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China's Battle for Korea: The 1951 Spring Offensive

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Between November 1950 and the end of fighting in June 1953, China launched six major offensives against UN forces in Korea. The most important of these began on April 22, 1951, and was the largest Communist military operation of the war. The UN forces put up a strong defense, prevented the capture of the South Korean capital of Seoul, and finally pushed the Chinese back above the 38th parallel. After China’s defeat in this epic five-week battle, Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership became willing to conclude the war short of total victory. China's Battle for Korea offers new perspectives on Chinese decision making, planning, and execution; the roles of command, political control, and technology; and the interaction between Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow, while providing valuable insight into Chinese military doctrine and the reasons for the UN’s military success.

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1 Beijing’s Decision

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MAO ZEDONGS DECISION TO SEND CHINESE TROOPS INTO THE Korean War has been widely debated. Most Chinese military historians argue that Mao made a rational, correct, and necessary decision.1 China’s intervention secured its northeastern borders, strengthened Sino-Soviet relations, and saved the North Korean regime. China acted as a major military power for the first time since the First Opium War in 1839–42, against Great Britain. However, some historians in China, and many more in America, challenge this view and condemn Mao for gross misjudgments and an “idiosyncratic audacity” that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers.2 Still others take a middle position and argue that Mao had few political alternatives in his effort to achieve full acceptance in the Communist world and to assume leadership of Asian Communist movements in the early 1950s.3 These scholarly efforts have laid a solid groundwork for a better understanding of the Chinese decision, yet the debate continues.

 

2 From the Yalu to Seoul

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AT 6:00 PM ON OCTOBER 16, 1950, THE RECONNAISSANCE TEAM of the Forty-Second Army of the CPVF crossed the Ji’an (Chi-an) Bridge and advanced sixty miles into Korea before the following dawn. That night, the army’s 370th Regiment of the 124th Division moved across the Yalu River at Ji’an-Manpu, marching about twenty miles. These were the first Chinese combat troops to enter North Korea.1 However, the following afternoon they received a message: “Stop advance. Wait for order.”2 They halted until 9:00 PM the next day, when Mao Zedong ordered all four infantry armies and three artillery divisions of the CPVF to secretly begin crossing the Yalu on the evening of October 19, the day the Chinese army officially entered the Korean War. At 5:30 PM on the nineteenth, the advance guard of the CPVF Fortieth Army crossed the river by a train traveling over the Andong (Antung; today’s Dandong)–Sinuiju Bridge and then marched south to meet forward elements of the U.S. I Corps on October 25.3 All the CPVF troops had removed any Chinese army insignias from their uniforms in order to maintain their claim of being volunteers.

 

3 The Last Battle for Victory

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AFTER FEBRUARY 1951 CHINAS STRATEGIC GOAL SHIFTED FROM driving the UNF out of the Korean Peninsula for quick victory to fighting a protracted war. Mao explained to Stalin on March 1 that if the Chinese forces could inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties on American troops in the next few years, it would force a U.S. withdrawal,1 and the CPVF would have to deliver a heavier blow in the next offensive. Based on these discussions, Mao and Peng Dehuai began planning the Fifth Offensive Campaign, or the Spring Offensive, in early 1951.

To ensure victory in their Fifth Offensive, Mao and the CMC committed to sending additional Chinese forces to Korea. In March Mao sent China’s second wave, consisting of nine armies with twenty-seven infantry divisions.2 The first wave of the CPVF had consisted of nine armies with thirty infantry divisions and three artillery divisions and had been engaged in Korea since October 1950.3 The strongest units in the second wave were the Third Army Group from Southwest China, which had three armies with nine infantry divisions;4 and the Nineteenth Army Group from North China, which had three armies with nine infantry divisions.5 With the arrival of these forces, the CPVF in Korea had doubled, from 450,000 troops in January to 950,000 men in mid-April. These numbers included 770,000 combat troops in forty-two infantry divisions, eight artillery divisions, and four AAA divisions.6 With the NKPA’s 350,000 men in six army corps, the Communist forces had almost 1.3 million troops. In comparison, the UNF had some 340,000 men, including 150,000 U.S., 130,000 South Korean, and 60,000 troops from other countries.7 On the eve of their next campaign, Chinese forces alone had a three to one numerical superiority over the UNF.

 

4 The First Step: Three Problems

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ON APRIL 22, 1951, CHINESE FORCES LAUNCHED THEIR LARGEST attack on the U.S. Eighth Army, across the 38th Parallel along a forty-mile front. Three CPVF army groups on the western front—including eleven armies and totaling 548,000 men from thirty-three infantry divisions, four field artillery divisions, two long-range artillery divisions, four anti-aircraft divisions, and one rocket division—would open the Spring Offensive.1 Peng Dehuai believed the 1951 Spring Offensive would be “the decisive battle” of the Korean War.2 The Chinese Spring Offensive became the largest offensive in PLA history. Eighteen newly arrived CPVF infantry divisions, at full strength and newly equipped with Soviet weapons, saw action for the first time. Two thousand artillery pieces were gathered on the western front, about six times as many as China had had in October 1950 when she entered the war.3 In addition, three NKPA corps, totaling 150,000 troops, also participated, and the joint CPVF-NKPA forces consisted of nearly 700,000 men battling against 340,000 UNF troops.4

 

5 The Costly Offensive in the West

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BETWEEN APRIL 22 AND APRIL 29, 1951, THE FIRST STEP OF THE Chinese Spring Offensive began sparking what Allan Millett has described as the “most widespread and intense fighting of the Korean War.”1 The CPVF launched its greatest offensive against the U.S. I Corps, along the western portion of the 38th Parallel. Peng Dehuai and his CPVF-NKPA Joint Command sent more than 700,000 men into battle in an attempt to cross the 38th Parallel, annihilate five divisions and two brigades of the U.S. I Corps, and retake Seoul. After eight days of fierce fighting, all three CPVF army groups had broken through defense lines of the UNF and either reached or crossed the 38th Parallel.

Although the CPVF’s Ninth Army Group achieved some of its operational goals by opening a gap near Kapyeong and separating the U.S. I Corps in the west from the U.S. Eighth Army’s IX Corps in the center and X Corps in the east, overall the offensive failed. The main CPVF armies were unable to penetrate deeply enough into UNF lines to encircle and destroy even a single division or brigade. The CPVF Third Army Group, fighting against the center of the U.S. I Corps, and the Nineteenth Army Group on the left of the I Corps, faced serious operational problems due to lack of preparedness and supplies and, worst of all, heavy casualties during the first week of the Spring Offensive.

 

6 The Second Step: The Offensive in the East

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PENG DEHUAI WAS DISAPPOINTED BY THE NEGLIGIBLE GAINS ON the western front in the first week of the Spring Offensive in late April 1951.1 Given the huge CPVF casualties from April 22 to April 29, Peng was forced to look for payback by launching another offensive.2 The Joint CPVF-NKPA Command looked for a new opportunity to strike the UNF south of the 38th Parallel. From May 16 to May 21, Chinese forces launched another large-scale attack on the UNF positions on the eastern front, in what became known as the Second Step of the Spring Offensive.3

In mid-May the Chinese ordered two army groups—consisting of twenty-four infantry divisions and two artillery divisions, totaling 260,000 troops—to attack the five divisions of the ROK Army as well as part of the U.S. 7th Division under the command of the U.S. Eighth Army’s X Corps in the Hyeon-ri (Hyeonri) area. In the west, another Chinese army group—with eleven infantry divisions, totaling 110,000 men—would pin down the main strength of the U.S. Eighth Army’s I and IX Corps north of Seoul.4 The second step of the Spring Offensive involved 370,000 Chinese and 114,000 North Koreans, nearly half a million Communist troops. The second step’s goal was to annihilate up to five ROK divisions.5 For Peng, the strategic issue was how to annihilate more UNF divisions without unacceptable Chinese losses.

 

7 Disastrous Withdrawal to the North

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AFTER PENG DEHUAI CALLED OFF THE SECOND STEP OF THE Chinese Spring Offensive, on May 21, 1951, the CPVF Command began to plan an overall withdrawal of its attacking forces to positions north of the 38th Parallel. The Chinese retreat from May 23 to June 10 became the third step of the Spring Offensive. According to the CPVF plan, withdrawing nine armies—or including twenty-seven divisions, more than 340,000 troops—would begin the night of May 23 and would take ten to fifteen days to complete.1 No one in the CPVF Command anticipated that the UNF would make a sweeping counterattack the morning of May 23, twelve hours before the Chinese withdrawal was scheduled to begin. This surprise attack turned the third step of the Spring Offensive into the most disastrous operation in the CPVF’s history, as Chinese forces suffered 45,000–60,000 casualties, “the most severe loss since our forces had entered Korea.”2

Several factors contributed to the Chinese military disaster.3 First, the UNF’s rapid advance and its overwhelming firepower, both on the ground and from the air, certainly caught the Chinese by surprise and inflicted heavy casualties. However, it was the CPVF Command’s failure to develop a contingency plan that led to the disastrous conclusion of the Chinese Spring Offensive. Confronted with an unexpected all-out UNF counteroffensive on May 23, the unprepared and confused Chinese forces panicked, causing their defensive lines to collapse.

 

8 From Battleground to Negotiating Table

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WHEN THE CHINESE LOST THEIR SPRING OFFENSIVE ON JUNE 10, 1951, the war in Korea between China and the United States reached a stalemate. Chinese leaders realized the limit of China’s military power as well as the capabilities of the UNF, not only in defending their positions, but also in inflicting heavy casualties on the CPVF. Beijing conceded that the CPVF could not reunify Korea by force of arms, nor could it continue the war for any purpose that would justify the sacrifice of additional Chinese lives.1 The CPVF commanders accepted the fact that it was nearly impossible for them to win the war in Korea while they faced more formidable UN and U.S. forces on a limited battleground, and that the war would be protracted, with no end in sight. By the summer of 1951, the CPVF was no longer expected to recapture Seoul and drive into South Korea. Although the armies could achieve temporary success in limited sectors, any success came at a high cost. Peng Dehuai redefined the CPVF’s mission as “fighting a protracted war, and defending ourselves actively.”2 The failed Spring Offensive led Chinese leaders to replace its ambitious goal of driving the UNF out of Korea with the aim of merely defending China’s security and ending the war through negotiations. Beijing was willing to accept a settlement without total victory. The offensive was the turning point that not only reshaped the rest of the war but also led to the truce negotiations that began on July 10, 1951.

 

Conclusion: What China Learned

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BETWEEN 1950 AND 1953, MORE THAN 2.4 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 600,000 civilian laborers to Korea. They entered Korea and worked in logistical supply, support services, and railroad and highway construction. Thus, a total of 3.1 million Chinese “volunteers” eventually participated in the Korean War.1 The course of the war was never the same after China intervened. Allan Millett, Bin Yu, and I conclude that “observers had every reason to believe that, although the PRC government did not declare war on any foreign country and the Chinese forces entered Korea in the name of the Volunteers, this war, in fact, was the largest foreign war in Chinese military history.”2 It appears that Mao Zedong felt he had few political alternatives to sending Chinese troops to Korea, if he wanted the full acceptance of the Communist world in the early 1950s. His alliance with the Soviet Union and North Korea pulled China into a war in Korea that changed the Chinese military forever. China’s intervention in the Korean War was a by-product of the Cold War between two superpowers. With that intervention, China became the leader of the Communist camp in Asia.

 

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