Peace at the 38th

Indian role in defusing the Korean situation 1950-54

The 38th parallel, the real line of latitude does not actually divide the Koreas, but in diplomatic parlance is considered to be the divider between the two. Prior to the Second World War (1910-1945) the whole of Korea was under the Japanese regime. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Americans and Russians decided to divide the country into the North and South roughly around the 38th. The actual line of demarcation today is situated at a slight angle to the 38th and meanders from the North to the South in a more leisurely fashion. The tensions around that line and the demilitarized zone, close to the large city of Seoul have since its creation, seesawed wildly, at times coming perilously close to nuclear confrontation between world powers. In the 50’s, one of the main peacemakers working hard to prevent a nuclear attack and larger conflict was India, a story not well known to most. The people who played a part in that tale are very familiar to us, and the story is a master class in plays, counter plays and the art of diplomacy. Today with the backdrop of the meeting which took place between Trump and Kim Jong-un and the prospect of lasting peace between the two Koreas, this story will I hope, provide an interesting aside.

The line was established in a hurry actually, for the Americans were worried that the Russians could occupy the whole of Korea after entering the war against Japan. Col Dean Rusk, was tasked with the job of drafting a line, something that he had no idea about. He states - Using a National Geographic map, we looked just North of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographical line. We saw instead the thirty-eighth parallel and decided to recommend that ... [Our commanders] accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the Soviets. And that was how Korea got divided! Things got complicated after the chill in the relation between the super powers, and the onset of the cold war. The UNTCOK (temporary commission on Korea) was then formed under the aegis of the UN, headed by KPS Menon. But the Soviets were firmly against it and did not allow the commission to enter the 38th or set up elections in the North.

By the autumn of 1948 the independent states of North and South Korea had been established, pitted firmly against each other the communist North headed by Kim Il Sung and the South by Syngman Rhee. Both sides conducted independent elections, and the South’s election was supported by the UN. Following a number of deadly border skirmishes, the North Koreans launched a full-scale invasion against the south on June 25, 1950. Whether it was the North who really started it is not clear and Karunakar Gupta is of the opinion that the Indian Chairman of the UNSC did not consider the claims of the North while passing a decision favoring the South.  India’s BN Rau condemned the invasion, a decision which was not supported by Delhi’s MEA since Nehru remained under the opinion that India had abstained. During all these parlays, the Soviets were boycotting the UN over the non-inclusion of China in the UN. The US decided to provide military support to the South and Gen Mc Arthur was to lead the UN forces into Korea to help repel the North Koreans as well as to engage in a battle against communism in an Asia under transition. India refused direct involvement, but finally acceded by providing limited moral and medical support.

This was a critical phase and India’s involvement as an interlocutor in matters concerning Asia considered very important. The players on the UN scene and the ambassadors in key capitals were experienced diplomats, namely VK Krishna Menon, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, KM Panikkar, BN Rau, KPS Menon, KN Raghavan and so on, each held in high esteem. At this critical juncture, USSR offered support for India’s permanent membership if it supported the Soviets on Korea while US offered India the same to replace a possible Chinese position at the UN. Nehru rejected both proposals stating that India was opposed to these kinds of pressures to create a chasm between India and China.  Since China was not represented in the UN, India was the interlocutor between them and the West. It was to prove costly during the next four years for her relationship with USA became acrimonious and opinions vastly divided. The Americans threat of ‘you are either with us or against us’ was bandied about every now and then, as India sought to position itself as a neutral, nonaligned and Commonwealth member in the new world order. Nehru’s anti-imperialist views were viewed by America as communist, especially Delhi’s support for the PRC during the Korean War years. Over and above all that Nehru believed in the UN and its mediatory powers, more than war and with his efficient representation at the UN, sought to build up an important role as an educated mediator for sticky situations.

As Mac Arthur’s forces were poised to enter the North, the world feared that the Chinese would enter the conflict in support of the North Koreans. In Oct 1950 the Zhou Enlai summoned Panikkar and asked him to convey to the West that if the US forces did cross the 38th, China would consider it an act of aggression and would come to the assistance of the North. The Americans at that time thought that the Chinese were bluffing and that Panikkar was panicking. Mc Arthur was tasked with destroying N Korean armed forces, but to stay clear of Soviet border or Manchuria. For a few days the UN forces advanced without resistance and the Americans believed that the Chinese had bluffed, they even jokingly called KM Panikkar as ‘panicky’.  It would be “sheer madness” for Mao to take on America, Acheson said, and the Indian warning was the “mere vaporings of a panicky Panikkar.”

But they were wrong and the Chinese who entered through Manchuria inflicted heavy damages on the US led troops. This now resulted in the UN allowing a Chinese representation to debate the issue at the UN and the Chinese called for sanction on the US for occupation of Formosa and armed intervention in Korea. As the debate became acrimonious and heated, the then US president Truman decided to force the issue by issuing a nuclear threat. Nehru conveyed through Atlee visiting Washington that an Atom Bomb drop in Korea was a no-no and requested that Gen Mc Arthur’s powers be clipped.

India then tried to pressure China into declaring a ceasefire, but did not succeed for the Chinese wanted full US withdrawal. As the matter deadlocked, Truman declared a national emergency in the US, driving up mass hysteria and panic, and China were now convinced that the Americans were now preparing for a full scale war in Korea. As the permanent powers seemed to be unable to do anything at the UN in these matters, the ‘little six’ as they were called, India, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Norway, Egypt and Ecuador tried to bring about a solution, but that effort did not take off. Eventually the commonwealth ministers met in London in Jan 1951 to discuss a fresh set of proposals agreeing to return of Formosa to China, entry of China into the UN and a cease fire in Korea. 

The Chinese seemed amenable to most of the terms but the Americans did not agree and fighting continued. The 60th Indian Parachute Field Ambulance provided the medical cover for the operations, dropping an ADS and a surgical team and treating over 400 battle casualties apart from the civilian casualties that formed the core of their humanitarian objective. But the fighting also moved into a stalemate stage by July which resulted in the US finally requesting Soviet involvement for negotiations. During the interim Mac Arthur was relieved of his powers by an incensed Truman who later said “I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President ... I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail”.

The war itself, especially the battles at Pusan, Unsan and Incheon, the involvement of USSR and China and their leaders Stalin and Mao, and the leadership of Mac Arthur etc is a subject which would involve a huge amount of text, so I will not get into the same here. The negotiations started with the first liaison meeting on 8 July 1951. The Americans considered the negotiations to be very difficult with the UN according to the US being unduly influenced by India and other neutrals. In 1952 the negotiations ground to a halt with the issue of the POW’s.

The next rounds were actually fought at the UN and involved India to a large extent. In China, Panikkar had been replaced by KN Raghavan (I hope you recall him from my previous article on the IIL in Penang). At the UN, the impeccable ‘saint’ KN Rau had been replaced by a suave Vijayalakshmi Pandit supported by the mercurial and highly impetuous VK Krishna Menon. While the Chinese insisted on the 1949 Geneva Convention implementation where the prisoner would be returned to the country of his origin, the Americans wanted the principle of voluntary repatriation to be enforced (after a preliminary screening it was determined that only 73,000 of the 170,000 wanted to return home). It was soon a matter of egos and neither side would budge. The American bombing of the power stations at Yalu, Poyang and Antung complicated the issue further and the Chinese did not back off.

And with the arrival of ‘Formula’ Menon, the so called ‘Menon Plan’ took shape whereby a special commission took into custody the non-repatriate prisoners and decided later on their disposition. The unhappy Americans launched the 21 Power draft resolution when they saw that the Menon plan found support with other commonwealth members. Meanwhile, a new US president Ike Eisenhower was elected, based mainly on his assurances to end the Korean War quickly. The various drafts of the POW plan, the acrimonious relations between Menon and Vijayalakshmi, the tough exchanges between Menon and Acheson, the mentions of the existence of a Menon Cabal, the mediation by Canadas Lester Pearson, Menon’s secretiveness, all add color to the larger story. Without doubt, it was a tense affair, but in the end things worked out.

Menon revised his plan to create a repatriation commission to take custody of all prisoners, repatriating immediately willing prisoners and persuade over the next 90 days the rest to return home. After 90 days the fate of unwilling prisoners would be decided by the UN after discussions. India upped the ante by summarily submitting the draft without an US approval as Acheson continued to persuade members to accept the US draft. Acheson was furious when he found little support for his plan and obtained Truman’s approval to vote against Menon’s. But matters took a different course as the Soviets seemed against the Indian proposal. The US now decided to support the Indian resolution, hoping that the communist states would vote against it. Nehru was aghast at all this and was considering to step out of the whole Korean business. When the UN members now saw a vacillating Nehru, they put their weight behind Menon’s plan which had huge support and in Dec 1952 adopted it despite a lack of support from the Soviets and the Chinese.

Truman was formally succeeded by Eisenhower in USA and Dulles replaced Acheson as secretary of state. During the 20th May NSC meeting Eisenhower concluded that if the truce talks failed, the United States would have no choice but to initiate a greatly expanded military offensive into North Korea, Manchuria and China using nuclear weapons. President Eisenhower went so far as setting a tentative D-day for May 1954. He directed Secretary Dulles to relay that threat through Nehru and Raghavan to the Chinese.

On 5th March 1953, Soviet leader Josef Stalin died and was replaced by Georgi M. Malenkov. Malenkov and his advisors were facing unrest in Eastern Europe, wanted to ease the tensions with the West, and saw the Korean War as a growing burden. They, as is believed, consequently relaxed Stalin's previous opposition to a negotiated truce announcing a ‘peace offensive’ at Stalin’s funeral. The Chinese and North Koreans facing huge expenses and losses also agreed to negotiation concessions and with it the Korean War came to an end in 1953. The Chinese in the end did not achieve much from this foray, for neither did they obtain UN membership nor Taiwan.

Krishna Menon however saw no connection between the death of Stalin and the softening of Soviet policy toward the West. "Unlike most Americans," he said. "Indians have no terror or phobia of the Communists. In India we don't say. "Thank God the man is dead." After six years in the United Nations, Menon had come to the conclusion that "effective diplomacy is the capacity to keep quiet."

The Chinese signaled that they were willing to exchange sick prisoners and accepted the rest of the Menon plan. After some differences of opinion with the Americans were ironed out, the Menon plan was finally executed. The resolution as submitted by Brazil and received unanimous support. Meanwhile South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee unilaterally released 27,000 prisoners allowing them to escape into S Korea and threatened to kick out the Americans from S Korea if they entered into an armistice. But an armistice was completed on July 27th 1953, with the South Koreans not signing it.

The person in charge of the POW transfer operations was none other than Lt Gen Thimayya, assisted by Maj Gen Thorat. India helped with the repatriation of captured prisoners to each side, a very delicate issue because thousands of North Korean and Chinese prisoners wanted to be free to stay in the South and not go home. The Indian custodian force located at the DMZ called ‘Camp Nagar’ and ‘Shanti Nagar’, despite severe criticism and lack of support from the Rhee (they forbid the Indian forces to land in S Korea) regime, supervised a careful process that ensured they were able to defect, but without too much humiliation for the communist regimes. The UNC held 132,000 prisoners while the Communists held 12,773 prisoners. All of these prisoners had the choice of whether or not they wanted to be repatriated. The vast majority of prisoners wanted to return home and each side had 60 days to hand the prisoners over. Statistics shows that under the operations Little Switch and Big Switch eventually around 83,000 POWs were repatriated to the north, while around 22,000 preferred to remain in the south. Nehru decided to bring the 88 left to India.

Interestingly of the 88 prisoners who were brought to India, 5 were sent to N Korea, 2 to China, 55 to Brazil, 11 to Argentina and 9 to Mexico. Two returned to S Korea while the remaining five who elected to stay in India namely Ji gi cheol, Hyun Dong hwa, Jang Gi Hwa, Cho in Cheol, and Ji Sin young lived out the rest of their lives in India. Four died in India and the last went back to S Korea with his son.

On 27 April 2018 the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula was signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un which commited the two countries to denuclearization and talks to bring a formal end to conflict. The two leaders agreed to, later in the year, convert the Korean Armistice Agreement into a full peace treaty, formally ending the Korean War after 65 years.

The broad canvas of geopolitics that played in the background is a great study for those interested. The Soviets pulled the cords at key moments, the Chinese were goaded on by the Soviets, the North Koreans perhaps got the nod and support from both in varying amounts, the South Koreans and Syngman Rhee (who himself had been raising the war bogey to prop his regime) were supported by America who was fighting a war against communism and hoping to arrest its spread into Asia’s southern regions. The global cold war played its part as a backdrop to the various acts and sub acts and it was into this heady mix that Nehru and Menon stepped in, perhaps attempting to project the intellectual might of a young India authoritatively in the world arena, for the first and last time. The Korean War bruised many a leader and India earned the distrust of America and S Korea due to her firm stance. When India refused to call China an aggressor, Truman is said to have stated – ‘Nehru has sold us down the Hudson. His attitude has been responsible for our losing the war in Korea’. It is believed by academics that Truman resented India’s socialist stance and her being right about potential Chinese intervention.

The Canadians proved to be a bridge between India and US throughout the play of events wanting India’s direct involvement while at the same time pointing out that America resented public Indian criticism of any US stance or policy. In addition, this was also to prove an important point to the Americans that the general assembly and not the UN Security Council would prove decisive in thwarting war and attaining peace.

Tragically most historians and strategists agree- if only the Americans had listened to KM Panikkar, the situation may have been different. Panikkar himself wrote in his diary later in 1950 that “America has knowingly elected for war, with Britain following. The Chinese armies now concentrated on the Yalu will intervene decisively in the fight. Probably some of the Americans want that. They probably feel that this is an opportunity to have a show down with China. In any case MacArthur’s dream has come true. I only hope it does not turn into a nightmare.” It did eventually when in Tokyo, MacArthur and Willoughby completely dismissed the Indian warning as merely communist propaganda delivered by an untrustworthy source. Over 2.5 million people were to die during the Korean War, including 30,000 Americans.

Military armistice in Korea: a case study for strategic leaders –lieutenant colonel William T. Harrison
Between the Blocs: India, the United Nations, and Ending the Korean War - Robert Barnes
India’s Diplomatic Entrepreneurism: Revisiting India’s Role in the Korean Crisis, 1950–52 - Vineet Thakur
How Did the Korean War Begin? Karunakar Gupta
Conflicting visions – Canada and India in the cold war world 1946-1976 - Ryan M. Touhey
Explaining the origins and evolution of India’s Korean policy - Rajiv Kumar
The Role of India in the Korean War-Kim ChanWahn
Ending the Korean War: Reconsidering the Importance of Eisenhower's Election - Robert Barnes
Heroes of the Korean War: Lieutenant General Subayya Kadenera Thimayya – See link