Split by war, vets share in peace

In a first, Chinese, Americans meet on Korea troops' fate

January 13, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - With the winter light fading over the walls of the Forbidden City, the shadows of the two old soldiers lengthened as they walked through the packed snow that covered the sprawling courtyards and tile roofs of what was once the home of Chinese emperors.

One was Chen Shaokun, a former Chinese soldier who oversaw six prisoner of war camps during the Korean War. The other was Vince Krepps, who had come from Towson to try to learn what became of his twin brother, Richard, during the war a half-century ago.

Connected by conflict, the former foes seemed an unlikely pair: Chen, a diminutive, 70-year-old in dark glasses, a leather jacket and wool cap, and Krepps, a stocky, 69-year-old packed into a raincoat with his neck wrapped in a brown and black plaid scarf.

Chen asked whether they could have a photo together and whether he could show it to his friends.

"Some of my comrades might recognize you," he said through an interpreter.

Krepps doubted it.

"I was a skinny kid then. I was 120 pounds," he said, smiling. "I had to eat 2 pounds of bananas just to get into the service."

In the five decades since the start of the Korean War, nothing like this has happened before: Chinese and American veterans meeting face to face to discuss the fate of U.S. servicemen who never returned home after the shooting stopped. More than 8,000 U. S. servicemen are unaccounted for from the Korean War; about 1,200 are believed to be buried at the sites of former POW camps that were run by the Chinese near the Yalu River border with North Korea.

Krepps lost Richard, the twin brother he enlisted with, and Jerry Doyle, a portrait painter from Pikesville, lost his brother, Austin, in Korea. They flew to Beijing this week with a delegation of U.S. veterans to meet with retired Chinese soldiers. In some ways, the purpose is simple: to get acquainted and develop some sort of relationship. But in others it is not: They are part of a campaign to persuade China to provide information that may help recover American servicemen.

Access to sites sought

The Korean War began June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South in hopes of uniting the divided peninsula. The Americans counterattacked on the side of South Korea. When U.S. forces drove into the north, the Chinese jumped in on the side of their fellow communists, the North Koreans.

It was a costly war for the United States: More than 33,000 servicemen lost their lives. It was much worse for the other countries. The dead and wounded included an estimated 900,000 Chinese, 520,000 North Koreans and more than 200,000 South Koreans.

The Americans hope the Chinese will not only open up their archives, but also persuade North Korea, a close ally and one of the most isolated countries in the world, to provide access to more sites for investigations and recovery of soldiers' remains. Since 1990, the United States has identified the remains of 15 people recovered in North Korea.

"I know exactly where my brother is buried," said Doyle, re- ferring to Austin, who died early in the war in a place known as "the cornfield," near the Yalu River, which divides China and North Korea. "The North Koreans have permitted searches in battlefields but not prisoner of war camps." Doyle, a soft-spoken 73-year-old, suspects the North Koreans may be afraid of exposing atrocities committed by their soldiers. "That's just a guess," he said.

Doyle and Krepps have come to China at an interesting time.

Off limits for public debate, the Korean War is being re-examined by a few Chinese scholars brave enough to question the official line. China insists the war was a just and inevitable one against American imperialist aggression. For decades, Chinese history books and officials claimed that South Korea started the war by invading the North.

"On June 25, 1950, the American imperialists brazenly invaded North Korea," reads one text. "On October 25, the Chinese Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River and carried on the Great War to resist America and aid North Korea."

Doubt cast on history

But one prominent scholar, Shen Zhihua, 50, head of the Oriental History Research Association, says that with the release of Soviet documents casting doubt on the official version, "People began to think about whether we should have sent troops at all and whether the war was worthwhile."

Shen has written two books on the subject, "Unveiling the Korean War" and "Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and the Korean War." The Chinese Propaganda Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn't like his ideas and banned the books. Shen had them published in Hong Kong.

Shen argues that in early 1951, after China had driven the United States back below the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea, Beijing should have agreed to a United Nation's cease-fire proposal.

Instead, China fought on for two more years to a stalemate and the country's number of dead tripled. The continued fighting helped keep China isolated for years after the war was over.

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