By Lee Sam-sun, feature editor
General Paik Sun-yup (ret.), a “Republic of Korea Army Hero,” died at 11 p.m. on July 10, 2020. Paik was 99 years old.
The late Paik is largely considered one of the few persons in South Korea responsible for today’s existence of the Republic of Korea for his invaluable role as a ROK Army officer defending the country from the North Korean and Chinese aggression forces that started on June 25, 1950.
Following the breaching of the 38th parallel between the ROK and North Korea on that fateful day of June 25, 1950, Paik was assigned to command the 1st Infantry Division of the ROK Army. Under his leadership, the 1st ROKA Division played a key role in deterring the North Korean troops from taking over the entire territory of the ROK. He is known as the ‘Hero of Korea” for his important role shown at the decisive Battle of Dabu-dong (Dabu-dong Jeontu), which was one of the fiercest battles of the Korean War.
There is a very famous episode related with that battle. He told his soldiers, “Shoot me dead if you see me retreat!”
Today, Gen. Paik is called a “Hero who saved the Republic of Korea on the verge of collapse due to North Korean aggression.”
Paik also stands out for his making the first four-star general of the ROK Army at the age of 32. And, as such, Paik is known as the ‘Best Respected ROK Army General’ rated by successive commanding generals of the U.S. Army in Korea.
Born on Nov. 23, 1920 at the Dohung-ni Village of the Kangso County of North Korea, Paik spent his boyhood in Pyongyang, today’s capital city of North Korea, and graduated from Pyongyang Teacher’s College. After school, Paik graduated from the Manchurian Military Academy in 1941.
Following Korea’s Liberation from the Japanese rule in on Aug. 15, 1945, Paik started working for the right-wing political leader, Cho Man-sik, in Pyongyang, North Korea, who was also the president of the Korean-language daily, Chosun Ilbo, which today is rated as the front-running Korean-language daily in Korea.
However, Kim Il-sung, a Soviet Army officer, took over the control of North Korea, and Paik had to give up everything in North Korea. Paik came to South Korea in December of that year.
As soon as he came to South Korea, he joined the then Military English School in South Korea and then the National Defense Corps in 1946, which later was reorganized into the Republic of Korea Army of today.
In April 1950, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War, Paik was promoted to the rank of a full colonel of the ROK Army, and was ordered to command the ROK Army 1st Infantry Division. He was assigned to the defense of the Gaeseong Area (now in North Korea spelt Kaesong).
As was briefly mentioned afore, at the decisive Battle of Dabu-dong in the Chilgok County of Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, Paik made the famous statement: “I will lead you at the front and if I retreat you shoot me dead!” His troops rushed up the hill that had been occupied by the North Korean Army, and re-took the strategic position in the famous Battle of Dabu-dong Village.
Historians in Seoul all but unanimously say, “If Paik failed to keep that hill, there would be Republic of Korea today!”
In March 1951, General Douglas MacArthur of the United Nations Forces in Tokyo, Japan, flew to Korea without warning and met with Commander Paik of the 1st ROK Army Infantry Division, who had recaptured Seoul from the North Korean invasion forces.
The 1st ROK Army Infantry Division took the lead in the march toward Pyongyang, the North Korean capital city.
Paik is also responsible for the successful defense of the Eastern Sector of the front line during the general offensive waged by the Communist Chinese ‘Volunteer’ Forces that was named the widely-known ‘Spring Offensive’ against the ROK and U.S. Forces.
In July 1952, Paik was appointed the ROK Army Chief of Staff and then to a full four-star general in January 1953.
At the Korean Armistice negotiations with North Korea and the Chinese Forces, Gen. Paik attended it representing the ROK Army. Paik then was promoted to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK Armed Forces and stayed on the job until May 31, 1960 when he retired from the ROK Army and joined the reserve force of the ROK. Paik was decorated twice with the highest Order of Taegeuk Medal (Taeguk Mugong Hunjang).
At an interview with Chosun Ilbo, Paek was quoted as saying that the most brilliant day of his life was when he hoisted the Taegeuk-gi National Flag of the Republic of Korea in the capital city of North Korea, Pyongyang, on Oct. 19, 1950.
Paik is also famous for his effort to persuade the then U.S. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower when he visited Seoul in December 1952 to help the ROK Army increase its strength, which ultimately resulted in increasing the number of the ROK Army infantry divisions from 10 to 20.
after the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea in 1948, there was a purge in the ROK Army to remove the sympathizers of the so-called South Korean Workers Party. The then Major General Park Chung-hee (later the President of the Republic of Korea) was suspected as a sympathizer of the North Korean regime. Paik came to the rescue of the then Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee.
Following his retirement from the Army, Gen. Paek was appointed as Korean ambassador to the Republic of China (Taiwan) and then to France and Canada.
In 1969, Paik was appointed the Minister of Transportation and then in 2013 he was appointed by the U.S. Forces Korea as an Honorary Commander of the 8th U.S. Army in Korea.
Gen. Paik is bereaved by his wife, Mrs. Roh In-sook and sons (Nam-hyok and Nam-heung) and daughters (Nam-hee and Nam-soon). The late Gen. Paik will be buried at the Daeon National Cemetary.
In honor of his service, Korea created a ‘General Paik Sun-yup Award in 2013, which has been awarded to U.S. military personnel in Korea who have contributed to the promotion of national security of Korea and the enhancement of alliance, relations and friendship between Korea and the United States.
Wikipedia has detailed information concerning the personal history of the late Gen. Paik.
In 1925, the Paik family moved to the Pyongyang City, the capital of North Korea, where the family lived under extremely poor conditions in a single, rented room. Unable to feed her family, Paik's mother attempted to take the children and commit family suicide by jumping from the Taedong River bridge in Pyongyang, but was dissuaded from doing so by her older sister.
Paik's mother and sister soon took jobs at a rubber factory to pay for his schooling.
In April 1951, Paik was placed in command of the ROK I Corps in charge of defense of the Eastern Sector of Korea. Paik soon found the South Korean military insufficiently trained. He started intensive training while the battle line was fixed. In July 1951, Paik was elected to represent the ROK military at the Kaesong Truce Talk, but failed to attain results.
Paik successively filled the positions of commander of the First Field Army, the Army Chief of Staff, and the Chairman for the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff until his retirement from the army in May 1960.
He was fully aware of the political developments taking place in Korea at the time (and privately thought that the army was losing its discipline), but chose not to participate with either side. He was overseas when the May 16 coup (military revolution) occurred under the leadership of the then Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee.