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.

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.

Increasingly vitriolic debates ensued over the hot days of August. On the 14th of that month, Nam Il called the UN position "arrogant and absurd" 19 times in a little over an hour and then--as Joy recorded in his journal--"actually sneered at us."

On August 22, the Communist delegation accused the UN of launching a mysterious napalm raid in the neutral Kaesŏng area. When American commanders dismissed the claim as propaganda, North Korean and Chinese officials broke off negotiations. An actual UN violation two months later--acknowledged immediately by General Ridgway--didn't help matters.

By October, however, new talks had started at Panmunjom, a neutral site between the lines, and a breakthrough emerged on a cease-fire zone. Nam Il arrived in a shiny Imperial Chrysler (!) on November 27 and accepted the current battle line as an immediate demarcation line. This shrewd move effectively barred further hostilities on the ground while the remainder of the agenda was negotiated. UN officials, acting on the orders of the White House, agreed to this de-facto cease-fire for 30 days.

The next month came and went, and the Communist delegation, as Admiral Joy contended, "dragged their feet at every opportunity and used the 30 days of grace to dig in and stabilize their battle line."

Still, by early 1952, only three primary questions prevented agreement at Panmunjom: Could North Korea build new airfields after an armistice? Which neutral nations would supervise the cease-fire? And how would both sides exchange prisoners of war?

The UN eventually gave in on the first question, but Communist negotiators astonished Joy's team on the second by picking--"believe it or not"--the Soviet Union as a neutral party to supervise the cease-fire. The Chinese and North Koreans, Joy believed, only made the demand with the intention of withdrawing it at a later date for UN concessions (which they did) --a negotiating style derided as "quid pro quid."

Questions over prisoners of war proved far more exasperating at Panmunjom. On December 18, 1951, the UN delegation was appalled to receive a list of just 11,559, mostly South Korean, prisoners in Communist hands. The UN had counted over 100,000 of its soldiers as missing--including 11,500 Americans.

Nam Il and Hsieh Fang themselves were incensed to learn that only 70,000 of 132,000 of their men--based on UN screenings--would return home without the use of force. The subsequent refusal of the United Nations to hand over some 62,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners at gunpoint proved the last remaining obstacle to an armistice in May 1952.

By that time, though, a weary Vice Admiral Joy had already presented the North Koreans and Chinese with a final negotiating position: the UN would accept North Korea's right to rebuild its airfields if it would, in turn, accept a supervisory commission of Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, and Czechoslovakia and the voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war. Nam Il et al. rejected the deal outright, deadlocking talks for another 15 months.

On May 22, 1952, Joy was relieved as lead negotiator at Panmunjom by his own request and delivered a blistering adieu to the opposition:

"... you impute to the UNC the same suspicion, greed and deviousness which are your stock in trade...you are people of intelligence...you do these things with purpose and design...If you harbor the slightest desire to restore peace and to end the misery and suffering of millions of innocent people, you must bring to the solution of this issue...good faith..."

After the North Koreans and Chinese finally accepted the principle of voluntary repatriation, a cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953. During those 159 meetings, lasting two years and 17 days, the agony of the Korean peninsula continued unabated in a conflict that is in many ways unresolved to this day.