By Jose Antonio Custodio
The news nowadays is filled with stories of the thawing of relations between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North and South Korea, respectively. Both North and South Korea sent a unified team to the Winter Olympics this year, then there was the historic summit between the heads of state of both countries, wherein North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with South Korean President Moon Kae-jin and both stepped into each other’s side of the border. Latest is the summit between Kim Dae Jun and US President Donald Trump in Singapore. These successive bilateral activities caused so much global interest and even Filipinos were caught up in the festive and celebratory atmosphere of these moments.
Current generations of Filipinos, however, only see Korea in the image of South Korea and in matters pertaining to cuisine and South Korean pop culture. Majority of Filipinos have no idea what North Korea is and, in fact, many might even confuse it for its southern neighbor. But once upon a time, a few thousand Filipinos managed to visit North Korea and, in fact, interact with North Koreans and even a large number of Chinese. That was in the years 1950 to 1955.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the entire peninsula under Communist control. It had previously been arbitrarily divided at the 38th parallel by two US military officers who had done that to facilitate the occupation zones of both the US and Russian forces following the defeat of Japan in 1945. The North Korean forces were lavishly equipped with Soviet equipment and outmatched the South Koreans who did not even have any tanks to use against the T-34 medium tanks of the invaders. Even the arrival of a small US detachment could not stem the tide of the North Koreans up until the South Koreans and Americans were compressed into a pocket at the southeast of the peninsula that became known as the Pusan perimeter.
The United States mobilized the United Nations to help defend South Korea. Lucky for the Americans, the Soviet ambassador was absent due to having boycotted the Security Council meetings on account of protesting the inclusion of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and not the People’s Republic of China as a permanent member of the council. Failing to veto the resolution calling for member states to provide military forces to defend South Korea, a deluge of support from Western and Asian nations occurred. One of those nations that pledged support to the UN was the newly independent and also war-devastated Republic of the Philippines.
President Elpidio Quirino’s decision to support the UN contingent to Korea was risky due to a number of factors. The Philippines was still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War and was still in the process of rebuilding. The Philippine military was comparatively small, as compared to the huge militaries of the world powers, and numbered only approximately 30,000 in all services. Worst of all, the military was still fighting a communist rebellion led by the Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan, a formidable guerrilla army of veterans of the anti-Japanese resistance who numbered approximately 10,000, concentrated mainly in Central and Southern Luzon. Yet, Quirino delivered on his promise to send the elite 10th Battalion Combat Team (BCT) of the Philippine Army to Korea. From July to August, the 10th BCT was engaged in training in Marikina, which resembled the terrain that would be found in the Korean peninsula. The 1,468 men of the 10th BCT were then transported to Korea by September and initially engaged in operations against communist guerrillas and North Korean stragglers before being sent forward with the advancing spearheads of the UN armies that had previously broken out from the Pusan perimeter. By November 1950, the 10th BCT had crossed into North Korea and defeated two North Korean battalions at the Battle of Miudong on Nov. 11. Miudong is the first victory of the Philippines in foreign soil.
By December 1950, the UN armies were in full retreat from North Korea when the Chinese intervened in huge numbers and undertook massive human wave attacks that proved impossible to stop without withdrawing to a more feasible defensive line. By the first quarter of 1951, the UN armies managed to stop the Chinese but another offensive by the communists was mounted in April. That Chinese offensive was met head on by the 10th BCT wherein at its sector, 900 of its men faced off and repelled an assault by 40,000 Chinese soldiers. The Battle of Yultong from April 22 to 23, 1951 was a victory for the 10th BCT and hundreds of Chinese soldiers perished at the hands of the ferocious Filipino defenders. It was initially thought by UN headquarters that the 10th BCT was destroyed, only for that unit to emerge undefeated from that battle. Twelve Filipino soldiers were killed, including Captain Conrado Yap and 1st Lieutenant Jose Artiaga, and six were missing while 38 were wounded. That victory contributed greatly to exhausting the offensive drive of the Chinese armies.
By September 1951, the 10th BCT was relieved by the 20th BCT. The fighting in Korea had degenerated into a stalemate reminiscent of the trench warfare of the First World War. Whereas before, mobile operations were done, this time around attacks were limited to minor objectives such as hills and other features to force the enemy into a disadvantageous position while negotiations took place to end the fighting. There was still much fighting to be had, the battle of Eerie Hill on May 1952, the Battle for Combat Outpost 9 in June 1952, the Battle of Christmas Hill on June 1953 just before the armistice on July 27, 1953 put an end to the fighting. A total of five BCTs were sent to Korea. The 10th, 20th, 18th, 14th, and lastly the 2nd, which arrived after the fighting ended. A total of 7,500 Filipino soldiers served in the Korean War, of whom 112 were killed.
Today, there is still a tiny Filipino contingent known as the Philippine Liaison Group in South Korea that monitors the armistice. South Korea remains grateful for Philippine assistance to it during the war and has been one of our largest trading and security partners. As for North Korea, 30 years ago, though it assisted in the delivery of assault rifles to local rebels in the Philippines, it has since stopped such activities. China, on the other hand, is right at our doorstep as it tries to steal our EEZ. The best takeaways of the Korean War for us Filipinos, are first, allies do help each other, and second, even if you are small, you can stop a giant.