Heroes From History: Paik Sun Yup

Paik Sun-Yup

Paik Sun-Yup was a war hero for the Republic of Korea who served during the Korean War, reaching the rank of a four-star general during his military career. He also was the the chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff and even worked as an ambassador for South Korea to France, Taiwan, Canada, and other nations. Paik was instrumental in helping to forge the Mutual Defense Treaties between the United States, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. His leadership during the Korean War also was critical in ensuring all of the Korean Peninsula did not fall into famine and destitution at the hands of the communists.

Paik was born in the year 1920 in Tokhung, Kangso County. When he was five year old, his family moved to Pyongyang. Paik attended the Mukden Military Academy to escape poverty and became part of the Manchurian Army. Critics of Paik’s highlight this to smear his record as he likely fought against insurgents on behalf of the Empire of Japan when Korea was under Japanese occupation, but he gained vital skills that would help him in his people’s fight against the specter of communism later in life, leading others to argue to remember his service to the people of Korea in their fight for freedom against dark forces.

Paik Sun-yup with the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division
Paik Sun Yup and a US Air Force liaison officer looking at the US 1st Cavalry Division

After WWII, the Korean Peninsula was in disarray. No longer under Japanese rule, both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to maintain custodial operations of the region until the Koreans could set up a government of their own. Paik worked in Pyongyang in the north until the Soviets began a crackdown on anticommunists, resulting in the arrest of Paik’s commanding officer. He fled south beyond the 38th parallels and joined the U.S. and ROK forces, becoming a first lieutenant in the ROK Army and eventually working his way up to the rank of colonel. When the communists invaded from the north, Paik was in command of the ROK 1st Division in defense of Seoul.

Heroic Leadership

There are numerous instances where Paik’s leadership helped the ROK 1st survive tremendous hardship and turn the tide against the communist invaders. At Seoul near the onset of the fighting, the communists came out with T-34 tanks supplied by the Soviet Union. With no training against armor and no anti-tank weapons, Paik’s options to repel the offensive were limited. He described how his forces would be struck with paralysis from fear at the mentioning of the word “tank” from the brutal fighting. In desperation, the ROK 1st formed suicide squads which rushed at the tanks, climbed on top of them, and detonated grenades all around the the exterior to destroy them. The tactic was costly, and although required many brave souls to charge into certain death, it was an effective strategy that allowed the ROK 1st to stand up to the heavy armor of the communists.

Still, such a strategy was unsustainable. Paik and his forces were eventually cut off from support and resupply after Seoul was lost, and they were running out of troops and ammo. Still, the ROK 1st managed to hold out against overwhelming odds in the outskirts near Seoul until the Americans brought in air support. With cover from above, Paik and the ROK 1st began their retreat to Taejon, a journey spanning 200 miles. They continued to be attacked by communist forces as they made the trek, and Paik learned he was promoted to brigadier general.

The ROK 1st continued to be involved in fighting continued along an area known as the Pusan Perimeter. At one point, they acquired an anti-tank weapon and were responsible for eliminating 10 enemy T-34s before having to retreat even further. The ROK and the Americans tried to hold the line with the ROK along the norther part of the Pusan Perimeter and the Americans along the western boundary. Still, the communists were relentless, and even American air support was unable to halt their advance.

The ROK and the Americans were pushed back to the city of Taegu, where Paik found himself working with U.S. Colonel John Michaelis. For days, they fought against the communist tanks with American tanks in support, but it still did not seem to be enough. Paik and the ROK 1st found themselves out of ammo and engaging in vicious hand-to-hand combat with the enemy night after night, desperate to survive. Eventually, the Eleventh Regiment of the ROK 1st was broken and sent into full retreat. Michaelis was going to pull the friendly tanks out, as they could not afford to lose the armor.

Paik Sun-Yup and Chung Il-Gwon
Paik Sun-Yup (left) next to Chung Il-Gwon (right) in 1951

Paik knew he had to do something drastic to save everyone, as they had nowhere left to go. They had already retreated almost all the way to the shoreline. Instead of falling to the communists, he took a jeep to the front personally and addressed the troops with his famous “If I turn back, shoot me.” speech.

"I want to thank you for fighting like you have. But we just don't have room to retreat any more. The only place left for us to go is into the ocean. If we run now, Korea is done for. Look at those American troops over there. They're fighting because they trust the ROK Army, and if we retreat, we bring shame down on the entire ROK Army. We are men of Korea; let us fight for this land. We're going to turn around and kick the enemy off our ridge, and I shall be at the front. If I turn back, shoot me." - Paik Sun-Yup, 20 August 1950

Paik then charged into battle at the front of the group, and he and the other brave warriors of the ROK 1st pushed back the dark forces of the communists, retook the hill they had just been pushed off of, and held their position against the enemy’s counterattack. U.S. Colonel Michaelis recalled the events of the battle and commented on Paik’s unwavering bravery. He said of the hero, “When I saw the division commander himself leading that attack, I knew the ROK Army was God’s own force.” This moment was arguably the most pivotal moment of Paik’s contribution to human history, and it was this moment that I believe he was a beacon of light in the fight against the forces of darkness.

Paik Sun-Yup
Paik Sun-Yup was a pivotal figure in Human History

This was far from the end of Paik’s self-sacrifice, however. He also took part in the assault on Pyongyang after the ROK and the UN forces managed to turn the tide. It seemed as the though the war was coming to a close, and even Paik himself thought this was so and that Korea would soon be united. However, the Chinese Communist Party sent forces to attack the ROK, much to everyone’s surprise. Reportedly, General MacArthur did not believe the Chinese would intervene and initially dismissed the possibility.

Darkness Strikes Back

As the ROK 1st was pushing up the Yalu River to Unsan and hunting down the remaining NKPA troops, an unknown enemy attacked. Paik and his forces were overwhelmed. They captured prisoners and learned they were Chinese communists, and that they had the ROK surrounded. After days of brutal fighting, the ROK was thrown into retreat and any hopes of a swift end to the conflict were dashed. The Chinese communists wiped out entire ROK divisions and forced the entire army into retreat from Pyongyang before advancing further.

The Chinese communist forces attacked the ROK at Seoul, forcing them and the UN to retreat once more. Further Chinese communist offensives occurred along the 38th Parallel. Paik noticed in the months to come that Chinese POWs were increasingly starving, demoralized, and often infected with disease. This told him that the enemy was likely not as strong as originally believed, and he was correct. Paik and his fellow Korean warriors fought alongside Americans under the command of General Ridgeway, launching counteroffensives against the Chinese communist positions and eventually retaking Seoul in 1951 and reestablishing a line of control along the 38th Parallel.

Paik Sun-Yup was then promoted to Major General and given command of the ROK I Corps, leaving his command over the ROK First Division. He described great difficulty in leaving the warriors he had fought alongside through so much hell for 10 straight months. In his new position, he was responsible for training and overseeing all operations for the ROK I Corps. Paik’s leadership as a Major General was credited for the successful defense of Taegwallyong and inflicting heavy casualties against Chinese communist forces throughout the war. Under Major General Paik Sun-Yup, the ROK I Corps was able to succeed where many others could not.

Paik Sun-Yup and UN delegation
Paik (third from the left) took part in the armistice talks as a UN delegate.

Paik also partook in and helped to oversee the retraining of the entire ROK army. He supported the assessment of U.S. advisers that doubling the size of the army would not matter since the existing forces were not performing to expectations, defying his superiors who simply wanted to increase recruitment numbers without adjusting the ROK army training program. He directly contradicted the suggestion of the Korean President Syngman Rhee, who Paik was known to be fiercely loyal to. He did not want to contradict the wishes of his leader, but he knew he had to stand up for what he knew would be best for his people as a whole, even if it made him unpopular in the short term.

In the end, Paik’s bravery on and off the battlefield payed off massively. After the retraining, the ROK military no longer had disorganized retreats and were able to hold their own on the battlefield. By the end of 1952, 75% of the friendly forces fighting the communists on the Korean Peninsula were ROK. The war continued for some time as both sides fought each other to a stalemate. Paik was eventually promoted to Lieutenant General for his valor in Operation Rat Killer, helping to deal a massive blow to communist insurgents operating far to the south, far away from the front. Paik was then tasked with recruiting and training an entire new ROK corps, which he completed in April of 1952.

A Life Well-Lived

Paik Sun-Yup
Paik was an experienced diplomat later in life.

Paik eventually retired and went on to continue to serve the people of Korea in many other roles. He founded the Army Intelligence School and was an accomplished diplomat. Paik passed away on 10 July 2020 and leaves behind an astounding and inspiring story of heroism and bravery.

People like Paik are a testament to how far Humanity has come and an inspiration to keep us moving ever forward in defense of freedom. His acts of courage and valor are legendary. Paik represents one of the best of Humanity, having fought valiantly against the dark forces of communism in the First Cold War. We can only hope to live up to his example when we are called upon, should our time ever come.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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