Born 23 November 1920, just south of Pyongyang in what is now North Korea, Paik Sun-yup had a colourful military career, during which he was to emerge as South Korea’s most distinguished general.
His early life was one of hardship. His mother was widowed at a young age and she struggled to bring up Paik and his two siblings, taking whatever work she could find. After school in Japanese-controlled Korea, Paik studied to become a teacher. Yet at the age of 19 he had a change of heart and travelled to Mukden in Manchuria – a Japanese puppet state at the time. There he enlisted in the army, where he trained to become an officer in the Manchukuo Imperial Army.
By now Japan was deeply embroiled in war in China, though Paik spent most of his early military career in the far north of Manchuria, suppressing communist guerillas. The experience was to contribute to his deep-seated hostility towards communism. As the Second World War drew to a close, Paik was posted to northern China, where his unit fought against Mao’s forces. With peace at hand, he returned to his family in Pyongyang.
His new found contentment was not to last, however. Known for his anti-Communist sentiments, it soon became dangerous for Paik to live in the North. He, therefore, travelled to Seoul, where he joined the nascent South Korean Army as a Lieutenant. By the time of the invasion in 1950, he was in command of the 1st Division of the ROK Army, one of its best formations. During those early months of the war, Paik managed to hold together the semblance of a command, and his greatly reduced division made a significant contribution to the defence of Pusan.
Only two months later, Paik’s troops were to be the first to enter Pyongyang, his home town. By April 1951 he was in command of the ROK I Corps, which was roughly handled by the Chinese upon their intervention later that year. After a successful spell with the II Corps he was appointed Chief of Staff in July 1952. Paik’s work in this role was to be central to the upgrading of the ROK Army. He ended the war as South Korea’s first full General.
With peace came a successful diplomatic and then ministerial career. Paik served as South Korean Ambassador in Taiwan, France and Canada, and as the country’s Transport Minister. He now lives in quiet retirement.
The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.