficult to repair quickly, and little electricity from
down-Island power plants was able get onto the north-Island grid.73
Other incidents, however, appear to have been man-made — by
PRC actors. Twice in 2001, on February 9 and March 9, undersea
cable problems cut off Taiwan web surfers from North American based
internet sites. The first incident was reportedly caused by an
“electrical malfunction” in the cable. A fishing trawler severed the
cable in the second instance. Both incidents occurred off the coast
of China near Chongmingdao, an island near Shanghai. Although
internet service for Taiwan was rerouted within 24 hours through an
older cable to Japan and the United States, service was spotty for 10
days thereafter.74
Exploiting Infrastructure Vulnerabilities.
An obvious scenario, therefore, would incorporate a massive,
early evening shock attack on Taiwan’s electric power grids, its
communications infrastructure, and its airports, harbors, and rail
and highway lines. The Pentagon Report is explicit that the PLA
is studying “lightning attacks and powerful first strikes” against
“radar, radio stations, communications facilities, and command ships
as priority targets vulnerable to smart weapons, electronic attack,
and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons.” Radiofrequency attacks
could jam wireless transmissions not already debilitated by strikes
on central mobile-phone exchanges. At the same time, Taiwan’s
international telecommunications would be blocked, and substitute
data transmissions would mask the attack to the outside world.
Initially, a spectrum of counterfeit news reporting would indicate
that another earthquake had hit Taipei causing massive damage.
After several hours, or as day broke, additional reports would note
that key figures in the central government were missing.
Without electric power, or domestic telecommunications, and
with rumors spreading of seismic activity, Taiwan’s own military
command and control systems would be challenged beyond their
In November 1950, the appearance of MiG-15 fighters and heavy
anti-aircraft fire from the Chinese side of the Yalu River discouraged
UNC RB-29s from peering too closely at the Yalu bridges while
Chinese troops were crossing. The U.S. Air Force’s limited
reconnaissance assets also degraded the quality of intelligence
the U.N. Command received on the magnitude of the Chinese
An integrated PLA strike on Taiwan in the 21st century,
therefore, would also focus on disguising a missile attack on the
island. Whether that would require direct blinding of U.S. space
surveillance platforms, and/or striking only on days where severe
weather would complicate satellite optics, or simply waiting until
there is a long lag time between satellite overflights, are doubtless
tactics the PLA is seriously studying. At any event, the lesson of the
Korean War must be that optimal results demand that neither the
Taiwan nor the American command authorities are even aware that
an attack has struck until several hours, or indeed days, afterwards.
Decapitating Political Leadership 
The June 2002 Pentagon Report notes that “the PLA also could
adopt a decapitation strategy, seeking to neutralize Taiwan’s political
and military leadership on the assumption that their successors
would adopt policies more favorable to Beijing.”
This, too, is a lesson from the Korean War. There is documentation
that the Chinese leadership suspected Stalin started the Korean War
in order to prevent the PLA from liberating Taiwan.75 Looking back
on the War several decades later with the benefit of documents
from both the Soviet and American (and perhaps even their own)
archives, it may well seem to the leaders of the PLA that they were
closer to reclaiming Taiwan in the summer of 1950 than they ever
imagined at the time.
The outbreak of the Korean conflict aborted an incipient
military coup against the Nationalist Chinese leader on Taiwan,
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, by one of Chiang’s most respected
soldiers, General Sun Li-jen (Sun Liren).76 General Sun, it seems,
was one of the very few Nationalist Chinese leaders on Taiwan with
whom the Chinese Communist leadership believed they could deal.
A military coup and the installation of a friendly regime in Taipei in
1950 would have saved the PLA the massive bloodshed and treasure
they had prepared for a Taiwan invasion, which was to take place
sometime after August 1950.
Indeed, documents from U.S. Department of State Archives report
that credible intermediaries of Marshal Chen Yi, then chairman
of the PRC’s “East China Bureau” headquartered in Shanghai,
had approached the still-resident U.S. Consul General in the city,
Walter P. McConaughy, in January and February 1950 to propose
that strained relations between the Chinese Communists and
Washington would ease once there was a regime in Taipei that the
Communists “could deal with.”77 One name mentioned by Marshal
Chen’s intermediary was General Sun. Chen’s cutout explained that
the Marshal feared a “pro-Soviet” faction in Beijing would emerge
preeminent in the Chinese Communist Party leadership, and Chen
hoped to counteract their influence by a warming in ties with the
United States. Chen’s overture came several months after a similar
approach by Zhou Enlai (June 1949) to the U.S. Consul General in
Peiping, O. Edmund Clubb.78 By early June 1950, the groundwork
had been laid in Taipei for a coup, and the State Department had
prepared plans for General Sun’s imminent takeover.79
It was, however, not imminent enough. The outbreak of the
Korean War on June 25 put plans on hold, and eventually they were
abandoned altogether. Some scholars, Chinese and American, saw
this as the real reason Stalin was persuaded to unleash Kim Il-sung:
to strangle prospects either for a U.S.-China rapprochement or for a
successful PLA invasion of Taiwan later in the summer of 1950.80 It
seems clear that PLA historians are well versed in the circumstances
of General Sun’s abortive coup.
A final lesson of the Korean War, then, is that a friendly politicalmilitary
leadership must be installed in Taiwan simultaneously with
a PLA “shock attack.” Somehow, the existing political leadership on
Taiwan must be liquidated and replaced with a local politician with
some reasonable color of legitimacy. Some praetorian guard must
be emplaced as a bulwark while the new Taiwan leaders contact the
United States to ensure them that all is well and there is no need to
get involved. It would also help if Taiwan’s military leadership is
sufficiently ambivalent to dither about a reaction.
The Pentagon Report notes that PLA special operations units “are
expected to play an important role in achieving objectives in which
limited goals, scale of force and time would be crucial to victory.”
SOF missions likely include conducting denial and deception and
information operations — and no doubt political “decapitation”
It takes no inordinate leaps of imagination to see that with the
lessons of the Korean War in mind the PLA could manage to invest
Taiwan in a sudden shock attack. Surprise could indeed afford the
PLA an ample bridgehead in Taiwan along the lines of the Argentine
investment of the Falklands in 1982 or the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait
in 1990.
The test of the PLA would then come in the subsequent stalemate
of a “protracted war” with the United States — and, hopefully,
with the rest of the civilized world — that would follow. How the
international community would react in the months and years after
an attack, and how Beijing’s occupation would sustain itself in a
prolonged stalemate faced with an unruly populace in Taiwan and
an indignant, possibly hostile, international world would determine
who wins the ultimate victory.
At what point would the Chinese leadership capitulate under
global economic sanctions if not military blockade; at what point
would the Taiwanese populace simply give up and accept Beijing
suzerainty; at what point would the international community
support a Thatcherite reclamation of the illegally seized Island or a
Bushesque coalition to liberate the benighted Taiwanese people?
The PLA’s lessons from the Korean War promise that a swift
surprise attack would yield initial success in occupying the Island
and enduring the protracted pain of the invasion’s aftermath
would eventually yield a grudging, East Timor-like international
acquiescence in their occupation and eventual acceptance of the new
status quo. Of course, Indonesia was eventually obliged to give up
East Timor--but that is not a lesson the Chinese are likely to take
away from the Korean War.
1. Hong Xuezhi, Recollection of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea
(Kang Mei Yuanxhao Zhanzheng Huiyi); Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Cultural
Press, 1990, p. 275.
2. See Zhang Ling, et al., The Biography of Xu Xiangqian (Xu Xianqian Zhuan);
Beijing: Contemporary China Publishers, 1991. Pp. 510-519 deal with Marshal
Xu’s negotiations in Moscow for Korean War materiel.
3. Mao Zedong, Selected Military Writings of Mao Tsetung (in English); Peking:
Foreign Languages Press, 1972. “On Protracted War” was an essay written in May
1938. See pp. 187-267.
4. Ibid., p.239.
5. Peng was promoted to the rank of Marshal of the PLA on September
23,1955, but for clarity of identification, he is referred to as “Marshal.” See Jurgen
Domes, Peng Te-huai, The Man and the Image; Palo Alto: Stanford University Press,
1985, p. 67.
6. Wang Xingye ed, History of the Development of Campaign Thought (Zhanyi
Sixiang Fazhan Shi); Beijing: National Defense University Publishers, 1997, pp. 314-
7. Wang Bo’s Peng Dehuai-Record of Entering Korea to do Battle (Peng Dehuai
Ru Chao Zuo Zhan Jishi); Shijiazhuang: Huashan Cultural Publishers, 1992, pp.
146-153, is particularly egregious in this regard, citing long verbatim exchanges
among Peng’s general staff on Chairman Mao’s detailed instructions for the
Second Campaign.
8. Chinese Pinyin romanizations of Korean place names are in [brackets]
where the standard rendition of the Korean name is unavailable.
9. Hong Xuezhi, p.54.
10. Ibid., p. 13.
11. Zhang Xi, “Peng Dehuai Receives Command, the Context of the anti-
America, Support Korea War Peng” (Dehuai Shou Ming Shuai Shi, Kang Mei
Yuan Chao Qianqian Houhou) in Historical Materials of the Chinese Communist
Party (Zhonggong Dangshi Ziliao) Vol. 31, Beijing: CCP Historical Materials Press,
October 1989, p. 157.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. For a full order of battle of the CPV forces from October to December 1950,
including names of field commanders down to division level, see Shen Zonghong
and Meng Zhaohui, eds., The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army History of the War
Against American and Aid to Korea (Zhongguo Renmin Zhiyuan Jun Kang Mei Yuan
Chao Zhanshi), Beijing: Military Sciences Publishing House, 1990, Appendix A
following p. 243. See also William W. Whitson, The Chinese High Command; New
York: Praeger Publishers, 1973, p. 96. Marshal Nie Rongzhen notes that the alert
order went to General Deng Hua’s 42nd Army “Strategic Reserve Force” located
in Henan province and to the Fourth Field Army in Southern China on August
5. Memoirs of Nie Rongzhen (Nie Rongzhen Huiyi Lu); Beijing: People’s Liberation
Army Press, 1986, p. 739.
15. Hong Xuezhi, p. 44. Earlier U.S. estimates put the Chinese force at about
180,000. See Alan S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu, RAND Corporation Research
Study R-356, New York: Macmillan, November 1960, p. 118. By November 24,
there were “a total of 450,000 Chinese troops in Korea, including 380,000 combat
fighters” — also see Li Jian, ed., A True Account of New China’s Six Wars Against
Aggression (Xin Zhongguo Liuci Fan Qinlue Zhanzheng Shilu), Beijing: China
Broadcast Television Publishers, 1992.
16. Marshal Nie Rongzhen notes that China’s original plan was to send in only
six divisions to face the widely scattered U.S.-U.N.-ROK forces. See Nie, p. 741.
Hong Xuezhi says there were “twelve infantry divisions, three artillery divisions,”
with an additional 24 divisions concentrating on the border. Hong, p. 44. Also see
Billy C. Mossman, U.S. Army in the Korean War: Ebb and Flow November 1950-July
1951; Washington DC: Center for Military History, 1990, p.55.
17. Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea 1950-1953,
Washington, DC: Center for Air Force History, 1983, pp. 228-229.
18. Hong Xuezhi, p. 38.
19. Ibid., p. 54. See also Volunteer Army History, appendix map 3.
20. Peng Dehuai, Peng Dehuai’s Testament (Peng Dehuai Zishu), Beijing: People’s
Publishing House, 1981, p. 259. A servicable English translation was published in
1984 by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing under the title Memoirs of a Chinese
Marshal, p.475.
21. Hong Xuezhi, p. 55.
22. Ibid. The official Chinese dates for the First Campaign are October 25
to November 5, 1950 — See The Great Chinese Encyclopedia, “Military,” Vol. 1
(Zhongguo Dabaike Quanshu: Junshi, 1), Beijing: Encyclopedia Press 1989, p. 631.
23. James F. Schnabel, Policy and Direction, the First Year; Washington DC:
Center for Military History, 1972, p. 234. As late as November 9, the Joint Chiefs
were still considering the possibility that the Chinese merely wanted to gain time
for the defeated, disorganized NKPA to pull itself together. Schnabel, p. 252.
24. Ibid., p. 235.
25. Hong Xuezhi, p. 56.
26. Ibid.
27. Hong Xuezhi, p. 57. MG Charles L. Bolte, then Assistant Chief of Staff of
the Army, had arrived in Korea, as he described it, “just after the Chinese had
destroyed the 8th Cavalry Regimental Combat Team.” A memo by Bolte on
November 14 indicated that the Americans still had no idea what they were up
against. See Schnabel, p. 257.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid., p. 67.
30. Li Jian, p. 48.
31. Ibid., p. 52.
32. Ibid., p. 49. Li Jian cites a study prepared by the US Army Command and
General Staff College for this assessment.
33. Ibid., p. 50.
34. Ibid., p. 51.
35. Hong Xuezhi, p. 36.
36. Like Peng Dehuai, Nie was named a Marshal in 1955, but he is identified
here as “Marshal” for ease of identification.
37. Nie Rongzhen, p. 741.
38. Ibid., p. 754.
39. Whitson, p. 96. The CPV History lists Gen. Song’s 9th Group Army as
comprising twelve infantry divisions of the 20th, 26th, and 27th Armies.
40. Li Jian, p.47.
41. Toward the end of the “Third Campaign” on December 31, the 2nd and
5th Group Armies had crossed below the 38th Parallel in the eastern sector, but
only had 100 heavy guns with 100 rounds each. The CPV howitzers had limited
mobility and were vulnerable to air attack. When the ammunition ran out, the
CPV offensive relied entirely on small arms to break through ROK lines. See Li
Jian, p. 51.
42 Nie Rongzhen, p. 754.
43. Hong Xuezhi, p.215. Hong noted that another pilot who did the same
thing tore off his vertical stabilizer and crashed some miles away.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid., p. 218.
46. Nie Rongzhen, p. 759.
47. Ibid.
48. Nie Rongzhen, p. 757.
49. Wu Xiuquan, Eight Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Zai Waijiaobu
Baniande Jingli), Beijing: World Knowledge Publishing House, 1983, p. 74.
50. Hong Xuezhi, p. 196.
51. See Futrell, pp. 441-448.
52. Hong Xuezhi, pp. 198-199.
53. Ibid., pp. 221-222.
54. Ibid., pp. 204-205.
55. Ibid., p. 209.
56. Ibid., p. 210.
57. Ibid., p. 228.
58. Wu Xiuquan, pp. 73-74.
59. Ibid., pp. 75-76.
60. Cited in English Translation in Xiaobing Li, Allan R. Millet, and Bin Yu,
Mao’s Generals Remember Korea, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002, p.
61. Nie Rongzhen, p. 755.
62. General Yang did not give the time-frame within which 7 million pieces
of ordnance landed on his troops’ positions. See Mao’s Generals Remember Korea,
p. 148.
63. Mao’s Generals Remember Korea, p. 152.
64. Hong Xuezhi, p. 234.
65. Unless otherwise noted, information on Chinese trench and tunnel warfare
is from Ibid., pp. 234 -241.
66. see also Qi Zhengjun, ed., An Outline of the Art of War (Zhanshuxue Gailun),
Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Publishers, 1986, p. 34-45.
67. Walter G. Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front; Washington, DC: Center
for Military History, 1966, p. 289.
68. General Hong describes this as a “biotin” deficiency (weishengshu ‘H
quefanbing); it also seems likely that lack of sunlight would cause a Vitamin D
69. But Alan Whiting’s analysis puts that warning in the context of other
warnings regarding Taiwan which were not acted upon. Zhou’s warnings, he
speculates, were meant to justify the Chinese action after the fact, not signal the
UNC before it. Whiting, pp. 107-109.
70. Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, a Report
to Congress prepared by the Department of Defense Pursuant to the FY2000
National Defense Authorization Act. Text is available at
71. Ibid., p. 13.
72. See the Taiwan Weekly Business Bulletin (TWBB) for the week ending
August 4, 1999, published by China Online. The TWBB cites the United Daily
News, Saturday, July 31, 1999, as the source of the information. Text available at
73. TWBB for September 22, 1999, at
74. Dan Nystedt, “Undersea cable troubles bode well for new companies,”
Taipei Times, Internet edition, March 24, 2001, available at
75. See Li, et al., Mao’s Generals Remember Korea, pp. 246-247, citing Chinese
historian Shen Zhihua. See also Shen Zhihua, footnote 78 below.
76. Thomas J. Schoenbaum, Waging Peace and War: Dean Rusk in the Truman,
Kennedy, and Johnson Years, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 209.
77. See Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), Vol. VI, 1950, pp. 291,
304. Although the names of Nationalist Chinese civilian and military figures on
Taiwan who the Chinese believed would cooperate with the PRC are excised in
the published version, copies of the documents later released include General
Sun’s name.
78. Clubb’s communications in June-July 1949, reported in FRUS, Vol. VIII,
1949, pp. 357-410, were sent via the British Legation code facilities. Soviet spy Guy
Burgess was in the British Foreign Office China division at the time. Soviet spy
Kim Philby arrived in Washington as the MI-6 liaison to the CIA and FBI at the
British Embassy in the fall of 1949, according to Chapman Pincher, Too Secret, Too
Long, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984, pp. 171-185.
79. See “Hypothetical Development of the Formosan Situation,” a six page
memorandum classified “Top Secret” (control number 793.00/5350) dated May
3, 1950. It is unsigned, but handwritten initials at the bottom of the last page read
“PHN,” possibly Paul H. Nitze, then Director of Policy Planning for the Secretary
of State.
80.. See Shen Zhihua, Mao Zedong, Stalin and the Korean War: Chinese and
Soviet Top Secret Documents (Mao Zedong, Sidalin yu Hanzhan: Zhong Su Zuigao
Jimi Dangan), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books, 1998, pp. 199, 209-210, 220-221. See
also Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Volume II: The Roaring Cataract
1947-1950, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 509-544. Cumings
makes a point of noting that Soviet agents, particularly Guy Burgess, had access to
a great deal of U.S. intelligence and foreign policy information on China, probably
including the planned Sun Li-jen coup. The circumstantial evidence would
have persuaded the Chinese at the time. The precise timing of the North Korean
invasion of the South apparently was determined by Stalin. Prisoner of war
interrogations of a number of senior NKPA officers including the chiefs of staff of
two separate divisions indicated they were given no specific orders to launch until
about one week before the invasion actually took place. They uniformly reported
that KNPA logistics were completely controlled by Soviet military advisors, and
that “they did not supply the trucks required to make the army mobile or the
tanks and heavy guns calculated to give it an edge over south Korea in firepower
until April and May 1950. Finally the USSR was able to keep close check over
the movement of the north Korean Army by allocating gasoline to the army on
a monthly basis.” See U.S. Department of State, North Korea: A Case Study in the
Techniques of Takeover; Department of State publication 7118, Far Eastern Series
103, released January 1961, pp. 113-114.


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