In the West it is the forgotten war, but to Xiang Chaoshan the 60-year-old conflict lives long in the memory – and its causes are clear. Just a few arches of the bridge that once straddled the Yalu river, linking north-eastern China’s Dandong to neighbouring North Korea, remain as a stark and deliberate reminder of the US raids that enraged him as a young man. “That’s still the evidence to show it was an evil war – it was imperialism … if it was not a war of invasion, why did they bomb our bridge?” asked the 78-year-old Chinese veteran…
…By 1952 Chinese soldiers outnumbered their allies by three to one; hundreds of thousands are thought to have died in the conflict. The repercussions are still playing out in the region. The war cemented an alliance that sustains Pyongyang in the face of widespread vilification, and created a powerful emotional bond. “Most Chinese have been immersed in an almost morbidly sentimental connection with the North,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University.
For veterans, those links are particularly potent. “I didn’t cry when my parents died but when I think of those who died in the war my tears roll down,” said Xiang, recalling his comrades. When a Southern warship sank this spring, killing 46 sailors, international experts concluded the North torpedoed it. But Xiang backs Pyongyang’s denials. “People shouldn’t bully North Korea any more,” he said.
Inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, such perceptions are far sharper. To the outside world, the fact that technically the North and South are still at war – because no peace treaty followed the armistice – is a historical curiosity. To the North, it is the principle around which life is organised.
“They have structured their huge military and much of the society as a fighting machine determined, someday, to win this war (or at least hold off the South and the Americans),” says Professor Bruce Cumings, whose new book The Korean War: A History is published this month.
Go to the Shanghai Expo and the North’s pavilion shows footage of the war. Open a maths book and calculations feature heroic patriots battling American invaders.
“The regime pays a great deal of attention to the topic of the Korean war because it justifies its own legitimacy, helps mobilise the masses around the top leader, and provides the pattern for people’s self-sacrificing behaviour in economic life,” said Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korea expert at the University of Sydney…