By Dan Martin
Sixty-five years after the Korean War’s guns fell silent, Chinese army veteran Yu Jihua still shudders in the dark of night when a plane rumbles overhead, triggering traumatic memories of death-dealing US bombers.
Like shrapnel that was never extracted, the lack of a formal peace treaty ending the conflict has festered among many of the Chinese soldiers who saw much of the war’s bloodiest fighting.
But Yu, 86, and his ageing comrades are hopeful that closure is near, with a historic inter-Korean summit set for Friday that has fuelled speculation that a long-delayed final peace can be achieved.
“At 86, I still wake up in terror at night. The war did a lot of harm to me,” said Yu, who fought for two years in the 1950-53 conflict and is now retired in a quiet Shanghai suburb.
“I hope one day to go to North Korea and sweep the tombs of my brothers in arms and tell them that our sacrifice was worth it, and that this day (peace) has finally arrived.”
The North’s Kim Jong Un will cross Korea’s heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone on Friday to meet the South’s President Moon Jae-in.
High on the agenda will be Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, but a peace treaty — and the powerful signal of reconciliation it could send — may also be discussed.
Yu has been plagued for decades by the sense that, with a state of war still technically in place, hostilities could flare again, subjecting his offspring to the horrors of conflict.
“In my heart, I hope that we no longer use war to resolve conflicts between nations. This has been on my mind all these decades,” said Yu, still spry and passionate about the subject.
‘Chaos of war’
China threw hundreds of thousands of soldiers up against a militarily superior American-led UN coalition in what Chinese still call the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid North Korea.”
These “human waves” turned the tide, sending UN forces retreating southward after they had pushed invading North Korean troops back nearly to the Chinese border.
The fighting stopped in a stalemate, with little achieved.
Chinese war deaths are variously estimated at 180,000 by Chinese sources, and up to around 400,000 by Western tallies.
Some Chinese survivors, huge numbers of whom were merely teens, are said to suffer post-traumatic stress, exacerbated by the lack of closure and modern-day tensions sparked by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Yan Huaijian was a teenage tank driver until shrapnel ripped into his back.
“I have shrapnel in my body, in my left lung. It aches on cloudy or rainy days. So I often think about the wounds from this war,” said Yan, 86.
“War is extremely cruel, not only for me, but everybody. It is the ordinary people, women and children, who suffer the most from the chaos of war.”
Friday’s meeting in the 38th-parallel truce village of Panmunjom is intended to pave the way for a highly anticipated encounter between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
“If they are able to sign a US-North Korean peace agreement, it will be good for northeast China, northeast Asia, and for people around the world,” Yan said.
“Peace is extremely precious. More than 180,000 (Chinese) martyrs were sacrificed in the Korean War. They were all young.”
China’s entry into the war on behalf of its ally North Korea, which launched the conflict, is held up as proof of a bond said to be “as close as lips and teeth.”
But Chinese patience has been tested by North Korean bellicosity, and Beijing has signed on to a series of escalating UN sanctions to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile tests.
Kim, meanwhile, is a frequent target of derision on China’s tightly controlled social media, the country’s main source of public expression.
Like most veterans, Yan still adheres to Mao-era views of the war as a just battle against US aggression, and views Kim favourably.
But he insists North Korea must abandon its nukes to ensure lasting peace.
The war was bittersweet for Yu as it allowed him to meet his wife Dai Fanli, a wartime secretary in an artillery command centre.
“The war caused me so much pain, but also brought me happiness,” Yu said.
For decades, they have been involved in efforts to preserve memories of the sacrifices of war veterans, a cohort that is rapidly fading away with time.
Despite the war’s seeming pointlessness, Dai is philosophical, saying there is little bitterness among veterans, and that a peace treaty will lay old demons to rest.
“Of course the (war’s) outcome wasn’t as good as expected. But this was a lesson, a process,” said Dai, 83.
“What’s important is that we don’t wish to see anymore war.”