Former Soviet veteran astonished that modern South Korea recalls conflict
In a Seoul coffee shop, his jacket jangling with medals, the 79-year-old man grew animated as he recalled the war of his youth. Like many other veterans of the conflict, he was astonished by modern South Korea, but also saddened that the 1950-53 Korean War is virtually unknown back home.
This veteran was not, however, a member of the American-led United Nations Command, which fought for South Korea in the Korean War. Capt. Vladimir Pavlovich Arsenkin, of the Soviet Red Army, fought for ― and in ― North Korea.
Born outside Moscow in 1931, Arsenkin, at age 13, lied about his age to join partisans fighting the Nazi invaders of the old Soviet Union. He was caught by militia and sent home. But after the war, when he had reached legal age, he joined the army. Dispatched to an anti-aircraft division in the Ukraine, he became a radar specialist with the rank of sergeant. Then came movement orders.
“I was like every soldier: They wake you up, put you on a train, and the train goes somewhere!” said Arsenkin, a fit-looking pensioner with a military bearing. “We were being sent nobody knew where.”
The wagons the soldiers were accommodated in had no windows; hay was used for bedding.
“The train ran every night, very fast, the wagons were shaking like hell,” he said. “In the daytime, we stopped in lay-bys. All the stations were empty.”
The trip continued for weeks in total secrecy. Rumors spread; questions were asked but not answered. The train halted at the Russo-Chinese border. The men were ordered to remove all Soviet insignias and don, instead, Chinese uniforms.
“This was secret war!” he said, recalling that though Chinese “volunteers” were openly fighting for Kim Il-sung’s North Korea, Soviet presence was never admitted.
The journey, he said, ended in Dandong, a Chinese city on the border with North Korea. The bomb-damaged Yalu bridge evidenced the proximity of the war.
Russian Korean War veteran Vladimir Arsenkin pictured in southern Seoul early this year. (Photo by Konstantin Krylov)
“Soviet soldiers in Chinese uniforms welcomed us; they were leaving, we were coming,” Arsenkin said. “They told us everything.”
It was January 1953 when Arsenkin’s AA division of the Soviet 644d Air Corps crossed the Yalu River. Its mission: To defend the communist fighter bases in North Korea and Manchuria. The boy who had wanted to join the partisans would have his war.
The North Korean border town of Sinuiju was a blackened ruin.
“U.S. napalm had burned down the thatched homes and caused horrible fires,” he said. “We were very indignant, but the North Koreans easily rebuilt their straw homes.”
From bunkers and trenches, the Soviet 35- and 85-millimeter guns aimed skyward, awaiting the U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers and their F-87 Saber interceptor escorts. Advance warning was received of incoming formations.
“When they announced how many B-29s were coming with nine tons of bombs for us, it was not very pleasant,” he said.
When the attackers were 60-70 kilometers away, the radars of Arsenkin’s battery locked on. Key information, such as height, weather conditions, aircraft types, was fed into a gunnery control device. Then came the command, “Open fire!”
“It was as if the sky was on fire, like burning stars,”
Arsenkin said of the flak curtain. “It was horrible, but no U.S. plane went through that flak.”
Only once did Arsenkin experience the awesome power of U.S. bombs: He was in his radar bunker when a bomb detonated outside.
“A 20-ton gun control device in the station jumped in the air,” he said. “The blast was huge.”
Arsenkin said he was briefly unconscious, but recovered and managed to fix the machine with a new transistor. Firing resumed.
Life in North Korea was grim. At high speeds, local pilots being trained by the Soviets passed out in their cockpits due to malnutrition. Like U.N. soldiers, the Red Army troops gave out a good portion of their rations to local children.
Following the July 1953 armistice, the Soviet troops withdrew as secretly as they had deployed. Back home, being unable to discuss the war inculcated a range of stresses.
“Our Korea service did not go on our military records,” said Arsenkin, who subsequently worked in the defense industry. “We were sad, bitter; we only talked about it at home ― kitchen talk.”
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin’s electoral success spelled the end of the Soviet Union. In the new era, the role of Russian troops ― jet pilots, advisers and air defense soldiers ― was belatedly acknowledged.
“For 40 years, we had no veteran benefits,” Arsenkin said. “But now our status is equal to World War II veterans.”
In Seoul to speak at a Universal Peace Foundation conference, where he expressed his dream of building a museum “to hold the world’s last bullet,” he was charmed by South Koreans.
“They are creative and culturally advanced,” he said. “But North Korea is a country isolated from the world.”
Arsenkin has never returned to North Korea, and the transparency of modern Russia has prompted people to rethink the war’s cause.
“I think our presence was not justified,” he said. “A re-evaluation of approaches and values has taken place.”
He said he would like to meet American, South Korean or British veterans to shake their hands in friendship.
By Andrew Salmon
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter. ― Ed.