BEIJING – Six decades after treating Chinese soldiers traumatized from the battlefields of Korea, psychiatrist Xue Chongcheng remains convinced their sacrifices, which forged bonds between Beijing and Pyongyang in blood and fire, were essential.
But those ties, analysts and ordinary Chinese say, are becoming tarnished with the passage of time and generational change, with China rising to the forefront of global economics and geopolitics while frustration grows with a frequently troublesome nuclear neighbor.
China dispatched hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Korean Peninsula, the infamous “human waves” that turned the tide early in the 1950-53 conflict, sending U.N. forces led by U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur retreating southward after they had pushed invading North Korean troops almost back to the Chinese border.
The total number of Chinese deaths remains a point of contention among historians. Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400,000, while Chinese sources appear to have settled in recent years on about 180,000.
Whatever the true figure, the war, which ended in a truce signed on July 27, 1953, has for decades had a special place in modern Chinese history and identity.
It began less than 12 months after Mao Zedong and the Communist Party finally won China’s cataclysmic civil war and established their people’s republic in 1949. Mao’s eldest son, Mao Anying, died fighting on the Korean Peninsula and is a symbol of China-North Korea ties, once frequently described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”
Xue, a retired psychiatrist who turns 94 next month, vividly recalls the mental condition of the countless soldiers he treated in a hospital in Changchun, about 270 km from North Korea, where they were brought from the front for treatment.
“These young people were all volunteers and full of patriotic fervor,” the white-haired and bushy-browed Xue said from his apartment in a quiet, leafy compound in Beijing.
“But repeatedly undergoing the fire of war tested them and they became mentally ill,” he said.
“They were always in a fighting state of mind,” he said. “In the hospital ward they would shout out slogans: ‘Charge, kill, down with the American imperialists, defend the nation.’ They urgently wanted to return to the front and join the fight.”
Xue, who offers an impromptu rendition of a song about Chinese troops going to fight in the North, emphasizes the war’s importance for Beijing, saying defeat for Pyongyang would have put China’s communist government in the cross hairs of the U.S.
“I think sending soldiers to North Korea was the right choice to defend the nation,” he added. “It was a just war.”
In China, where the belief that Beijing was right to defend its communist ally and protect its own national interests against a threatening and nuclear-armed U.S. remains common, the conflict is officially known as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”
But patience with Pyongyang and its nuclear saber-rattling has been running out recently.
New Chinese President Xi Jinping, born a month before the armistice ending the hostilities was signed, issued a rare if indirect public rebuke to the North during a speech to visiting international political and business leaders in April.
Xi said there should be no tolerance for those that foster “chaos for selfish gains,” wording widely seen at the time as criticizing Pyongyang without mentioning it specifically by name.
His comments came during months of provocations by the North, including a rocket launch seen as a disguised missile test, an atomic test and threats of nuclear conflagration amid joint U.S.-South Korea war games.
“It’s definitely eroding,” Adam Cathcart, an expert on China-North Korea relations at Queen’s University Belfast, said of support among Chinese for Pyongyang.
At the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing last week, visiting truck driver Pan Yude said China paid a high but worthwhile cost in defending its neighbor and ally. But his attitude hardened when asked about the North Korea of today, describing relations with Pyongyang as merely “so-so” and blaming what he sees as stubbornness out of the North.
“It can’t adapt to the trend of world historical development,” he said, standing in front of a display of tanks on the museum grounds, including U.S. Sherman and Pershing vehicles captured during the conflict.
“Up to now, its people are still going hungry and its leaders are militaristic and aggressive,” he added. “To tell the truth, if Russia and China didn’t support it, the country would have quickly ceased to exist.”
Cathcart says factors behind the changing attitudes include the passing of the war generation, North Korea’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge China’s sacrifices, and Chinese authorities giving historians and commentators a freer rein to re-examine past assumptions.
“There’s definitely a revision going on within China, whereas North Korea has really stuck to their narrative. And they have really said Kim Il Sung is the main man, it’s really about his genius,” Cathcart said, referring to the North’s founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.
“And the Chinese think that’s ludicrous.”