An Extract from ‘In North Korea’

Pak Chan-su, Korean War veteran, People’s Army General and Hero of the Republic, aged 82

‘When I was 18 years old, I shot and killed 367 enemy soldiers,’ said General Pak Chan-su. ‘We in the People’s Army knew that Hill 1211 had to be held. We knew that the US aggressors would destroy us if they took the height. I was a machine gunner. My tactic was to let the US-hired Turkish forces climb to within 50 metres of my dugout. Then I started shooting, and did not stop.’

In slow, conscious hand movements, Pak Chan-su indicated the angle of advance and attack, flicking off the falling men with his now-manicured fingers.

‘It was the happiest day of my life. I became a Hero of the Republic.’

At the start of the twentieth century Korea was occupied by Japan. After its defeat in the Second World War, the peninsula was divided along the 38th parallel. The northern half became a Soviet client state while the south fell under the influence of the United States.

‘When I heard that Kim Il-sung was gathering together Korean nationals to fight off the Yankee colonialists, I wanted to live under his leadership,’ said Pak Chan-su, wearing full dress uniform, surrounded by war relics and heroic bronzes. ‘When the Korean War started I had to fight for our happy life.’

The vast, newly opened Museum of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, as the Korean War is called in the North, states as fact that the North was invaded by a ‘South Korean puppet army under the command of the US’. In its heroic narrative, Kim Il-sung called for the people to take up arms. Seven hundred and forty thousand men and women are said to have responded, repulsing the invaders and seizing over 90 per cent of the Korean peninsula. The battle for Seoul, now South Korea’s capital, is told in a dramatic two-floor diorama of shot-up Jeeps, walk-through torture prison and joyous street scenes of liberated citizens.

All other accounts record that in 1950, 20 member states of the United Nations acted collectively to repel the North Korean intruders from the southern provinces of the peninsula. In October 1951, the People’s Army final stopped the Allied counterattack on Hill 1211 – vital high ground on the war’s eastern flank. The story of the battle is told in another of the Museum’s large-scale dioramas, with portraits of its heroes strung along the top of the painted mountain ridge.

‘I was too young to join up so I had to lie about my age,’ said the General. ‘On Hill 1211 our Great Leader Kim Il-sung ordered us not to give an inch to the Americans.’

In Allied records the defence of Hill 1211 – or the Mundung-ni Valley – was a small, secondary action following the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, which changed hands over many months until finally won by the Allied forces. In the story propagated at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, these two battles have been conflated. North Korea claimed 29,000 Allied casualties as well as 60 tanks and 40 aircraft at Hill 1211, figures considered wildly inaccurate by foreign historians. One fact is certain, that the cost in lives and material on both sides during the war was enormous. After three years of fighting, three million people were killed, and the border was much as it had been at the start of hostilities.

Six decades on, Pak Chan-su still believes in Korean unification. ‘But this can’t be achieved until America leaves the southern lands. We know they don’t want peace. So the only solution is to smash away the US aggressors.’

The Korean People’s Army, the largest military organisation on earth, is thought to consist of 9,495,000 active, reserve and paramilitary personal. By contrast 28,500 US servicemen and women are stationed in South Korea.

As a young soldier on Hill 1211 in 1951, Pak Chan-su had met an American. One night after a particularly bitter day of fighting, an injured GI had crawled up to the Korean’s earth bunker. His left leg had been hit. Pak Chan-su bandaged the man’s bloody wound and fed him a little rice.

‘I couldn’t do anything else,’ said the General with a shrug. ‘We couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t desert my post. He was taken away.’

At the Museum, the war is more than a memory. It is still being waged. In the ‘Defeat of US Room’ a manikin of a crumpled and despairing American soldier is surrounded by broken bodies, shattered Coke bottles and a tattered Stars and Stripes. Next door, a vast sculpture of a beaming Kim Il-sung – wearing a white marshal’s uniform, backed by a bright blue sky – towers above North Koreans and visitors alike.