Skip to content

Book Review: Attack at Chosin: The Chinese Second Offensive in Korea – Xiaobing Li

Ford, G. (2021): Attack at Chosin: The Chinese Second Offensive in Korea, Asian Affairs.

There were at least three Korean Wars. The first was a civil war whose start date went back into the late forties. The 3 April 1948 uprising and the subsequent massacres of 30,000 people on Jeju seems a brutal enough prompt. By the time the North swept the South on 25 June 1950, close to 100,000 had died. Then the second war started with the intervention of the US and UN in what was ostensibly a peace-making operation to restore the status quo ante. The third Sino-American war was touched off when General McArthur chose without prior UN auth- ority to cross the DMZ and invade the North on 1 October 1950.

Stalin and Mao had both signed-off on Kim Il Sung’s invasion, after reluctance was subdued by his promise of mass uprisings embracing lib- eration in the South. But this was too late, for Kim’s Fifth Column had already been vanquished. The Incheon landings in mid-September were a master stroke that broke the North’s already stretched supply lines to the Korean People’s Army (KPA) besieging the Busan pocket. The KPA collapsed like a burst balloon. In his rapture McArthur doubled up on the UN Command’s war aims from rescue mission to expedition- ary force. UNC was no longer attempting to push the North back, but push the North over.

Moscow and, to a lesser extent, Beijing had supplied Pyongyang with the material of war. That was solidarity, not joint enterprise. That changed as US intervention on the Peninsula was folded into a perceived wider chal- lenge from Washington. As Li says, Mao came to believe that Washing- ton aimed to destroy the twelve month old People’s Republic by attacking from Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam – Li could have added Burma. The PLA’s role was switched to repelling foreign invaders. This was to be achieved by ‘active defence’ stopping foreign invading forces outside of China – an early form of pre-emptive deterrence in an ‘away’ rather than ‘home’ war.

It was early August before Beijing’s planning shifted from strategic defence. There was, Mao believed, an increasing inevitability about a military showdown with the US. It was only a question of choosing the killing ground. Absent any serious Navy or Airforce it was easier to win a land war. Korea was the theatre. The national defence line was to shift 100 miles southeast of the Yalu river deep into North Korea. Preparations started.

On 7 October Mao informed Stalin and Kim that he was to send the Chinese People’s ‘Volunteers’ (CPV) to join ‘The War to Resist the United States and Aid Korea’. The first troops crossed the Yalu on 19 October. The US was double blind, politically and militarily. Washing- ton ignored Beijing’s messages warning of intervention if the parallel was transgressed, while McArthur reassured Truman that the Chinese wouldn’t join and when they did they’d be easily beaten. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops passed unnoticed.

As late as 11 November the US was pressing forward, finally reaching the Yalu at Hyesanjin. Then it all collapsed. From nowhere endless human waves of infantry dashed themselves against the guns of UN Forces around the Chosin reservoir. The Americans buckled and, in places, broke. It was a fighting retreat through temperatures of minus forty and roadblock after roadblock as the CPV tried to turn victory in battle to victory in war. The Offensive has been well covered by military historians intellectually embedded in UNC, but to date has lacked the Chinese perspective. Attack at Chosin rectifies that with a narrative culled and assembled from Chinese reports and records, alongside inter- views with veterans from mainland China and Taiwan.

For the US it was as glorious a defeat as Dunkirk. The majority of its troops staggered back to Hungnam from where they and 100,000 civi- lians – including President Moon Jae-in’s parents – were evacuated by the Navy. They were lucky. The Chinese just ran out of bodies. There was no-one left to attack. The Chinese died in their tens of thousands, with frostbite as lethal as American guns. Its armies were ill-prepared, badly supplied with food, winter clothing and weapons, lacking trans- port, warmth and air protection. This combination of circumstances stole that ultimate victory. Each deficiency was heavily paid for in Chinese dead.

Yet the tide of war was reversed. The attack at Chosin was the end of the beginning. By 4 January 1951 Seoul was back in Communist hands as South and North were both side-lined in what had now become a Sino- American fight. Further Chinese offensives delivered less at greater cost. The Fifth offensive was the beginning of the end as a war of manoeuvre became bogged down into a two year war of position. China sent more than three million troops to Korea. During the two years of ‘negotiating while fighting’ Beijing rotated its military in and out of Korea for practice in fighting Americans. The war transformed both combatants. A professional Army emerged from the peasant Army of the civil war, while in America the Military Industrial Complex was born to ensure the continued triumph of technology over the will.

Xiaobing Li has provided new eyes on the first phase of China’s intervention in Korea. It is to be hoped there are more chapters to follow.