What It Was Like to Negotiate With North Koreans 60 Years Ago

The agonizing, years-long talks that still didn't fully resolve the tragic conflict.
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A communist prisoner of war who lost both legs fighting United Nations Forces in Korea,uses crutches as he leaves Pusan, South Korea, on April 15, 1953. (AP)

For two hours and 11 minutes, North Korea's lead negotiator, General Nam Il, stared at U.S. Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, chain-smoking and sitting silently.

In August 1951, a little over a month into cease-fire negotiations to end the Korean War, talks inched forward at an agonizing pace. Hatred hung in the air like the general's cigarette smoke.

Since June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded South Korea, unimaginable devastation had decimated the "Land of Morning Calm." Before it was over, three million Koreans, mostly innocent civilians, perished in the flames, U.S. aerial bombardments razed every town in North Korea, and South Korea was left a wasteland of refugees and unmitigated misery.

Over a million Chinese "volunteers"--and more than 40,000, largely American, soldiers of the United Nations--joined their Korean brethren in death.

This immense suffering set the backdrop to cease-fire talks starting on July 10, 1951.

On that day, Vice Admiral Joy and a UN delegation met Chinese and North Korean negotiators for the first time in Kaesŏng, just south of the 38th parallel. Both sides bowed--slightly--and Joy took note of his adversaries.

North Korean General Nam Il was "short in stature...and gave the impression of considerable nervous energy."

General Hsieh Fang, the ranking Chinese delegate, gave "the impression of Shakespeare's 'Yond Cassius...a lean and hungry look'...a bitterly sharp mind."

North Korean General Lee Sang Cho, described by Joy in less glowing terms, "was an accomplished liar...short and chunky, often dirty and slovenly."

The UN team marveled at the degree to which the North Koreans attempted to appear stern. While Hsieh Fang dressed like a trench soldier, the North Koreans wore fanciful uniforms. They never smiled.

General Lee, eager to demonstrate "iron self-control," let flies crawl around his face before the amused Americans. When a lower-ranking South Korean colonel fell out of his chair, the North Koreans didn't crack a smile as the Chinese burst out laughing.

Admiral Joy noticed other peculiarities; the North Koreans had shortened the legs of his chair, making Nam Il appear taller. When a United Nations flag was placed on the conference table, a bigger North Korean flag appeared alongside it after a recess.

Every comment in the talks was translated to Chinese, Korean, and English. In the interim, Nam Il smoked constantly and broke pencils--"like a cat on a hot tin roof," as Joy explained. Hsieh Fang, who the admiral described in overtly racial terms, "watched proceedings broodingly...His saturnine yellow face was a set mask, revealing nothing, expressing nothing."

The first step towards ending active fighting was to decide an agenda for the talks. That effort--producing disagreement over the definition of "agenda"--took 10 meetings. Agreed steps for a cease-fire came out as follows:

-- Establish a demarcation line and demilitarized zone

-- Create specific conditions for an armistice and name neutral countries to oversee it

-- Reach an agreement on exchanging prisoners of war

-- Offer post-armistice "recommendations" to both sides

The first issue, establishing a cease-fire line, was messy from the beginning. North Korean and Chinese delegates insisted on the 38th parallel--a stipulation that would have forced UN troops to withdraw from fortified lines near today's demilitarized zone and return hundreds of square miles to North Korea.

On the orders of General Matthew B. Ridgway--then the ranking U.S. commander in the Pacific--Joy's delegation refused to accept any demarcation zone south of the actual line of battle. The 38th parallel, they contended, was militarily indefensible for stopping future attacks. Nam Il ridiculed these arguments--"do you not feel ridiculous?"--noting that America's air and naval power more than compensated for such disadvantages.

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Presented by

Brandon K. Gauthier

is a doctoral candidate in American history at Fordham University and a contributor to NKnews.org

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