Korean War 70th Anniversary: Remember the lives a ‘Forgotten War’ took

In 1951, Gen. Douglas MacArthur quoted an old Army ballad in his farewell address to Congress: “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.”

But on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, it seems the veterans of that conflict have faded faster than most.

Seventy years ago today, a company of US Marines pulled down the North Korean flags flying in front of the South Korean capitol building, helping our allies recapture Seoul for the first time. Yet, so far, there has been barely a peep about the anniversary in the press or in Washington. The war that raged from 1950 to 1953, killing more than 36,000 Americans and millions of Koreans, continues to live up to its reputation as the forgotten war.

The war is also “sometimes remembered as ‘die for a tie,’ because it ended rather unsatisfactorily in an armistice, not in a unified Korea,” said Kathleen Stephens, who served as the American ambassador to South Korea a decade ago and now chairs The Korea Society in New York.

Americans hate a stalemate. We will play extra innings throughout the night, if necessary, to avoid a baseball game ending in a tie. Yet after three years of combat against North Korean and Chinese forces armed with Soviet equipment, the boundary between the two Koreas stands more or less where it began before the conflict.

After North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950, Americans’ support for the war effort was initially high — but wavered as it dragged on. President Harry S. Truman relied on a decision by the United Nations to enforce South Korea’s sovereignty without seeking a war declaration from Congress, which set a questionable precedent that contributed to his ouster from the White House in 1952.

Hollywood, which had whipped up support for WWII, made only a handful of films about the Korean War, and many of those were ambivalent. It’s hard to see much glory in the death of William Holden’s pilot at the end of 1954’s “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” for example, as he dies in a Korean ditch after being shot down, having bitterly complained that he had already done his duty in the Second World War.

Yet without the sacrifices made 70 years ago by American soldiers, who fought alongside allies under the United Nations flag, South Korea would not exist in its present state. In 1950, North Korea had more heavy industry than in the South — a legacy from the long-standing Japanese occupation that ended in 1945 — and was better equipped for war. “Had the US not intervened, I think Korea would have been unified under Kim Il-sung,” said Stephens of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, who was North Korea’s leader at the time.

Without the war, South Korea wouldn’t be the prosperous and democratic nation that has grown in recent decades to become the world’s 12th largest economy. South Korea now ranks among the top 25 percent of countries in the global press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders. In April, the country demonstrated its commitment to democracy by holding a national election shortly after the global pandemic struck and it also boasts one of the best track records of fighting COVID-19.

What’s more, without South Korea, we wouldn’t have Samsung or K-pop. We wouldn’t have the eminently watchable Academy Award-winning film “Parasite,” which is filled with metaphors of the Korean War.

While many Americans enjoy these South Korean exports, South Koreans themselves hold one of the most consistently positive attitudes toward Americans, with 77 percent telling Pew Research that they viewed the US favorably — the fourth-highest ranking in the world after Israel, the Philippines and Poland. Support for the nearly 30,000 US forces stationed in South Korea remains high, too, with nine out of 10 of their citizens expressing support for the defensive alliance in a December survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

I felt this gratitude firsthand two years ago during a visit to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea, where a Korean woman thanked me when she learned that I was an American. To be clear, I had no family who served in the war and I was there on a press tour.

Seoul has shown its appreciation of the war veterans who secured their liberty in more tangible ways. The federal government has paid to bring veterans back to South Korea, many of them for the first time since 1953, to participate in anniversary ceremonies. When the pandemic hit, it sent 500,000 face masks to American veterans of the Korean War to help them fend off the coronavirus.

The 70th anniversary of the Korean War is not a trivial date. As the ranks of its veterans continue to thin, their time to stand up and be recognized is running out. South Koreans have not forgotten their sacrifice. Nor should we.

J. Alex Tarquinio is past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a German Marshall Fund fellowship recipient to cover another divided land, Cyprus. She has made two reporting trips to South Korea.

Share this article:

Source: Read Full Article