On June 25, 2020, Korea commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Korea War. It means that the babies who were born in 1950 when the war broke out are now 70 years old. It is sad to think that those who went through the atrocities of the war are now old and fade away, making the Korean War “a forgotten war.” Nevertheless, we should be faithful to the memory of the conflict that devastated the Korean Peninsula for three years.
The war destroyed virtually everything in our already destitute country. By the time the war ended in 1953, South Korea was reportedly the second poorest country on earth. Refugees, who did not know where their next meal was coming from, poured into the cities in ruins, living in makeshift tents, set up on vacant lots. At that time, the streets were full of veterans who had lost their arms or legs during the war. Sadly, they had to turn into panhandlers because the government did not compensate them for their sacrifices at all.
Once, when my boyhood friends and I strolled in the countryside, we discovered a huge pile of skeletons and bones in a mountain cave. Presumably, these were the remains of the POWs or civilians massacred during the war. Another time, while playing on the street, we found “dud” mortar shells and played with them as if they were toys. Suddenly, they exploded and injured my friends. It was a common accident at the time, and quite a few young boys lost their fingers or hands while playing with unexploded shells or grenades.
Indeed, the postwar landscape of Korea was bleak and grim. It was no wonder that Gen. Douglas MacArthur worried that it would take at least a hundred years to reconstruct the war-ridden country called Korea. Today, however, South Korea has not only fully reconstructed, but also become an affluent nation, with the 12th-largest economy in the world. Many countries admire Korea for its economic success, cutting-edge technology, and the popularity of Korean pop culture, called Hallyu.
For our miraculous prosperity and accomplishments, we should be grateful to the 140,000 Korean soldiers who valiantly fought to the death for their country during the war. Without their sacrifice, today’s South Korea could not have existed. We should be equally grateful to the 21 countries that sent their combat soldiers or medical units to the unknown peninsula to rescue us during the troubled times. Had it not been for their timely help, there would have been no South Korea today, because undoubtedly North Korea would have occupied the South in 1950.
Indeed, we should never forget the noble sacrifice of the UN soldiers for our country. Therefore, we should be grateful to Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. We should also thankful to those soldiers from warm countries such as Australia, Colombia, Ethiopia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand. Many of them died of severely cold weather in North Korea while retreating after the unexpected intervention of the Chinese troops. The UN soldiers reportedly had to trade their winter jackets for food, which made them vulnerable to freezing weather. We should also extend our appreciation to the five nations that sent medical units to Korea at the time: Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Italy, and India. We are eternally grateful to those 21 countries.
We are particularly indebted to the United States that initially stopped the North Korean troops from taking over the South and then brought the UN troops to the Korean Peninsula through the Incheon Landing. The casualties of the US Army for saving Korea were huge. Therefore, we would be insolent ingrates if we let groundless anti-American sentiment pervade the country. To North Korea, America may be an adversary and archenemy, but not to South Korea, which has only benefited from her.
On the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, we realize we must have strong armed forces to defend our nation from any future aggressions from the North. We should always remember that we have belligerent, trigger-happy North Korea above us. Recently, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, bluntly declaring, “South Korea is an enemy.” To make matters worse, North Korea now has nuclear missiles that seriously threaten the South. We cannot afford another war and yet, we should always be prepared.
On the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, we should remember the famous diplomatic strategy of Theodore Roosevelt: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” His diplomacy was to negotiate peacefully, but not without strong military muscles. Roosevelt warns us that otherwise, our adversary will not pay attention and mock us instead, as North Korea does to us now.
If another war breaks out in the peninsula, no rescuers may come this time. Therefore, it is imperative that we have an invincible army. Peace is possible only when we are strong enough to fight and win.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.