Former commanders of the U.S. forces in Korea mourned a legendary Korean War hero, General Paik Sun-yup, who died last Friday at 99. They hailed South Korea’s first four-star general as a hero and mentor.
“He was a hero, diplomat, patriot, and friend. He was a mentor to me when I served as the Commander in Chief of the Combined Forces Command and remained a friend and leader thereafter,” General (Ret.) John Tilelli told VOA Korean service on Friday. Tilelli, who commanded the U.S. Forces in Korea from 1996 to 1999, remembered Paik as a leader who “loved his soldiers,” who remembered their names and battle positions decades after the war.
The Commander of USFK also serves as the Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command and the U.S.-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command. Paik was always invited as an honored guest at the inauguration ceremonies of top U.S. military commanders.
General (Ret.) Burwell Bell, shared his memory of Paik with VOA Saturday. “When I served as the Combined Forces Commander between 2006 and 2008, General Paik met with me frequently to pass on lessons of the Korean War and twice took me on battlefield staff rides to teach and mentor me. He was brilliant,” said Bell.
Bell hailed Paik as one of the world’s great military leaders compared to George Washington.
“General Paik Sun-yup was, in my view, the military father of his present-day country, the Republic of Korea. Not unlike America’s George Washington who led our Revolutionary War forces to battlefield victory and was the military father of the United States, General Paik led South Korean forces to many battlefield victories during often chaotic and extremely uncertain combat operations against the North Korean invaders and their Chinese partners,” Bell said.
A loss to US-South Korea alliance
As Paik was one of the top Korean commanders who fought alongside U.S. forces during the Korean War, he has long symbolized the U.S.-South Korea military alliance. Paik was among those first recruited when the U.S. helped build a military for South Korea that started from the Constabulary.
In 2013, he was named an honorary commander of the Eighth Army, a U.S. field army, which is the commanding formation of all U.S. Army forces in Korea.
“I have admired him for many decades. So this is a deep loss for the [U.S.-South Korea] alliance and a true part of history that has just passed away,” General (Ret.) Vincent Brooks told VOA in an interview Friday. Brooks led USFK from 2016 to 2018.
General (Ret.) James Thurman told VOA, Paik played a pivotal role in the alliance. “He was a true hero and patriot that helped keep the R.O.K-U.S. alliance strong and unbreakable for the last 70 years. … [He is] a very dedicated and trusted leader who was committed to enduring peace and security of the Korean peninsula,” noted Thurman, the commander of USFK from 2011 to 2013.
When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950, Paik commanded the South Korean military’s 1st Infantry Division. Attacked by North Korea, the U.S.-led United Nations force and the South Korean Army retreated to a small area behind a defensive line known as the Pusan Perimeter. Paik is famous for defending that perimeter in August 1950 at the battle of Tabu-dong, known as one of the fiercest fights in the Korean War. Paik and his division continued to push north and were the first to enter Pyongyang in October. Paik participated in all ten of the major campaigns of the Korean War.
Controversy over early career
Paik will be interred in the National Cemetery in Daejeon, in central South Korea on Wednesday, not the National Cemetery in capital Seoul. There’s heated debate in South Korea over his funeral arrangements.
The United Future Party, a conservative opposition party charges, “it is a dishonor” that Paik is not interned at the Seoul National Cemetery. Simultaneously, some members of the ruling Democratic Party have opposed burying Paik in a national cemetery.
The controversy stemmed from Paik’s earlier career when Japan colonized Korea. In the early 1940s, Paik had served in the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchukuo, Tokyo’s puppet state in Manchuria. Paik said that he never engaged in battles with Korean guerrillas in Manchuria while serving in the unit.
In 2009, a South Korean presidential committee put him on a list of ‘pro-Japanese and anti-nation’ figures, who collaborated with Japanese colonizers.
Scott Snyder, U.S.-Korea policy director at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA Monday, the ongoing debate over Paik “may be the most consequential contemporary manifestation of his legacy and contributions.”
He added, “But without General Paik’s sacrifices and leadership at a critical historical moment during the Korean War, the freedom to debate Paik’s role itself would possibly not exist.”
The White House National Security Council on Sunday tweeted, “South Korea is a prosperous, democratic Republic today thanks to Paik Sun-yup and other heroes who put everything on the line to defeat Communist invaders in the 1950s. We mourn General Paik’s death at age 99 and salute his legacy.”