What the PLA Learned in Korea

From A History of the Modern Chinese Army, by Xiaobing Li (U. Press of Kentucky, 2007), pp. 105-106, 110-112 (footnote references omitted):

From the conclusion of the fifth campaign until the end of the war, the [Chinese People’s Volunteer Force] adopted more cautious and realistic strategies, including maintaining a relatively stable front line; increasing CPVF air force, artillery, and tank units; and beefing up logistical support. Indeed, the CPVF increasingly became a mirror image of its American counterpart in its prosecution of the war. The Korean War thus began China’s military modernization and professionalization in terms of command, organization, technology, and training. In this respect, the United States turned out to be a “useful adversary” in the Korean War. For instance, Chinese forces began to learn to execute joint operations. The first such effort took place in the last phase of the war, on November 30, 1951, when the Chinese forces launched an amphibious attack, supported by aircrafts, onto Dahoo Island, off North Korea’s coast. Though the CPVF lost five of nine bombers during the joint attack, the landing succeeded.

The Chinese army had previously fought in wars against the Japanese and Nationalist armies, but it knew little about American, British, Canadian, and other technologically equipped Western forces. Korea became a combat laboratory that offered Chinese officers and soldiers essential combat training. Starting in the fall of 1952, the PLA began to rotate Chinese troops into Korea to give them modern warfare experience fighting American forces as well as to relieve the CPVF troops already in Korea. As the result of this process, more Chinese troops were sent to Korea, including five Chinese air force divisions operating under the CPVF command. In all, about 73 percent of the Chinese infantry troops were rotated into Korea (25 of 34 armies, or 79 of 109 infantry divisions). More than 52 percent of the Chinese air force divisions, 55 percent of the tank units, 67 percent of the artillery divisions, and 100 percent of the railroad engineering divisions were sent to Korea.

By the end of the war, the CPVF emphasized the role of technology and firepower and respected its technologically superior opponents. To narrow the technology gap, China purchased weapons and equipment from the Soviet Union to arm sixty infantry divisions in 1951–54. Thereafter, Chinese weaponry was standardized. The Soviets also shared technology for the production of rifles, machine guns, and artillery pieces. Additionally, Chinese and North Korean armies received foreign aid from Eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Romania provided forty-one railcars of war materials for the North Korean and Chinese troops in April 1951, including two railcars of hospital equipment and ten railcars of medicine for a one-hundred-bed hospital. Romania also sent twenty-two medical persons to China that month….

Between 1950 and 1953, more than 2.3 million Chinese troops participated in the Korean War. In addition, twelve air force divisions participated in the war, including 672 pilots and 59,000 ground service personnel. China also sent to Korea 600,000 civilian laborers to work in logistical supply, support services, and railroad and highway construction. In all, 3.1 million Chinese “volunteers” took part in the Korean War. Although the PRC government did not declare war on any foreign country, this was the largest foreign war in Chinese military history.

From October 19, 1950, to July 27, 1953, confronted by U.S. air and naval superiority, the CPVF suffered heavy casualties, including Mao’s son, a Russian translator at the CPVF headquarters, who died in an air raid. Chinese soldiers who served in the Korean War faced a greater chance of being killed or wounded than those in WWII and those in the Chinese civil war. According to Chinese military records, Chinese casualties in the Korean War break down as follows: 152,000 dead, 383,000 wounded, 450,000 hospitalized, 21,300 captured, and 4,000 missing in action, totaling 1,010,300 casualties. Among the 21,300 Chinese POWs, 7,110 were repatriated to China in three groups in September and October 1953 (the armistice was signed in July). The other Chinese prisoners went to the ROC on Taiwan.

The PRC spent a total of about 10 billion yuan (about $3.3 billion) during the war. The Chinese government transported into Korea a total of 5.6 million tons of goods and supplies during the intervention. Between 1950 and 1953, China’s military spending represented 41 percent, 43 percent, 33 percent, and 34 percent of its total governmental annual budget. The Korean War was the first time Chinese armed forces engaged in large-scale military operations outside China, and they faced one of the best militaries in the world. The Korean War was the only meaningful reference point for sustained PLA contingency operations beyond China’s border. Chinese generals recall their fighting in the Korean War as a heroic rescue operation and an extension of their own struggle against imperialism. Chinese history books portray China as a “beneficent victor” in the Korean War. Peter Hays Gries observes that “to many Chinese, Korea marks the end of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and the birth of ‘New China’.” Still, after the Korean War, Chinese generals were convinced that the Chinese military was a regional force, not a global one, and that it would fight limited wars in terms of both theaters of war and geopolitical objectives. This would force the PLA to consider the relevance of China’s traditional approach.

After the Chinese-American confrontation in Korea, China’s position in the Cold War was no longer peripheral to the two opposing superpowers but was, in many key senses, central. In retrospect, China’s early Cold War experience—as exemplified in its participation in the Korean War—not only contributed significantly to shaping the specific course of the Cold War in Asia but, what is more important, helped create conditions for the war to remain cold in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Filed under China, Korea, military, U.S., war

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