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Biographies: Paik Sun Yup

Paik Sun Yup served as Republic of Korea (ROK) Army Division and Corps Commander and Army Chief of Staff during the Korean War. Born in the small town of Kangseo, approximately 17 miles west of Pyongyang, North Korea, Paik finished his studies at Pyongyang Normal School, graduated from Manchuria’s Mukden Military Academy in 1941, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Manchurian Army. At the end of World War II, Paik recognized the influence the communists were gaining in China and northern Korea and in December 1945 fled south. He was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Republic of Korean Constabulary; what would later become the ROK Army. (Image: Brigadier General Paik Sun Yup, Commanding General, Republic of Korea Army 1st Division at his command post near Taegu, Korea, September 1950.)

Paik Sun YupWhen the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, then Colonel Paik commanded the ROK 1st Infantry Division. He was 29 years old. Throughout the war, Paik would distinguish himself as a courageous and competent leader, and his 1st Infantry division would become known as one of the most effective combat units in the war. An example of General Paik’s courage was evident during the battle at Tabudong, also known as the “Bowling Alley”. In August 1950, the ROK 1st Division was ordered to defend the ridgelines along the road leading into the village of Tabudong. Colonel John Michaelis’ 27th Infantry Regiment was assigned to reinforce Paik’s 1st Division, and established positions along the road. A battalion from General Paik’s 11th Infantry Regiment lost its position on the ridgeline to the attacking North Korean Army, exposing Colonel Michaelis’ left flank. Concerned that he would be cut off and enveloped, Colonel Michaelis called Eighth Army Headquarters for support, and then informed General Paik that he was withdrawing.

General Paik convinced Colonel Mihaelis to hold on until he could assess the problem. Arriving at the front, Paik stopped the retreating ROK Soldiers and inspired them to counterattack and retake the ridge. He told his troops, “We are going to turn around and kick the enemy off our ridge, and I shall be at the front. If I turn back, shoot me.” Leading his Soldiers in the assault, General Paik and the ROK battalion were able to retake the ridge. Later, Colonel Mihaelis met General Paik and said, “Sorry about that call to Eighth Army General. When I saw the division commander himself leading the attack, I knew the ROK Army was God's own force.”

Upon the outbreak from the Pusan Perimeter, operating under the U.S. I Corps, General Paik led the ROK 1st Division’s successful drive north and was first to enter Pyongyang on October 19, 1950. In April 1951, after ten months of commanding the ROK 1st Infantry in combat, Paik was promoted to Major General and placed in command of the ROK I Corps. Having fought side by side with the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, General Paik brought with him badly needed experience in coordinating combined arms combat. The corps, comprised of the 11th Infantry Division and Capital Division, lacked sufficient artillery and its only corps asset was an Engineer Field Group. General Paik was then selected to represent the ROK military at the Kaesong Truce Talks in July 1951. But his leadership and experience at the front were badly missed, and he was returned to his I Corps in September. (Image: General Paik Sun Yup, Chief of Staff, Republic of Korea Army, receives a bouquet of flowers from the daughter of Major Kim Tae Sun, upon his arrival from the United States at an airstrip in Korea.)

In November 1951, General Van Fleet ordered the Task Force Paik to mount a campaign against guerilla activity in the Chiri mountains of southwestern Republic of Korea. The guerillas were conducting well-coordinated raids on rail lines and rear echelon installations. The ROK I Corps, later named Task Force Paik, began its campaign, dubbed Operation RAT KILLER, in December. When the operation finished in March 1952, Task Force Paik had captured or killed an estimated 25,000 guerillas.

General Paik was promoted to Lieutenant General in January 1952, and informed that he would command the new ROK II Corps. Task Force Paik Headquarters formed the nucleus around which the new corps would be built. Unlike his I Corps, this new corps would have a battalion of organic artillery, quartermaster and engineer assets, as well as its complement of infantry divisions. On April 5, 1952, President Rhee hosted a ceremony commemorating the official creation of ROK II Corps.

On July 23 1952, three and a half months after taking command of the II Corps, General Paik was appointed ROK Army Chief of Staff; the highest position in the ROK Army. He was thirty-two years old. When General Paik assumed his position of Army Chief of Staff, the ROK Army had ten divisions. By the end of 1953, General Paik would see his Army grow to twenty divisions.

On January 31, 1953, General Paik Sun Yup was promoted to full general and became Korea's first officer to attain four-star rank. General Paik would later command the First Field Army, serve a second appointment as Army Chief of Staff, and finally serve the remainder of his career as Chairman for the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff. He retired from military service in 1960 and began a second career as a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Taiwan, France, Canada, and a multitude of postings in Europe and Africa. He retired from diplomatic service in 1969 and served as Minister of Transportation until 1971.

General Paik remains a legend in Korea. In 1999 he and his wife of forty-eight years still live in Seoul. 

Mark R. Franklin

Appleman, Roy, E. The United States Army in The Korean War: South To The Naktong, North To The Yalu (1992). 
Hermes, Walter G. The United States Army in The Korean War: Truce Tent and Fighting Forces (1988).
Paik, Sun Yup. From Pusan To Panmunjom (1992).