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The Decades-Old Backstory Of America's Conflict With North Korea


The historian Hampton Sides has been exploring the origins of the U.S. conflict with North Korea. He's written a history of Americans in a brutal battle in the dead of winter, which happened when Americans tried to unify North and South Korea.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here's a report direct from the flagship of the United Nations invasion fleet off Inchon. American Marines have stormed the shore onto two beaches of the port city...

INSKEEP: That's a radio announcer giving the news of the U.S. military landing at a port city near Seoul in 1950. North Korea had started the war invading the U.S.-backed South. The United States and its allies struck back with this landing, commanded by one of the era's most famous generals...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: General McArthur himself is directing the landing.

INSKEEP: ...Douglas MacArthur. His landing worked, as this old movie newsreel proclaimed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Seemingly, the war had reached a turning point, as the fresh troops started an encircling move of the North Koreans.

INSKEEP: Seemingly. Hampton Sides says MacArthur's forces recaptured South Korea's capital.

HAMPTON SIDES: And he began to get kind of greedy.

INSKEEP: The new book, "On Desperate Ground," examines the plan that MacArthur devised next.

SIDES: Why stop there? Why not go all the way to retake all of Korea, unite the peninsula under one democratic government?

INSKEEP: MacArthur's troops crossed the famous 38th parallel dividing North and South. But what U.S. forces did not quite know, as they moved into North Korea, was that neighboring communist China considered the Americans a threat, and a huge Chinese army was soon crossing the border to oppose them near a landmark called the Chosin Reservoir.

SIDES: It was initially an intelligence failure. We simply didn't know at first because the Chinese were expert at camouflage. They moved only at night. They never used roads. They were a foot army. But then intelligence did begin to trickle in - crystal clear. And MacArthur didn't want to believe this because he wanted to finish the job by Thanksgiving, get the war over with, and so he swept this information under the rug.

INSKEEP: What was the landscape and the situation in which a U.S. Marine division found themselves around a reservoir in North Korea in the winter of 1950-'51?

SIDES: MacArthur ordered the 1st Marine Division to advance to this reservoir up in the mountains of North Korea, to take it and to keep on going to the Yalu. But the commander of the 1st Marine Division, his name is General Oliver Smith, realized that this was a perfect scenario for encirclement. He was very prescient. He seemed to know that a big battle was going to happen on the shores of this frozen lake in the mountains of North Korea.

INSKEEP: Sounds like it was pretty cold.

SIDES: Eighty-five percent of these men suffered from frostbite. Many died of exposure. None of these troops were prepared for fighting in these kinds of conditions.

INSKEEP: You give an incredible detail of an American Marine who is attacked, with the rest of his unit, by the Chinese. It's the middle of the night. It's incredibly cold. He leaps out of his sleeping bag and only realizes, after fighting for hours, that he had never managed to put his boots on.

SIDES: Yeah, this is Hector Cafferata, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits that night. He may have killed over a hundred Chinese soldiers, who came wave after wave after wave at him and his position. The Marines, in parts of the battle, were outnumbered 10 to 1 by the Chinese. And he never killed a man before. He'd never been in combat, and suddenly, here he was surrounded.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Twenty-thousand trapped near the Chosin Reservoir, slogged and fought their way 60 bitter miles to the evacuation port of Hungnam. Through snow-clad mountains and icy passes, they held off 200,000.

INSKEEP: The 1st Marine Division escaped, but Chinese troops retook North Korea, and the countries remain divided today. The dividing line only slightly changed, but the Korean people, those who survived, changed a lot. They had a different perspective on the story we just heard.

You focus on one particular Korean, Lee Bae-suk. Who was he?

SIDES: Well, Dr. Lee, as he's now known, he was a North Korean kid and escaped to the South, moved to Seoul as a teenager...

INSKEEP: Only to have the war reach Seoul in 1950, when North Korean forces invaded.

SIDES: His uncle and his aunt were both murdered. Many of his friends were murdered. He had to hide out in a house in Seoul.

INSKEEP: He hid until American forces entered the city, blasting it to ruins as they took it back.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Troops and equipment pour across toward the capital city of Seoul.

SIDES: He immediately volunteered with the Marines, and they gave him an assignment, which was to go be an interpreter and a guard in the very city that he had grown up in, in North Korea, Hamhung.

INSKEEP: What were Lee's experiences as an American interpreter in the North?

SIDES: He was assigned to guard a bridge in his hometown, a bridge they call The Bridge Of Long Life, and he was there to prevent refugees from crossing it. He hated this assignment. But then he found out that his sister was on the other side of The Bridge Of Long Life and that she was not allowed to cross and that his whole family was about to board one of these ships for this great evacuation to the South and that they were going to have to leave his sister there forever.

And so he prevailed over the American guards. They got into a jeep. They hunted for his sister all over that part of the city, they found her, and she rejoined her family and made it to the South.

INSKEEP: Lee Bae-suk survived the war and emigrated to the United States. He is now Dr. Lee Bae-suk of Cincinnati, Ohio - an American citizen. And Hampton Sides was able to interview him for this book because this story of a divided nation is still less than one lifetime long.

What has it been like to be working on this book about Korea through a period where North Korea has been exploding nuclear weapons and launching missiles and then sending their leader to meet with President Trump and everything else?

SIDES: It's been very strange. And, you know, I'm living in 1950, and I'm living in 2018, where there's so many echoes of this war. It never really ended. We just kind of hit the pause button. And war could break out again at any point. It's kind of terrifying. But, you know, things have been happening in recent months that are exciting because there is such a profound desire, both in the North and the South, for some kind of improvement in the relationship.

INSKEEP: Hampton Sides is the author of "On Desperate Ground: The Marines At The Reservoir, The Korean War's Greatest Battle." Thanks very much.

SIDES: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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