Are South Koreans generally impassive on the war in Ukraine? No way.
But when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made his video address appealing for South Korean help last week, a small audience turned up at the auditorium of the National Assembly library to reveal an apparent lack of interest among the representatives of this free democratic country in the bloody war started by Russia’s unprovoked invasion.
Present were less than 60 members of the 300-seat legislature, who clapped their hands at the end of the 15-minute address but remained in their seats. National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug was not seen, nor was President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol or any leading members of the presidential tTransition committee, who surely must be very busy these days.
Watching the unimpressive scene, a friend of mine opined that it must have something to do with the fact that our legislature has become so much younger. There are few left who witnessed and suffered from war raging their homeland. The present Assembly has only three members in their 70s, an overwhelming 177 lawmakers, or 59 percent, are in their 50s and 69, or 23 percent, are in their 60s.
The great bulk of the “586 generation” in the political community -- meaning those who are 50-plus years old and engaged in student protest actions during the volatile 1980s -- had their knowledge of the 1950-53 Korean War gathered from the recollections of their parents and some historical literature. Still, one wonders if they had forgotten that their own country owes its independence today to international help seven decades ago.
Combining varied statistics, we get these minimum figures of lives lost in the war: 138,000 South Korean military personnel dead and 24,000 missing; 36,000 Americans and 4,000 non-Americans dead on the UN Forces side; 210,000 Communist Chinese dead or missing (unofficial estimates go up to 900,000); and 290,000 dead in the North Korean army and 90,000 missing. Civilian fatalities recorded about 1 million on each side.
The war was spaced over three years but most of the casualties, especially the civilian deaths, happened during the first several months, when the war front moved up and down the peninsula through the depth of winter. My friend’s explanation of the scant audience of the Zelenskyy address must be pointing to our lawmakers’ relative low sensibility to the tragedy of war, even if it may not reduce their concerns about the war’s impact on the economy and security of their country.
On the other hand, to the older South Koreans, the Russian invaders’ weekslong occupation of suburban cities of Kyiv, with the indiscriminate civilian killings and destruction invoked the three months of hell they experienced in the early phase of the Korean War. Most of the South Korean territory, outside the Busan Perimeter, was occupied by the North Korean People’s Army until the American-led UN forces repelled the invaders.
The successful Incheon Landing on the west coast conducted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the recapture of Seoul effectively isolated the North Korean forces in different parts of the South and disorganized troops escaped to the North through the eastern mountain ranges. In sheer lawlessness, local communists engaged in massacres of whoever refused to cooperate with them, including the families of soldiers and policemen, until South Korean troops moved in and restored order.
Before hiding in mountains for guerrilla warfare, the “Reds,” mostly peasants who had personal grudges against landowners, armed themselves with bamboo spears and sickles, picked up victims from homes and streets, took them to hillsides and killed and buried them in mass graves. In coastal areas, “bourgeois” villagers were bound in a single line and forced to walk into the sea. Up in the North, it has been claimed that American B-29 bombers’ indiscriminate airstrikes left huge civilian casualties in population centers.
For years after the war, tragic accounts of the bloodbath from across the country helped define the public concept of communism and communists in South Korean minds to keep the right-wingers in the mainstream of bureaucratic, industrial and rural communities. Following the April 19, 1960 student uprising, liberal leftist movements emerged, but a military coup the following year ended the chance of ideological diversity.
Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, the bloody suppression of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and Chun Doo-hwan’s acceptance of democratic reforms in the late 1980s marked major changes for South Korea’s democratic progress, which was accompanied by the nation’s remarkable economic development. While South Korea’s conservative right have chosen the path of national advancement in the anti-communist direction since the Korean War, liberal activism rose steadily to seek a shift of social hegemony as the memories of wartime atrocities faded.
Thus, an equilibrium of political power has arrived in this country, which has seen right-left changes of government up until today in generally peaceful but occasionally radical transitions. In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is sending profound shock waves to Koreans to retrieve the memory of the war seven decades ago, in which the ancestors of Vladimir Putin patronized North Korea.
The mass civilian killings and destruction of residential, industrial and medical facilities in Bucha, Mariupol and other cities exposed not only the insanity of the Russian president, but the barbarity of his forces. Still, the pragmatism of Seoul’s (outgoing) leftist government with its ambivalent attitude toward Moscow and Beijing, in forlorn expectation of their favorable influence on Pyongyang in the denuclearization process, has complicated the South Korean reaction to the ongoing war in Europe, limited but illegal and inhumane.
The war in Ukraine is consolidating the unity of free democracies against emerging dictatorships in Europe and Asia both seeking to expand their spheres of control. Yoon Suk-yeol’s new government of South Korea has no other choice but to join the right side in the global confrontation that appears to turn the clock seven decades back. The Crusades in the Middle Ages failed, but the 20th century crusaders made up of troops from 16 UN members succeeded in defending the young Republic of Korea from the Communist invasion.
As we cannot forget the blood spilt on this land by the fighters from the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Thailand, Ethiopia, Turkey, the Philippines, New Zealand, Greece, France, Colombia, Belgium, South Africa, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, we have to do something that the Ukrainians will remember when they have repelled the invaders and kept their sovereignty with international help.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org