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Reflecting On A Key Korean War Battle, 70 Years Later

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seventy years ago today came the start of a major battle in the Korean War. It was the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. It was a turning point for the war in that Americans were turned back. But despite the defeat, it remains part of U.S. military lore because American troops survived at all. What did that battle mean, though, for Koreans? NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Korean War veterans and politicians gathered in Seoul in advance of the anniversary. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris saluted U.S. veterans who fought in the conflict.

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HARRY HARRIS: They answered a call to defend a country they did not know and a people they had never met.

KUHN: Harris' remarks were a reminder that the U.S. and China are once again jousting for advantage and influence in Asia and that U.S. alliances are under pressure from within and without. Korea reminds us, Harris said...

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HARRIS: That alliances matter.

KUHN: Communist-led North Korea invaded the South in June 1950 and occupied most of the country. General Douglas MacArthur led a surprise American landing at Inchon and broke the North's offensive. Allied troops pushed into North Korea, heading for the Yalu River on the border with China. Then China joined the conflict on the North side. In a message taped for the commemoration, Lieutenant General Steven Rudder, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, described the fighting.

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STEVEN RUDDER: Surrounded and beset by some 120,000 Chinese troops, the battle was fought over some of the roughest terrain during some of the harshest winter weather conditions of the Korean War. The battle for and the breakout from Chongjin has become Marine Corps legend.

KUHN: Chongjin is what the reservoir is called in Korean. Some 30,000 U.S., South Korean and other troops under U.N. command faced the Chinese. Among them was John Lee, a Korea University sophomore when the war broke out. He worked as an interpreter at U.S. 1st Marine Division headquarters at Hagaru-ri on the southern end of the Chosin Reservoir. His mission - gather intelligence on Chinese troops from North Korean locals.

JOHN LEE: Because the Korean civilians who were chased out of their house by Chinese, they know when Chinese are going to attack, where they're going to attack. And they told all this intelligence to us.

KUHN: After fending off three days and nights of Chinese human wave attacks, U.S. troops fought their way out of the mountains and retreated to the port of Hungnam. Lee was not trained for combat, but he picked up a rifle and fired at the attacking Chinese troops. He remembers hundreds of fleeing civilians trapped in the North when the Marines blew up a bridge to stop Chinese troops.

LEE: There's no other way but to dynamite the bridge. But at the same time, it's kind of a tragedy in my view, really. I think of it even now. This is a really sad story.

KUHN: But around 100,000 other refugees did make it out with U.N. troops as they left the port of Hungnam. Among them were several congregations of North Korean Presbyterians, including Eom Dae-song, who was then 19 years old. Now 89, he fights back tears as he remembers how his pastor held a service right on the beach of the harbor.

DAE-SONG EOM: (Through interpreter) He wailed and begged God to let us survive, vowing that we'd be even more faithful believers if we make it out alive.

KUHN: The Christians were among nearly 100,000 North Koreans who made it out crammed aboard U.S. transport ships.

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UNIDENTFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

KUHN: The congregation settled in Seoul, and their church still thrives here. The descendants of the 100,000 Hungnam evacuees now number around a million - in count among them, Moon Jae-in, South Korea's current president. But the original evacuees remain separated from their families. Church member Yang Seung-kwon, 81, still wishes for the chance to visit his former home in the north.

SEUNG-KWON YANG: (Through interpreter) I still get tears in my eyes when I think about my hometown. I can still imagine every alleyway and feel like I can still find my way back to my old home.

KUHN: After the Chosin Reservoir battle, U.S. and U.N. forces were unable to retake North Korea, and the evacuees were never able to return home. Ned Forney is a Seoul-based amateur historian and grandson of Edward Forney, the Marine colonel who organized the evacuation. He says during the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, no one was thinking far into the future.

NED FORNEY: Whether you're talking about the Marines, you're talking about the refugees, there was one thing on their mind, and that was survival.

KUHN: U.S. forces lost over a thousand killed in action and another 7,000 mostly due to cold. But even as they retreated, they inflicted far greater losses on the communists. Both sides claimed victory, but this is beyond dispute - the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir ended any hopes of uniting the Korean Peninsula under the South's rule. And to this day, the Korean War has not officially ended.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.