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The Choe Hyun Unit -- KPA Army Corps II
The saga of Kim Il Sung's second front - 1950-1954
Lee Wha Rang

Recently, a small group of South Koreans in their 70's and 80s gathered at a remote village on the slope of Mt. Jiri and sang "It snows on Mount Taebaik - It is time to pick up our guns and march to a battle....", a stirring military march popular among the Communist partisans in South Korea, forbidden for so long in South Korea until now..

The 3rd Brigade of about 600 partisans was led by Kim Dal-sam, who led the Cheju April 3rd Uprising in 1948. Kim escaped to North Korea and returned to Mt. Chiri after receiving education on guerrilla warfare at the Kang-dong Guerrilla Training Center. The 3rd Brigade was wiped out and Kim Dal-sam's body was taken to Pyongyang and buried at the Heroes' Cemetery.

The 57th division and the 4th brigade led by Lee Hyun-sang (이현상) fought their last battle at Daesung-gol (대성골) about 50 years ago in 1954. The partisans, numbering only a few hundred, were attacked by a force of over 100,000 troops supported by heavy artillery and US war planes. The villages on Mt. Jiri were bombed and napalmed to the ground, and the inhabitants were summarily executed. Only a small number survived and surrendered -- most were executed and a few were spared and spent decades in prison. Of the survivors, about 100 or so are still alive. Until recently, it was against law to sing 'Communist' songs or to mention the bloody guerrilla war that began in 1948 and went on until 1955 when the last guerrilla band was tracked down and killed off at Daesung-gol.

By the time the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, the Communist guerrillas had been virtually exterminated after the the top commanders were betrayed by turncoats and captured. The North Korean army overran much of South Korea by the summer but the United States intervened and sent an army much larger and better equipped than the invaders. Soon the tide turned against Kim Il Sung and his front army crumbled at the Nakdong River front.

Over 100,000 officers and soldiers of Kim's army either defected or were captured. Some of the defecting officers were sent back to persuade their comrades to surrender. Senior Colonel Lee Hak-ku, chief of staff of the KPA 13th Division, was one of the many defecting senior officers. He flew over the retreating KPA units and urged them to surrender using a loudspeaker.

The US 8th Army raced to Pyongyang on the west, while the US X Corps raced toward Mt. Baikdu on the east. In addition, the bulk of the South Korean Army rushed into North Korea. This ill-advised move left the central mountainous regions under Kim's control. Kim, a noted guerrilla commander, saw a golden opportunity to strike back at the UN forces and poured in his reserve divisions into the void. Choe Hyun, another noted guerrilla commander, took over the II Army Corps, made of what remained of the front-line divisions. The II Corps opened a second front behind the enemy lines and conducted large-scale hit and run operations on the UN reserve units and supply lines. Elements of the II Corps penetrated as far south as Taegu and linked up with South Korean partisans.

The Korean People's Army (KPA) II Corps was formed on June 12, 1950 under Lt. General Kim Kwang Hyop in preparation for the Korean War. It was made of the 2nd Infantry Division, the 13th Mechanized Division, and the 27th Infantry Division. The II Corps achieved major victories in the opening days of the Korean War: it occupied Hwachon, Chunchon, Kapyung, Yanggu, Hongchon, Suwon, Wonju, Kangrung, Samchok, Chongdongjin and Imwonjin within the first few days of the war.

After the Inchon landing, Kim Il Sung sent Choe Hyun, his best general, behind the enemy line to rally the defeated front-line divisions moving north from Nakdong, and to form a new II Corps. Choe Hyon was born in Jiandao (China) in 1907. At the age of 13, he joined Hong Bom-do's independence army as a courier and participated in numerous battles. When Hong's army was disbanded by the Soviets, Choe returned home and commanded a Chinese regiment in Manchuria. He was falsely accused of being a Japanese spy and was sentenced to be shot, but he managed to escape and joined Kim Il Sung's guerrilla army.

The 10th Division formed the backbone of the newly constituted II Army Corps and the Corps strength increased rapidly to over 30,000 men with a dozen or so tanks. The 10th Division was formed at Sukchon in March 1950 and its specialty was night fighting and mountain warfare. When the Korean War broke out, the 10th occupied Seoul and then marched south to take Taejon, Kunsan, Kumchon, and Tilksong by August 10, 1950, a remarkable performance. It's officers had served in Mao's 8th Route Army.

The II Corps operated mainly in the mountainous areas of South Korea and the troops moved mostly on foot while the officers rode horseback. The II Corps guerrilla activities covered much of the central regions of South Korea, extending all the way to Pusan. The II Corps guerrillas attacked UN-held villages, military and police patrols, and military trains and outposts: they cut communication lines and recruited among the populace. In the fall and winter of 1950, KPA II Corps had about 20,000 men in the Chiri mountain region of Hadong and Kochang. In late October, KPA II Corps attacked and occupied Chunchon, a major transportation hub.

The UN High Command became aware of the danger posed by the KPA II Corps in its rear, and assembled the US IX Corps in October near Taejon. The IX Corps had the US 2nd Infantry and the US 25th Infantry Divisions supplemented by ROK 11th Division. The Corps was ordered to secure the area between Taejon and Pusan. ROKA 9th Division was created to augment the IX Corps with LTC. Park Jung-hee as its chief-of-staff. Most of its officers and NCOs were from the 10-day 'officer' training centers set up in Taegu and Pusan, and about a quarter of its soldiers were illiterate conscripts. The 9th Division operated in the mountainous terrains of Sorak and Odae.

In late 1950, KPA II Corps mounted a major assault on ROKA 2nd and Capital divisions along the eastern coast. The 9th was cut off and suffered heavy casualties and the 10th Division of KPA II Corps marched to the northern outskirts of Taegu virtually unopposed. In the following four months, the 10th Division occupied large chunks of the Kangwon, Chungbuk, and Kyongbuk provinces. The UN Command was forced to mobilize an army of 50,000 men, including the US 1st Marine Division to counter KPA 10th Division in the rear area.

In the Taeback Mountains southwest of Samchok, KPA II Corps had about 4,000 men from KPA 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions which had retreated from the Naktong front. They were aided by local guerrillas of about the same number. On October 15, 1950, an element of the II Corps attacked a radio relay station near the Capital building in Seoul. KPA recon units and guerrillas in ROKA uniforms roamed the country unchecked.

KPA II Corps effectively cut the land-based supply lines of US X Corps advancing to the Yalu River. On October 28, three battalions of the KPA 5th Division attacked a US Marine unit at Kojo inflicting heavy casualties. The 5th attacked US supply convoys northwest of Wonsan. The rail line linking Wonsan and Hamhung was cut on the night of 6 November. The II Corps had about 2,000 men operating in the Wonsan area. Elements of the KPA 15th Division occupied the upper Imjin River valley and harassed the Wonsan-Majonri highway. A KPA unit of about 1,000 men controlled the Ichon area.

In early November, a 1,400 unit of KPA 18th Regiment of the 4th Division attacked Chorwon in the Iron Triangle and occupied the town. On the following day, another unit of 500 men from the same division occupied Yonchon. At about the same time, the 87th Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division destroyed ROK 17th Regiment at Pyonggang.

The 87th Regiment was commanded by Kang Tae-mu, who commanded the 2nd Battalion of the ROK 6th Regiment when he defected with his men on May 5, 1949. On the day before, Major Pyo Mu-won, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 8th Regiment stationed in Chunchun, defected to North Korea with his 456 men. The 87th Regiment was made mostly of former ROKA soldiers and officers.

The US Air Force had made several attempts to bomb Kim Il Sung's underground bunkers without any success. Kim Il Sung had a number of secret bunkers and moved often. An American spy (Lee Sung-yup) planted in Kim's Command Post would radio the US intelligence the exact location of Kim Il Sung, but by the time US bombers showed up, Kim would have moved elsewhere forewarned by his own spies in Japan and South Korea. Since the US bombers had to leave from bases in Japan and Okinawa, Kim Il Sung had the ample time to move to another bunker. The US military tried to solve this problem by moving its bombers to an airfield at Pyonggang much closer to the targets. But North Korean guerrillas destroyed the air field before it could be used.

The Paiksan Mountains separated the US 8th Army and the X Corps. The US 3rd Infantry Division guarded the gap between the two US army operating zones, where some 25,000 soldiers of KPA II Corps operated. By late November, a large force of Chinese troops moved into the zone and linked up with the KPA units. With the intervention of the Chinese, KPA II Corps' combat mission changed from rear-area guerrilla actions to regular front-line actions. The II Corps units were ordered to move north and link up with the Chinese armies moving south in a gigantic pincer move to trap the UN forces in North Korea.

The US X Corps was trapped in the frozen fields of North Korea but it got away on a massive sea evacuation operation from Hungnam, and it was redeployed in the Taegu-Pusan area and began to advance northward. A large number of North Korean troops and guerrillas were captured or killed as the reinforced UN armies mounted massive counter attacks. The Communists retook Seoul but were forced back and the battle line got stagnant more or less along the 38th Parallel. Neither side had the will or the strength to win the war and a truce was signed in 1953. The North Korean guerrillas stranded in South Korea and their southern comrades fought on for another year.

*This article was featured on Korea WebWeekly.

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