Chinese veterans of Korean War urge peace as tensions with US mount

This photo taken on April 25, 2018 shows veteran Yu Jihua (R) talking with veteran Hu Lifu as they read documents of the Korean War at Yu's home in Shanghai. (Photo: AFP)
  • Agence France-Presse
  • June 25, 2020 2:28 AM

Shanghai, China | Chinese army veteran Yu Jihua faced the United States on the battlefield in the Korean War and the 87-year-old has no wish to see a repeat as tensions rise again between the nuclear-armed superpowers.

The 1950-53 conflict broke out 70 years ago on Thursday and just a few months later would see Chinese and US forces engaged in combat for the first time.

The two giants are deeply at odds again today over a range of trade and geopolitical issues, and no one is more sensitive to that than Yu, who still suffers night terrors from the war. 

"If a war is started, people all over the world will suffer," he warns.

Yu was a teenager when he was among a "human wave" of Chinese soldiers thrust into battle to prevent ally North Korea collapsing in the face of a militarily superior American-led UN coalition.

They turned the tide, sending UN forces retreating southwards, and the brutal fighting ended with no formal peace treaty.

South and North Korea are still technically at war.

Up to three million Koreans died, along with 37,000 Americans. Chinese casualty figures are disputed but Western estimates commonly cite 400,000 dead, while Chinese sources put it at about 180,000.

"We must all cooperate and then the whole world will be happy," says Yu.

He and fellow veterans of China's so-called volunteer army are marking the anniversary with calls for peace.

"We hope to use our voice -- as Chinese veterans who fought against the West -- to urge more people to unite," says Yu, who lives in suburban Shanghai with his wife Dai Fanli, also a veteran of the conflict.

- 'Deeply affected relations' -

The China that went into battle in 1950 is very different now.

Communist China was only founded a year before the Korean War, and with a backward military that could not come close to US firepower, relied on guts, weight of numbers and night raids.

China now has the world's second-biggest economy behind the United States, and fast-growing military capabilities that are causing growing alarm in the West.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has become increasingly assertive, clashing with the Trump administration on trade, coronavirus, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the fate of China's Muslim Uighur minority and Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Adam Ni, a director of the Canberra-based China Policy Centre think tank, says the Korean War "deeply affected relations" between the US and China.

"If not for the Korean War, the US may not have continued to support Taiwan," he argues of the self-ruled island that China views as its own.

"The conflict is also deeply imbedded in the national memory of China as a war of resistance against imperialism."

Fei-Ling Wang, professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology, says China's rapid economic growth has "narrowed significantly" the two rivals' military gap.

"In the Western Pacific region, particularly near the Chinese mainland, the PLA (People's Liberation Army) has evidently acquired a substantially even -- if not superior -- capability versus the United States," Wang says.

- Message for Trump -

Wang argues that since 1949 China's ruling Communist Party has viewed "American power as a mortal political threat".

There is a "deep incompatibility and enmity" between Washington and Beijing that "has become harder to ignore or conceal" since Xi came to power in 2013. 

"The ongoing trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic only revealed and highlighted that rivalry," says Wang.

"The Cold War, during most of which China was a major opponent of the United States, seems (to have) never really ended between Beijing and Washington, and now is just being rekindled."

Despite that bleak assessment Yu and other Korean War veterans remain optimistic.

"I think there are only a few militants in the US (who want war), but common people still want peace," says Wang Zhiyuan, 85.

"Peace is beneficial to everyone."

His comrade Yu makes one more point.

"If possible, I would tell Trump this -- you don't know much about Chinese people, but we hope for peace."

© Agence France-Presse

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