Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Korean War in Hong Kong

Yesterday marked the day in 1950 that the United Nations, taking advantage of a Soviet absence in the Security Council, declared its military support for South Korea. Today also in 1950, marked the fall of Seoul to the North Koreans. With only 8 South Korean divisions of questionable battle-readiness, the vastly larger and better-prepared North Korean army of Kim Il-Sung was always going to win many initial victories.

Britain was naturally one of the main parties sending troops to Korea (the United States having sent the largest contingent). But troops of many nations came to the aid of the South Koreans in their hour of need. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, then based in Hong Kong, were told by August that they were going to the Peninsula. However, one must remember the fearsome situation Hong Kong was in - the Nationalist resistance in China had been defeated, and just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen, was a large contingent of People's Liberation Army soldiers. It seemed a miracle that the CCP had not ordered its troops into Hong Kong; the fall of Hong Kong in 1941 to Japan had proven that the city was not really able to mount effective resistance to an attack.

In fact, during the course of the War, Chiang Kai-Shek had grown increasingly vociferous in his demand that Hong Kong be returned to Nationalist China after the conflict. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D. standing for Delano, his maternal family of stalwart Republicans that had once trading opium along the China Coast for Russell and Company) in fact promised this to Chiang, and asked Churchill to give his assent to this plan. This was refused, and upon the cessation of hostilities Churchill had a destroyer from Australia proceed under full steam to Hong Kong to land Rear Admiral Harcourt on August 16th, much to the annoyance of Chiang, who by that time had lost his staunch ally FDR (replaced by Harry S Truman).

But the expected attack from the Communists on Hong Kong never came. However, it was thought that with the Korean War starting, and the Cold War on in full force, that Hong Kong would come under increased scrutiny by Communist officials that might want to reduce this outpost of a dying British empire. To be sure, many Communist agents infiltrated the colony, and caused an increased level of instability among organized labor. However, that was the beauty of Hong Kong to China and to Mao, who had always promised never to touch Hong Kong - it was a window for China into the rest of the world.

Even when MacArthur overstepped his orders and crossed the Yalu River, prompting China's entry into the war on the side of North Korea, China made no move to enter Hong Kong, even when Chinese soldiers were dying at the hands of British soldiers. For China, Hong Kong remained inviolate; the leadership saw from the beginning it had value to them far outweighing the granite the Colony stood upon. Hong Kong looked north with great trepidation, particularly its most recent, wealthy emigres from Shanghai, but the troops never crossed the border.

Still, imagine the fear and courage it took for the thin British Garrison in Hong Kong to man their posts at Lo Wu and Sha Tau Kok, knowing the huge numbers of Chinese troops hardened by years of battle against the Japanese and the KMT forces. Crossing the border at Lo Wu has long lost its fascination for many of us, as easy as it has become over the past quarter century. But not long ago, it was very different...

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